Review: Language Teacher Education – Jon Roberts

On the reading list for the NILE MATD is Jon Roberts’ Language Teacher Education. I had never heard of it, to be honest, but after reading it I am unsure as to why it isn’t more widely known. In this review, I’ll talk about the ‘what’ of the book, major takeaways, as well as my thoughts about what I liked/didn’t like, and who I think should read it. Before that, though, here are a few questions to get you thinking:

  • What is the difference between initial teacher education (ITE) and in-service teacher training and development (INSET)?
  • How important is it for the teacher-learner and the teacher-educator to have the same values and/or similar personal teaching theories?
  • What should we be critical of when considering reflective models?
  • What ‘knowledge’ does a teacher possess?
Photo by Magda Ehlers on

Three-sentence summary

Roberts’ Language Teacher Education is perhaps the most underrated Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE) book that I have possibly ever read – and one that you, if you’re involved in teacher education, should be reading. Roberts skillfully guides the reader through a look at the perspectives of language teacher education, the differences between initial teacher education (ITE) and inservice training and development (INSET), as well as numerous case studies focusing on both state and public sector courses. Readers should expect to come away with a much clearer understanding of the theories underpinning different perspectives on SLTE, many useful Do’s and Don’ts, and a set of principles for implementing a social-constructivist approach to teacher education in various contexts.

Three takeaways

This book is jam-packed with takeaways. Nearly every page has something that makes you go “ahhhhh”. As usual, though, I’ll limit myself (although maybe I’ll cheat a little 🙂 ).

“We therefore suggest that a broadly social constructivist approach offers the most adequate framework for [language teacher education] design. This is because it recognises the interdependence of the personal and social dimensions of teacher development: ‘Learners as developing people have partial agency. They are partially determining and partially determined…’ (Bell and Gilbert, 1996: 57)”.

Roberts, 1998, p.44
  • SLTE and teacher learning should occur in a social-constructivist framework – and teacher educators need to be aware of this: Roberts first looks at how the individual teacher-learner can be viewed, and identifies numerous perspectives: person-as-input/output-system (drawing on behaviourism), person-with-self-agency (drawing on humanism), person-as-constructivist (drawing on constructivism), and person-as-a-social being (drawing on social-cultural theory). From here, Roberts argues for SLTE to occur within a social constructivist framework as the individual’s perception of the world IS individually constructed, BUT is socially influenced (in many cases heavily) – i.e., they have partial agency. What does this mean for teacher educators though? Here is a non-exhaustive list of implications for SLTE:
    • Learning is a socially situated activity: Any learning that occurs, occurs within a social landscape: “The teacher’s social world is the reality, the base from which each teacher will develop” (Roberts, 1998, p.45). In essence, we need to take teachers’ cultural and social backgrounds into account and build on this.
    • Dialogue is central to teacher learning: Roberts mentions that talk plays a special role in a social constructivist approach to SLTE in that it enables teachers to clarify their perspectives and develop social relationships which may lead to professional and personal change. Here, then, we need to be sure that we are offering “opportunities for dialogue with fellow teachers and others, addressing one’s practice, beliefs and the social pressures affecting one’s work” (Roberts, 1998, p.46).
    • Input should be combined with direct experience and dialogue: Roberts makes clear that offering one type of training activity in isolation is very rarely going to be effective (something I completely agree with!); rather, we should be offering combinations of such activities. Teachers obviously need input, i.e., access to new information, but this needs to be combined with activities that focus on direct experience and/or dialogue. The reason being that new information is filtered through teachers’ already lived experiences and personal teaching theories – if we expect teachers to take on ideas, then they need experience in using them, and ideally opportunities to clarify their experiences with others.
    • Teachers should have opportunities for indirect experience: Indirect experience refers to things like peer observation, seeing models, etc. Roberts makes the case that this is useful for teachers working with new concepts, although it needs to be carefully considered as we don’t want to be seen as providing a ‘perfect’ model – one that says this is the one and only way that something needs to be done.
    • Individual reflection should form an integral part of SLTE: Whilst Roberts is skeptical of certain reflective models (I’ll cover this later), he makes the point that individual reflection is very important in SLTE, and pushes for teachers to engage in reflective writing activities.

