The Three Most Critical Factors in ELT by Neil McBeath


This paper demonstrates my belief that the three most critical factors in ELT are the learners, materials and teachers. It was inspired by Manuel Martinez-Pons (2006), and has been influenced by Brian Tomlinson and Hitomi Masuhara’s work on the importance of affect.

Finally, I was interested in Michael Swan’s (2006; 45) statement that “two out of three ain’t enough”, so I will begin by exploring the implications of that statement.

Two out of Three

If we accept my premise about the three most critical factors, then we have to see how these factors interact, and examine the different scenarios that arise when only two of the three factors are satisfactory.

In the situation of weak learners, but good materials and good teachers, then some kind of result from the teaching process can be expected. Educational history is full of examples where this has happened.

At one end of the spectrum there are people like Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Lane: 1975) and, more famously, Helen Keller, who both overcame extraordinary physical, mental and social disabilities because of the diligence and care of a particularly dedicated teacher.

At a different level, in Britain, The English Speaking Board has been able to pioneer oral assessments with inmates in Young Offenders institutions, often giving them their first formal qualification, and a tool with which to diffuse potentially threatening situations.

The second scenario occurs when good students and good teachers work with sometimes inadequate, frequently downright bad, materials.

I received my secondary education in a highly selective boys’ Grammar School in Scotland. The students at that school had been chosen because they were going to succeed, and go to University. Simply getting a job was regarded as failure.

This was despite the materials. In the 1960’s we were still using recycled, dog-eared “War Economy Standard” texts. One of these was English Today (Rideout 1947), a book crammed with print, devoid of illustration, and principally devoted to clause analysis. Readers were Nelson Classics, small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, printed in minute type on flimsy paper. Worksheets, printed on Roneo machines, had gaps in the text and invariably omitted either the first or last line on every page (and sometimes both).

In the third scenario, where there are good students and good materials, then some of them will learn even without good teachers. Autodidacts like Frederick Douglass prove this point, but again, I noticed this at my Grammar school.

As the students got older, they were given increasing responsibility for their own learning. That is a good thing. On the other hand, this policy was sometimes reduced to the distribution of Roneo worksheets with the instruction “Be quiet. And get on with your work.” That cannot be classified as “good teaching”. That approach only works with students who are prepared to focus on long-term goals.

So what do these three scenarios show us? They demonstrate how it is possible to get by. They prove that it is possible to compensate for weakness, which is interesting, but not satisfactory. We can do better. Each of these scenarios can be improved, and so we must now examine the component parts.

The Learners

Unfortunately, learners do not operate in a vacuum. Learners are products of their societies. They come with baggage attached, and Abu-Rmaileh.(2006/2007; 327-8) writing about the different factors that can affect students’ “disposition to learning” (P. 327) reminds us that some of the elements include “parent involvement, teacher enthusiasm, rewards, peers, the learners’ environment, personal experiences, the personal interests of the students, and self esteem and self image” (P. 328)

This last factor may be particularly important. In October 2003, I met a Canadian of Bangadeshi origin who was teaching at a school in Ras al Khaimah. He asked me “How do you motivate a 14 year old boy who informs you ‘al lugha ingliziyya al lugha shaytan’?”

This is a powerful statement. It leaves no doubt of the strength of the boy’s feelings. It manages to encapsulate his economic, political, religious and social beliefs in a single sentence. Neither is there any doubt about the boy’s self image. He is a defender of Islam, and of a rather uncompromising interpretation of Islam.

Even so, these are the beliefs of a boy of 14. He has learnt these beliefs from somewhere (probably outside school) but unless the beliefs receive constant positive reinforcement, they are likely to alter and, probably, moderate.

Far more worrying, I feel, is the next quotation, from the Saudi Gazette of November 25th 2006. “A father defends his son’s poor performance in English, saying: ‘This is the language of the others. We do not need to learn all languages people speak. I need my son to learn religion and Arabic.’” (Al Kinani; 2006)

What is particularly chilling here is how the father denial of his son’s voice – “We do not need….I need…….” He abrogates the decision making power entirely to himself. He ignores the fact that his son’s Saudi school teaches little more than religion and Arabic anyway, and is clearly unaware that this education policy does nothing to produce Saudis who can assist the development of their country.

Sadly, there are other instances of equally obtuse stakeholders. Nick Thornton (2005; 69) quotes a teacher, working in Canada, whose Anabaptist students are unable to continue their education beyond their fifteenth birthday.

Even in this situation, however, there is a slight cause for hope. Two students were interested in continuing their education, despite the pressure from their inward-looking social group. There is resilience here, in the face of external pressure, and there is a desire to learn. This desire to learn can be tapped.

