Top 10 Characteristics of 21st Century EL Teachers

Top 10 Characteristics of 21st Century EL Teachers

Top 10 Characteristics of 21st Century English Language Teachers

Willy A Renandya & George M Jacobs


There are days when teaching seems like a lost cause. Regardless of how brilliant our lesson plans seem or how much energy and care we generate, the proverbial flowers do not blossom; students do not seem to be learning, and they seem to have no joy in learning and little motivation to even try. Sure, the high achievers do well, but they would probably do well without us. On such days, we teachers need to remind ourselves of the research, such as Goldhaber (2016) that says that good teachers can make a big difference. Plus, good teachers especially make a difference to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The purpose of this chapter lies in sharing what the authors believe are ten characteristics of English Language (EL) teachers that make it more likely that we teachers can be the ones who do make a difference to our students. This list of ten teacher characteristics is drawn from the literature (e.g., Andrews & McNeill, 2005; Borg, 2006; De Costa & Norton, 2017; Griffith & Tajeddin, 2020). It also comes from our own experiences as students, teachers, and colleagues and teachers of teachers.

1.  Good language teachers improve their competence in the target language and other related languages

The greater our competence in the target language, the better we can help our students ((Renandya et al., 2019; Sadhegi et al., 2020). This applies whether the target language is a first or second language for us. Continuing to learn poses a challenge because languages are complex and vary in so many ways. At the same time, this complexity makes it fun to continually work on our competency. For example, the pandemic, and our adjustment to it, has introduced or increased the use of certain language items, such as “you’re on mute” when using Zoom or a similar platform; “new normal” for adjustments made during the pandemic that may be here to stay; and the use of the prefix “a” to mean “not,” as in “asymptomatic” for having COVID-19 but not showing symptoms of the disease.

By letting our students know that we are learning too and looking for ways to maintain and expand our language competence, we show students that we are their co-learners, and we invite them to share with us their learning strategies. For instance, maybe students have heard a song in the target language. They can share the song with us and their classmates. Thus, we see student-centered learning in action with students providing learning materials for themselves, peers, and teachers, too.

Such new language and new ways of learning language maintain student engagement (Richards et al., 2013). Students can also be engaged via noticing (De Vos et al., 2019). We teachers need to notice language relevant to our students, both relevant to their interests as well as to their proficiency level. Yes, we want learning materials to be authentic and up-to-date, but materials also need to be comprehensible, although we can use various strategies to increase the comprehensibility of materials. These strategies include pre-teaching vocabulary and concepts, teaching students to use electronic resources, such as WordHippo (a free internet tool that provides synonyms, antonyms, and other forms of lexical and grammatical help), and forming groups of students that are mixed as proficiency level. In these heterogeneous groups, the higher achievers learn by teaching their lower achieving groupmates.

Finally, we need to take on board insights from translanguaging (an approach to second language instruction that welcomes students to sometimes use their other language(s), instead of exclusively using the language they are studying) which suggest a broader definition of language proficiency ((Tupas & Renandya, 2021; Vogel & Garcia, 2017). For example, the English of high status native speakers no longer should be considered the only target for teachers and their students. Furthermore, other languages, as well as non-standard dialects can serve as tools for learning English, and attitudes toward language variations need to become more inclusive. Thus, non-native teachers of English should no longer feel inferior. As Tupas (personal communication) has stated, rather than apologetically saying, “I am a non-native teacher of English,” teachers should proudly say, “I am a multilingual teacher of English” (see Davies, 2003). In other words, these teachers have resources outside of standard English that can be useful. When considering our language competence, we need to consider the sum total of our competence in English and in other languages.

2. Good language teachers know their students well and understand their needs

Good teachers realize that we must understand our students’ linguistic, affective, cognitive and social backgrounds and needs (Griffith & Tajeddin, 2020). Based on this understanding, we can adjust what and how we teach in order to facilitate learning. This facilitation involves adjusting to students’ current language capacity (Richards, 2017), taking into account what connects with students’ minds and hearts (Tomlinson, 2012), considering what motivates students and excites their curiosity (Mercer & Dörnyei, 2020; Renandya, 2014), employing socially and culturally sensitive methodology (Mckay, 2000), and using multiple means of assessing students, including self- and peer assessment, as part of many types of formative assessment (Mclaughlin, 2012).

