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ESL MiniConference Online!

Achievement Profile: David Hopkins
Training ESL Teachers for Lifelong Learning Permits

David B. Hopkins has built and directed ESL programs, trained teachers and taught ESL in a number of different countries over the past 30 years. ESL MiniConference Online is pleased to share his recent interview with our readers.

Some David Hopkins links:

David Hopkins's Home page
David Hopkins's e-mail
TEFL International
Ask Dave: Online ESL Q & A (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with David B. Hopkins:

David B. Hopkins

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

I am primarily involved in initial TESOL teacher training at this time. As the Academic Director for TEFL International, I am implementing a training program design that I have developed over the last three years for training newcomers to the field of teaching English overseas. It is a 130-hour, four-week intensive program, including 8 hours of observed teaching practice with real EFL students. It focuses on developing the basic "classroom behaviors" that a new teacher will need to begin teaching and develop as a "reflective teacher." It is a "learner's permit" for a lifelong learning experience, not a certification of teaching mastery. In connection with this, I am also working on intensive in-service teacher training camps for non-native speaking English teachers in this case Thai teachers. These programs aim to upgrade the English language skills of the teachers while introducing them to communicative teaching techniques, content-based instruction and student-centered learning.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

The start of my English teaching career was an accident. I was in Lima, Peru to do an internship in intercultural management and found myself without a job. This eventuality had been foreseen by the graduate program I was in, and I had a three-week TEFL teaching certificate under my belt. With this minimal training, I got a job teaching at the Instituto Cultural Peruano-Norte Americano in the center of Lima, and later at the branch in Miraflores. I returned to the U.S. at the end of my internship seeking to repeat the experience and went back to Chillan, Chile that same year to work at another binational center.

My students primarily influenced my decision. I found something that I could do and got a great deal of satisfaction from the interaction with my students. It was a surprise and something I had never imagined myself doing. I had finished my first graduate program in intercultural management, but just didn't find the work as satisfying as my time in the classroom. This encouraged me to enter a MATL program with a major in teaching English as a foreign language.

The most important formative experience was my first teaching position after my MATL in Sao Paulo, Brasil. I worked in a language school where I was the only native-speaker of English. The other teachers were all university graduate students who had gotten together to teach English to finance their education. These convivial and collaborative colleagues taught me the importance of developing a learning/teaching community, and constantly reflecting on your teaching experience. They had a system of "rodizio" where teachers observed another teacher's class every week. The weekly teacher's meeting (at 12:30 am!) focused on relating something you saw useful in the class you observed. A very simple and effective way of getting teachers to support each other, not fear being observed and share teaching ideas. Not suprizingly, it also taught me that you don't have to be a native-speaker to be a highly effective teacher of English.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

My experience has been with Latin American speakers of Spanish, Brasilian Portuguese speakers, Thai speakers, Egyptian Arabic speakers and Japanese speakers. Since I have the best language competency in Portuguese, one might say that I am most familiar with the Brazilian Portuguese speakers from the perspective of a language learner. In spite of this, I can not really say that this has given me any special insight into Brazilian Portuguese speakers as English learners. It is definitely true that I adapt my teaching personae to fit the culture of my students, but it is hard to point to specific behaviors. I'd have to say that approaches like giving students control of their own learning, using task-based group activities and focusing upon the communication of relevant content seems to apply to learners of all cultural backgrounds.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

First, take it slowly, and be modest about your role as a 'teacher.' Language learning is a long process. It is highly doubtful that anything in particular is learned in any one lesson. Remember that students need time to digest and repeatedly encounter language before it begins to have any useful meaning. Repeated listening input in contextualized communicative situations is required before the language becomes 'known' and usable. Production follows understanding, so don't rush it. A learner who is not responding, or responding with error, may be well into the learning process, but just not ready to cough up the perfectly formed grammatical chunk that is native-level speech or writing.

Second, focus on the learning, not the teaching. Students learn in spite of us; not because of us. A teacher should be less of a 'performer' and more of a 'responder' i.e. watch your students, listen to them carefully. Get them to show you what to do and where to go next. 'Responsibility'is the key in the sense that we must respond to the student's interests, expectations, culture and contexts.

Third, focus on content. This means contextualizing lessons so that the student can use pre-existing knowledge to sort out meaning. It also means that the lesson has content relevant to the students needs in terms of language that the student clearly sees a use for, or information that the student can use in some way. There is no doubt in my mind that 'content-based instruction' is extremely significant in developing language competence since it puts the role of language into the proper place i.e. not the goal of the learning process, but a means to learning or doing something else. It is highly unlikely that many language learners learn a language merely for the sake of acquiring the language. It is patently obvious that the majority of students learn a language because they need it to do something, or learn something else. It is in this role that language is best contextualized, acquired and put to use for communicative purposes.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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