The Knowledge Base in Second Language Teacher Education 

Dustin De Felice 
Andrea Lypka 
University of South Florida 

What makes up core knowledge in second language teacher education (SLTE) is complicated by the fact that this field draws from a variety of disciplines. This core knowledge base in SLTE has been assembled from fields like linguistics, psycholinguistics, social linguistics, and education. There are numerous questions concerning the base of core knowledge from within the beliefs, theories and practices of teachers in SLTE. Richards (1998) isolates these multifaceted, yet integrated activities, into points of reference that constitute the core knowledge base of SLTE. Using his points of reference as a guide, we investigated current research to illuminate the status of theories and skills within a teacher’s core knowledge and teacher education programs.

Key words: core knowledge, teaching skills, pedagogical learning, contextual learning.


Theories of Second Language Teacher Education

Most teacher education programs build their curriculum from a theoretical base or framework, which makes theories of teaching the core of SLTE. Richards (1998) discusses the use of theories allowing for a different understanding of the classroom at the institutional as well as the teacher level (See figure 1).

Figure 1. Representation of the core knowledge base of Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE) using Richards (1998) framework. Beginning with the theories on the left as the base, the various skills (communication, reasoning and contextualization) are informed by the teachers’ core theoretical knowledge.


Since teaching is a highly personal and individual activity, teachers operate using implicit theories of teaching as well as reflective approaches. A key component for the teachers’ use of theoretical frameworks is the role of principles and perspectives that are held by the teacher since much of what a teacher uses is filtered through their own belief system and identity (Alsup, 2006). Awareness on these processes as well as teacher knowledge co-construction through reflective dialogue and collaboration might help teachers negotiate their professional status.

Approaches to language teaching can be based on a myriad of theories. For instance, Langan, Oliver, and Atkinson (2007) identify a need for teaching assistants to personally encounter their students’ politics that sometimes stand in opposition to anti-oppressive pedagogy or critical ideologies, which is linked to the ability of a teacher to identify and understand their belief system. Mcdonough (2006) calls for using a method of developing preservice teacher’s abilities and their belief system through Action Research and reflective practices. Osborn (2006) argues that critical pedagogues facilitate dialogue “marked by humility, critical consciousness, and with an eye toward activism" (p. 37), challenge learners to question discourse about language teaching and power. However, the action-based knowledge gained in alternative education systems, such as the Danish “folkehøjskole (non-formal residential adult education) and the program at the University of Connecticut, Neag School of Education aim to inspire “transformational leaders” (Osborn, p. 46) to promote a multicultural critical FL praxis and alternative ways to learning and teaching.

Such approaches might revolutionize language teaching, including teacher education programs and credentialing. While focusing on the educator’s belief system is an important theoretical component and one that is commonly thought to be difficult to change (Smith, 2009), Powell and Kalina (2009) believe teacher education programs need to sufficiently define constructivism by focusing on individual and social constructivism. Finally, Roessingh (2005) believes teacher programs need to reconceptualize what ways teachers and students make meaning out of classroom and instructional practices. Most studies on teacher identity have been conducted in the U.S. and Europe on pre-service teacher development context (Alsup, 2006; Fantilli & McDougall, 2009), with a focus on pre-service teachers or teacher educators (Alsup, 2006, Hökkä, Eteläpelto, & Rasku-Puttonen, 2012; Stergiopoulou, 2012), claiming that a variety of factors influence teacher identity or professional identity, including individual factors, such as beliefs, learning and teaching experiences, race, ethnic identity, the NNS/NS ELT dichotomy, and the social contexts of classroom experience, in-service training, education, and teaching experience (Alsup, 2006; Borg, 2011; Braine, 1999, 2005; Canagarajah, 1999; Liu, 1999; Kamhi-Stein, 2009; Stergiopoulou, 2012). Through sociolinguistically mediated, “multidimensional” (Tsui, 2007) and “situated” (Vásquez, 2011) discourses or “identification and negotiation of meanings” (Tsui, 2007), teachers negotiate their membership or affiliation with the professional community and the self (Alsup, 2006; Duff & Uchida, 1997; Duff, 2010; Karlsson, 2012). While this identification and negotiation occurs within individual teachers, there is also this same process occurring within teacher preparation programs.