“Working from tacit images imprisons the teacher in a single frame of reference, which may be inappropriate to the curriculum with which s/he has to work now or in the future. Therefore is would seem important to raise teachers’ awareness of the power of their own experiences as learners. Awareness of one’s own apprenticeship of observation is therefore one form of reflective ITE activity, by such means as biographical writing or visualisation and discussion.”

Roberts, 1998, p.67
  • Individual personal teaching theories are perhaps the most important ‘thing’ we need to raise awareness of and work from: Roberts constantly refers to teachers’ personal teaching theories throughout the book, and makes the point that everything teachers ‘learn’ are filtered through these theories and they influence what becomes ‘uptake’. He first starts by focusing on the development of personal teaching theories, and says that when teachers come into the industry, they actually come with a (mainly implicit) understanding of what they believe is a good teacher. This has been determined by their apprenticeship of observation; that is, through their years of being a student and being taught by teachers within a specific social/cultural context, they have a personal understanding of what is a good teacher. This, then, heavily influences how early-career teachers teach. More importantly, however, is how personal teaching theories actually influence the interaction between teacher-educators and teacher-learners. Roberts writes that if personal teaching theories and, more importantly, the values that the teacher holds are significantly different to that of the teacher-educator, the input/advice from the teacher educator is most likely going to be disregarded. This goes from both ITE and INSET. So, what are the implications? Here is another list to get you thinking:
    • Personal teaching theories need to be made explicit: One cannot hope to influence a teacher without understanding the teacher’s perspective. Additionally, a teacher is less likely to be influenced if they are unaware of their own beliefs, values, etc. For this reason, both in ITE and INSET, teachers’ personal teaching theories need to be made explicit through dialogue, reflection, etc. Teacher educators need to create opportunities for these teaching theories to come to the surface, and take note of what arises.
    • Personal teaching theories need to be respected: In my experience as a teacher educator, communicating that something within a teacher’s practice needs to change can be a difficult endeavour (in fact, Roberts makes mention of this, stating that feedback from teacher educators is not as effective at helping teachers change as we would think). Roberts emphasises that while we might see that something needs to ‘change’, we need to respect that teacher’s personal teaching theory, and see it as valid from their perspective. If we immediately aim to shut them down and say change X to Y, then we are going to come back to the problem of our values towards a certain teaching practice being different to that of the teacher, which then leads to the teacher most likely not taking on the advice (Roberts mentions that this may even lead to display lessons, i.e., lessons in which the teacher aims to please the observer, but then returns to their normal practice). So, what can we do? Well, constructive dialogue, questioning, and awareness raising are the tools we have at our disposal to help the teacher see that something could be ‘changed’ – all the while respecting that teacher’s individual perspective.
    • We teacher educators need to be aware of our own personal teaching theories and how these may lead to bias: “Given that personal theories of effective teaching vary and are often tacit, it is not surprising that research confirms that supervisor judeemnts tend to inconsistency and bias” (Roberts, 1998, p.165). This quote, I feel, is important in that is shows why teacher educators need to be very aware of their own teaching styles and preferences as well a teaching theory, and understand how this may affect their assessing of other teachers. Roberts spoke quite a lot about the assessing of teachers on courses, and goes through quite a lot of research that shows that assessment even between teacher educators is biased and often inconsistent. What do we take away from this though? It’s not as if we can be totally objective – everything is filtered through our current knowledge base and experience. Well, there are a few things:
      • Make explicit our own teaching theories: Taking time to ‘walk the walk’ can be beneficial. Take the time to write down or express openly (preferably with another educator) your thoughts on teaching can help our own personal teaching theories become more explicit. I would hope that most teacher educators have a fairly good understanding regarding what their values, attitude, beliefs, etc. are, but it is always a good idea to rehash them.
      • Low-inference vs. high-inference observational data and bias needs to be considered: What’s the difference between these two sentences: The teacher tells the students to open their books and begin activity 1 and The students are bored and unhappy. The first is clearly more objective (low inference) while the second is an observation in which the students’ attitudes or feeling are inferred (high inference). Now, whilst there are going to be moments when both low inference and high inference observations need to be made, with regard to our own bias affecting these judgements, we need to be careful that we re-analyse what we are inferring in these high-inference moments.

