Professional Self-Development for Teachers: Have a Plan, a Clear Intent, and a Way to Sustain



By Li-Shih Huang

[Article reprinted from the Fall 2015 BC TEAL Newsletter]

“The best professional development is participatory and connectivist.” — Lee Bessette

The invitation to contribute a piece about professional development in this issue could not have been more opportune. Since taking the position of an elected director of professional development for TESL Canada this July, I have noticed I am looking at the professional development of teachers with renewed interest and a different perspective. In my own work as an ELT professional on the one hand, and as a trainer of future ELT professionals on the other, my approach to professional development has been mainly through connecting at professional gatherings with like-minded researchers and practitioners who also have a strong interest in linking research to practice; engaging in practitioner research; attending webinars and conducting workshops; and devoting a portion of my writing to practitioners’ interests. But what about the majority of ELT professionals, who work in various institutions, schools, and cultural contexts where resources and opportunities might pose greater challenges for development?

For any ELT professional interested in professional development, a quick Google search of terms like “teacher training,” “teacher education,” “teacher development,” “professional development,” and “professional self-development,” to list just a few, will turn up an overwhelming number of articles and resources and amount of information on professional development, both within the context of ELT and in the broader field of education. Recent articles, such as “Do- It-Yourself ELT Professional Development” (from TESOL Connections’ special issue dedicated to professional development), “3 Ways for Teachers to Use Social Networks for PD,” and “3 More Ideas for PD on Social Networks,” have appeared just in July of this year alone. The 2012 handbook put together by the British Council, although situated in the U.K. context, contains applicable ideas about a wide range of continuing professional development activities, including conferences, groups, magazines, materials, membership, mentoring, observations, reflection, training, workshops, and so on. Also, not a day goes by without mention on Twitter or Facebook of free or at-cost webinars, face-to-face workshops, or courses offered locally or across the globe. These sharings of highly practical tips about ways for practitioners to engage in professional self- development further highlight the need and importance of this aspect of our professional careers, no matter our career stage. Using social media such as Twitter, Google Hangouts, Facebook, webblogs, and the like to build PLNs (personal/professional/personalized learning networks), hold regular chats (common hashtags include #AusELT, #KELTChat, #ELTChat, #ELLChat, #LINCchat) moderated and participated in by practitioners, and create teacher inquiry groups has also become a great means for practitioners to connect professionally in ways that transcend time and geographical boundaries.

Take one of the most commonly chosen PD activities—attending a free webinar. If you have attended one of these webinars in the last six months, let’s sit back a moment and take stock of what you have been doing PD-wise. Ask: To what extent did the content have an impact on your own day-to-day teaching practices? How transferable, with or without the facilitator’s help, have been those insights, whether from research or real-world teaching, to your own teaching contexts? As synthesized by Avalos (2011), at the core of PD “is the understanding that professional development is about teachers learning, learning how to learn, and transforming their knowledge into practice for the benefit of their students’ growth” (p. 10; emphasis mine). The thing is, professional development, like anything worth pursuing in life, is personal and situated, complex and difficult to do well.

Rather than developing this piece as another article collecting a list of resources or ever-changing tools for PD (refer to the suggested open-access readings section for some recent coverage), I want instead to focus on a few personal reflections that have been percolating in my mind since they delve into the heart of issues about teachers’ professional self-development. In approaching my own professional development, I have asked myself: Do I have a PD plan that carefully considers what I get out of any PD activity in which I choose to participate? When I do decide to participate in a PD webinar or workshop, do I have a clear intent as to how the session will match my needs and, in turn, the follow-up action(s) I will need to take? Have I been able to sustain my PD endeavours consistently? If, like me, you have answered “no” to any one or all of these questions, then I invite you to read on.

1. What are the key modes of learning/PD in your plan? Help make your individualized plan more concrete with ingredients that meet your personal needs, career stage, and goals. Clearly, the multi-faceted, inter-related individual and contextual factors involved in PD mean that no single approach, method, or tool can determine what constitutes effective PD. Evaluate how each mode of learning helps you develop professionally, and be mindfully selective of tools that duplicate or serve the same or similar functions. Whether formal or informal, institution or teacher initiated, whether oriented to learning collaboratively or independently, each learning activity possesses affordances and constraints, and each takes place through different configurations of time, space, and people. What area of PD does the workshop attend to? Subject-matter knowledge related to English and language teaching? Pedagogical expertise? Self-awareness as a teacher? Understanding learners or curriculum and materials? Career advancement? (See Richards & Farrell, 2005, pp. 9-10; Farrell, 2014, pp. 18-19 for more.) The key is to figure out a combination of modes of learning or PD that will overcome relative constraints and create possibilities.

