Coaching questions

Posted: July 26, 2021 in Uncategorized
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I came across this course description the other day. The course motto is ‘Honour the Learner’.

Discussions and assigned work covered in the curriculum includes multiple intelligence, positive deviance, brain science during stressful situations, how people learn, PBL, Failing Forward, Bloom’s Taxonomy, de-escalation, cognitive load and courageous conversations, with the interwoven golden threads of leadership theory and emotional intelligence.

I love the idea of positive deviance and the interwoven golden threads!

The description is of a coaching course for police professionals in Ontario. ‘The intense, week-long program follows a robust agenda that embraces a modified PBL-approach rather than a traditional, lecture-based format’. Participants write a personal mission statement and, in the process, they have ‘the opportunity to reflect on their own contributions and commitment to the effective, efficient and values-based delivery of policing’. As opposed to violence-based, for example.

The course began in 2017 and has been considered a success. But what sort of real impact has it had? And how has it adapted to going online? Is there anything people involved in language teaching can learn about coaching from the Ontario Police approach?

‘Coach’ (as in ‘life coach’) is, of course, a slightly tricky word. There are people who think it reflects an important reality in our lives, and others who struggle to take the word seriously. The former will write blog posts or give talks about coaching, the latter probably won’t read them.

The cause of coaching is not really helped by the lack of any broadly recognised certification. By people who think they can charge more just by claiming they are ‘coaches’. In the language teaching world, as elsewhere, some coaches are attempting to set up little trademarked enclaves, sprinkled with acronyms, pyramids and lightbulb illustrations, in order to differentiate just anyone who claims to be a coach from ‘proper coaches’ with certificates.

If you want to be certified, it’s not always easy to choose from the possibilities out there. I have recently read ‘Neurolanguage Coaching: Brain Friendly Language Learning’ by Rachel Paling. I’m normally very suspicious of anything with a ‘brain-friendly’ label. Worse still, I collocate ‘neuro’ more strongly with ‘bollox’ than with ‘language’. So it was an intriguing read. Without wanting to give too much away, I can tell you that it’s all to do with motivation (the limbic system, no less), being non-judgemental of the coachee, and breaking down language into manageable chunks: ‘from present tenses to future, to conditional etc.’ The key, continues the author, ‘is to start with grammar that gets the learner speaking the fastest. In English this would necessarily be the verbs ‘to be’, ‘to have’ and the impersonal ‘there is’ and ‘there are’, and the formulation of questions and negatives of these. Then it would be a step-by-step building the language: introducing present continuous as the real present and the present simple as the facts and habits tense’. (Paling, 2017: 83) And, hey pesto, it’s as simple as that, when you’ve mastered the necessary skills. To get a firmer understanding of this trademarked approach to language coaching, you’d probably have to follow one of the many courses that are certified by Efficient Language Coaching® (online, prices on request).

The International Language Coaching Association ( would seem to be a competitor to Neurolanguage Coaching®. They, too, run courses: $450 for the Foundation Course, but the price includes ‘12 month membership in the pioneering ILCA community’. Rather a lot for 4 live sessions and 4 supplementary study videos. I suppose if you were really keen, you could do both. But times are tight, and instead of splashing out, I invested in ‘Coaching for Language Learning’ by Emmanuelle Betham, another self-published book (only $18.73 on Kindle). The author’s skills, according to LinkedIn, include, besides life coaching, Neuro Linguistic Programming, Mindfulness, and Clean Language. Again, I was intrigued.

As with ‘Neurolanguage Coaching’, there were quite a few slogans in ‘Coaching for Language Learning (CFLL)’, not a lot of awareness of SLA research (the work of Krashen seems to be the limit of the reading informing the CFLL approach), and a crude stereotyping of teachers and trainers as ‘informative’, and coaches as ‘transformative’. But, unlike Rachel Paling, Emmanuelle Betham seems to think that grammar instruction (even when delivered through coaching questions) is less helpful. Instead, learners need to learn to think in English, and the best way of doing that is by having mindful conversations with their coach. Nevertheless, there is a section on ‘coaching grammar rules’. Some standard teaching activities are also recommended. Running dictations can be used. The English language is not melodious like Roman languages. If you’re struggling to make sense of all this, you’re not alone. CFLL, you see, is ‘a new paradigm that needs to be appreciated in practice, as defined in its context, and which cannot be comprehended within the wisdom of previous hypotheses’ (Betham, 2018 – 2020: 45). What’s more, CFLL is primarily interested in ‘what works’: the concepts in the book ‘are not to be agreed or disagreed with, they are just examples of visualizations that have worked well for some learners in practice before’ (Betham, 34). You see, ‘truth is relative […] the rationale for our new paradigm, CFLL rests on the assumption that we are free to interpret and construct our own truth’ (Betham, 35). It’s all heady stuff.

Coming down to ground, the most useful thing I’ve read about language teaching and coaching is ‘From English Teacher to Learner Coach’ by Daniel Barber and Duncan Foord (2014). If coaching is ultimately about helping people to become more autonomous … in combination with education, it’s all about learner autonomy. At least, that was the message I took from this book. It’s very cheap, and it also comes in a ‘Student’s Book’ version, which is very handy if you want your students to try out a pile of suggestions for becoming more autonomous learners. I thought the suggestions were good and plentiful, but it all seemed to be more about learner autonomy than about language coaching. Perhaps it’s not unreasonable to claim they are the same thing?