“If an ITE course aims to provide a ‘toolkit’ of techniques, then it implicitly denies a constructivist view of teacher learning (the personalisation and the evolution of personal theories). In particular, it would seem that the notion of reflection in such courses should be realistically limited to review and assess your own actions in class according to given criteria. This would contrast with a potentially wider range of reflective activities enabled by the duration and structure of [ITE courses based in a social-constructivist approach].”

Roberts, 1998, p.210

“Teachers’ needs vary, and the challenge for INSET is to identify and respond to needs which vary between and which change in individuals over time.”

Roberts, 1998, p.221
  • ITE and INSET are different but both need to be focused on developing and not ‘transmitting information’: The book is split into three parts: 1 – Foundations of language teacher education, 2 – Initial teacher education, and 3 – Inservice education and training. Roberts spends quite a bit of time looking at both ITE and INSET, and how they differ, both from the teacher perspective (e.g., types of knowledge that teachers have) and trainer/provider perspective (e.g., what the teacher educator may be expected to do, best practices, etc.). Put simply, Roberts believes that ITE should focus on raising teacher-learners’ awareness of teaching practices, whilst providing experience in teaching for teachers to reflect on and discus. He discusses both pre-service courses such as CELTA and university teaching degrees that differ in terms of how teaching-input-reflection are integrated (I won’t go into detail about each of them here, but for those interested the case studies presented are very interesting). Regarding INSET, Roberts make the distinction between training and development, with the former referring to dealing with deficits in skills or knowledge (e.g., building teachers’ language proficiency or curricula knowledge), and the latter referring to “more divergent objectives, which allow for teachers’ individual differences and which are determined by the teachers’ sense of their own learning needs” (Roberts, 1998, p.222). INSET should, then, aim to provide opportunities for teachers to develop according to their perceived needs whilst also providing input so that they can effectively carry out the necessary curriculum. What is interesting in both of these types of ‘training’ is that Roberts believes that neither should involve simply the transmission of knowledge; rather, they both should involve numerous types of training input, focus on awareness raising of tacit beliefs, assumptions, values, etc., and should be personalised (as much as possible).

