April 2013
Louise McLaughlin, IHWO Online Teacher Training Institute, Spain

Although much has been written, discussed, and forwarded as regards both teacher training and the role of teacher cognition in English language teaching, it still surprised me to hear one qualified teacher state that, in relation to young learner English language teaching, she had to unlearn everything she was taught on her training course. I heard yet another qualified teacher indicate that you just need to do what they tell you on the course. These two statements suggest that a lack of coherence and continuity still remains between what teacher trainers and educators promote in young learner teacher training courses and what actually occurs in the teachers’ classrooms. The reason for this discrepancy between taught theory and learnt practice has already been shown to lie in the realm of teacher cognitions (Borg, 2006) although this research has mainly concentrated on adult English language teaching.

Formation of Teacher Cognitions

Teacher cognitions have been shown to influence teachers’ practice in the adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classroom in a variety of ways (Borg, 2006) and, more recently, in the young learner classroom (McLaughlin, 2012). These cognitions consist of the combination of beliefs, knowledge, and understanding that have been acquired by teachers over many years. These beliefs are initially based on what is referred to as the apprenticeship of observation (Lortie, 1975). This indicates that by the time s/he has finished both primary and secondary schools, the average student has completed 13,000 hours of observation of teachers teaching. This provides students with a sufficient amount of time to form concrete ideas on the characteristics and behaviour of a “good” and “bad” teacher. Thinking back to childhood, most of us can recall one of our good teachers and the teachers we liked or disliked. As a result, when we begin teaching, our natural practice is to emulate those good teachers. These concrete beliefs about what makes a good teacher and good teaching practice are brought in their entirety to initial teaching training courses irrespective of the type of training course.

Cognition vs. Classroom Practice

The underlying value in carrying out a comparison between cognitions and practice is not done to check whether teachers do what they claim to do. It is researched in order to try to understand the effect of cognitions on teaching practice. Information in this area helps to shed light on whether teacher trainers and educators can help develop an awareness of cognition among trainees and if this awareness can then aid teacher development.

The Role of Teacher Trainers and Educators

As aforementioned, trainee teachers bring their firmly cemented beliefs about teachers and teaching to their initial training courses and programmes. Teacher trainers, teacher educators, and course tutors are the people who deliver these initial teacher training courses, and therefore, they are the people who are faced with these accumulated assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge based on experience. The onus is on the teacher trainer to try to have trainees and teachers address their beliefs in order to reevaluate them in the light of proven evidence from both theoretical studies and practical research. The teacher trainers and educators must make teachers aware of what cognitions are and how they can become both aware and in control of these. This, although straightforward on paper, is a difficult path to walk—the line between teacher cognition and teacher practice. When this is examined in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) context, the task becomes even more difficult given that many training courses (e.g., Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults [CELTA], Certificate in English Language Teaching to Young Learners [CELTYL]) take place over a 4- to 5-week period. Given that teacher cognitions are formed over a period of at least 12 years, it is optimistic to assume that these can be fundamentally examined and altered over a 4-week period (Hobbs, 2007).

Therefore, teacher educators and trainers must bear in mind the following points:

  • Trainee teachers tend to use course information as a tool to validate their beliefs rather than as a tool with which to reevaluate and assess their existing beliefs (Kagan, 1992).
  • Trainee teachers can complete a 3-year teacher training course without having their beliefs shaped in any way by their training (Peacock, 2001).
  • EFL teachers are reluctant to adopt the teaching practices forwarded by their teacher trainer if they fundamentally disagree with the approach. They willingly adopt those learning styles that they can identify with and incorporate these into their lessons without difficulty (Urmston, 2003).
  • EFL teachers may understand that in order to pass the course they must teach in a specified way, but this changes once they enter their own classrooms and are no longer supervised or observed (Almarza, 1996; Senior, 2006).
  • EFL teachers interpret information presented to them on their training courses based on their own experiences, which may differ from the intentions of the teacher trainer (DaSilva, 2005).

Relevance of Cognition Awareness for Trainers and Educators

Although the importance of introducing trainees and teachers to the role that their cognitions play has been highlighted, teacher educators and trainers must realize that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each trainee and teacher must work through the awareness-raising process individually given that they have had their own individual experiences that have shaped their cognitions and subsequently their teaching practice.

If trainees and teachers can be taught to identify areas of tension between their beliefs and practice, they can work towards resolving these tensions through reflection and continuous professional development. Teacher trainers and educators can help both trainees and teachers identify and understand what their actual classroom practices are and why they do what they do. This in turn will reduce tensions and lead to greater awareness, which ultimately will lead to better teaching in young learner classrooms.

Implementing this in our own teaching environments means looking towards a programme of continuous development through questioning and reflection and awareness raising. It means ensuring that trainees and teachers understand the origin of their beliefs and how these can unintentionally interfere with teaching practice in their young learner classrooms. It also means avoiding the trap of accepting that the completion of an initial teacher training course means that what we say is what we do in practice.


Almarza, G. (1996). Student foreign language teacher’s knowledge growth. In D. Freeman & J. Richards (Eds.), Teacher learning in language teaching (pp. 50–78). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Borg, S. (2006). Teacher cognition and language education: Research and practice. London, England: Continuum.

Da Silva, M. (2005). Constructing the teaching process from inside out: How pre-service teachers make sense of their perceptions of the teaching of the four skills. TESL-EJ, 9(2), 1–18.

Hobbs, V. (2007). A brief look at the current goals and outcomes of short-term ELT teacher education. Research Notes, 19, 7–11.

Kagan, D. M. (1992). Professional growth among preservice and beginning teachers. Review of Educational Research, 62, 129–169.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

McLaughlin, L. (2012). EFL teacher cognition: Beliefs and knowledge of teachers regarding young English language learners: Four case studies. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic.

Peacock, M. (2001). Pre-service ESL teachers' beliefs about second language learning: A longitudinal study. System, 29, 177–195.

Senior, R. M. (2006). The experience of language teaching. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Urmston, A. (2003). Learning to teach English in Hong Kong: The opinions of teachers in training. Language and Education, 17(2), 112–137.

Louise McLaughlin currently works as a teacher trainer for the International House World Organization. She holds a PhD in applied linguistics, an MA in English language teaching, and a DELTA. She is the author of ELT Teacher Cognitions. Her areas of interest are young learners, teacher cognitions, and ESOL teacher training and development.