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Reflections on Teaching English in the United Kingdom

Reflections on Teaching English in the United Kingdom

Georgina Ma
27 September 2010

This article is the last in the series of articles on our experiences of living and teaching abroad. In this article I will reflect on my experience of teaching general and academic English in the United Kingdom.


In 2008, I was awarded a scholarship to read for a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics in the United Kingdom. I was excited at the idea of having the opportunity to consolidate the knowledge and experience that I had gained from 11 years in the English language teaching field and to develop myself professionally. I was granted a year’s study leave from Wits Language School and headed off to become a full-time student at the University of Warwick in September 2008.

Before I left South Africa, I had decided that while my priority in the U.K. was to study, I would try to find some part-time teaching work to keep me busy, bring in some extra income and allow me to gain teaching experience in a different context. Once I had settled in at university, I began searching for English teaching positions in the Coventry area online.

Coventry Foundation Campus

My first teaching position was at Coventry Foundation Campus. Foundation Campus is owned by the Cambridge Education Group and runs foundation programmes for international students at Coventry University. Two types of programmes are offered – an academic foundation programme for students who meet the minimum requirements for study at a U.K. university and a general English programme for students who do not meet the minimum requirements for further study. I taught part-time on both the general and academic programmes.

General English Programme

My general English class was a small group of students, who I co-taught for the year and saw progress from elementary to pre-intermediate level. Most of the students were from Saudi Arabia, but there were a few students from Libya and China too. Most of my previous teaching experience had been in Asia or South Africa and it was the first time that I had taught Arabic speaking students. I found the experience both enjoyable and challenging.

The students ranged in age from 18 to 40 years old, were predominantly Muslim and there were both males and females in the group. Most of the students had never studied in mixed gender classes and many of the male students were not used to having a female teacher. This said, the students got on very well with their peers and myself, they participated well in class and were friendly and eager to improve their English proficiency. A few of them had been given conditional acceptance to study undergraduate and post-graduate degrees at a U.K. university and needed to improve their level of English before they could get unconditional acceptance. The students were eager to improve their English quickly, but were unrealistic in their expectations of being able to progress from elementary/pre-intermediate level to upper-intermediate level in one year. For any student this would be almost impossible; but Arabic speaking students face many difficulties when learning English. These problems range from phonological to morphological and structural difficulties. I found that students struggled most with pronunciation, spelling and the structure at sentence level and in longer written texts.

My experience of teaching these general English students posed many new cultural and pedagogic challenges for me; heightening my view that teacher’s must constantly strive to push their boundaries, accept challenges and learn from their experiences in order to develop themselves professionally.

Academic English Programme

In addition to teaching on the general English course, I worked with post-graduate Coventry University students on the academic English programme. I was responsible for assisting post-graduate students from a range of faculties, including Social Sciences, Engineering and Commerce with their academic writing, speaking, listening and reading skills. Students were from a range of countries, such as Poland, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, and Angola, to name a few.

Academic English Programme Students
Academic English Programme Students

No course books were assigned for the course, which meant an enormous amount of planning and preparation for me, on top of a very heavy study-load. I found my own experiences as a post-graduate student, as well as resources I had found to support my own studies very useful for teaching this course. The greatest challenge I faced was making the classes applicable to such a range of disciplines and useful to all students. Despite these challenges, teaching on this programme was enormously rewarding, as the students were dedicated and enthusiastic in their approach to their studies.

Pre-sessional Programme at the University of Warwick

I was offered a fantastic opportunity to work on the pre-sessional programme at the University of Warwick from August to September 2009, which resulted in an extension of my stay in the United Kingdom by a month. Although, I was keen to return back to my family, friends and work in South Africa, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to work on this well established pre-sessional academic English programme run by the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick.

The pre-sessional programme is run annually for international students as part of their conditional offer of acceptance to the university. A team of about twenty English language teaching professionals, many of whom have been working on the programme for a number of years, arrive en masse from all round the United Kingdom and other destinations such as Ireland, Morocco and Hungary to work on the intensive one month programme. Work on the pre-sessional programme included teaching academic English, participating in extra mural activities, such as tours, parties, etc. as well as providing personal and academic support to students.

English Tutors
English Tutors

The students enrolled on the pre-sessional programme were mostly post-graduate students from all academic faculties of the university, as well as a group of undergraduate students from a Chinese university. I was responsible for two classes. I taught academic listening and speaking skills to a class of postgraduate students majoring in Law and Human Rights as well as the group of undergraduate Chinese students who were part of a split-site degree programme in Communication and British Culture. Once again no course books were set, however, a huge number of academic resources were available at the centre, helped with planning and preparation. After my experience teaching general academic English to a range of students at Coventry University, teaching on the pre-sessional programme was much easier, as classes were grouped according to areas of study. The support and assistance provided by the wonderful group of established pre-sessional tutors was also wonderful and made things a lot easier. The highlights of my pre-sessional experience included a trip to the Coventry courts with my postgraduate Law students and meeting students and colleagues from all over the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of my teaching in the United Kingdom. Not only did my academic studies help me to develop professionally, but the knowledge, skills and experience gained through the teaching I did and the individuals I came into contact with, gave me the opportunity to try new things, challenge myself and grow professionally.

This is the last article in our Reflections of Teaching Abroad series. Our focus for this series has been a micro view of the Language Teacher Education (LTE) staff’s reflections on their experiences of teaching abroad. We will be launching a new series in 2011. In our new series, we will cast the net further by interviewing a range of individuals who have had experiences teaching in exciting destinations, such as South Korea, Thailand, Canada, etc.  These interviews can be accessed on the Wits language School website or via the LTE newsletter.