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Ask CAELA questions and answers combined topics and questions of general interest from emails, telephone calls, workshops, and comments on electronic discussion lists.

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July 2007 - Final ASK CAELA Response

What is reflective teaching and what are benefits and challenges for adult ESL teaching practice?

For those working in adult English as a second language (ESL) settings, finding practical options for professional development is a concern. The field has a range of program types, a largely part-time workforce, limited financial resources for training, and varied policies and requirements for professional credentialing or certification (Burt & Keenan, 1998). Implementing approaches to professional development that accommodate these factors while providing opportunities for staff to expand their knowledge is a challenge. One practice that has gained popularity in recent years is reflective teaching. This Ask CAELA discusses the reflective practice process and its implications for adult ESL teachers.


Reflective teaching

Reflective practice is an evolving concept. In the 1930s, John Dewey defined reflection as a proactive, ongoing examination of beliefs and practices, their origins, and their impacts ( Stanley, 1998). Since then, reflective practice has been influenced by various philosophical and pedagogical theories. One influence is constructivism, which views learning as an active process where learners reflect upon their current and past knowledge and experiences to generate new ideas and concepts. A humanistic element of reflective practice is its concern with personal growth and its goal of liberation from values that can limit growth (Kullman, 1998). Critical pedagogy, espousing examination of underlying power bases and struggles, and American pragmatism, emphasizing active implementation, testing, and refining of ideas through experience, also shape the concepts of reflective practice, particularly in the United States (Brookfield, 1995). In reflective practice, practitioners engage in a continuous cycle of self-observation and self-evaluation in order to understand their own actions and the reactions they prompt in themselves and in learners (Brookfield, 1995; Richards, & Farrell, 2005; Richards & Lockhart, 1996; Thiel, 1999). The goal is not necessarily to address a specific problem or question defined at the outset, as in practitioner research, but to observe and refine practice in general on an ongoing basis.

The following steps are integral to the reflective process:

1. Collect descriptive data. Reflective practitioners need detail and breadth of perspective as they gather information on what is happening in the classroom. They can achieve this through the data-collection tools they select. Brookfield (1995, p. 29) suggests using four possible "lenses" to create a balanced picture of practice: practitioners' own writings about their experiences as learners and teachers (autobiographies); learners' eyes; colleagues' eyes and experiences; and existing theoretical literature.

2. Analyze data. After data have been collected, they can be analyzed in terms of the attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, goals, power relations, and consequences that they reveal. What happened that was expected or surprising? What theories about teaching or personal experiences with learning are revealed in the data? How do these theories relate to the practitioner's stated beliefs and attitudes? What is revealed about the relationships among the participants? What are the consequences of the practitioner's actions? These questions can be asked of the data collected (Crandall, 2000; Gebhard, 1996; Stanley, 1998).

3. Consider how the situation or activity could have been different. Whether looking at the data in the moment or in retrospect, practitioners need to examine alternatives to the choices they have made as well as the beliefs behind them ( Stanley, 1998). Considering how other practitioners address similar situations, generating alternatives and asking "what if" questions push practitioners to broaden their reflection beyond the data they have collected. (Gebhard, 1996).

4. Create a plan that incorporates new insights. Because reflection is conducted not for its own sake but to improve instructional practice, practitioners must link information and insights gained from the reflective process to changes they are making in the classroom (Farrell, 1998). The changes need not be huge--small changes can have an impact on teaching and learning (Gebhard, 1996). The important thing is that practitioners incorporate their new insights in their ongoing planning and decision making, observe the impact, and continue the reflective cycle.

Benefits and Challenges of Reflective Practice

There are benefits and challenges to implementing reflective practice in adult ESL. Following is a summary of those discussed by educators such as Bailey, Curtis, & Nunan, (1998), Crandall (2000), Farrell (1998), Richards, & Farrell, (2005), Richards, & Lockhart, (1996), Stanley (1998), and Thiel (1999).


