We who offer English language teaching at the School of Education at the University of Iceland are concerned that the number of student teachers who choose to specialize in teaching English has been diminishing over the past years, from 10–20 around the year 2000, to 4–6 in more recent years. In fact, the number of students entering the School of Education who choose to study teaching at the compulsory school level has also dropped dramatically, particularly since teacher education became a five-year programme of studies. Students entering compulsory school teaching (Grunnskóla-kennarafræði) numbered 263 in 2006, 157 in 2010 but only 95 in 2013. This trend has led to a drop in student numbers in all subjects, probably proportionately no more for English than other subjects.
The fact is that English teaching has never been a particularly popular subject at the School of Education. Fortunately, our English language pedagogy courses are popular with international exchange students and students undertaking studies elsewhere at the University of Iceland, meaning that we have no shortage of students to keep us busy. Nevertheless, I am worried that so few people seem to want to specialize in becoming teachers of English at the compulsory school level in Iceland, because I wonder how this dearth of trained English teachers will impact the English proficiency of Iceland’s population over the long term.
I am not so concerned that Icelanders will suddenly become unable to make themselves understood as tourists abroad, nor even as service providers at home, since so much informal English nowadays is acquired quite naturally through the media and internet. As Samúel Lefever (2010) found in his research, many Icelandic children already have a basic understanding of English and possess communication skills, even before school instruction actually begins.
No doubt such skill in everyday English would continue to develop among many Icelanders, whether or not they were lucky enough to experience English language classes led by a trained specialist. As the Ministry of Education has shown, compulsory schools have never had enough trained English specialists (Menntamálaráðeneytið, 2006), so we are used to this situation. And in any case, many of the children unfortunate enough to receive nothing but fill-in-the blanks and translation exercises from untrained compulsory school teachers will go on to meet well trained English teachers at secondary school. So all is not lost. But my concern is not so much that we will be unable to find citizens in the future who can get by in English. Rather, my worry is that without strong, demanding English teaching in their formative years, many of these students will not reach their full potential in secondary school and consequently will be less able to understand and produce complex, formal English, especially academic English, in their future studies and professional lives.
Already we see that perhaps 25% of university students are negatively affected by their difficulty reading academic English (Robert Berman, 2010). Gerður Guðmundsdóttir and Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir (2014), state quite bluntly that Icelandic “university students are not getting enough preparation in formal academic English.” If many educated Icelanders are struggling in 2015 to understand academic English, we can hardly expect the situation to improve if we never manage to train enough specialists to teach English to all children at the compulsory school level. This is the location, after all, where we expect the groundwork to be laid for students’ future English language learning. We cannot skip laying a strong foundation of English instruction in elementary school and expect that a stable superstructure can be built in secondary school, certainly not for all children.
In order to ascertain why so few students at the School of Education choose not to study English teaching, and, I hoped, to glimpse a solution, I undertook short, informal, interviews with students whom I approached randomly in the School of Education cafeteria on February 24th , 25th and 26th, 2015, at three different times of day, talking to them in Icelandic. After establishing that they were undergraduate students registered in the Teaching Department, I asked them what subject or subjects they had decided to specialize in, and essentially whether they had considered English teaching, and why or why not. As it happened, nobody had selected English as a specialization, and only one student had chosen to take a single English teaching course as an option.
Four themes emerged from the data, some of which overlap in some individuals:
• They had chosen their specialization because they were especially interested in teaching it, and no other subjects really came into consideration.
• They felt their English skill was insufficient to teach the language, especially in the higher grades.
• Although some interviewees said their English was good, they feared the idea of teaching teenagers. They had decided to specialize in the teaching of young children partly to avoid having to deal with adolescents.
• They had incorrect or incomplete information. It either never occurred to them to choose English as a second area of specialization, or in the case of one student in the 20-student sample, mistakenly thought that if he chose English he would have to study Danish as well.
The most salient reason for not studying the teaching of English, expressed by nine of the 20 individuals, was simply that English was not particularly interesting to them. Rather, these students wanted to teach young learners; and/or mathematics, textiles, social studies, and/or music and dance. The fact that we have students at the School of Education who have set their sights firmly on teaching a particular subject is good, since every indication is that they will enter the classroom with enthusiasm and energy to teach children a subject or skill that they themselves find interesting and worthwhile. So this finding was not especially disappointing in itself.
The one student who had taken an English language teaching course as an option added that she did not, and would not, follow up with further English courses because she wanted “more freedom and more room for creativity” in her studies – which she has found in the teaching of young children. I will address this issue in the conclusion.
The second-most cited reason – “I’m not good enough in English” – was voiced by five people.
One of them added, “I wouldn’t feel confident teaching essays.”
This lack of English skill among many School of Education students is reason for dismay in the wider context, i.e. many university students feel their English skills to be so low, even after many years of English instruction, that they cannot imagine being able to teach children the language. However, this finding should not come as a surprise, given the mounting body of research showing Icelanders’ inadequate English skills both at university and in the work force (Anna Jeeves, 2013; Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir, 2011; Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir & Hafdís Ingvarsdóttir, 2010; Robert Berman, 2010).
