Can ELT in Higher Education be Successful? The Current Status of ELT in Mexico

May 2013 – Volume 17, Number 1

Alberto Mora Vazquez
Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas

Nelly Paulina Trejo Guzmán
Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas

Ruth Roux
Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas


The purpose of this paper is to analyze the determinants of the current state of the ELT field in Mexican contexts. In particular, it explores the ways in which diverse social and political factors hamper the successful implementation of national and institutional ELT policies. Drawing on a case study carried out throughout a period of five years, the paper uses three situations to illustrate the ways in which institutional efforts to promote English language teaching are deviated at some point in their developmental stages. The paper concludes by emphasizing the value of research to raise ELT practitioners’ awareness of the challenges that the profession faces and proposing ways of overcoming them.

Keywords: ELT, socio-politics, qualitative research, higher education, Mexican contexts


The argument that the English language teaching profession has not gained sufficient recognition is certainly not new. A review of the literature on the status of the English Language Teaching (ELT) field reveals that it has been undervalued and marginalized (Johnston, 2003; Nunan, 2001; Pennington, 1992). Some scholars have even raised the question of whether it is authentically a profession (Nunan, 2001). Although in the last two decades we have witnessed progress in the development of professional recognition for the ELT field worldwide, many English language teaching institutions in parts of the world still engage in practices that reveal why the ELT field has not been able to consolidate itself as a profession.

This paper explores the complexities involved in trying to identify the determinants of the low status of the ELT field. The paper is an attempt to understand the interplay of social and political factors that affect the status of the profession. It focuses on the case of a Mexican state university, which will be referred to as Mariano Azuela University (MAU). The MAU was selected as a case because it illustrates the challenges that the ELT field faces to consolidate itself as a profession that may be present in other universities in Mexico, and perhaps in other universities in Latin America. The paper is based on a longitudinal case study. Data were gathered over a period of five years (2006-2011) through surveys and a variety of ethnographic techniques such as observations, interviews, and analysis of institutional documents.

Examining the relevant literature

There is expanding literature on the status of the ELT profession discussing the little recognition ELT has. These writings represent different causes of the low status of the field in some countries. Pennington (1992), for example, has argued that our profession suffers from a lack of recognition from authorities such as governments and ministries of education. She attributes this partly to the idea that it is not always clear what ELT is and where it fits within academia. In other words, non-members of the ELT field do not always know what department they belong to or what they exactly do since ELT is a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary area.

Similarly, some scholars have also described an identity problem with the ELT field. They state that the field has extremely relaxed entry requirements (Gabrielatos, 2002; Perkins, 2002). In other words, no specialized skills or knowledge is required to become an English teacher. Unfortunately, non-members as well as members of the ELT field still believe in what researchers call the native speaker fallacy: the mistaken belief that anyone who can speak the language can also teach it (Johnston, 2003). According to Ramirez et al. (2007), the ELT field in Mexico had a lack of social recognition until the early 90s because its members did not hold academic degrees or because their degrees were in areas other than ELT. This meant that they were not able to develop the identity that characterizes any professional in foreign language teaching. For this reason, as Farmer (2005) has stated, many of the decisions related to the provision of ELT in Mexican contexts were made with little or no expert input.

The argument that the low status of the ELT field is due to the little or no advocacy work done by its members has also been identified in the literature. For example, Nunan (2001) and Pennington (1992) assert that there is a need for ELT practitioners to convince educational authorities, and perhaps convince ourselves, that the work we do is important. In other words, they claim that there is a need for ELT practitioners to engage in more socio-political work, not only technical work, if we are to gain professional recognition. These voices have been echoed by Perkins (2002) who has called for more spaces to be provided by professional organizations in their events to address the socio-political issues of the field. She argues that most presentations in conferences just focus on classroom techniques and materials, leaving the socio-political aspects of our field unexamined.