The most difficult circumstances under which I ever taught were with the Royal Saudi Air Force in Dammam. RSAF cadets have to rise before dawn so that they can attend compulsory Dawn Prayer. After prayer, they are forbidden to sleep. They start classes at 0615 hours, and then have seven consecutive fifty-minute classes, with a twenty-minute break between the third and fourth classes.

After lunch they do drill or sports, and even when they finally go to bed, they can be roused from sleep and disciplined for minor infractions or almost at the whim of senior classmen.

As a result, the cadets are permanently deprived of sleep. They are constantly exhausted.
On several occasions I saw cadets fall asleep while standing up and answering questions. Had I observed this while I was serving as an officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman, I would have taken the man concerned to a Medical Centre and I would have demanded that the Medical Officer admit him for observation.

Yet even in these conditions, some of the RSAF cadets were able to study and do well. I remember some of them with affection and respect.

So What Do We Do for the Learners?

We harness the power of affect. More exactly, we do not allow the affective filter to come down and prevent learning.

In the case of the boy from Ras al Khaimah, this would be easy. Giving him graded readers about the Holy Prophet and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs would immediately start to undermine his belief that the medium is the message.

The same approach might work with the Saudi father, although in this instance we should remember that his son has not been allowed to express an opinion. Possibly the boy is motivated, but he has mediocre materials and poor teachers. In his case, a short-term instrumental approach would pay dividends.

The Canadian Hutterite girls could be helped if the colony schoolhouse were opened to the whole community. Providing library facilities need be no more than a cupboard of books, but given their lifestyle – no radio, no TV, no cinema, no internet – it could be a welcome facility. The provision of devotional books, farming and homecraft manuals would give the library credibility in the eyes of the community elders, and sanction its use for people like the two girls who wanted to “come back”.

This is a simple, but workable, approach. In Oman my self-appointed younger brother Yahya is in his final year at school. I supplement his school texts with graded readers and in-flight magazines. The latter have short articles, but they appear in English and Arabic. They allow him to read for the gist, and check his comprehension, but no pressure is put on him.

The pressure could be similarly relaxed for the RSAF cadets. They are physically incapable of long-term concentration, so reduce the cognitive load.

In Dammam, I plastered the walls of my classroom with posters. Every time an article of safety equipment was mentioned, we referred to the appropriate poster, described the item, and explained its use. When teaching tools, a toy plastic shadow-board was used to identify screwdrivers, wood saws, etc. Aircraft parts were taught using an aluminium model of an F-15 Fighter, and cadets could see the different aircraft parts. Those who did not understand the first time, or the second time, might be awake at the tenth repetition.

I also played to the cadets’ expectations. Ellali and Chaffin’s (2006/2007) research demonstrates that Emirati students believe that teachers are responsible for ensuring that students pass their exams. (P. 313). Assuming that the Saudi cadets probably felt the same way, I gave them what they wanted.

The classes did multiple-choice tests where I ensured that every man was referred to by name. Despite their fatigue, this practice ensured that they stopped indicating TWO correct answers for a single item, and nobody ever left answers blank. Even this basic tuition in exam technique paid dividends in the final exams.


At the 12th TESOL Arabia Conference I presented a paper (McBeath 2006/7) severely criticizing the Royal Air Force of Oman’s in-house publication Target – the Sultan’s Armed Forces General English Course.

I now have good news and bad news. The good news is that the Target course is now being completely revised, and that the triumvirate responsible for its publication have all left RAFO.

Unfortunately, before they left, they produced Target- Student’s Book 3.  If anything, this is the worst volume to date. The self-indulgent, weakly plotted, badly constructed, unmotivating, plagiarized and pointless materials that were so obvious in the first two books, reappear in Book 3.

One section, entitled Snakes in Oman (Pp. 60-63) has been plagiarized from Gallagher’s (1990/1993) Snakes of the Arabian Gulf and Oman, while the passage on Shabab Oman (Pp. 13-14) begins “Shabab Oman is one of the world’s tallest ships and she often takes part in the Round the World Tall Ships Race.”

She is not, and she does not.

The sentence is part of a passage that has been downloaded, without checking, from two or three different websites. The first clause comes from an incorrect Wikipedia entry, and later information comes from either the Omani Ministry of Information’s website or the more general Nizwanet. It is an example of what Unissa (2006; 85) describes as “cut and paste plagiarism.”

At the end of October 2007, one of my undergraduate students at Sultan Qaboos University gave an excellent presentation about Shabab Oman, linking it with the fact that his brother was serving as a musician in the Royal Navy of Oman.

Plagiarism from the internet is a major problem at Arab Gulf Universities. Paper after paper has been devoted to this problem, both at TESOL Arabia and other Arab Gulf ELT Conferences (Birks; Hunt; Mandalios and Remondi 2001; Birks; Hunt and Mandalios 2003; McBeath 2004; Owen 2006/2007; Kershaw 2007). My student avoided plagiarism.
It is deeply embarrassing that so-called professional materials writers, working on a prestige project, did not.