Huhn (2012) reviews features of model teacher preparation and program criteria in six distinct areas that are essential to developing foreign language teachers with the skills and knowledge necessary for today’s classroom: development of language proficiency; linguistic, cultural, and literature knowledge; a methods course dedicated to foreign language teaching; field experiences; applications of technology; and opportunities for study abroad. And she provides common four characteristics among K-12 foreign language education programs (University of Rhode Island, University of South Carolina, State University of New York at Old Westbury, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Indiana University of Pennsylvania) that make them innovative and effective models to be emulated such as 1) Development and Assessment of Candidates’ Foreign Language Proficiency, 2) Foreign Language Program That Blends Language and Content, 3) Collaboration With Colleagues in the College of Education, and 4) Opportunities for Professional Development. Teachers in this field must establish other ways of developing professional development. Teachers may be able to develop these skills by joining communities of practice.

Hanson-Smith (2006) argues that a community of practice needs to be developed during the time pre-service teachers begin their education, and they must continue after teachers move into an in-service status. She calls for this focus because technology changes will require a constant update of a teacher’s skill set and that any teacher-thinking or decision-making must take into account the current trends and capabilities of the tools available. According to Lave and Wenger, “…agent, activity, and the world mutually constitute each other” (1991, p. 33). Thus, the teacher knowledge seems to be shaped by the interactive knowledge co-construction between the teacher and community of practice. According to Hedgcock’s “socioliterate” model (p. 144), learning is a context-dependent and continuous sense-making process mediated between the teacher-learner and the “community of practice.” First, within this model, the teacher-learner practical, theoretical, and linguistic knowledge is socially constructed between the teacher-learner and the community of professionals through interaction and participation. The L2 teacher-learner might gain access to the community of practice after “building field-schemata and vocabularies” and collaboration. Second, teacher-learner’s knowledge is further internalized through reflective practices, critical stance taking on discourse, and interdisciplinary collaboration with researchers. Hedgcock calls for teacher-educators to combine theory, practice, interdisciplinary collaboration, and reflective learning in teacher education programs. The concept of community of practice can be utilized by in-service teachers in order for them to generate and discuss ideas, collaborate with more experienced colleagues, and experience new technology.


Teaching Skills

There are a number of ways of operationalizing the skills necessary for a teacher in terms of a content area teacher. The content area teacher is expected to check students’ understanding, give feedback, present information, review and reteach when necessary. For a language teacher, he or she is expected to complete the same tasks as a content area teacher while also presenting language, eliciting dialogs and narratives, facilitating communicative interaction, and understanding the difference between fluency in accuracy while balancing learner errors with the appropriate treatment (Richards, 1998). In fact, many articles focused on the ability of the teacher to move beyond just transmitting content from the textbook (Dotger, 2010; Farrel, 2008). Not surprisingly, many components of a skill set in teaching included more discussions on beliefs or belief systems held by pre-service teachers during their pre-service education. Additionally, pre-service teachers find they must develop a set of normative practices that mirror the professional culture of the institution they serve. In Helland (2010), she discusses one domain where these normative practices are not explicitly taught while being a critically important portion of a teaching skill set. The normative practices were concerned with classroom management issues, objective grading practices, and teaching or instructing style.

Leaving behind the more practical issues concerning teaching skill sets, Mishra and Koehler (2006) discuss a historical framework that posits the following knowledge sets existed in isolation from each other: content, pedagogical, and technological. Content knowledge has been the traditional focus of teacher education programs and is still the focus in many areas today. Because of the complexity of teaching as a skill, many programs have shifted their focus and, currently, emphasize pedagogy over content (to a detriment in some cases). Van Olphen (2008) discusses the knowledge base for the world languages teacher education (WLTE). This debate centers on the theoretical movement in the field toward more critical and socio-constructivist perspectives and how it impacts current teacher education practices and perspectives.


Pedagogical reasoning.