The following chart lists some examples:

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2. What do I hope to get out of a workshop I decide to attend? It’s important to attend workshops with a clear intent. Perhaps the most commonly chosen PD action is attending a one-time workshop, webinar, or conference to learn a new tool (or list of tools) or a new teaching method, but, as we all know well, impact beyond the session is often limited. Unless the tool or session is solving a specific problem that you can personally relate to in your teaching to make a difference to learner outcomes (Timperley, 2011), ownership of learning and subsumption and integration of what one has learned into one’s practical knowledge or teaching repertoire rarely occur. Upon reflection, is there one insight gained from attending the workshop that you could transfer to your own teaching and experiment with? If you are selecting from self-directed online workshops or courses, think about what you want to improve in your own classroom, and make a conscious effort to link what you are learning with practice through real-life experimenting that will help transform knowledge into practice. As Timperley (2011) put forward, for teachers to develop professionally requires a transformative, rather than an additive, change to teaching practice. Unlike teachers-in-training, for practicing professionals, Freeman’s questioning of how well a one-off workshop transfers still rings true more than two decades later: “Teaching is a social practice … where one cannot learn about it; one must learn through it” (Freeman, 1992, p. 16; emphasis mine). Individually and collectively working to examine our own practices, reflecting on outcomes, and articulating our experiences and learning to others can further provide the catalysis for transformative professional growth (Mezirow, 2000).

3. How do I sustain PD endeavours? Sustaining PD efforts is one of the greatest challenges in teachers’ professional self-development, especially while operating or competing against individual-, resource-, and context-related constraints. Look for inspiration within your unit and beyond by joining or forming professional learning networks tailored to your own needs or to shared needs and interests. PLNs are plentiful; the key is to find one where you feel a true sense of a community of learners (Rogoff, 1994), or a self-initiated, professional learning community with non-judgmental, shared support of each other’s professional development (Falk & Drayton, 2009; Kelly & Cherkowski, 2015) and where development is conceived “as transformation of participation rather than … either a product of transmission of knowledge from others or of acquisition or discovery of knowledge by oneself” (Rogoff, 1994, p. 209). Typically we board a bus because of where it is headed, but the path can often be unpredictable, and a change of direction can easily end a sense of belonging. If we get on a bus by first paying attention to who is on the bus, then the problem of fueling the bus to keep moving forward becomes less of an issue. Once you have carefully selected a network, take turns assuming a leadership role in your chosen network at the group, school, or association level, and find a framework for how and what the group wishes to develop in helping teachers come together to talk about and reflect on their work.

Taking the initiative to assume a leadership role in promoting a culture of professional inquiry will transform your own participation and empower you through empowering others. Many board members in our professional teaching associations are fine examples of practitioners who have taken on leadership roles to become agents of change. Within a professional learning community, one may draw on Reilly, Vartabedian, Felt, and Jenkins’s (2012) work about key principles that sustain a participatory culture: providing opportunities for (a) the exercise of creativity using a variety of tools, (b) co-learning where those involved pool their skills and knowledge, (c) heightened motivation and engagement through meaningful pedagogical experimentation, (d) learning that is deemed relevant to the interests of those involved, and (e) creation of a so-called “learning ecosystem”—that is, an “integrated learning system” that builds connections between home, school, community, and beyond (p. 5).

However one chooses to define “professional development” and what that entails (see Farrell, 2014), a teacher’s professional self-development becomes increasingly important at all stages of his or her teaching career. It’s a continuous and complex process, requiring the intellectual and emotional involvement of teachers both individually and collectively. Whichever mode(s) of learning teachers choose, depending on their needs and objectives, they must be willing to examine openly where they stand and actively pursue appropriate alternatives for change that are bound within a particular institutional culture that may or may not be conducive to learning. I echo Bessette’s statements that “the best professional development is participatory and connectivist,” and that it must be “driven by the needs and interests of those [participating] and allow for collaboration [among interactants] and beyond” (p. 3).

Whether you are at the receiving or giving end of a PD activity, an approach that is goal-oriented, purpose- driven, and people-centred will guide you through navigating the terrain of PD activities, resources, and tools available to you so that you can chart a course that suits your needs in any area or combination of PD areas, as first put forward by Richards and Farrell (2005).

What do you need to do, and to whom do you need to reach out to renew your PD endeavours? Do it now, and share your PD needs, discoveries, triumphs, and challenges here so that as members of our professional community, we can continue to energize one another and grow professionally.


