Language awareness and L2 teachers:

what exactly should teachers be aware of?

Arthur McNeill

University of Dundee


This paper attempts to broaden existing notions of language awareness for second language teachers by arguing that a teacherís awareness of language should include awareness of learning problems associated with it. The paper examines, in particular, ESL teachers' awareness of lexical difficulty from the perspective of a language learner. Since most ESL teaching is text-based, it follows that teaching effectiveness is probably directly influenced by teachers' ability to identify the vocabulary content of texts which their students actually find difficult. The paper reports some of the results of a wider study of teachersí awareness of lexical difficulty and focuses on the role of textual complexity upon teachersí judgements. Are texts which are linguistically difficult for learners also challenging for teachers, as far as their awareness of studentsí language difficulties are concerned? The research postulates that teachersí awareness of lexical difficulty involves a number of factors, including a teacher's knowledge of the English lexical system, proficiency in English, approaches to teaching, teaching experience, as well as knowledge of† learners' backgrounds, their previous learning and their L1. The lexical complexity of pedagogical texts is considered to represent one additional factor which has a bearing on teachersí ability to tune into their learnersí difficulties.

25 teachers, each from a different school, were asked to identify difficult lexical items in three L2 reading texts. The texts ranged in lexical complexity from simplified reader to newspaper article. The teachers' regular students (n=750) were then asked, by means of a vocabulary task, whether their actual understanding of the vocabulary coincided with their teachers' judgements about the difficulty level of the words. The results suggest that awareness of learnersí language difficulties varies widely among teachers and that while the lexical complexity of texts has some bearing on teachersí awareness of vocabulary difficulty, awareness is not necessarily most challenged by advanced level texts.