Understanding our students better positions us to foster inclusion. For example, at Mango Tree Secondary School, Ruth and her colleagues knew which students lacked the hardware and wifi to fully participate in learning from home. Based on this knowledge, the school took steps to offer various forms of assistance, including loaning IT equipment and finding places, including the school, where wifi was available. Additionally, as the families of many students in Singapore pay for their family members to attend afterschool enrichment and remedial classes, even during the pandemic lockdown, less well-off families were able to secure such assistance for their children. Heick (n.d.) stated “Life is not fair; but education should be.”

Sometimes, it was Ruth and her colleagues directly providing this assistance, as well-informed teachers are best-positioned to provide the right amount of support at the right time and for the right students (Willingham, 2015). Additionally, peers can also provide such support, and while most classes have only one teacher, classes have many students. Aided by electronic devices and various software, peers can massively multiply the support students receive. Furthermore, relying on peer support, rather than only of expert support better prepares students for lifelong learning.

3. Good language teachers know how to engage our students

The 1960s saw the beginning of a paradigm shift in English Language Teaching (ELT) which was part of a larger shift in Education generally, as well as in fields, such as Psychology, which inform educational practice. From a practical perspective, this paradigm shift can be seen as a change from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction. Here we highlight key signposts along this journey to student-centered learning being the dominant paradigm in ELT (Alexander & Fox, 2004; Mercer & Dörnyei, 2020).

  • Conditioned learning. B.F. Skinner, a leading figure in Behaviorist Psychology, posited that everyone, regardless of age or species, learned alike. He famously claimed that we could shape a child into anything using carefully and systematically designed external stimuli (i.e., stimulus-response-reinforcement instructional model). ELT instruction influenced by Behaviorism focused on memorization, extrinsic rewards, and repeated use of rote drills (Alexander & Fox, 2004).
  • Natural Learning. Advocates of Natural Learning were influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen. These two scholars believed that all humans had an innate capacity for learning languages. All that was needed in ELT instruction were the same elements that enabled children to learn their first languages (Krashen & Terrell, 1983).
  • Machine Learning. This view, developed by John Anderson and colleagues, saw human language learning as taking place in a manner similar to that of computers learning information (Anderson, 1996). This involved three steps: encoding, storage and retrieval.
  • Socio-Cultural Learning. This theory of Education arose from the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky (2007) emphasized the social nature of learning, and how people helped others, such as teachers and peers helping students. This help ideally took place in students’ Zone of Proximal Development, i.e., what students were ready to learn next.
  • Engaged Learning. Engaged Learning (Mercer, 2019) currently enjoys a great deal of attention in Education circles. The idea is that students need to be cognitively, affectively, and socially involved if they are to construct their own understandings of what lies in the English Language curriculum.

Are your ELT students fully engaged? The students of the two authors of this chapter seldom rise to that happy level. Antonetti & Garver (2015) observed many classes and found that although the majority of students were involved in completing the tasks they had been assigned, few of the students were actually engaged. By “engaged,” the researchers meant that students understood the big picture of what they were doing and why they were doing it. Fortunately, by giving students more control over and responsibility for their own learning, student-centered learning increases student engagement. For example, giving students choices, helping students see the big picture of their learning and how it fits with the wider society, and involving students in projects, rather that short, one-off activities, can potentially increase students’ levels of engagement, thus providing students with greater opportunities to learn more in the language classroom.

