The English Class of One’s Dreams: Envisioning Visually and Verbally

The English Class of One’s Dreams: Envisioning Visually and Verbally

By: Paula Kalaja

Motivating our study

“Where there is a vision, there is a way,” claim the advocates of a theory of vision (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2014, p. 2). Visions (or envisioning) are a way to motivate learners to learn second languages (L2s) or to motivate their teachers to teach L2s. The idea is to ask them how they see themselves now and how they imagine themselves in the years to come, e.g., developing from halting beginners to competent users of an L2, or from insecure novice teachers to experienced professionals. Envisioning helps them maintain motivation until reaching the end-goal.

Now, as practicing TESOL teachers, if you were asked to think a few years ahead in time and envision an English class of your dreams, what would you be teaching or your students learning, how, and where—ideally?

Let me share with you a study that a colleague of mine, Katja Mäntylä, and I carried out as part of a research project. In our study (Kalaja & Mäntylä, 2018; Mäntylä & Kalaja, 2019), we asked student teachers (or pre-service teachers) to envision an English class of their dreams, visually and verbally. This was for us a way to make them aware of their beliefs about teaching and learning English, to compare their own beliefs with those of their classmates, and to reflect on possible discrepancies between their current understanding of the issues and their ideals.

Contextualizing our study: Doing research on learner beliefs

L2 learners differ from one another in a number of respects, e.g., in their learning strategies, motivation, aptitude, and personality. Learner beliefs are yet another of these individual learner differences. A brief review (based on Kalaja et al., 2018) follows. Traditionally, learner beliefs have been defined as opinions about aspects of second language (L2) learning or teaching held by learners, and their beliefs can influence their actions, and thus either facilitate or prevent them from learning an L2. Alternatively, beliefs tend to be discursive constructions and so holding a belief (or believing) would be an occasion when learners happen to reflect on aspects of L2 learning or teaching, relate these to experiences of their own or those of others, and assign subjective meanings. An occasion like this would involve others, and so holding a belief would in fact be an occasion shared in time and space.

Since the late 1980s, research on learner beliefs has thus been conducted within two approaches: the traditional approach and the contextual approaches (see Table 1). The approaches differ in their aims, the role assigned to language, the nature of beliefs, and the ways of collecting and analyzing data.

Table 1. Doing research on learner beliefs: comparison of two very different approaches

The way we study beliefs is evolving. The contextual approaches have not only been influenced by discursive social psychology but also by sociocultural theory, Bakhtinian dialogism, and, most recently, for example, by positive psychology. Importantly, these approaches have adopted an emic (or insider) view of L2 learning and teaching, and thus challenge some of the assumptions underlying the traditional approach and related ways of doing research on learner beliefs. In line with these developments, the methodologies used in research on learner beliefs have been broadened, and so narratives have also been suggested as possible data. However, narratives come in different modes: they can be verbal (oral or written), visual (e.g., drawings, photographs, collages), or even multimodal.

What we studied: Visions of the English class of one’s dreams?

In our study, we sought answers to the following question: what do our student teachers believe the English class of their dreams to be like: what would be taught/learnt, how, and where—ideally?

The participants in this study were a total of 35 student teachers, English majors and minors, studying at a Finnish University. They were attending one of the first professionally oriented courses as part of their English studies.

In view of their future careers as qualified teachers of English, the participants will be faced with two major challenges. Firstly, the aims of teaching foreign languages (FLs), as stated in the National Curriculums for grades 1–9 and 10–12, have been revised since they attended school for their nine years of formal study of English. The order of importance of the aims has been reversed and the aims themselves have been broadened. These days the first aim in teaching FLs is to increase learners’ language awareness and their appreciation of multilingualism and multiculturalism. The second aim is to provide learners with practice in learning-to-learn skills, including learning strategies. The third aim is to develop their proficiency in FLs in three abilities, that is, in the ability to 1) interact, 2) interpret, and/or 3) produce texts in different modes. Also, for the first time, it is acknowledged that the status of English is different from that of other FLs in Finland: English is considered a lingua franca or a global language. As a result, compared with learners of other FLs, learners of English are expected to reach higher levels in each ability. In addition, teaching content through the medium of English or Content-and-Language-Integrated-Learning (CLIL) is encouraged, and so is searching for information in English, e.g., on the Internet. Secondly, since their school years, Finland has been globalizing and becoming a much more multilingual and multicultural country. In the Capital area you will find classes with 70% of the students having languages other than Finnish or Swedish as their L1s, including Russian, Estonian, Arabic, and Somali.

How we conducted the study

As the final home assignment of the course, we asked the students to envision an English class of their dreams that they might teach after their graduation. However, we expected the visions to be feasible to carry out, not wild fantasy.

Task 1 asked the students to: “Create a picture of ‘The English class of my dreams.’ Depict a class that you could imagine giving after graduation.” Task 2 contained a set of questions asking the students to provide further details concerning the class—in writing. So, the data consisted of drawings produced by hand, or pictures generated by computer software, and verbal commentary.