What I liked

  • Every page had something to take note of: I’m a big post-it-er and highlighter of books. This book now has been thoroughly post-it-ed and highlighted. A lot of the things I highlighted I had read elsewhere, but I found that Roberts clarified a few things where other authors had not, or had a different perspective to other authors (especially regarding reflection). This being said, there were many points that were quite new to me and I felt myself learning a lot – a feeling I love!
  • Roberts is very critical of reflective models: Roberts goes into some details about reflection in SLTE, covering both Dewey and Schön’s perspectives. Whilst Roberts maintains that reflection is an integral part of teacher development, he puts forward a number of things to consider:
    • Be skeptical of Schön’s view of professional learning with regard to language teaching: Roberts puts forward three criticisms regarding Schön model. One, “it is only relevant to those equipped with basic professional knowledge and competence: it assumes the person has the resources for self-agency in learning” (Roberts, 1998, p.52). Two, simply learning through “dialogue with a master” (Roberts, 1998, p.52) is not enough for learning to occur as we know that there also needs to be a “value match between novice and master for the productive dialogue to take place, otherwise the views of the ‘master’ are likely to be misconstrued or ignored” (Roberts, 1998, p.52). Three, Schön did not include teaching as one of the professions with which the model should apply as “it does not enjoy the consensual knowledge base to guide action as enjoyed by the ‘major professions'” (Roberts, 1998, p.53). Along with these points, Roberts also points out the reflection-in-action is very loosely defined, and it is hard to see how it is vastly different from reflection-on-action.
    • There are different types of reflection: Roberts writes that the term reflection really has several different meanings, and these meanings can be quite different to each other. Having an understanding of these will help better integrate appropriate reflective activities into courses. I found these definitions quite useful:
      • Reflection as rational deliberative thought: He we are drawing on our extensive knowledge base to solve pedagogic issues.
      • Reflection as reframing: This is where the teacher has a problem and aims to “recast [the problem]” (Roberts, 1998, p.53) to come to their own appropriate solution.
      • Reflection as self-awareness: Here this is where the teacher aims to learn more about themselves and how they see themselves or their teaching practice.
    • Reflection is personal – and our ability to reflect may be affected by our experience in teaching as well as how reflection is ‘prescribed’: This point was really a ah-huh moment for me as this year I had an ‘issue’ with a teacher engaging in reflection (and I realised that I dealt with it the wrong way). Basically, teachers’ level of experience may affect their ability or reflect (we are thinking about the first two definitions here). Roberts writes that teachers need to have a certain level of experience, established routines, etc. to be able to look at, for example, critical incidents and identify problems and solutions. So, early-career teachers may actually find reflection really difficult. Furthermore, when reflection is prescribed, i.e., a teacher educator says “hey, you need to reflect in this way and to this degree” it becomes less ‘personal’ and may even create a barrier to the teacher being able to reflect effectively. When we get to the applying to practice section, I’ll expand on this a little more – but I want to say that I think, if we take Roberts’ perspective, a lot of the refletion we ‘ask’ teachers to engage in may actually be making reflection more difficult.
  • There are many ‘lists’ of activities and principles: At the end of most units, Roberts provides a list of principles, guidelines, activities, etc. for the points recently covered. For example, after the ‘reflection’ section, he goes on to provide four pages of reflective activities, linked to the ‘type’ of reflection they aim to engage teachers in. I found these useful. He also presents various lists throughout the book on the implications for ITE and INSET, as well as some points to consider. I went through and created a kind of ‘checklist’ based on his lists for INSET. You can take a look here.
  • The case studies are useful ‘guides’: Whilst the case studies are from the 90s, I did find a lot of the information in them quite useful. Many of them are from contexts different to my own, but I was able to find a few takeaways. More importantly, though, I found them useful in seeing the concepts put forward by Roberts operationalised. The most interesting one, I thing for me at least, was the case study for the CELTA course. If you train on a pre-service course such as CELTA or CERTTESOL, then I highlight recommend checking this out.

“We can them as ‘external’ and ‘internal’ perspectives on the person, in that positivism places knowledge outside the individual and phenomenological/humanistic approaches view knowledge as each person’s inner representations of the world. We could also refer to public knowledge (provided by empirical natural science, available in books and lectures) and private knowledge (the personal knowledge of individuals, built from experience and interpretation of public knowledge).”

Roberts, 1998, p.111
  • I finally understand what positive epistemology is: Roberts looks in detail at two ‘knowledge’ paradigms: knowledge-centred and person-centred. Basically, here we see that knowledge is either externally created and validated (knowledge-centred) or internally constructed and represented (person-centred). A positive epistemology takes a scientific stance (external), however advocates a ‘transmission’ view of teaching, while a person-centred knowledge advocates internal, personal representation and emphasises experiential learning and direct experience (and for those that know their stuff about these constructs, I know I’m overly simplifying this, so please don’t shoot me). It’s clear that both of these types of ‘knowledge’ have their place with ELT and SLTE. What I really like about this section of the book, though, is how critical of paradigms Roberts is: “We therefore suggest that no one paradigm, nor crude dichotomies between paradigms, is or are adequate to account for the complex, variable and context-specific nature of language teacher learning” (Roberts, 1998, p.120). For a really interesting look at these ‘knowledge perspectives and paradigms’, I highly recommend checking out Jordan’s post here.

What I didn’t like

  • Information overload at times: I feel like some of the book is so jam-packed with new information, that it does go deep enough into some things. Also, it feels like ‘new’ information is thrown at you page after page. You might be saying – “well, that’s what a good books is supposed to be”, and I would say “I agree”. I don’t think this is a super negative, but I feel like some parts would have been a little more digestible if they had been a little slower in delivering all the important ideas.
  • No reflection questions: I think there were many sections throughout the book that required reflection questions – self-awareness questions if we take the definitions from above. For example, after presenting the principles for INSET or the implications for ITE, it would have been nice to have had a number of questions to get me thinking about my own experience either participating or organising such programmes. Perhaps I’m being a little picky, but I think that books that preach reflection / reflective practice should have reflection embedded within.