4. Good language teachers continue to build their pedagogical knowledge and skills

Knowing content is crucial, but knowing how to teach that content is equally crucial. We teachers need a teaching toolbox well-stocked with a wide variety of methods and techniques (Richards and Reppen, 2014). In addition, our toolboxes also need an understanding of the principles and theories that underpin those methods and techniques. For example, the Jigsaw technique, a popular cross-curricular technique in cooperative learning (Aronson, 2022) which was developed to operationalize principles from Social Interdependence Theory (Johnson & Johnson, 2009) have been developed for language teaching and is a popular method that EL teachers use to engage their students.

With a well-stocked toolbox, language teachers are better prepared to teach a wide variety of students whom we are likely to encounter. We need to reject a one-size-fits-all approach, which blames students if they do not succeed with our favorite way of teaching. For example, we need to employ ideas from Multiple Intelligences Theory (Gardner, 1993), which tells us that the question to ask is not, “Are students smart?” but “How are students smart?” Thus, the burden lies with us to teach in different ways in order to reach all our students. In the scenario that opened this chapter, Ruth had to add to her toolbox to understand the nature of virtual learning and to master the necessary methods and techniques to support student learning in a virtual or blended learning environment.

5. Good language teachers use a well-balanced and calibrated approach to language teaching

Teachers and other English language education stakeholders debate various issues of balance in our profession. One such issue involves whether to teach language as knowledge or language as ability (Richards & Reppen, 2014). Language as knowledge puts the focus on systematically and explicitly teaching language forms, such as grammar and vocabulary. In this view, when students have masted grammar rules and know sufficient vocabulary, they will be able to fluently deal with a wide variety of authentic situations. Ellis (2003, as cited in Richards & Reppen, 2014, p. 6), described teaching techniques employed by teachers who hold a language as knowledge view.

  • A specific grammatical feature is isolated for focused attention.
  • The learners are required to produce sentences containing the targeted feature.
  • The learners are provided with opportunities for repetition of the targeted feature.
  • There is an expectancy that the learners will perform the grammatical feature correctly; therefore practice activities are success oriented.
  • The learners receive feedback on whether their performance of the grammatical structure is correct or not. This feedback may be immediate or delayed.

A language as ability view does not explicitly teach rules or vocabulary. Instead, learners receive large quantities of comprehensible input via listening, reading, and viewing. Via this input, students implicitly acquire and internalize grammar, vocabulary, and other language features. Research seems to support such an implicit approach to language learning. As Loewen (2014) stated, “The ability to produce language relatively easily for communicative purposes draws heavily on implicit knowledge (p. 25)”. However, many teachers used a hybrid approach which combines large amounts of comprehensible input with some explicit instruction (Ellis, 2014; Nation, 2007). It should be borne in mind that this explicit instruction can itself constitute comprehensible input.

Ruth uses the internet to facilitate her learn-at-home students’ exposure to large amounts of comprehensible input. One way she does this is via extensive reading (Day & Bamford 1998; Nation & Waring, 2019; Renandya & Day, 2020). In extensive reading, students read extensive quantities of (usually) self-selected material that is approximately in their current proficiency range. Companions of extensive reading are extensive listening and extensive viewing (Ivone & Renandya, 2019; Renandya, 2013). The internet can be of substantial assistance in such programs as students can access large amounts of highly interesting and easy-to-understand reading materials. This is especially the case in Singapore where students can access free-of-charge a large selection of ebooks, audiobooks, and videos from the school or public libraries.

Another balancing issue that English language teachers need to consider is how to teach students to consider what is taking place in the world around them, such as global warming and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or whether to focus solely on language matter. Maley and Peachey (2017, p. iii) capture this issue in a poem.


What do you do?

I’m a teacher.

What do you teach?


 What do you teach them?


 You mean grammar, verbs, nouns, pronunciation, conjugation, articles and particles, negatives and interrogatives …?

 That too.

 What do you mean, ‘that too’?

 Well, I also try to teach them how to think, and feel – show them inspiration, aspiration, cooperation, participation, consolation, innovation

… help them think about globalization, exploitation, confrontation, incarceration, discrimination, degradation, subjugation,

…how inequality brings poverty, how intolerance brings violence, how need is denied by greed, how –isms become prisons, how thinking and feeling can bring about healing.