A review of recent empirical research carried out in Latin America revealed that many countries share the problems of lack of success of ELT programs. For example, researchers such as Barahoma, Acuña, and Ceciliano (2010) in Costa Rica contend that there is a serious contrast between the English language proficiency developed by students in private schools and by those in public ones. They emphasize that most of the current ELT programs have not met the demands of the society and enterprises. Venezuelan researchers (Chacón, 1996; Duarte de Kendler, 2007; Murzi, 1994) present similar findings, highlighting that even though most students in the country receive more than 2,800 hours of instruction during a period of five years, they are not able to hold a simple conversation in English when they finish middle school. Lemus, Durán and Martínez (2008) reported the findings of a diagnostic study carried out with first year undergraduate students in three Mexican states (Aguascalientes, Durango, and Quitana Roo) that revealed that most of these students had a very low proficiency level in English. In the same country, Davies (2009) discusses the poor conditions in which the Mexican ELT public educational system operates on a day-to-day basis. Finally, Rajagopalan and Rajagopalan (2005) provide an analysis of how the ELT field in Brazil faces serious difficulties to establish high quality teaching standards across the country.

All these studies examine the problem of the low quality of student learning. However, a deep analysis of the determinants of the failure of the ELT field reveals that there are two distinct lines of thought regarding this issue. On the one hand, there is a group of researchers that places more emphasis on what Pennington (1992) and Nunan (2001) have described as technical work. For example, Barahoma, Acuña, and Ceciliano (2010), Chacón (1996), Duarte de Kendler (2007), Lemus, Durán and Martínez (2008), and Murzi (1994) highlight the belief that the lack of success in ELT programs is mainly due to the inappropriate preparation of English language teachers and the use of inadequate language teaching methodologies inside the classroom.

On the other hand, there are studies that, despite identifying problems similar to those described above, attribute these situations not only to technical factors such as the use of inappropriate language teacher methodologies or lack of teacher preparation. They address a broad range of socio-political issues as circumstances that also contribute to the constant low results obtained by the ELT field in different Latin American countries. In Brazil, for example, Rajagopalan and Rajagopalan (2005) conducted empirical research into the role of the English language in Brazilian schools. They reported the inappropriate use that Brazilian politicians made of the growing figures regarding the number of English language learners. Those altered figures presented by Brazilian politicians often masked the dissatisfactory conditions under which English language learning takes place. Rajagopalan and Rajagopalan also mentioned the divide between the urban rich and rural poor as a contributing factor of the poor results in English language learning in the country.

In Colombia, Gonzalez (2009) has described the way in which the Ministry of Education has set a very narrow English language learning agenda in which the adoption of foreign models of teacher training features strongly. English teachers at the national level are required to certify their teaching ability through programs such as the In-service Certificate in English Language Teaching (ICELT) and the Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT) awarded by the University of Cambridge, without considering contextual circumstances. Schools and English teachers are also provided with a national English language learning program called Bilingual Colombia, which they only need to implement and deliver. Gonzalez sustains that there is an evident risk associated with the imposition of these policies. She argues that they represent a danger of four critical issues: (1) the standardization of teacher knowledge; (2) the exclusion of teachers who work under hourly-paid contracts, and who therefore cannot always pay for the high tuition fees of a professional development program; (3) unequal opportunities of professional development for “certified” and “uncertified” teachers as foreign knowledge, foreign scholars and foreign publications are more valued than local knowledge, local scholars, and local materials; and (4) the ‘businessification’ of English language policies as they respond to the needs of globalization, neoliberalism, and marketization of education.

In a paper exposing what he calls the failure of Mexican public ELT, Davies (2009) presents a diagnosis of the Mexican public ELT context. He has reviewed a number of studies conducted in Mexican and other contexts to outline the main factors he claims contribute to the lack of success of the English language learning and teaching in Mexican public education, including the little or no consideration of the appropriateness, quality, and an adequate evaluation of the existing English language programs. Davies places a strong emphasis on two socio-political issues that may also be factors that contribute to the lack of success of English language learning in Mexico. One has to do with the fact that Mexico is an emerging economy that affects the conditions under which English language learning takes place. This situation is exacerbated by the marked social inequity between the rich and the poor, the latter group accounting for more than 90% of the population. The second issue is related to the argument that most Mexicans do not see a need to learn English because of the low status that the language has in society at large. He contends that it is evident for students that many people around them in society, including professionals such as teachers, school principals, doctors, and engineers do not speak English.