But could AI do away with real-life coaches altogether? I’m very interested in the idea of coaching bots. How easy / hard would it be to fool people that they were chatting with a real-life coach, rather than an algorithm? It wouldn’t be too hard to load up a corpus of coaching conversational strategies, hedges and questions and automate a linkage between key words produced by the coachee (e.g. stress, frustration, work, COVID, resisting arrest) and a range of conversation prompts. Computers are getting better and better at doing empathy. How long before a coachbot passes the Turing test? Maybe this is what the Ontario Police are toying with?

There are, of course, plenty of coaching apps out there. Things like HabitBull,, Symbifly, Mindsail … Mostly for sport, health and getting rich. They’re cheaper than paying for a coach, but the bonding experience is a bit different. Would they work with language learners or teachers? Somehow, I doubt it, but you never know. Do gamification and coaching fit together?

I’m not sure what I was hoping to learn from my exploration of coaching. I’m not sure what questions I was looking for answers to. Perhaps I needed a coach to guide me? But I have learned from Emmanuelle Betham that learning is a seed and I am a gardener. Or something like that.

Barber, D. & Foord, D. (2014) From English Teacher to Learner Coach.

Betham, E. (2018 – 2020) An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning.

Paling, R. (2017) Neurolanguage Coaching: Brain Friendly Language Learning.

  1. Hi Philip,
    Thanks for mentioning Duncan and my book. It’s interesting that ‘autonomy’ was your take home; it’s a word we zealously expurgated from every page! The book was partly a reaction to what we think is an impractical approach by many of the promoters of Learner Autonomy, which is often touted as something the teacher must do: promote autonomy, foster autonomy, encourage autonomous behaviour. As if learners don’t have autonomy already.
    So our approach is very much about the practical side of learner coaching: how to help learners understand and maintain motivation; how to help them in their organisation of learning and how to help them practise. No magic ingredients, just use some of the time in class to focus on what the learners are doing when they aren’t at school. That sounds a lot like what coaches do to us; sports coaches expect their athletes to train every day, even when they’re not around.
    Hence our adoption of the label ‘coach’. And that’s what those who “struggle to take the word seriously” often forget when questioning coaching. They may ONLY be looking at the woolly world of wellness and empowerment coaching, and those who cloak themselves in neurobollockage like NLP in order to sell themselves. They might be less sceptical if they thought instead of tennis coaches and voice coaches and considered what practical aspects of learning the teaching profession may be missing when it focusses so much on the lesson and not on the learners’ English language lives.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Dan. I know what you mean about some of the woollier discourse around learner autonomy, but I have never felt that the greatest part of the literature on learner autonomy was like that. Rather, much of what I have read is concerned with breaking down the notion of learner autonomy into smaller parts, each of which may be encouraged in various ways. These include things like motivation, learning strategies (especially outside the classroom), metacognition, learner self-image, and so on. And it’s these things that you and Duncan focus on in practical ways in your book. So you may have expurgated the word from your book, but its palimpsest remains very visible, I think!

      • That’s a good point about autonomy. You’re right about the learner strategies promoted by the likes of Ushioda, Joan Rubin and Carol Griffiths. But not particularly accessible to the teacher in the form of concrete activities except in much older books like Ellis and Sinclair’s Learning to Learn. And I think it’s precisely because LA detracts from the teacher and the lesson and is directed at the learner that it often gets ignored. So perhaps coaching is an approach that can turn the focus away from the lesson and the teacher and towards learners more.

    • N says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Just a little comment on this bit: “a reaction to what we think is an impractical approach by many of the promoters of Learner Autonomy, which is often touted as something the teacher must do: promote autonomy, foster autonomy, encourage autonomous behaviour. As if learners don’t have autonomy already.”
      It caught my attention because I have been teaching adults or young adults for the last five years or so, and experientially I have noticed that many prove to be much more passive and/or inefficient in their learning than you would expect from a grown-up. Therefore I was kind of surprised by your claim that they already have autonomy.
      I think I’d argue with that, because whereas no one is physically stopping learners from making their own learning efforts out of classroom, it is what happens IN classroom that often strongly discourages them from taking their learning into their own hands. It is when teachers fail to discuss how doing this or that in class should benefit the learners, when learners’ experimentation efforts are openly frowned upon, when teachers can’t constructively react to any information on the subject that learners have got elsewhere – it is then that learners’ autonomy is actually taken away from them.
      It’s a bit like it is with birds flying: if you keep a parrot in a cage all their life, without letting them out to fly around freely, they’d still have their wings and the basic ability to fly – but they’ll be so bad at doing that, they’d never survive on their own.
      So my suspicion is that all those calls for teachers to promote autonomy in classroom are, basically, a call for them to let go and learn to effectively incorporate learners’ own efforts into the pre-designed process (which, let’s be honest, is not that easy of a task – especially, in monolinguistic cultures where learners’ “English language lives” are, basically, non-existent).

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