Linguistics and school teaching
A career guide for graduates
last changed 3 October 2007
This page is for you if:
Recent changes in the education system in England have made linguistics much more relevant than it used to be as a preparation for school teaching, but information about options and routes is not easily available - hence this website.
The site focuses on careers in England, so it does not try to cover the teaching of English as a foreign language (TEFL), most of which takes place overseas. The education systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to some extent different, but some of this information applies there as well.
The recent changes are driven by concerns about both first-language English (which we call simply 'English') and foreign languages ('FL'), and part of the solution is more structured and explicit teaching about language. This applies to both English and FL, and for the first time ever these two major strands of education are directly linked, with FL teaching building on what children learn about language in the English class. In other words, school children are now being taught about language in a very 'linguistic' way which presupposes a teacher with the kind of subject knowledge that comes from linguistics at university.
The outcome of this teaching is called 'Knowledge About Language' (KAL), a term which figures in several official documents. For example, KAL plays a particularly important part in the 'framework' (syllabus) for teaching FL at KS2 (Key Stage 2, i.e. years 3-6 in primary school); in the framework, KAL is one of two major strands in the teaching. However, it also figures in all the other relevant documents:
The effect of this new focus on language in the curriculum is that there is a severe shortage of teachers who already have the technical knowledge that it demands. Graduates who studied language structure and use in their degree are needed, provided they have the other subject knowledge and qualities that are needed for the subject and age-group concerned.
If you're a graduate and you're interested in becoming a school teacher, you need to become a qualified teacher by taking a course which is recognised by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (the TDA). The TDA website gives full information about the 'initial teacher-training' (ITT) courses (to be distinguished from in-service courses for existing teachers) that are available and the different routes to becoming a qualified teacher, but most graduates apply for a place on a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) course provided by one of about 130 'ITT providers'. This is the route assumed here.
When applying for a course you will have to decide what kind of teacher you want to become:
Whatever kind of teaching you aim for, you will have to cross two hurdles:
In both cases, you will have to show that you can apply your KAL to your teaching, so it is important to be well informed about the demands of the curriculum and the frameworks. To do this, just browse some of the links on this site and think about them in terms of linguistics.
In primary teaching your linguistics will be relevant to:
Make sure you've looked at the National Curriculum for English, the National Literacy Strategy and maybe 'Grammar for writing' (one of the support documents for KS2 teachers); but be prepared to show that you're interested in all the other parts of the primary curriculum too!
You can apply for a place on various PGCE courses for Primary FL teachers to become a specialist in languages at KS2.
For a long time, secondary English teaching was the preserve of graduates whose degree was called 'English', which generally meant English literature. However, it has never been spelt out officially exactly how 'English' at school relates to degree programmes, so this decision has been left to admissions tutors on PGCE courses. It is their responsibility to make sure that if there are gaps in the applicants' subject knowledge, they can be filled during the course; and different tutors have different policies. Even in the 1990s some language graduates were accepted on these PGCE courses because tutors recognised the importance of their language expertise; but they had to convince the tutor that they had sufficient knowledge and interest in literature to cope with that aspect of the teaching. The dominance of literature meant that literature graduates didn't have to show similar expertise or interest in language.
Fortunately, the secondary English scene has changed in ways that make secondary English teaching much more relevant for language graduates. Although literature is still an important part of the curriculum, especially at KS4 (GCSE), the new emphasis on KAL demands expertise in linguistics (not to mention media studies and drama, which have also become more important in the English syllabus). Few graduates already have the full range of skills and knowledge that the curriculum demands, so PGCE tutors expect applicants to have gaps, and select those whose gaps they think can be filled most easily. Some admissions tutors welcome applications from language graduates because they find that students can fill gaps in literature more easily than in language. However, different tutors have different policies and no doubt some still favour literature graduates, so it is important to consult the list of ITT providers who welcome applicants with a language background and to include at least some of them in your GTTR application.
Of course there is no point in aiming to be a secondary English teacher unless you enjoy reading and are willing to learn about teaching literature, media studies and drama as well as language; and you should mention these things in your PGCE application. To get an idea of the literary demands of the English curriculum, look at the National Curriculum for English (follow English, Key Stage 3 (or 4), En2 Reading, Breadth of Study).
To get a place on a secondary FL PGCE course you will need a degree in one of the school languages (typically French, German or Spanish). Some ITT providers also require some knowledge of a second foreign language. More details on FL PGCE courses.
New teachers in Further Education colleges increasingly need a PGCE as well as a degree or comparable subject knowledge. Many FE colleges offer A-level English Language and are keen to recruit language specialists.
Teaching EAL (i.e. English to children in England whose home language is not English) is an important, challenging and worthwhile career for a language graduate, but at present it has little career structure or professional status. The main association for EAL teachers is the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC), whose website includes links to the key documents about EAL teaching. It also includes a helpful list of courses for EAL teachers around the country.
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