Well I don’t know about that. Maybe you should stick to language, forget about anguish. You can’t change the world.

 But if I did that, I’d be a cheater, not a teacher.

6. Good language teachers use appropriate technology to engage students and enhance their learning

The use of technology can be seen in so many elements of ELT whether students are learning via face-to-face or virtual modes (Kessler, 2018). The pandemic heightened this trend, and it has many advantages, bearing in mind the huge number of students in poor countries who are unable to fully realize technology’s many benefits. Given the power of technology, good language teachers are constantly looking for how to better apply technological tools to facilitate language learning bearing in mind principles of instructed language acquisition (Ellis, 2014). In that light, when choosing technology, teachers ask such questions as whether the technology:

  • Supplies rich, interesting and meaningful language input?
  • Helps students notice important target language features?
  • Offers frequent and meaningful opportunities to practice language that was learned earlier?
  • Employs different modes to facilitate learning?
  • Encourages student-student collaboration in ways in which all students are likely to participate in roughly equal amounts?
  • Assists students to realize that language enables us to achieve social purposes, such as praising others?
  • Exposes students to a range of language varieties, e.g., different national and class varieties of English, as well as students using other languages to learn English?

Yes, using technology is fashionable, but as Ruth and her students can tell us, during the pandemic, technology made a huge difference. What if the pandemic had never happened? Would our use of technology in ELT have accelerated to such a degree? Probably not, just like nothing encourages people to brush and floss their teeth until they have to spend an hour or two in the dentist’s chair for a root canal surgery. Let us hope that even after the pain of the pandemic is behind us, even after the cool factor of using technology has faded, we will understand the many benefits of technology and continue to ramp up its use (Kessler, 2018).

7. Good language teachers belong to professional learning communities

Learning, like teaching, combines individual and social aspects. Individual learning involves each person’s internal cognitive and affective resources. Social learning involves learning from and with others. The social aspects of learning enhance and enliven what we can do on our own (Jacobs & Renandya, 2019; Johnson & Johnson, 2009). The internet greatly expands our opportunities for such social learning, and our experiences with such learning can inform and motivate our facilitation of student-student learning.

Professional learning communities provide a venue for social learning among teachers. For instance, Ruth and a few of her colleagues were members of an international online teachers Facebook group called Teachers Voice ( which brings together more than 12,000 teachers from a range of countries to exchange ideas and experiences. Teachers Voices proved especially useful during the pandemic. For instance, teaching from home can lead to feelings of isolation, which can be reduced by the camaraderie enjoyed in professional learning communities. Good language teachers can also engage in professional learning via learning circles, critical friends’ groups, and Lesson Study groups. Such interactions encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching and their lives generally (Anderson, 2018).

8. Good language teachers are life-long learners

How many times have you seen articles with headlines such as “Facing Turbulent Times Together” and “Changing Toward a New and Better Normal”? One of the trendy ideas of 2021 was “The Great Resignation,” in which a large number of people seemed to be leaving their current jobs and pursing new possibilities. Gone for most people are the days when we have the same job for our entire working lives, using the same skills to perform the same tasks.

Ruth, the teacher in our scenario, is a case in point. She did not begin her career as a language teacher or any kind of teacher. She was in the banking industry, but felt her passion was in teaching teens. So, she went back to university to learn about Education. Of course, Education is replete with changes, none more life-rattling than coping with teaching during the pandemic. Thus, Ruth provides a great example of lifelong learning.

When she first started teaching English, Ruth remembered back to the English classes of her secondary school days and taught as she had been taught: in a teacher-centered learning fashion. However, the winds of change were blowing. Not only did her principal and department head urge her to move toward student-centered learning, but her students quickly became restless and disengaged with Ruth’s main mode of teaching, which largely reflected the transmission model of learning. Fortunately, Ruth’s colleagues gave lots of support as she and her students transitioned along the path to a student-centered approach that “seeks to facilitate a more active and more powerful role for students in their own present and future learning” (Jacobs & Renandya, in press).