We analyzed the pools of data for similarities/differences regarding various aspects of their ideal classes, including what would be taught, how, and where, and identified discourse(s) around these issues.

What we found

I will report the findings of this study as case studies to illustrate the qualitative variation in the pool of visual and verbal data and then discuss some general trends.

Let us start with case studies 1 to 4, or kind of multimodal narratives.

Case 1 is a second-year English major. She was taking basic courses in Pedagogical Studies. The English class of her dreams would be her attempt to apply a specific teaching approach, namely, Total Physical Response, which had been presented in the course and a video clip viewed in class. The student teacher expected her students to enjoy the game “Simon says …,” an application of this approach, because it would involve physical activity (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. A second-year English major: applying a specific teaching approach, Total Physical Response, and “Simon says …,”, a children’s game, as its application.

The game provides practice in language use, or more specifically, making requests. The idea is that comprehension (here indicated by acting out) always comes before oral production, and that eventually learners could also take on the role of Simon, who verbalises the requests. The game would be played in the classroom or possibly beyond. However, the student kept describing the game as “rehearsing grammar,” and “mimicking the teacher,” and it was followed by an unrelated task of “memorizing vocabulary items” based on picture cards. In her class, English would be used “as much as possible.” Overall, the student teacher seems to miss some of the underlying principles and practices of this specific teaching approach, but this can be described as a bold first trial.

Figure 2. A third-year English major: applying a specific learning technique, Jigsaw Cooperative Learning, and its principles in stages 1 to 5.

Case 2 is a third-year English major. She was attending basic courses in Pedagogical Studies. The English class of her dreams would be her attempt to apply a specific learning technique, namely, Jigsaw Cooperative Learning. Students would teach one another by cooperating in pairs and small groups, and the learning outcomes would be dependent on their looking for and sharing information on a specific topic. The student teacher would like her class to learn about different varieties of English (e.g., Indian English, including a description of its users, uses, and linguistic features, finding a speech sample, and playing it in class). What would be learnt would depend on the contribution of each student, which is referred to as positive interdependence. The learning would take place in five stages: 1) Looking for information in pairs; 2) Sharing information in groups of four; 3) Preparing a joint report; 4) Sharing the report with the rest of the class; and 5) Discussion with the teacher observing (for details, see Figure 2). The class would be carried out in English, and so it would be used as the medium of instruction.

Figure 3. A fourth-year French major and English minor: giving an English class where the students would be working on projects on culture in a modern and multilingual classroom.

Case 3 is a fourth-year French major and English minor. She had already completed all Pedagogical Studies and had some experience teaching children. In the English class of her dreams, the student teacher would have her students carry out projects on aspects of culture (or multiculturalism) by looking for information (even beyond the classroom walls and by whatever means they liked, including tablet computers) and sharing it with the rest of the students. English would be used as the medium of instruction. The teacher “would be the one to speak the least in class,” but she would be around to help, whenever needed. The classroom would be a modern one in its design and technology but located in a romantic old building and close to nature (for details, see Figure 3). In addition, the classroom would be a multilingual learning environment: posters (e.g., “La vie est belle …”) and coursework would be posted on the classroom walls in other L2s, including French and Spanish. Thus, the students would be exposed to more than one L2 in her class.

Figure 4. A Pedagogical Studies major: giving an English class by applying an eclectic set of principles and practices and taking on different roles in her future job.

Case 4 is a Pedagogical Studies major and English minor. She was in the final year of her studies and about to graduate as an elementary school teacher with CLIL qualifications. She had some study-abroad and teaching experience. In the English class of her dreams, she would be applying a variety of principles and practices rather than relying on a single approach or methodology (cf. Cases 1 and 2). In other words, she would be eclectic, including Vygotskyan ideas, such as the Zone of Proximal Development, ZPD, and Scaffolding. Her class would be “partly teacher-centred and partly student-centred.” In addition, she had realized that as a teacher she would have a host of roles and responsibilities, depending on whom she would be interacting with in the classroom and beyond its walls: teaching English and/or content (CLIL), respecting diversity and multiculturalism, assessing learning outcomes, motivating students, giving feedback, fostering life-long learning, ensuring a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, cooperating with colleagues, being in touch with parents, etc. (Figure 4).

What we learned

Obviously, there is no single view of what an ideal class is. The visions turned out to vary considerably and in at least four respects. Firstly, there was variation in the activities and therefore also in the roles of those involved. Some of the visions highlighted teaching by the teacher as the main activity in the English class of their dreams, others learning by the learners. The role(s) of the teacher varied accordingly: from that of a transmitter of information, in control of what takes place in the classroom, to that of a guide, ensuring learning opportunities for everyone. The role(s) of learners also varied accordingly. In other words, there was variation in how teacher- or student-centred the visions of the English class were. Similarly, there was variation in the responsibilities that the teacher would be expected to have in the classroom and/or beyond the classroom.

