December 2013
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Lynn Henrichsen, Brigham Young University, Utah, USA

A regrettable reality of the TESOL world is that large numbers of people who have little or no professional-level preparation work as teachers or tutors of English as a second or foreign language. Often, their only qualification is that they speak English natively. These teachers usually discover, to their consternation, that speaking English does not mean they know how to teach it (Pennycook & Coutand-Marin, 2003; Snow, 2006). Nevertheless, geographic distance, time constraints, and/or limited finances may prevent them from enrolling in university-based TESOL teacher-preparation courses.

The Audience

Precisely how many untrained novices or volunteers teach ESL/EFL around the world is difficult to determine. The number of such teachers is not normally tracked or reported. All indications, however, are that the number is huge. For instance, in 1986 the Center for Statistics “examined the services provided by and the role and training of volunteers in adult literacy programs in the United States” (from the abstract). The Center gathered information on 2,900 adult education programs (offered through school districts, adult learning centers, and community colleges) and an additional 1,300 local adult literacy programs (sponsored by libraries, community-based organizations, and private literacy organizations). Well over half (58%) of these programs provided ESL instruction, both oral and written. An additional one-fourth provided ESL speaking instruction. The study concluded that “about half of the adult education programs and nearly all the [local adult literacy programs] used volunteers” (from the abstract). In fact, “an estimated 107,000 volunteers served in these the following capacities: one-to-one tutoring, teaching small groups, serving as teacher’s aides, and teaching classes” (pp. 4-5).

Of course, that number represents only the tip of the iceberg; these statistics refer only to literacy-oriented ABE-ESL programs in the USA. Further, they are now more than 25 years old and do not reflect the huge numbers of immigrants and refugees to the United States in the last few decades (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2010), which has substantially increased the numbers of ELLs in the United States. The number of ESL programs serving this audience and utilizing volunteers has undoubtedly grown correspondingly. To illustrate, the 2006–2007 statistical report of just one program—ProLiteracy Worldwide, which offers ESL classes from low beginning to advanced levels—explains that in its 1,200 affiliate programs across the United States, 189,600 students are taught by 117,283 volunteers (ProLiteracy Worldwide, 2007, p. 1).

These large numbers lead to the realization that—even though trained, experienced professionals may provide the best ESL instruction—there simply are not enough professionally prepared teachers to meet the instructional needs of the increasingly large audience of ELLs. Furthermore, in many cases the ELLs who need help the most are the least able to afford expensive classes taught by professionals. For these reasons, volunteers are a widely utilized resource.

Novice, volunteer ESL/EFL teachers, and tutors need TESOL training to be effective, of course. Unfortunately, in many cases the organizations with which the volunteers work may not provide such training. Further, even trained ESL volunteers can benefit from additional guidance and connections with professional resources.

To their credit, many novice volunteers recognize this need for training and information. In fact, my experience has been that most of them want such guidance. What they typically lack, however, is the means for getting it. That is the problem that the BTRTESOL program is intended to help solve.

Program Features

Basic Training and Resources for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages: The Least You Should Know and Where to Go to Learn More(abbreviated BTRTESOL, pronounced “Better TESOL”) differs substantially from traditional, university-based teacher education programs. To prepare untrained, novice, volunteer teachers to become more effective, professional, and successful in their teaching situations, the BTRTESOL program utilizes a minimalist, connectivist, and problem-based instructional approach. In addition, it employs a hybrid instructional delivery system that allows users to get TESOL training when they need it, wherever they may be.

Instructional Approach

BTRTESOL’s approach to preparing ESL/EFL teachers and tutors is minimalist, connectivist, and problem-based. Minimalist means that each of the nearly 50 units in the program merely introduces teachers to the most important concepts and procedures (“the least you should know”) related to the topic of that unit. Each BTRTESOL unit is only a few pages long and is written at a ninth- or tenth-grade readability level, making it easy for nonuniversity-based novice teachers to read quickly and understand readily.

Of course, short, readable units cannot provide great breadth and depth, but this minimalist approach is just what the intended audience typically wants and needs. In line with the principles of situational leadership (Hersey & Blanchard, 1982; Blanchard, Zigarmi, & Zigarmi, 1985), BTRTESOL’s minimalist approach acknowledges that teachers’ preparation needs vary depending on the teachers’ competence and commitment levels. In contrast with the career-oriented teachers in many university TESOL teacher education programs, novice, volunteer teachers typically have only a short-term commitment to teaching ESL/EFL and work only in one particular program. These teachers usually need and want simple, directive instruction of a “teacher training” sort.