Applying to practice

So with a book that has so much to give, what am I planning to take from it? I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this book merits a re-read – there is so much that I would like to go over again. Having said that, these are the points that I’m taking away and looking to apply to my practice:

  • Post-observation reflection menu: One of the most interesting points for me was gaining a better understanding of how reflection is approached by early-career teachers compared to more experienced teachers – namely, that early-career teachers may struggle to reflect as they don’t have a lot of experience with teaching, established routines, etc. From my own experience, it can be difficult for experienced teachers to reflect also – reflection is a skill in and of itself. Another point that Roberts added to this was the idea of top-down imposed/prescribed reflection – basically, trainers/managers telling teachers to reflect in a certain way – and how this may have a negative impact on teachers’ abilities as well as willingness to engage in reflection. Early in the post I mentioned that something occured with an early-career teacher this year – and it was basically both of the things I’ve just mentioned. She was in her first year, and after an observation she was asked to complete a reflection form. I felt that the effort she was putting in was little as she only wrote one or two lines in each section. On reflection, I should really have offered her a number of different ways to reflect, as well as provided more support (e.g., providing her with my written commentary after lesson). So, in terms of the first thing I’d like to implement, I’d like to revamp the post-observation reflection form, and change it to a menu of reflection activities that teachers can choose from. Here are some of the options that I’m thinking of putting on the menu:
    • Standard post-observation reflection form: I think this is actually a good option. It provides a number of prompts for teachers to work from, and gives plenty of space for them to put their thoughts down.
    • Post-observation audio braindump: I think one thing that causes some teachers to not engage reflection is the writing component, and whilst I think that writing is the best form of reflection, I feel that an audio option (apart from the post-observation oral feedback sessions which aims to be the ‘dialogic’ component of reflection) could be a good addition. At the moment I’ve got ‘brain dump’ in mind, and would provide teachers with a list of prompts that they can choose to respond to. I’d like to set a minimum time limit of 3 minutes, and a maximum of 10.
    • Four mirrors: This is an adaptation of an activity I saw on Zhenya’s Wednesday Seminars blog titled Four Suitcases (highly recommend checking it out). Basically, the teacher has a piece of paper with four mirrors. On the first mirror they need to write down or draw moments from the lesson they remember as being important. On the second mirror, they need to write down or draw what occured in one of the positive moments. On the third mirror they need to write down or draw what occurred during one of the negative moments. On the fourth mirror they need to write down or draw how they would see themselves doing this lesson again in the future. These notes/sketches would then be brought into the oral feedback session for further discussion.
    • Teacher commentary, Observer commentary: The teacher writes down what they remembered happening from the lesson, i.e., their own commentary. Then, then read the commentary from the observer and look for similarities and differences, responding to such questions as “What events were interpreted differently?”. I think this would be a really interesting one to do (although it’s a bit of work for the teacher, if they choose this option). One thing that might causes ‘discussion’ here would be the high-inference observations, i.e., comments on how the teacher or learners seemed to be feeling or what they may have been thinking etc.
    • Reflection-for-Action: I’m reading Farrell’s Cambridge Element at the moment (review forthcoming!), and in his reflective model he talks about reflection-for-action – the idea that we can reflect before an event. He says that this is in response to many other reflective models focusing on reflection-for-repair – basically we use reflection to solve problems. So, an option that teachers could choose might be to have a reflection-for-action document; in essence, a reflection on the lesson before the lesson. I haven’t worked out the detailed yet, but I think it could be good for focused observations.
    • No reflection – wait for dialogue in oral feedback sessionor dialogic reflection with a colleague: I’m not too sure about this – would be interested to hear your thoughts. As Roberts writes, when reflection is imposed, it may in fact be detrimental to reflection skills and willingness. In my mind, this, then, could be a rationale for including a no reflection option in the post-observation stage – but rather, having a longer dialogic section of reflection in the oral feedback stage. Perhaps the dialogic reflections session could actually be with someone other than the observer (e.g., if I carry the observation, they could sit down with another senior teacher) before the oral feedback sessions (although drawbacks would include time commitment from teachers).
  • Incorporation of more micro-teaching and analysis workshops: One of the points that struck home was the need for teachers to have direct experience and models. Roberts wrote that micro-teaching, when note presented with ‘this is what you need to do’ models – rather, using ‘this is what you could do models’ – could be a good option. In the feedback I got from teachers this year, they wanted more of these micro-teaching sessions – they participated as learners in the majority of them. So, I’m going to play around with a few ideas that I have and try to get more micro-teaching into the workshops.
  • Explore my own beliefs in writing: I really liked Roberts’ point about teacher educators needing to understand their own teaching theories and how these might affect assessment. Whilst I am not in the business of assessing teachers on pre-service courses (yet! If you know of any opportunities, please let me know 🙂 ), I am in the business of observing teachers and providing feedback. I think have a clearer understanding of my own values, attitudes and beliefs would be good. I feel that I have a very clear picture already, but I’d like to put pen to paper and get it written down. I’ve heard of academics writing a teaching philosophy statement, so that could be something to do over the next year.
  • Keep including activities, sessions, techniques, etc. that aim to uncover teachers’ values, attitudes, beliefs, etc.: This year I made it my goal to really explore teachers’ values, attitudes, beliefs, etc. – especially after reading Wright and Bolitho’s Trainer Development. Roberts’ puts forward an approach to SLTE that echoes what Wright and Bolitho wrote, and considering I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from teachers, I’ll aim to do this again next year.

