5 habits of expert ESL teachers (Farrell, 2013)

A click-baiting title with a more serious intent; what is it that we’d like our teachers to be able to do in the language classroom? What makes a good language teacher? How can teacher educators help?

My starting point is this article by Thomas Farrell (2013); Keith Johnson (2005, 2009) is another key reference in the area of language teacher expertise.

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Summary of Farrell (2013)

Thomas Farrell wrote up this case study based on a 2-year reflective practice project instigated by 3 Canadian university ESL teachers (System, 2013). He recorded group discussions, interviews, and journal entries and coded transcriptions using a grounded approach.

His analysis produced a list of five characteristics of expert practitioners, presented in order of frequency of occurrence. I summarise them below, with some rewording to clarify what I see as the main claims, and illustrative quotes. (You can also read the original via his website.)

1. Expert teachers accommodate learners’ interests, yet keep learning in mind.

One teacher in the study states
I think there is a big conflict between keeping people happy and helping them to learn what they need. I think you need to balance them.
For the author, the data suggest
that the teachers not only have mastery of their subject matter, but that they are able to manipulate it and present it in a variety of ways so that they can not only teach
what they need to teach, but also keep their students happy.

2. Expert teachers engage in critical reflection

One example of critical reflection is shown in the following teacher quote:
Am I ‘Reading’ my students correctly? Has this process become so automatic, so sub-conscious, and so intuitive that I don’t know? Do I rely on my experience too much when making decisions? Maybe I should be making this process more conscious for both myself and my students.
The author, who acted as facilitator in the project at the request of the participants, summarises thus:
The teachers also all agreed that professional development sessions, discussions with others, and collaboration with other teachers are all great ways to reflect on their practice because they help find solutions to problems they might be having.

3. Expert teachers develop routines and strategies integrating past experiences from multiple sources

This characteristic seems harder to sum up succinctly. Farrell says
the teachers showed their knowledge of prior experiences, the different trends and cycles of their classrooms, and themselves as ESL teachers in different ways. They showed that they possess the ability to make intuitive judgments based on their combined past experiences, and the ability to integrate knowledge from a wide range of sources such as professional journals, conferences, and their colleagues’ comments. In addition, they all seem to have a wide repertoire of routines and strategies from past experiences from which to call upon.
One of the teachers stresses a balance between online decisions and tried-and-tested solutions:
My stand-bys are my ‘bag of tricks’ that consists of all the ideas, lessons, strategies, approaches, techniques, even jokes that have worked, and didn’t work, over the last 15 years […] I don’t use them all the time with every group of students or with every course I teach. I select them carefully and pull them out when I think it is appropriate. Yes, I have my own philosophy to teaching (however conscious or subconscious it may be) but this is reflected more concretely in my day to day choices, my practices, and preferences in teaching. I am not an indiscriminate user of tricks in the classroom.

4. Expert teachers plan lessons flexibly with an eye to the “bigger picture”

Farrell offers this conclusion about lesson planning:
the teachers said that they always consider their students’ needs, interests, abilities, and the levels of difficulty of the materials and take all these factors into consideration when designing lessons and that they are not afraid to change the lessons if they don’t go according to plan. All three teachers said that they tended to focus on the bigger picture when planning which enables them to develop appropriate teaching strategies geared towards the needs of their students.
The teachers reported still finding planning time-consuming, although their experience allowed them to cut corners at times:
I certainly don’t plan my lessons the same way that I used to at the beginning of it all, of course.

5. Expert teachers are actively involved with their learners beyond the classroom

The final characteristic of expert teachers to emerge from this study is “active student involvement” which I anticipated would relate to a concern for learner participation and engagement in the language classroom. In fact, the author is referring to teachers’ engagement with their learners outside the classroom.
One teacher said:
Helping the students outside of class is not in the job description. It’s not part of the job really. Nobody asks us to do it. It’s something you do because you like your students.
Farrell says this dimension of teacher expertise is not common in the literature. His expert teachers
participate in, and value, socialization of and with their students by attending to extra-curricular activities and student acculturation. It is this last characteristic, active student involvement that may be a unique finding to this study as it is not covered in the studies on teacher expertise in general education research.


Returning to my question about what makes a good teacher, it would be nice to think that the characteristics of expert teachers should at least be relevant, and could be formulated as goals for beginning teachers and teacher educators.

Farrell admits that the five characteristics which emerged from his study “should be seen in a holistic manner because they are not isolated as each is linked to the other and each builds on the other.” The study also repeatedly mentions balance (entertaining versus effective activities, teaching content versus self-expression, planning versus improvisation). So after playing around a little I see 3 main points, which can be expressed in the form of do’s and don’ts:

  1. DO find out about your learners’ interests, and accommodate them where possible.
    DON’T forget about language learning – an entertaining class is not enough.
  2. DO plan your lessons with wider teaching and learning goals in mind.
    DON’T overplan, and don’t stick rigidly to a plan that is not working.
  3. DO develop routines and strategies to cope with recurrent challenges.
    DON’T get stuck in a rut – seek out opportunities to collaborate and reflect.

As is often the case in such exercises, the end result seems somewhat underwhelming. But my course objectives for some of my classes next year will at least be based on empirical research, rather than plucked out of the air.

(Or by “air” do I really mean my experience as an expert teacher educator? That’s another study …)


Farrell, T. S. (2013). Reflecting on ESL teacher expertise: A case study. System, 41(4), 1070-1082. PDF
Johnson, K. (2009). Expertise in language learning and teaching. ELT journal
Johnson, K. (Ed.). (2005). Expertise in second language learning and teaching (Vol. 128). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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