Education systems in Latin America feel a growing pressure to ensure that students are prepared to enter the workforce with the skills and knowledge necessary for success in a world that is increasingly shaped by the unpredictable forces of globalization. Near the top of the list of 21st century skills for most countries in the region is English language proficiency. In the past decade, more than half a dozen countries from Mexico to Chile have established national English Language Learning (ELL) programs, which provide oversight and direction, and several more offer English language instruction in schools, albeit without a central coordinating body. As countries have made increasing investments in building the English language abilities of their students, the difficulty of turning these expenditures into measurable increases in student performance has revealed several key bottlenecks, chief among them the ability to recruit, train and retain high-quality, qualified teachers.
This report, which builds on the Inter-American Dialogue’s 2017 white paper on English language policies and programs, seeks to provide a more complete picture of the state of English language teaching in Latin America and offers several recommendations about how to improve the current situation and address ongoing challenges. Through a study of classroom practices, training regulations and standards and administrative data drawn from four countries (Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay), this report aims to provide a clearer picture of who these teachers are, how they are prepared and trained and offer a glance into their teaching practices in the English classroom. Finally, the report proposes a set of recommendations directed at addressing existing challenges and bottlenecks with the goal of improving student learning through more effective support for teachers, efficient information management and clearer standards and regulations for educators and institutions.
Too many English language teachers do not have the necessary language proficiency credentials and/or academic training and degrees to be effective instructors. Many, if not most, English teachers in Latin America lack either the necessary English skills, the necessary pedagogical skills, or both, to be effective educators in the classroom. Many countries have put in place a language requirement for teaching English, but do not have the necessary information or systems to ensure that all English teachers meet those standards. While some countries have made progress in setting standards for teachers, many struggles to enforce or evaluate these policies, especially as the demand for English teachers has expanded with the growth of national English programs and explicit requirements for English language instruction in public education.
For the most part, there is not a clear and well-developed strategy in place for initial teacher training that would address these credentialing and certification gaps. As a result, training institutes struggle to achieve the necessary excellence. Many universities and teacher training institutes find themselves in the position of having to not only prepare future teachers to be effective educators in the classroom, but also teaching them English. As a result, students must dedicate a significant amount of their course load to learning English, and universities still report significant challenges in getting those future teachers to an adequate level of proficiency in the four or five years it takes to complete a degree. This can lead to a tradeoff, where countries must choose between high admissions standards (which most applicants may be unable to meet) or accepting students regardless of their qualifications (knowing that most will not build the necessary language skills in the four or five years of a degree program).
Regional weaknesses in policies to attract, prepare and support teachers are even more manifest in the case of ELL because the mismatch between supply and demand is very large. Across Latin America, countries continue to wrestle with the questions of how to effectively recruit talented candidates to the teaching profession, adequately educate and train them for the challenges of classroom instruction and provide ongoing professional development for continuing growth and improvement. The lack of adequately credentialed English teachers and the inability of existing training programs to effectively prepare teachers, coupled with the growing demand for English language instruction, only serves to exacerbate these existing challenges.
The lack of adequate information systems (including at the classroom level) makes it extremely difficult to effectively manage the scaling up ELL programs. At the national administrative level, beyond a basic human resources registry, few countries gather comprehensive data on their English teachers on any systematic way, and for those that do, the information is often dispersed across multiple agencies and offices. There is no central, easily accessible system with up-to-date information on all English teachers across programs, grade levels and schools. The lack of reliable data is also evident at the classroom level, where the learning environment and daily interactions between teachers and students often remain a “black box.” The picture that emerges is one in which it would be challenging for any policymaker or official to make informed decisions—the first step to developing strong policies for English teachers will be gathering the necessary data at the administrative, university and classroom level to allow for informed, strategic decisions.