Flexibility. The field of adult ESL varies in instructional contexts, learner groups, curricula, available resources, and amount and type of teacher preparation. Because reflective practice springs from the needs and interests of the practitioners, it can address this variety. It can be constructed as an individual or group process, although, because good reflective practice draws upon the input of learners, colleagues, and others, it is by nature collective. New teachers examine successes and failures in a constructive environment; seasoned teachers further self-awareness and knowledge through personal experience.

Practicality. Reflective practice is immediately useful to adult ESL practitioners who have limited time and resources to divide between teaching and professional development. Because it asks practitioners to make connections between what is happening in a specific context and their broader beliefs, it can be useful to those who move from site to site and teach in varied contexts. Opportunities to explore and reflect on new techniques, ideas, and approaches are built into the process, and links between theory and practice are central.

Professionalism. Reflective practice calls for ongoing exercise of intellect, responsibility, and professionalism. It promotes deliberate actions in planning and implementing instruction and ongoing engagement with theory. Teachers improve their ability to react and respond as they are teaching-to assess, revise, and implement approaches and activities on the spot.

Sustainability. There is a need for sustained development for adult ESL practitioners, rather than discrete workshops and conferences (Burt & Keenan, 1998; Crandall, 2000). Reflective practice creates a cyclical process that allows time for reflection, implementation, and follow-up. It centers on development and exercise of skills and attitudes that eventually become a regular part of good teaching. Once mastered, it should integrate with regular teaching responsibilities.


Reflective practice requires a commitment to continuous self-development and the time to achieve it. Practitioners should be trained in reflective practice and given time to experiment with and master the general process. Reflective practice may prove emotionally challenging. Some practitioners may not be ready to confront the uncertainty about their teaching philosophies and competence that can be a part of the process.



Reflective practice offers practical options to address professional development issues. It encourages practitioners to generate and share their insights and theories about teaching. If adult ESL practitioners and programs are willing to invest time and resources in initial training and sustained efforts, reflective practice can be an effective professional development option. (adapted and updated from Reflective Teaching Practice in Adult ESL Settings by MaryAnn Cunningham Florez, 2001).



Bailey, K., Curtis, A., & Nunan, D. (1998). Undeniable insights: Collaborative use of three professional development models. TESOL Quarterly, 32(3), 546-556.

Brookfield , S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Burt, M., & Keenan, F. (1998). Trends in staff development for adult ESL instructors. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. (ERIC ED No. 423 711)

Crandall, J. (2000). Language teacher education. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 20, 34-55.

Farrell, T. (1998). Reflective teaching: The principles and practices. Forum, 36(4), 10-17.

Gebhard, J.G. (1996). Teaching English as a foreign or second language. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Kullman, J. (1998). Mentoring and the development of reflective practice: Concepts and context. System, 26(4), 471-484.

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

Richards, J., & Lockhart, C. (1996). Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stanley, C. (1998). A framework for teacher reflectivity. TESOL Quarterly, 32(3), 584-591.

Thiel, T. (1999). Reflections on critical incidents. Prospect, 14(1), 44-52.

Other Resources

Bailey, K.M., Curtis, A., Nunan, D. (2001). Pursuing professional development: The self as source. London: Heinle & Heinle.

Borg, S. (2006). Teacher cognition and language education. New York: Continuum.

Farrell, T. S. C. (2004). Reflective practice in action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press (Sage Publications)

Farrell, T. S. C. (2006). Reflective practice in action: A case study of a writing teacher’s reflections on practice. TESL Canada Journal, 23(2), 77-90.

McKay. S. (2002). The reflective teacher: A guide to classroom research. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Center.

Palmer, P.J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schaetzel, K., & England, L. (2001). New professional development strategies. ESL Magazine, 4(3), 26-28.

The reflective teaching model . Retrieved July 20, 2007 from

Tice, J. Reflective teaching: Exploring our own classroom practice. Retrieved July 20, 2007 from

Willet, J., & Miller, S. (2004). Transforming the discourses of teaching and learning: Rippling waters and shifting sands. In M. Hawkins (Ed.), Language learning and teacher education. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters Ltd.