Avalos, B. (2011). Teacher professional development in Teaching and Teacher Education over ten years. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 10-20.

Bessette, L. (2015, June 30). Arrested (professional) development [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

Falk, J. K., & Drayton, B. (Eds.). (2009). Creating and sustaining online professional learning communities. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Farrell, T. S. C. (2014). Reflective practice in ESL teacher development groups: From practices to principles. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Freeman, D. (1992). Language teacher education, emerging discourse, and change in classroom practice. In J. Flowerdew, M. Brock, & S. Hsia (Eds.), Perspectives on language teacher education (pp. 1-21). Hong Kong: City Polytechnic of Hong Kong.

Kelley J., & Cherkowski, S. (2015). Collaboration, collegiality, and collective reflection: A case study of professional development for teachers. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 169. Retrieved from:

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformative: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reilly, E., Jenkins, H., Felt, L. J., & Vartabedian, V. (2012). Shall we PLAY? Los Angeles, CA: Annenberg Innovation Lab at University of Southern California.

Richards, J.C. & Farrell, T.S.C (2005). Professional development for language teachers. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), 209-229.

Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the power of professional learning. New York, NY: Open University Press.

Suggested Open Access Readings on PD for ELT Professionals:

Breland, T. (2015, July 1). Do-it-yourself ELT professional development. TESOL Connections: Professional Development Special Issue, July 2015. Retrieved from

Crowley, B. (2014, December 31). 3 steps for building a professional learning network. Education Week. Retrieved from steps-for-building-a-professional-learning.html

Davidson, G., Dunlop, F., Soriano, D. H., Kennedy, L., & Phillips, T. (2012). Going forward: Continuing professional development for English language teachers in the UK. The British Council. Retrieved from

Haynes, J. (2015, July 2). 3 ways for teachers to use social networks for PD [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Haynes, J. (2015, July 16). 3 more ideas for PD on social networks [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Pascucci, A. (2015, July 1). 5 easy steps for creating an online PLN. TESOL Connections. Retrieved from

Wilden, S. (2012, Spring). What is your CPD plan? International House Journal. 32. Retrieved from

LiShihHuangDr. Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, and Learning and Teaching Scholar-in-Residence, Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria. (Twitter: @AppLingProf)

Should Non-academic L2 Reading Instruction Involve Authentic or Simplified Material?



by Li-Shih Huang

[Article reprinted from the Winter 2014 BC TEAL Newsletter]

What are your thoughts about whether to use authentic or simplified texts as the sources of language input in the process of teaching beginning and intermediate-level second-language learners? If you find yourself on both sides of the fence, then you are not alone. The pedagogical benefits of using authentic vs. simplified readings have long been an issue of debate and concern among second-language learning theorists, researchers, and practitioners. I recently had an opportunity to review a set of teaching grant applications, and the topics seemed to confirm a prevailing assumption that using authentic materials is unquestionably a better practice in second-language reading instruction, and that experience prompted me to write this piece. Is this assumption supported theoretically and empirically? What kind of text do you prefer to use in your classroom and why? Which kind do your students enjoy more? And in line with the theme of this issue, learning beyond the classroom, which type of reading can help us promote reading beyond the classroom?

In this installment, I will briefly clarify what is meant by “authentic” vs. “simplified” texts and describe some of the theoretical support for and arguments against each type in the “What does it mean?” section. In the “What does research say?” section, I’d like to invite you to explore your beliefs or assumptions and compare them with findings from a recent study about various key linguistic features of authentic vs. simplified texts. The “What can we do?” section deals with considerations that instructors can take into account.

What does it mean?

Authentic texts have been generally defined as texts “originally created to fulfill a social purpose in the language community for which [they] were intended” (Crossley et al., 2007, p. 17), whereas simplified texts generally refer to texts created “to illustrate a specific language feature … to modify the amount of new lexical input introduced to learners; or to control for propositional input, or a combination thereof” (p. 16). Since the 1970s, the term “communicative language teaching” has referred to “a multitude of different things to different people” (Harmer, 2003, p. 289), and its meaning “seems to depend on whom you ask” (Spada, 2007, p. 272). Still, one may say in general terms that communicative language teaching prominently features the use of authentic materials with the pedagogical goal that learners will be exposed to real language used in real contexts (Larsen-Freeman, 2002). The influence and strong trend toward communicative language teaching over the past four decades has led teaching professionals to prefer the use of authentic texts, despite the lack of empirical evidence to support their superiority over simplified texts. Other theories or approaches that have been cited in favour of the use of authentic materials include, for example, Krashen’s input hypothesis, which suggests that “natural communicative input is the key to designing a syllabus” (n.d., para 11). The whole language instructional approach also focuses on using authentic materials in the process of facilitating language development (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 113) and on the need for language learners to be introduced to enriched context and to experience language in its totality (Goodman, 1986). The major perceived benefit of using authentic texts lies in the way it makes it possible to introduce natural and contextualized language to learners (Larsen-Freeman, 2002). At the same time, many arguments against the use of authentic texts centre on their linguistic difficulty, such as lexical and syntactic complexity and conceptual and cultural density (Young, 1999; Crossley & McNamara, 2008).

