Is “The Force” with you?

How much effect do the teachers have on  language learning in your country?force

I have always said that teachers have a huge effect on pupils’ motivation for a subject. Without diving into the research here (though it’s hard not to mention Simon Borg, Zoltan Dornyei, Ema Ushioda and Martin Lamb when using terms such as “teacher” and “motivation) I want to take a very basic look at the effect of teachers on language learning in the Netherlands and will no doubt ramble on randomly about all sorts of other things. Because it’s a rather large subject, I may need a few posts….. read on if you dare!


Teacher types

In the Netherlands there are three main types of teachers (some exceptions mentioned below), all of whom, grosso modo, train at a different type of institution.

First of all you have the primary teachers who train at a “pabo” i.e. a pedagogical academy (a section of the “hogeschool” mentioned below). They generally come from higher secondary education and are aged somewhere in the region of 18 when they start.

Secondly you have the lower secondary teachers, who, like the primary teachers have generally come from higher secondary education and are aged around 18 when they start. These students train at a “hogeschool” i.e. an institution similar to the old “polytechnic” system in the UK. When they graduate they are allowed to teach in lower secondary (generally the first three years of secondary education) and in the “vocational” schools such as for painters, carpenters and the like, you get the gist.

Finally you have the upper secondary teachers from the more academic part of secondary school, who first go to university, obtain a bachelors, then a masters and then train for a Masters of Education in their subject. These teachers are basically qualified (on paper) to teach wherever they like but are specialists in upper secondary and exam classes leading on to univeristy.

There are other types of teachers such as the academically trained primary teachers, the academically trained lower secondary teachers, the super duper “eerst de klas” teachers who follow teaching and management, the lower secondary teachers who follow a masters at the “hogeschool” etc etc but for now let’s just focus on the first three which are in the majority in the Netherlands.

(Why) do the Dutch generally speak such good English?

The Dutch are generally seen as a nation who are pretty good at speaking foreign languages. But are they really so good or it just that they are willing to make fools of themselves in an effort to get their message across whereas more restrained nations are more concerned with accuracy? How much of the Dutch ability in foreign languages has to do with “culture”, how much to do with “history” and how much to do with “teachers”? I don’t of course have an answer to this, but will try to lay out my own ideas on the subject below and really hope that someone else will take a critical look at their own host country and let us know what’s happening over there.


  1. the Dutch do not dub television programmes (except cartoons and such like for young children although even then, only at certain times of the day). There is a huge offering of English language programmes on Dutch television (as well as a smattering of German and occasionally even French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic……). There are almost no households in the Netherlands with access to television which don’t have BBC1 and BBC2.
  2. the Dutch, although having a very healthy Dutch language music scene, are great lovers of English language music. Many of the local talents also sing in English and have made a name for themselves outside of the Netherlands (Ilse de Lange, the Common Linnets, Miss Montreal). I’m not even counting the Dutch DJs  who are hugely famous around the world as they themselves don’t generally sing.
  3. all primary schools are obliged to teach English to the children in the 7th year ie around aged 10. Although many schools don’t comply fully with the rules, many more have started teaching English to the 4 year olds (currently more than 1000 of the 7500 primary schools in the country). Since last year there are even a number of bilingual primary schools (the so-called TPO project) and this number looks set to grow if the government agrees to it.
  4. English is now part of the ‘core’ curriculum at secondary schools which means all pupils must pass English, maths and Dutch in order to obtain their school leaving diploma. There are of course other rules involved in the diploma, but the fact that pupils are no longer allowed to compensate a fail in English with a good pass in another subject is nonetheless important.
  5. many of the Dutch institutes for higher education (universities, hogescholen) now offer Bachelors and Masters in English. The University of Maastricht is, in my opinion, leading the field in this and has a huge number of foreign students – the Dutch universities are still way cheaper than the English ones and the quality is generally pretty damn good.

 How do the teachers teach English in the Netherlands?

But what of the teachers? With all this attention to English do the teachers actually make a difference and if so how? Is it just biology ie we’re surrounded by English, it’s hard not to learn it, or do teachers have a real effect? Ok, so English is compulsory, but how much do my pupils learn from me and how much do they learn outside of school?

Warning: Gross overgeneralisation coming (it’s always good to do this if you want to be sure of a gut reaction from people!):

  1. generally, the lower school teachers have a very grammar/accuracy based syllabus.
  2. generally, the upper school teachers focus mainly on reading skills as the final exam is reading and comprises 50% (yep, that’s right!) of the final grade.
  3. generally, the primary school teachers  focus on listening and speaking ie fluency more than accuracy. The children are encouraged to ‘enjoy’ the language and ‘play’ with it.

So where do kids learn it’s ok to just give it a try? Is this all thanks to primary schools? There are many bilingual secondary schools in tpschitthe country so these kids know no better than speaking English all day every day; but what about the kids in “normal” schools? How much attention is there to speaking? How come these kids are still quite happy to chatter away in English (albeit not always as good as we teachers would like) when on holiday?


Youth culture


How great is the effect of youth culture in this country? Does it have more effect on the children’s vision on English than we teachers do? Teens tell me it’s sometimes seen as cool to code switch, often things “sound” better in English than in Dutch. Sometimes English is so embedded in youth culture that they can’t think of the Dutch word as quickly as the English one. Swearing, for example, apparently sounds so much more effective in English than in Dutch – or is it that the parents don’t object as much as the English word resonates less than swearing in L1 would do?


Modern media versus God?

It’s very difficult to know what the effect is of media, internet etc on children with regards to their English as it is almost impossible to avoid English in Dutch society. However, in 2007 Marjolijn Verspoor, Kees de Bot and Floor van der Heiden undertook research with children from a Reformatorisch school (strict Calvinist) with little to no use of media in the home but with precisely the same rules and regulations regarding English in the school. This research mainly focussed on the difference in listening skills between pupils at a Reformatorisch bilingual school and those at a non-denominational bilingual school. To cut a long story short and overgeneralise the results (for those who can’t or don’t want to read the article in Dutch) the non-denominational pupils scored better. The best results were achieved not by pupils using the internet but by pupils listening to English language songs. This means that outside school contact with English plays a not-to-be-scoffed at role but that speaking English in the class (teacher and pupil) also has a considerate effect. Seems obvious – but do we all stick to it?

In 2010 Verspoor, de Bot and van Rein presented the results from further research into the denominational/non-denominational schools with regards to English outside of school. The correlation between contact with media and language shows that this is dynamic. Initially the correlation with productive skills (in this case, writing) is high at the start but later this contact also has a significant effect on receptive skills. So in fact media has, perhaps unsurprisingly, a huge (positive) effect on language learning. This does not mean that teachers don’t have an effect – the aforementioned research showed that denominational schools with a bilingual stream scored very well (better than non-denominational non-bilingual streams with supposedly plenty of exposure to English outside of school) which means schools (teachers) have a significant effect.

yawnEnough. Yawn. Next time I’ll take a look at a the feedback I received on paper (spontaneously!) from two of my classes and see if I can compare it with a recent questionnaire I gave them and their grades last year and this year to see if I’ve had any effect on them and on their attitude to learning English. Gosh, that sounds like a lot of work – but what the heck, I’ve got the data anyway.


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