On another level, we can take heart in the fact that these students know their limitations, and as people who struggle with formal English, do not plan to inflict themselves on children.
The third theme, raised by three people – a fear of having to deal with adolescents – stems from the fact that English teaching experts often teach in the upper grades. These students said they had done well in English in secondary school, and two said they enjoyed the language. However, they chose to teach young learners, not only because they enjoyed teaching youngsters and engaging in the type of activities undertaken in the lower or middle grades, but they simply could not imagine teaching in the upper grades. “They are big kids,” said one.
Another was even more blunt: “I’m afraid of teenagers!” she said.
I find this reason unfortunate, because a skilled, confident, professional English teacher, able to break free from textbooks and exercises when beneficial, would in fact be a great success among teens. We at the School of Education should be able to do a better job of selling this argument, i.e.: Come with us and we will help you to become the confident, able teacher you are meant to be.
The fourth theme, also cited by three of the interviewees, which involved having incomplete or wrong information, points to a possible part-solution. One student said, “It just never occurred to me that I could combine English with my subject. Hey, maybe I’ll sign up now!”
Another said he had always enjoyed English and was good at it, but then asked, “But wouldn’t I have to take Danish, too?” When I replied that he would not, he was surprised, but said that he was too far along in his studies to add English, now. This misunderstanding may be based on the fact that English and Danish have been joined under one administrative banner, Foreign language instruction, at the School of Education.
So there seems to be a group of students within our faculty who may have not chosen English because they were simply unaware of the possibility. This is both dismaying – for it points to our failure to get a fairly simple message out to a captive population – but also encouraging, for it indicates a fairly simple remedy to raising our student numbers: better advertising!
In conclusion, based on data from a small, convenience sample, the majority of undergraduate students studying teaching at the School of Education appear to have thought carefully about their focus of expertise. Moreover they know their strengths and weaknesses, certainly when it comes to English. This is good news, for they will probably be good teachers in their field of expertise. (Let’s just hope they won’t be asked to teach English in their new school, because this happens!)
Of greater concern is the fact that a group of Education students felt their English skill level to be inadequate to teach children, a situation that seems to be 6 symptomatic of many of university students. Their lack of English skill may contribute to a vicious circle, for with fewer people whom we can ask to teach English there is less chance to raise the English proficiency of compulsory school pupils. And so it goes.
On the other hand, there is a small group of students who somehow “missed the memo,” either not realizing that English was an option, or in one case, thinking that he would have to study Danish as well as English teaching, a prospect that seemed chilling to this individual. In fact, a couple of students said that as difficult as it would be for them to teach English, they would certainly choose English over Danish. I should add here that one student said she would enjoy teaching Danish more than English, “except for the grammar.”
I encouraged my own children to learn Danish, for I see its political and economic advantages, as well as its historical and cultural place in Iceland – and of course, for the same reasons, I support the teaching of a Nordic language at the compulsory school level. But there really is no necessity for these two languages to be located in the same department. We know that English is – or should be – taught at a higher level than Danish, not only because we begin teaching it earlier, but we teach it to many children who can already communicate in it, even without our help. Having our own, distinct, English and Danish departments may serve to attract more students, perhaps to both subjects.
Moreover, we need to beat the drum much more loudly than we have been doing among students at the School of Education in promoting English teaching as a useful, fun, rewarding and creative subject. I am disappointed that one student received the impression that English teaching was somehow more constrained than her discipline. (I wonder if she meant it was “more demanding”?) In English, we really do encourage students to “think outside the box” and even to complete their coursework to some extent in accordance with their own interests. Again, we need to become better at getting across our message.
Anna Jeeves. (2013). Relevance and the L2 self in the context of Icelandic secondary school learners: Learner views (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Iceland, Reykjavik.
Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir. (2011). Exposure to English in Iceland: A quantitative and qualitative study. Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun. Retrieved from http://netla.hi.is/menntakvika2011/004.pdf
Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir & Hafdís Ingvarsdóttir. (2010). Coping with English at university: Students’ beliefs. Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun. Retrieved from http://netla.hi.is/menntakvika2010/008.pdf
Gerður Guðmundsdóttir & Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir (2014) Undirbúningur framhaldsskólanemenda fyrir notkun ensku í háskólanámi: Námskrár og nýtt íslenskt málumhverfi, Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun. Retrieved from http://netla.hi.is/greinar/2014/ryn/010.pdf
Menntamálaráðuneytið (2006). Menntun dönsku-, ensku-, og íslenskukennara í grunnskólum 2005-2006. Retrieved from http://reykjavik.is/sites/default/files/ymis_skjol/skjol_utgefid_efni/menntunke nnara2006.pdf
Robert Berman (2010). Icelandic university students’ English reading skills. In Málfríður 1/26. (p. 15–18)
Samúel Lefever (2010) English skills of young learners in Iceland: “I started talking English when I was 4 years old. It just bang… just fall into me”, Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun. Retrieved from http://netla.hi.is/menntakvika2010/021.pdf