The proponents’ preference for the use of simplified texts centres on their practical value, with major theoretical support from, for example, Krashen’s comprehensible input and affective filter hypotheses. The former states that “the learner improves and progresses along the ‘natural order’ when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence, which simplified texts arguably are able to provide” for beginning and intermediate learners (n.d., para. 11). The latter theory asserts that a high level of motivation and low level of anxiety facilitate better second-language acquisition (n.d., para. 12). As such, appropriately selected simplified texts presumably could motivate learners more than authentic texts, which might be overly challenging for learners with lower proficiency levels. In addition to making texts more comprehensible, simplified texts are thought to facilitate learning by excluding distracting idiosyncratic styles and offering enhanced redundancy and elaborated explanation (refer to Crossley & McNamara, 2008).

In response to practitioners’ prejudice against simplified texts, Nation (2005) argued that those materials “should be seen as authentic in that they provide conditions under which learners at all levels of proficiency can read with a degree of comprehension, ease, and enjoyment that is near that of a native speaker reading unsimplified text” (pp. 587-588). For Nation (2007, p. 1), any language instruction or activities in a language course must maintain a balance among what he called “the four strands of meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning [accuracy] and fluency development” (see also Nation, 2005). Proponents of simplified texts value how such texts attend to learners’ cognitive load in reading, provide aids to learning, and hold the key to illustrating specific language features, modifying the amount of new or unfamiliar lexical input, and repeating coverage of the most useful language items. In addition, as we know well, decoding and comprehension are crucial to reading. The use of simplified or graded readers helps learners engage in extensive reading, which involves focusing on meaning and fluency, and to promote reading beyond the classroom for pleasure and for the development of reading fluency. For Nation (2013), reading fluency develops when it is meaning-focused and easy, when learners are encouraged to perform at a faster speed, and when the quantity of input is substantial. The texts have also been heavily criticized, however, out of an important concern that they may deny learners the opportunity to learn natural forms of language (Long & Ross, 1993; Newnham, 2013).

What does research say?

Before discussing what previous research has revealed, let’s take a moment to explore our beliefs or assumptions in relation to the following key features of authentic vs. simplified texts. In the “My Prediction” column, indicate which you think would score higher – authentic or simplified texts – by marking “A” if your prediction that specific linguistic feature is higher for authentic texts, or “S” if your prediction is higher for simplified texts. Try not to read ahead before noting your predictions.


Now let’s check your predictions in relation to findings from a recent study (Crossley & McNamara, 2008), which replicated an earlier study (Crossley et al., 2007), but with a larger collection of texts at different proficiency levels:

  • Causality: This feature tends to be higher in authentic texts (statistically nonsignificant).
  • Connectives: There is no difference in all connectives except for the use of logical connectors, where authentic texts had a significantly greater density of all logical connectors, but there was a significantly greater density of noun phrases in simplified texts.
  • Coreference: Simplified texts showed a higher level of coreferentiality than that of authentic texts.
  • Parts of speech: Authentic texts exhibited a significantly greater number of infrequent linguistic features (e.g., past participles and wh-pronouns); simplified texts had more occurrences of nouns and past-tense verbs.
  • Polysemy and hypernymy: Verb hypernymy and polysemy values were significantly greater in simplified texts.
  • Syntactic complexity: Authentic texts were significantly more syntactically complex than simplified texts.
  • Word information: Simplified texts had a significantly higher level of word familiarity and meaningfulness than authentic texts.

What can we do?

How did your predictions compare to findings discovered by Crossley and McNamara (2008)? What are some implications that may be relevant to our teaching or pedagogical material development?

The causality feature relates to a text’s readability. Causal verbs (e.g., make) and causal particles (e.g., as a result) concern the causal relationships between events and actions (e.g., texts with causal mechanisms or stories with an action plot). In the process of simplifying a plot, for example, a practitioner needs to be mindful of the causal verbs and particles that may be circumvented, as such circumvention may lower the text’s ability to illustrate causal content and cohesion.

