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online forum report

The use of jargon in teacher

Philip Kerr

This is a summary of some of the issues raised in a recent on-line discussion

within the IATEFL Teacher Trainers and Educators Special Interest Group.
The IATEFL Teacher Trainers and Educators Special Interest Group
periodically organizes on-line fielded discussions1 on pre-determined topics that
are chosen and moderated by volunteers. From time to time, however, vigorous
discussions develop in a more informal and less planned way, when a topic
strikes a chord with members of the list. Few topics have provoked more
response from members of the group than the question of the use of jargon in
teacher education.

The ownership of

Participants in the discussion referred frequently to a distinction between

university-based academics (who are the main authors of the literature of
teacher education) and chalk-face practitioners. Examples of jargon that
were cited included top-down and bottom-up processing and
metacognitive knowledge, and this jargon was generally perceived to
belong to a discourse community that did not include the majority of
chalk-face practitioners. One respondent pointed out that the chalkface practitioners had their own set of jargon (including terms like
skills, humanistic, and pre-teaching). However, his further
observations that particular discourse communities do not necessarily
perceive their own jargon as jargon, and that complaints about jargon are
invariably about the other side (i.e. the jargon that we do not
understand), suggest that many in the profession feel that there is more
than one discourse community within the world of teacher education.
Within these communities, it was noted that much jargon, including
many of the commonest terms in ELT, is defined in a variety of ways, and
frequently lacks precision. The terms task and communicative were
cited as examples.

The uses and abuses

of jargon

All participants acknowledged an element of inevitability in the use of a

degree of jargon in teacher educationfor reasons of economy and
clarity. However, there was a perception that many contributors to
journals and conferences overused jargonbecause of (1) intellectual
sloppiness, and (2) a desire to be seen as a member of a higher-status
discourse community. As one participant observed, authors and
presenters have a dual audience, and the purpose of their
ELT Journal Volume 59/2 April 2005 Q Oxford University Press


communication is twofold. Firstly, they have relevant topic material to get

across to their audience, and secondly, presenters need to demonstrate
their legitimacy as a member of the academic community. On the whole,
participants in the discussion felt that the second impetus was often
more compelling. The desire to acquire symbolic capital outweighed the
motivation to share professional knowledge.
Two contributions to the discussion focussed on the paths of jargon use.
Research by J. Calderhead (1987) indicates that novice teachers typically
go through a number of clearly identifiable stages in the process of their
training. In the first of these stages, they want to feel that they belong to
the community of teachers to which they aspire, and that a significant
part of that belonging comes from a growth in confidence in their own
use of the language (or jargon) of the dominant discourse community. At
the other end of the spectrum, R. Lakoff (1990) observed that, in
academia, there is a continuum of usage of academese in the progression
from undergraduate status to senior tenured faculty. The use of jargon
drops off, she suggests, as students become well-established, and can be
dispensed with entirely when they achieve the status of senior academics.

Jargon and theory

Some participants equated the overuse of jargon with an academic

discourse whose theoretical orientation did not match the more practical
priorities and interests of classroom teachers. They suggested that the
day-to-day realities of many teachers lives did not leave much mental
energy for theory. One post offered two contrasting definitions of a
1 knowledgeable and principled professional able to act and develop
2 method and materials operator in need of a guide.
There was general agreement that the processes of teacher education
should be built on an explicitly theoretical foundation, that the role of the
teacher educator was to teach how to fish, rather than, simply, to give
fish. It was suggested that one of the roles of the teacher educator is to
help prospective teachers become aware of, and competent in, the
language of the professional community they wish to enter. However, it
is clear that many participants saw classroom teachers and writers about
classroom teaching as belonging to separate professional communities,
differentiated by status, salary, and working conditions. Theory, and its
attendant jargon, was seen as being of potential value to teachers, but this
potential was not always realized in practice.
The problem with the use of jargon (and, by extension, the use of theory)
was considered to be essentially a problem of extent. Enormous
differences in the working contexts of teacher educators participating in
the discussion preclude any attempt to determine which items of jargon
would be appropriate for inclusion in teacher education programmes.
One participant suggested that research and theorizing would never be of
more than tangential significance to teachers in helping them to carry out
their workwork that requires rapid decision-making and is highly
complex, both socially and psychologically.


Philip Kerr


More than anything else, the discussion reflected the perception that
there is a communication gap between teachers, and for those who write
and speak for them in a professional context. Participants concentrated
on the problems caused by this gap, and the desirability of bridging it,
rather than on an analysis of the historical and social factors that brought
it about. The use of jargon in the discourse of ELT has undeniably led to
certain tensions. However, given the fact that contemporary society
values codified propositional knowledge more highly than uncodified
practical know-how, we should not, perhaps, expect to see any decrease in
these tensions for the foreseeable future.

1 For more information about the IATEFL
Teacher Trainers and Educators Special Interest
Group and its discussion list, please see
Calderhead, J. 1987. The Quality of Reflection in
Student Teachers Professional Learning.
European Journal of Teacher Education 10/3:

Lakoff, R. 1990. Talking Power. New York: Basic

The reporter
Philip Kerr is a member of the IATEFL Teacher
Trainers and Educators Special Interest Group
committee. As a contributor to the literature of
teacher education, he has been accused of jargon

The use of jargon in teacher education