Who should read this book?

“This book is intended for language teachers who will make, or have made, the step from teaching to training. […]By becoming trainers, providers of language teacher education (LTE), we become agents of change in others, in ways they would not necessarily change themselves. We affect their future lives. We need to relate to learners in unfamiliar ways, fill new roles. Of these, the roles of instructor is perhaps the most familiar. Others are likely to be new, for example those of assessor, feedback, counsellor, and process leader.”

Roberts, 1998, p.1
  • Teacher educators after having read a few other SLTE books: This book is for teacher educators. However, I would say that because of the sheer amount of information, early-career teacher educators might be better starting somewhere else as Roberts does move quite quickly, and doesn’t ‘define’ too many things in detail. It is a must read for all teacher educators, but make sure you’re reading it at the right ‘time’.

Final notes

Roberts’ Language Teacher Education is a must-read for all teacher educators. It covers a-helluva-lot, and you’ll come away thinking that you need to read it again, but it is highly worthwhile. I know a few others in the SLTE world have read it, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. What were your takeaways? Did we pick up on the same things? Be sure to let me know 🙂

Book details

Book title: Language Teacher Education

Author: Jon Roberts

Pages: 346

ISBN: 9780340646250


Roberts, J. (1998). Language Teacher Education. London: Arnold.


  1. Zhenya says:

    Hi Jim
    Thank you for keeping your wonderful blog, and for writing such detailed and reflective review posts. I was really looking forward to this one, as you had mentioned the book (I think) in one of the conversations on Twitter. I agree about reading it at the ‘right time’ and am keeping in my reading list now, after your post.
    Thank you for the reference to the 4 Suitcases Activity. It is interesting how ‘four’ seems to be so popular in teaching/training (is it b/c the number fits well on an A-4 or the 4 corners in the room?). I can see how the 4 mirrors can help teachers metaphorically ‘reflect’ on the lesson. I am also curious what they would see if they literally bring these 4 mirrors. One simple idea in my head now for a course feedback in a f2f format: one mirror for the teacher who taught the class, one for the trainer, and 2 more for the observers (or maybe, one for the specific student in that lesson?). Then the same moment or activity can be taken from the different perspectives of these people, and a productive (hopefully?) conversation may develop.
    Am I the only one missing those sessions in a physical classroom and not in front of the screen? 🙂
    Thank you once again for the post. Bookmarked to reread when I have a chance to read the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love the ideas, Zhenya! It sounds very similar to the three-way observation put forward by Richards, but from the teacher’s perspective.

      Four does seem to be a good number! From Brookfield’s lenses to Johari windows – lots of fours 🙂


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