Developing a theoretical base and an understanding of a personal belief system are key components for teacher growth, but these same teachers need to also develop the ability to examine their practices using specialized thinking and reasoning. According to Richards (1998), this pedagogical reasoning involves preparing appropriate materials, using representational repertoire, and adapting or tailoring material to meet the needs of instructional goals. A review of recent research articles on pedagogical reasoning in teaching reveals a number of ways to define and use pedagogical reasoning in teaching and teacher education. For instance, language learning in the classroom has undergone many changes from a historical perspective in methodologies, structures and teacher approaches (Kern, Ware & Warschauer, 2008). In addition, the inclusion of online tools is continuing to change the teaching/learning domain. As these online tools move further into language learning classrooms, there will be a need to familiarize teachers and students into the use of these tools (Xiangyang & Shu-chiu, 2007). In kind, more and more students may choose to learn a target language through these platforms and teachers will be required to use these technologies in order to both meet their students’ needs and that of their professional institutions. Given the complexities of the language learning process in any form, the added dimension of a virtual environment will need to be a part of the teachers and students’ repertoire as a new addition to their communicative competence ability, especially sociolinguistic competence (Guichon, 2009; Hegelheimer, Reppert, Broberg, Daisy, Grgurovic, Middlebrooks & Liu, 2004). The common thread between these articles is this focus on the difference between a teacher who maintains a prescriptive approach versus an autonomous practitioner. These readings call for the development of autonomous teachers who have the ability to adapt to changing classroom scenarios and to draw on a rich background that enables them to make decisions and problem solve during unique situations. In contrast to this type of teacher, all of the readings indicate that the prescriptive approach is inadequate and full of shortcomings.


Contextual knowledge.

A teacher’s contextual knowledge is uniquely tied to their own cultural background. Barnes (2006) discusses using a culturally responsive theoretical framework in their teaching to ensure that pre-service teachers learn the knowledge necessary for working with culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Kuther (2003) goes one step further in discussing how a pre-service teacher is able to balance his or her various identities while learning to become a teacher. The articles by Barnes and Kuther provide some information into the complexity of developing as a teacher while also occupying the role of a student. Language teachers need to have an understanding of the context in which language learning takes place. In other words, teacher must understand the role of society, community, and institutional factors that will influence their teaching. As Richard’s indicates, teacher education programs need to equip language teachers “with the ability to identify and understand relevant contextual factors in their own teaching situations” (1998, p. 13). This contextual knowledge exists on a continuum with items like language policies at one end (the macro) and classroom policies on the other (the micro).

One important area of a teacher’s contextual knowledge is the rules for classroom behaviors set by an individual instructor, which includes ideas like the students must do what the teacher says; live up to teacher expectations; stick to the schedule; keep busy; and keep quiet and don’t move too much. These rules are prescriptively based and, many times, are what is expected of a teacher in a public system (Hadre, 2005). These rules could be used as a starting point for just some of the ways that a teacher can structure a classroom. Such a discussion may demonstrate that there are many more characteristics that should be included when teacher reflects on his or her teaching. This type of reflection can be combined with the process of a teacher identifying beliefs and attitudes about language learning.


Communication skills.

Given that the core of education requires the transmission of knowledge (whether through speech or sign), the ability of a teacher to communicate effectively is considered an essential skill. The elements that make up communication include items such as personality, voice, ability to maintain rapport, and the general style of the teacher. Additionally, the language proficiency of the instructor is also a component of his or her communication skill. Language teachers must also be fluent in a number of functions like requesting, questioning, morning, and giving reasons or explaining (Richards, 1998). Nowadays, communication skills include the use of distance learning tools as well.

As more studies using online tools are completed on virtual spaces and language learning, the effectiveness of this medium might help to answer many of the criticisms against language learning via online technologies. For instance, one of the criticisms of distance learning and the use of online environments is that they are not as effective as face-to-face environments. Blake, Wilson, Cetto, & Pardo-Ballester (2008) compare the outcomes (not the student gains) in hybrid and DL courses against students participating in the same levels in traditional classrooms that meet five days a week. This study investigated the effects on students’ oral proficiency. Blake, et al. felt a focus on oralcy was appropriate to quell doubts held by foreign language teachers toward technology and linguistic proficiency. Another study that focused on the issue of oralcy (Heins, Duensing, Stickler, & Batstone, 2007) also showed quality language learning can occur in distance learning formats, but attributed this positivity to the advent of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Moving beyond CMC, Bax (2003) is an advocate for an integrated approach to CALL as the last step in the normalization of technology in which that same technology becomes invisible to both teachers and learners.


Figure 2. Representation of my modifications to the Richards (1998) framework for the core knowledge base in Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE). This figure contains two additional categories representing the teacher’s belief system and identity.


In conclusion, the framework we initially offered in figure 1 needs to be modified. In figure 2, we have included modifications by making the theoretical framework equal to the core knowledge base. Additionally (and based on the articles we discussed), we now include two new categories that are essential to understanding a developing teacher’s skill set: a teacher’s belief system and identity. As most of the articles referred back to the influence a belief system and identity had on the development of a teacher, we argue that the teacher’s belief system and identity must be an active and integral part of any teacher education program and should be incorporated into the three phases of teacher education (pre-service, post-service and professional development).



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