Even professional writers, however, are capable of producing materials that our learners regard as artificial or irrelevant.

Phillips (2005a; 2005b) has produced a series of skills courses containing exercises that are both artificial and irrelevant. In Speaking Level 2 (P. 12) we meet Vera, who is distressed because her friend Phyllis said she “was stu-pid, in front of my pa-rents. I was up-set.” Judging by the triviality of the complaint, and the pace and intonation of Vera’s delivery on the accompanying CD, one feels that Phyllis was probably correct.

In the same Unit, moreover, Phillips ignores extensive work on sociolinguistics (Rampton 2004) and discourse analysis (Tannen 1994), offering a dialogue in which two teenage boys not only talk to each other about how they feel, but manage to do so without muttering in embarrassment or employing expletives.

Equally unreal, in Speaking Level 3, is a dialogue between Alan and Gopal (P. 28). Gopal comes from Mumbai, but sounds exactly like a native speaker from Southern England. Garnet Publishing undermine the credibility of their own CD by failing to use a speaker of Indian accented English. Students from the Arab Gulf are familiar with Indian pronunciation, and are disconcerted when what they hear contradicts their expectations.

They are also disconcerted when they encounter materials based on alien cultural assumptions. Clark (1996) emphasizes that successful communication cannot take place unless there is mutual or shared background knowledge, but in Kisslinger’s (2002) Contemporary Topics 2, the cultural assumptions are entirely American.

To Kisslinger, it may be a genuine concern that DNA profiling could lead to insurance companies refusing to cover to people if they have a propensity to certain types of illness. The Arab Gulf and Europe, however, have national health systems. Those who enjoy this “social safety net” (Askari and Arfaa; 2007) find difficulty understanding the full implications of dependency on health insurance, and Kisslinger does nothing to help students bridge this gap in understanding.

So What Do We Do about Materials?

We make them relevant. We also try to break out of the current paradigm. Reda (2003) indicates that most General English courses are based around different combinations of up to 24 principal topic areas, and that the term should more accurately be English for Limited Purposes.

More recently Brennan (2007; 72) offered the following critique “The Contents page for this book go for the same usual suspects that we see in elementary and pre-intermediate coursebooks. In fact, the contents look pretty damn similar to the first two books I ever taught from Streamline Departures (Oxford 1978) and Opening Strategies (Longman 1982) and virtually every coursebook published since then. Teachers are used to this default syllabus because that’s what the authors always have in books. The authors put it in because their editors insist that’s what the learners want. The learners accept it because that’s what teachers have always taught. Is anyone noticing a trend here?”
Brennan is correct. We are caught on a carousel where English for Limited Purposes is offered as a one-size-fits-all solution. The answer is to return to quintessential ESP – materials with high face validity which are devised for a single purpose, and for use with one class, once.

This point is restated in a second publication (Brennan 2008; 32) “what tends to work best ……is home made material that engages as many of these ….. punters as possible, making them happy and satisfied because at the end of the day, language learning is hugely affected by feeling (or the Affective Filter if you want to be posh.) Happy people get more motivated, are more likely to stay in courses and come back for courses. People who have been engaged and entertained but also challenged with something they can just about do have, I think, been usefully stretched. Take them to where they are stimulated but uncertain, at the limits of their communicative ability; this is where learning takes place.”

No one expects teachers to generate reams of new material for each class, but it is possible to supplement existing coursebooks and commercially produced material. At Sultan Qaboos University, I am currently producing supplementary materials for Oshima and Hogue’s (2007) Introduction to Academic Writing. The aim is to produce chapter-by-chapter ancillary practice materials, supporting the main text.

I used this approach was twice while I was working with the Royal Army of Oman.  In the first instance, Arnold and Sacco’s (1988) Command English was augmented with Omanised materials, making it suitable for young officers from the Force Ordnance Service. Later, different materials were produced for the Force Medical Services, providing  a course at the time of the war to liberate Kuwait.

The current work at Sultan Qaboos University is in the trial stage, but the students seem to appreciate the materials. They are produced in-house, they have high face validity, and thus they are able to assist the students to bridge the gaps in their understanding.


Helping students to bridge gaps in understanding is, of course, the job of teachers, and a great deal of research has attempted to determine exactly what makes a good teacher. I have already mentioned Ellili and Chaffin’s (2006/2007) findings, but Thompson (2008) recently published results that suggest good teachers build rapport with their students; have patience; are respectful of others; plan their lessons well; are organized, are creative etc. In short, the good teacher is “a cross between Marcus Aurelius and Mother Teresa, a stoic at the service of all humanity.” (Haran 2003:16-17)

But here we are talking about “good teachers”. Not all teachers are good. Indeed, while many members of TESOL Arabia were probably inspired to enter the profession by a particularly charismatic teacher, the truly dreadful teachers are equally memorable.