Along the way, some of Ruth’s long-held beliefs had to be unlearned and certain behaviors had to be relearned. An example of belief that had to be unlearned is that teachers are responsible for immediately providing students with the right answers. Flowing from that belief, whenever students had questions or did something incorrectly, Ruth would immediately answer the question or correct the error. The new belief that Ruth learned is that in student-centered learning, students should be more independent. Yes, teachers are still there to help, but students (perhaps with peer assistance) should try hard to answer their own questions and figure out whether what they have done might be improved. Now, Ruth goes for a Guide on the Side role, instead of a Sage on a Stage role.

9. Good teachers take care of our own health

The pandemic has brought attention to the need for teachers to engage in self-care, i.e., to look out for our own health. Teaching is a giving profession. However, if we are not careful, we can end up like the Giving Tree in the famous Shel Silverstein (1964) children’s book. The tree gives and gives, first giving apples, then branches, then its trunk, until nothing is left of the tree except for a stump. The tree is now of little good to anyone including itself.

The typical EL teacher has a role much different from the typical university educated professional. The average professional sits at their own desk in a quiet airconditioned office surrounded by fellow adults who are there by their own choice, and these professionals are able to visit the restroom or go for a snack whenever the urge strikes them. In contrast, most teachers are surrounded by children who often would rather not be there. Classrooms, such as Ruth’s, are not airconditioned and can sometimes be rather noisy. Teachers’ work does not end when the school day ends. Instead, we often face mountains of marking and class preparation. The pandemic just made this worse as the threat of infection hung over people’s heads. Thus, “burnout” and “teacher” are two words which too often collocate (Küçükoğlu, 2014).

Fortunately, many self-care strategies can assist teachers who feel as though they are burning the candle at both ends. For example, Ruth joins a few colleagues for yoga after school every Tuesday and Thursday. Also, as she tries to lead by example with her students, i.e., by not stressing them, she reduces the stress on herself. An example is that she starts class with humorous and/or heart-warming videos and encourages students to share ones that they have found or maybe even made themselves. Ruth especially favors videos that show farmed animals; while cat videos are her students’ favorites. Another stressbuster that Ruth uses whether teaching face-to-face or online is to ask everyone to stand and do some light stretching. Those who prefer not to stand can do various chair yoga postures.

10. Your turn

Thus far, this chapter has outlined nine characteristics of good EL teachers. We have a couple of ideas for #10. However, in the spirit of taking the student-centered learning paradigm and applying it to society generally and, in this case, to teacher learning, we will ask you, our readers, to generate a tenth characteristic of good EL teachers. Please reflect on your own experience as both a language learner and a language teacher. Maybe the tenth characteristic is one that you already possess, and you hope that your peers will follow your lead. Why is the characteristic important? If other teachers were flies of the wall in your classroom (please don’t swat us!), what would we see? And, what about our friend Ruth who is coping with the pandemic? How can she operationalize the characteristic?


An African proverb states that “Those who stop learning are like the living dead.” Thus, life to be truly lived is a constant adventure of learning and development. For instance, when George first started teaching English, the person who hired him said, “I don’t like to hire new teachers, because new teachers are bad teachers; but if these new teachers never get a chance to get better, how can our profession get more good teachers.” She was right. George was not a good teacher. The good news is that George improved and now, Willy can tell you that after 40+ years of teaching, George does have some of the characteristics of a good EL teacher, and that he constantly tries to learn more, including from Willy.

We, Willy and George, hope that you will join us in our quest to improve both as teachers and as people. Are better people better teachers? Let us save that matter for another time. Now, we will end this chapter by thanking everyone who read the chapter. Perhaps, the chapter has contained one idea you would like to try and perhaps share with other teachers, so that we teachers can better help our students and in that way, contribute our small drop to the bucket of water which can nourish a world thirsty for learning and kindness.

More resources

Teacher Beliefs and the Processes of Change

Translanguaging: Does it work in EFL contexts?


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