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How to decide if you should specialise in one of the four ELT skills

Steve Martin has to learn the “terrible American accent” in “The Pink Panther” and engages “Sophie, the best pronunciation teacher in the world” to help. A hilarious 1.52 minutes where Sophie almost gives up teaching him “I would like to buy a hamburger“.

Sophie has specialised in pronunciation; her reputation has reached the shores of France. There are many sectors in the English language linguistics to cover making it difficult to decide – have you thought whether you want to concentrate on one of the four ELT skills? After all, your students usually spend a great portion of their lesson learning time in focusing on how to communicate in the one or the other of these four communication skills.

Even the exams divide and test the four communication sectors of a student’s communicative abilities. So let’s reiterate what the four ELT communicative skills are…

The four ELT skills and why you should consider specialising in one ELT communicative skills
The four ELT communication skills are:

  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Speaking

If these skills are separated and tested in exams, then surely they must carry some weight of importance? And with it some degree of importance to the student, hmmm? But… should you focus your marketing efforts into just one of these skills? We know how important each one is. But is it really possible to become an expert – a specialist – in just one of these skills? “Sophie” in the Pink Panther did and you can too.

It is possible to “explode” and “exploit” any one of these skills. It’s possible to gather so much information and prepare so much material you can spend several years – not only a couple of lessons – on dealing with just one skill.

And yet, most teachers don’t specialise.

Most teachers don’t know how to exploit the available and necessary resources of information (books, workshops, Internet) to the advantage of their students – and their reputations. Instead, the general practice is to water down and cut down on all the materials down to what is manageable and (operational) as a private freelancer. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, stir the pot, and hope a decent lesson plan is the result… Mostly a decent lesson is prepared but the amount of work this working technique causes a freelance teacher is not in proportion to what a freelance teacher can achieve. Specialising in one ELT skill gives a freelance teacher’s research focus; it saves the teacher time. Specialising in one ELT skill gives a teacher a chance to establish his personal brand and market.

Specialising will increase the teacher’s reputation – in his chosen niche. But what if you are a freelancer working in national (state) institutes or language schools? Is there a difference to working from home and working in an institute? Can you still focus on the one skill with a class of English students?

Is it possible to focus on one skill whilst working for (Private) Language Schools and National (State) Institutes?
The answer is: it depends. It depends on the English course being offered. It depends on how much say you have in planning your lessons.

The course can be specialised (legal, technical, medical, exam preparation, telephone, meetings and presentations, travelling and tourism, etc.). But there is still a good chance to allocate a decent-sized portion of the allotted hours to satisfy your skill focus as an English trainer.

How you can focus one skill whilst working for (Private) Language Schools and National (state) Institutes
Focusing on one English communication skill can not only save you 50 per cent of your time in recycling techniques such as material and realia, it also doubles as your marketing technique. You become visible on the market. You use it to stand out amongst all other non-specialist English trainers on the market. Choosing a specialist niche has nothing to do with how you give your lessons. It’s how you place the emphasis on your lessons.

Focusing on one skill and still integrate the rest of the linguistic English language areas
The focus on one skill cannot be “an island all by itself” to quote John Donna as we have seen. It isn’t feasible to focus an English communication skill to the exclusion of all other linguistic English language areas. However, it is feasible to incorporate or allocate a good portion of your lesson to your chosen skill and focus.

For example, if your chosen skill focuses on speaking

Lesson Aim reading comprehension: devise your lesson plan to prepare material to concentrate on speaking and pronunciation activities within a reading comprehension lesson aim. Beginner students can prepare short paragraph summaries in pairs before giving a free verbal recount to the class.

Lesson Aim grammar: prepare the grammar area material to have your students actively speaking when working on the exercises. (An example: used to. Prepare realia such as portraits for students to ask questions about the person. For example, the person pictured used to be a man. Now she is a woman. The FT replies either “yes” or “no”. Later have your students role-play. For example, an interview with a newspaper or magazine. Or they can discuss or debate about the life of this person “before and after” the operation.

Lesson Aim writing: prepare lesson materials where students can turn the writing exercise into a speaking practice. For example, running dictations, reading student prepared written text aloud, writing with presentations, student prepared role-plays, etc.

As you prepare more and more (speaking skill) lessons, you’ll accumulate an extensive data bank of recyclable material. Do the preparation work once, then wash, rinse and repeat with new students, and don’t forget to keep your student records up to date. It sounds simple enough, but is focusing on one communication skill – and marketing yourself with just one ELT communication skill – going to lose you a lot of potential students and customers?

Are you going to lose a lot of potential students and customers when selling and marketing yourself with only one ELT communication skill?
Is it really possible to survive? Is it possible to survive on the market and earn enough money as a freelance English teacher with just one ELT communication skill? Could this be a disadvantage to both the student and to you, the freelance teacher? Furthermore, why should you specialise in just one of the four skills – why not in two, or three or even all four?

To answer the first question: are you going to lose you a lot of potential students and customers

No, you won’t lose a lot of potential students and customers. The number won’t reduce in numbers because you are reducing your market visibility to just one marketing sales tool. What it can reduce are your costs, such as sending (postage) or handing out expensive brochures or business cards (printing costs) to uninterested people in your services.

Use your marketing strategies and your marketing tools (these include web sites and possibly blogs for other freelance teacher niches) to interest targeted customers – those students and customers who perceive a weakness your specialised English training covers. Your targeted customers perceive specialists to be experts and search for them on the internet. When you stand up and pronounce yourself as a specialist in ELT speaking skills, they will believe you. (Just be sure you deliver the goods! 😉 )

Let me explain in another way: If you need an operation to remove your appendix, would you go to your general practitioner to remove it, or would you go to a surgeon who says he has removed over a 300 appendixes last year?

Can specialising in just one ELT communicative skill be a disadvantage to the student?
Would concentrating on just one skill be a disadvantage – both towards your student and to your visibility on the market? Not at all.

The advantages are real and manifold. And your student, of course, won’t fall short either. It makes sense to attract your students for a skill they believe they are missing. It makes sense to offer a real solution they believe (real or imagined) they have a weakness. Irrespective of whether it’s in speaking, or in reading and writing skills, or listening and comprehension skills.

But what if I want to do two (three or all four) ELT communication skills?
You can, but if you do – you will remain a generalist. If you want to specialise, gain more visibility on the market, gain more time in the long run, reap better rewards for both yourself and your student, then the answer is No.

To stand out, you need to be an expert and an expert is a specialist.

By definition: this is “a person who is devoted to a particular occupation or branch of study or research“. What does this mean? It means having great experience in a narrow, well-defined area in one area. Teaching skills in more than one area automatically waters down your expertise. This happens when you try to market yourself as an expert in two (three or four) ELT skills. It’s an automatic reduction in your expertise of the skill.

Summary and your next step
We discussed the merits of focusing on a single ELT communication skill and how to use it in an academic environment such as national (state) institutes or private language schools in comparison to working from home. Then we discussed how it is possible to survive as a freelancer if you market your services as a specialist, by focusing on one ELT communication skill and how specialising on two or more ELT communication skills would weaken the perceived conception of an expert in the eyes of the customer and student.

Lastly, we spoke about targeting your marketing your efforts to sell your services. By focusing on the one ELT skill, you would be able to reach your targeted customer – the student with his special weakness and his need to correct his weakness. You can reach this one student and give him his chance to solve his weakness. A win-win situation.

What remains is to work out if (and in which skill) you would like to specialise your services in the ELT sector.

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