The BTRTESOL program is connectivist in nature because, after providing minimalist instruction, it connects users with other sources of information (“where to go to learn more”)—either in print or online. Users may access and study these additional resources in as much depth as their time, needs, resources, and motivation dictate.

Finally, problem-based means that each BTRTESOL unit starts with a brief (50–100 word), problem-oriented classroom scenario or case study in an authentic ESL/EFL setting. These scenarios not only illustrate the challenges teachers face in the real world but also immediately confront users with realistic instructional challenges and engage them in problem-solving tasks.

Structure of BTRTESOL Units

All BTRTESOL units follow a similar instructional pattern. Every unit begins with an authentic, engaging, problem-oriented scenario that depicts and describes a teaching situation and challenge. For example, the unit on teaching English conversation classes begins with the story of an American physics professor in Japan on an academic exchange. This professor is approached by some Japanese acquaintances who ask him to teach them conversational English. He knows a lot about physics, but—even though he speaks English natively—he has no idea how to teach English conversation. After this opening scenario, the unit poses questions such as “What would you do in this situation?”

Then, the unit’s objectives are clearly stated. After that, key points related to these objectives are briefly explained in an easily readable, expository manner. For instance, the unit on conducting conversation classes explains five main points: topic selection, class atmosphere, speaking in English, class management, and responding to mistakes. As users read through this explanation, they are asked to respond to comprehension questions. For additional explanations on tangential points, readers are referred to other, related BTRTESOL units.

After reading the expository text, users view a short (2- to 3-minute), authentic video clip that shows a teacher or tutor (who might be located anywhere in the world) dealing with the instructional issue presented in the opening scenario. These clips not only allow participants to envision real-world instructional settings but also provide the basis for reflection later. After viewing each video, users are invited to reflect on it, guided by questions such as “What did the teacher do right?”, “What could the teacher have done differently?”, “Why might that be better/worse?”, and “What would you do in this situation?” In the online version, after typing in their reflections, users may then view what previous users have written in response to these questions, compare their thoughts with those of other BTRTESOL users, and thus learn from others’ perspectives.

Every BTRTESOL unit concludes with a “Where to go to learn more” section that provides not just brief descriptions but also live links or publisher/contact information for websites, selected books, and other resources that will give users more in-depth information on the unit’s topic.

Instructional Delivery System

The teachers and tutors who constitute the intended audience of BTRTESOL are challenging to reach because they are not enrolled in traditional campus-based teacher education programs. Rather, they are scattered all over the world—often in remote locations far from university campuses. Consequently, BTRTESOL utilizes a flexible, hybrid delivery system that permits learners to study units in a manner and at times that are most convenient and productive for them. Units may be used for class instruction by a trainer or for individualized self-study, in distance learning or face-to-face arrangements. This hybrid delivery system utilizes (1) web-based text materials, which may be printed out on paper for use in settings where internet access is limited, (2) digital video, and (3) interactive online activities. Depending on the users’ technological preferences or limitations, core instruction is available either online or on paper. Digital video clips related to each unit’s focus are available through web-based streaming video or on a DVD.

Conclusion and Invitation

BTRTESOL is not a commercial product or for-profit venture. Rather, the online version is offered as a public service at no charge to anyone who may benefit from it. It is being developed by Lynn Henrichsen, with the assistance of undergraduate and graduate-level TESOL students in the Linguistics and English Language Department at Brigham Young University. Nearly 50 units grouped in 10 sections are planned. At the present time, 20 of these units have been completed and are functioning online on the BTRTESOL website. A few rough units are online in pilot form, and the remaining units are still at the conceptual or developmental stage. Interested TESOL teacher educators, as well as novice teachers in need of basic training, are invited to visit the website, work through units of interest to them, benefit from the units’ content, and provide feedback via the online survey at the end of each unit.


Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, P., & Zigarmi, D. (1985). Leadership and the one minute manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational leadership. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Center for Statistics. (1986). Adult literacy programs: Services, persons served, and volunteers. OERI Bulletin, 10, 1–4. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED268387)

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1982). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Pennycook, A., & Coutand-Marin, S. (2003). Teaching English as a missionary language. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 24(3), 337–353.

ProLiteracy Worldwide. (2007). 2006-2007 statistical report. Retrieved from

Snow, D. (2006). More than a native speaker: An introduction to teaching English abroad (rev. ed.). Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2010). Yearbook of immigration statistics: 2009. Retrieved from

Lynn Henrichsen is a professor in the Linguistics and English Language Department at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he teaches courses for graduate students, undergraduates, and novice volunteers in TESOL methods, materials development, and research.

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