Secondly, there was further variation in the focus in the teaching and learning of English. On the one hand, the focus could be on the teaching of English (e.g., rehearsing grammar and vocabulary, practising oral skills). On the other hand, the focus could be on teaching in English. In other words, English could be used as a medium of instruction in learning, among others, about aspects of culture or multiculturalism, social issues of interest to the students (e.g., climate change) or other school subjects (e.g., history) in CLIL.

Thirdly, it turned out that there was variation in the amount of multilingualism present in the classrooms. This was an issue brought up by some student teachers as an important issue in giving the English class of their dreams, while others did not comment on it at all. The interaction in the classes envisioned varied from monolingual to bilingual: A class could have a policy of English only (e.g., when sharing groupwork with the rest of the class or when hosting exchange students invited to class) or a policy of code-switching from English into Finnish depending on the topic addressed in class (issues, e.g., related to culture could be shared in Finnish to “make sure the students get at least something out of a class culture-wise; if not language-wise,” as one student teacher suggested, though possibly on the false assumption that all his students would know Finnish. Of all the students, only one (Case 3) took a stance regarding the learning environment and its possible multilingualism. Some traces of monolingual bias and native-speakerism (e.g., exchange students invited to class would be expected to be Brits or Americans, that is, only native speakers of English) were to be found in the visions. Related to multilingualism, multiculturalism was elaborated at its best as “knowledge of culture and habits, tolerance of Others/Otherness, and an ability to adapt to circumstances.”

Finally, there was variation in the environments where the teaching and/or learning of English would take place. It could be confined within the walls of a traditional or modern classroom or, alternatively, these activities could take place in informal and non-formal contexts (e.g., visiting sights, going on outings), or “anywhere,” as one student put it, “from a convenience store to a mortician and from Instagram to a school kitchen.” Some visions described the classroom in minute detail, indicating that where the teaching and/or learning of English would take place was important, while others paid little attention to this aspect, even claiming that the environment would be of little or no relevance at all.

What we conclude

To conclude, there seemed to be two competing discourses that the students resorted to when they were envisioning the English class of their dreams visually and verbally. Discourse 1 is based on teaching as it had been experienced by the participants during their school careers and nine years of formal learning of English before being accepted on our M.A. programme. The student teachers are thus critical of some traditional teaching practices and principles, including teacher-centredness; “having to listen to endless monologs given by the teacher;” heavy reliance on textbooks or “having your nose in the textbook;” emphasis on “cramming,” or learning by heart; having to sit still at their desks (organized in rows, making interaction challenging); and finding themselves indoors or confined within the classroom walls. In Discourse 2 the English classes of their dreams would be quite different in these respects, among others, they would like to believe. Some relied mostly on Discourse 1 (Case 1), others on Discourse 2 (Cases 2–3), and yet others drew on both to varying degrees (Case 4).

In addition, it seems that the more advanced the student teachers were in their studies on our five-year M.A. programme, especially regarding Pedagogical Studies, and/or being other than English majors, the more sophisticated their visions tended to be in more than one respect (as illustrated with Cases 3 and 4). In addition, they seemed to indicate greater awareness of the aims of the most recent National Curriculums regarding the teaching of FLs in the country as outlined above. In contrast, English majors (illustrated with Cases 1 and 2), who constituted the majority of the participants, were only in the second or third year of their studies. Fortunately, they will still have opportunities to revise/reconsider their beliefs before graduating as qualified FL teachers. And, clearly, as L2 teacher educators we need to make a stronger case for multilingual pedagogies and translanguaging practices, considering the ever-increasing number of students with immigrant backgrounds studying within our educational system these days.

What about the English class of your dreams: Teacher-directed or student-directed? Focus on teaching aspects of the language (as a system or its use) or focus on learning content through the medium of English (or CLIL)? The role of textbooks versus other sources of information, including the Internet? Which English to use as the norm: native-speaker varieties or English as a lingua franca? Monolingual (or English-only) or multilingual practices in class? Teaching/learning taking place in the classroom or beyond its walls?


  • Dörnyei, Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2014). Motivating learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the classroom. Cambridge University Press.

  • Kalaja, P., & Mäntylä, K. (2018). “The English class of my dreams”: Envisioning teaching a foreign language. In S. Mercer & A. Kostoulas (Eds.), Language teacher psychology (pp. 34–52). Multilingual Matters.

  • Kalaja, P., Barcelos, A. M. F., & Aro, M. (2018). Revisiting research on learner beliefs: Looking back and looking ahead. In P. Garrett & M. Cots (Eds.), Routledge handbook of language awareness (pp. 222–237). Routledge.

  • Mäntylä, K., & Kalaja, P. (2019). “The class of my dreams” as envisioned by student teachers of English: What is there to teach about the language? In P. Kalaja & S. Melo-Pfeifer (Eds.), Visualising multilingual lives: More than words (pp. 254–274). Multilingual Matters.

Paula Kalaja (PhD from Georgetown University, Washington, DC)) is a former teacher educator and Professot Emerita (University of Jyväskylä, Finland). Her research has focused on Psychology of Language Learning or individual learner differences (IDs), including learner beliefs, attitudes, motivation, identity, and emotions.

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