I have lost the reference, but many years ago the Times Educational Supplement published an article that began “All of us, if we are honest, could look round the staff room and point the finger at someone who we know is a disgrace to the profession.”

This is a highly inflammatory statement. Many teachers become extremely uncomfortable when the profession is criticized. It is, indeed, regarded as “unprofessional” to criticize a fellow teacher, even when the criticism is justified.

So What do We Do about Teachers?

Obviously we should ensure that none of us turn into Veiled Sentiments, and we should look for ways in which we can make our teaching as positive an experience as possible.

Martinez-Pons (2006; 100), offers the following conclusion:- “In over 15 years of observation and evaluation of classroom performance at both school and college levels, the more successful workers this writer has observed have followed what amounts to basic principles of social cognitive learning theory: modeling, encouragement, facilitation and rewarding.”

I would reverse that. In the 30 years that I have been teaching EFL, the very worst teachers I have ever encountered (native-speaker; non-native speaker; qualified; unqualified) have had one thing in common. They did not want to teach. They were uninterested in modeling, encouragement, facilitation or rewarding. They did not want to engage.

One example of this was the instance when a very highly motivated Omani sergeant asked an expatriate Arab teacher about the meaning of a word that he had encountered in the course of his primary military duties. “You don’t need to know that,” said this so-called teacher. “It isn’t in the book.”

Teaching language is about going beyond the book. It involves encouraging and facilitating our students’ endeavours to progress, and rewarding them when they succeed. Modeling and facilitation do not only occur in the classroom. They involve being seen in the library; recommending books, videos or music; showing students how to use the internet and how to develop their research skills. The military has the concept of leading by example, and to some extent every teacher can do this, but it does mean making yourself available.

There is a downside to teaching. McCourt (2005) indicates that, in the United States, there is no real reward for teachers who actually TEACH. Teachers who get out of the classroom may receive rewards, but classroom teachers, the ones who actually engage the kids, receive no acknowledgement.

The positive side of teaching is what Lowe (2008; 82) describes as “the enchantment that comes from happy children being creative and fully involved in interesting activities, and from skilled and dedicated teachers working with them.” Skills can be taught. Any “tips for teachers” seminar will demonstrate a few tricks of the trade and, indeed, some so-called EFL training courses of a month’s duration may offer little else (Hobbs 2006/2007).

Dedication, by contrast, comes from within. It may never be recognized. Luby (2007; 19) mentions, almost as a given, “one’s sense of peripheral involvement as a classroom teacher” but Luby is wrong. Classroom teachers should never accept a sense of “peripheral involvement.” We are central. Forget that, and you condemn the next generation.


Lowe speaks of “the enchantment” that comes when there is synergy between the learners, the materials and the teachers. “Enchantment” is entirely appropriate for the situation that he describes, which is one of working with Young Learners – “happy children.”

I am less sure that “enchantment” is the correct term when dealing with adults. In that situation, what can be achieved is a deep and reciprocated mutual respect – something that transcends cultural difference or religious beliefs. It is the realization that, in the final analysis, we can work together.

I experienced this with some classes at the Force Ordnance Service School of the Royal Army of Oman, and also when teaching Military Medical English for Force Medical Services personnel during the early days of the First Gulf War. It also occurred when I was teaching Search and Rescue Personnel at RAFO Masirah, because in all these cases the stakes were high. I was in a situation where, in Sowden’s (2007; 310) words “personal qualities, attitudes and experience finally count, provided that these are informed by acquaintance with best current practice and research.” I was a professional, working with other professionals. My area of expertise was language, theirs lay in their own areas of military responsibility.

When this synergy occurs, it is deeply, profoundly satisfying. It lifts your teaching. It makes going to class a constant pleasure. It can also result in enrichment outside the classroom, which can be even more satisfying.

Earlier, I mentioned my self-appointed younger brother. The cover for TESOL Arabia Perspectives 15/1 shows my two Omani nephews. Their father was one of my students. When I used to “swan around” Oman I regularly visited him and his family. I attended his wedding. When I left RAFO in 2005, members of his family took me to the airport. By that time he had already paid me the supreme compliment of naming his third son, Na’el, after me. For that type of relationship, begun in the classroom, but carried beyond it, “enchantment” is inadequate.



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Neil McBeath worked for twenty four and a half years as a uniformed officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman. During that time, he taught EFL, ESP and English for Military Purposes (EMP). He declined to renew contract in June 2005, and took at two year contract with BAE Systems, teaching at the School of English Language, Technical Studies Institute, Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has now returned to Oman, and teaches at Language Centre of the Sultan Qaboos University.

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