Connectives, which play a crucial role in the creation of cohesive ties between ideas, affect the density and abstractness of a text. The use of connectives and logical operators is a concern in simplified texts, because the lack of such devices place demands on a learner’s working memory.

Coreferences facilitate text comprehension and reading speed. Because the simplification of texts often takes the need for clarification and elaboration into account, the level of coreferentiality tends to be higher in simplified texts than in authentic texts.

The evidence so far seems to suggest that the density of major parts of speech is also likely to be different in authentic vs. simplified texts, given the intentional control of infrequent parts of speech in simplified texts. The limited exposure to less common parts of speech in simplified texts is a matter that instructors might like to keep in mind when making their text choices as learners progress.

Polysemy and hypernymy have to do with a text’s ambiguity and abstractness. The process of simplification by shortening words and phrases, removing low-frequency words, and using less abstract vocabulary often leads to the use of more common words that tend to have multiple meanings. As a result, simplified texts may exhibit higher values of polysemy and more lexical ambiguity.

As previously mentioned, a major criticism of authentic texts relates to syntactic complexity. However, previous studies have also suggested that simplified texts “may create a burdensome syntactic structure that does not lead to either authentic discourses or ease of understanding” (Crossley et al., 2007, p. 26). Text modifications, such as through simplification of syntactic structures, may change the distribution of information or the linguistic cues embedded within a text (Newnham, 2013). Such changes warrant researchers’ and practitioners’ further consideration about how syntactic complexity in simplified texts may affect learners’ reading comprehension.

Finally, regarding word information features, simplified texts, as anticipated, tend to contain more familiar and more frequently used words. This feature suggests the strength of simplified texts in aiding text comprehension and the development of reading speed.

It’s helpful to be aware of what up-to-date research can potentially offer us in terms of thinking, guidance, or insights in the process of making informed pedagogical choices, but, as I stated in 2012 Spring of BC TEAL News, “no studies or research articles in the sea of literature out there can … directly answer your own pedagogical question” (p. 16).

I’d like to invite you to consider trying out the freely accessible and user-friendly Coh-Metric tool to do your own simple text analyses or make comparisons between authentic vs. simplified versions using simplified texts you have selected or created on the basis of your experiences and professional intuitions.


You could also make use of such tools as The Online Graded Text Editor, which are freely available and created specifically for the English language-teaching community.

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Goals include developing a better understanding of some of the linguistic features mentioned in this short article, making informed choices about the purpose of your use of a specific text, and ascertaining whether the chosen material will match your pedagogical purpose for a specific learner group. Naturally, our students’ reactions to a selected text and our observations of their process of working through the text can be very revealing and helpful as we consider and reconsider our choices. Above all, nothing is more gratifying than seeing the text you personally carefully modified or selected from available sources achieve its intended pedagogical purposes!


Crossley, S. A., Louwerse, M. M., McCarthy, P. M., & McNamara, D. S. (2007). A linguistic analysis of simplified and authentic texts. Modern Language Journal, 91(2), 15-30.

Crossley, S. A., & McNamara, D. S. (2008). Assessing L2 reading texts at the intermediate level: An approximate replication of Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy & McNamara (2007). Language Teaching, 41(3), 409-429.

Goodman, K. (1986). What’s whole in whole language. Portsmouth, MH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Harmer, J. (2003). Popular culture, methods and context. ELT Journal, 57(3), 288-294.

Huang, L.-S. (2012). Key concepts and theories in TEAL: Action research. TEAL News: The Association of B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language, pp. 13-17.

Krashin, S. (n.d.). Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition. Retrieved from http://

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2002). Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Long, M., & Ross, S. (1993). Modifications that preserve language and content. In M. L. Tickoo (Ed.), Simplification: Theory and application (pp. 29-52). Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.

Nation , I. S. P. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 581-595). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nation, I. S. P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 1-12.

Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Developing reading luency. Seoul 2013 World Congress in Extensive Reading [Video file]. Retrieved from

Newnham, S. (2013). Text complexity in graded readers: A systemic functional look (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2007). Communicative language teaching: Current status and future prospects. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 271-288). Boston, MA: Springer.

Young, D. J. (1999). Linguistic simplification of SL reading material: Effective instructional practice? Modern Language Journal, 83(3), 350-366.

LiShihHuangDr. Li-Shih Huang is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Learning and Teaching Scholar-in- Residence at the University of Victoria. She can be contacted at or @AppLingProf.

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