All these situations in different countries of Latin America have negative consequences for the status and identity of the ELT field. First of all, ELT practitioners often suffer from social and professional marginalization. This situation has to do with the perception that ELT practitioners are usually excluded from such aspects of their professional work as decision-making processes (Johnston, 2003). Also, Davies (2009) has outlined some consequences which he considers less tangible but equally serious. One of these has to do with affective consequences. He argues that students and teachers alike may suffer from disenchantment as a result of the constant negative experiences with the English language learning/teaching efforts. He also warns that the ELT field may run the risk of losing credibility due to the negative results obtained by teachers and students.

Overall, the literature reveals that scholars in Latin America have identified a serious lack of success of ELT programs, including negative consequences for the ELT field. However, these scholars differ in their analyses of the factors that may explain such failure. While some of them focus on technical aspects such as teaching methods or teacher training, others emphasize the role of socio-political factors such as the political use of the growing figures of English language learners, the imposition of foreign models of teacher training, and the unequal social conditions under which learning takes place. Although all these writings have contributed to our understanding of the current state of affairs of the ELT field in Latin America, they only provide one-time snapshots of the phenomenon. The present paper attempts to present an in-depth analysis of the ways in which different socio-political factors influence the development of day-to-day ELT practice. The significance of this analysis lies in its use of a longitudinal methodology with ethnographic data-collection techniques to unravel the complexities involved in determining the factors that affect the consolidation of the ELT field.

Mariano Azuela University

As mentioned above, Mariano Azuela University was chosen because it arguably represents the challenges faced by other universities in Mexico and in other countries in Latin America. MAU is a public educational institution made up of seven campuses located in six different cities across the state. It has a population of 34,266 students. MAU has 24 academic schools that offer a total of 78 degree programs. The university provides English language courses in two different ways. One is through the Institutional English Program (IEP), which is offered by all the academic schools for all undergraduate students. The IEP is made up of two 60-hour courses that are part of the curriculum for undergraduate programs under the Millennium III educational plan that came into effect in 2005. These courses are intended for beginning and false beginning students, respectively. Students normally take these two courses in the first year. Once the students complete these two courses, they may continue their English language education in the language centers of the university.

According to the Academic Development Department of the university, there are a total of 101 teachers in the IEP. Its latest survey (2010) shows that 36% hold bachelor’s degrees, 56% hold master degrees, and 8% doctoral degrees. However, only 18% of those degrees, mostly BAs, are related to ELT or applied linguistics. The survey reveals that the teachers’ level of English proficiency is not well known, as it has not been assessed recently. A high percentage of the teachers (72%) reported that they do not hold a current language proficiency certificate. The survey also reports that only 13% of all the teachers have tenure; the rest of the teachers work on a part-time basis. Their level of seniority ranges from those who have one to three years of teaching (13%) to those who have four to seven years (22%) to those with more than 16 years (32%).

The other type of English language learning provision is through the English program offered by the language centers of the university. There are four such centers, each belonging to an academic school, but operating independently. For the purposes of this paper, only one of these language centers is the focus of the analysis. This center, which will simply be referred to as LC, offers English courses ranging from beginning to upper intermediate levels of proficiency. It also offers preparation courses for Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and First Certificate in English (FCE) examinations. All these courses are non-credit bearing and require additional tuition fees. The courses are intended not only for university students, but external students and people of the general public are also accepted.

Its faculty is made up of 66 English teachers, two French teachers, and one German teacher. As of the fall semester of 2009, the academic staff had the following profile: 27% were pursuing a bachelor’s degree, 52% held a bachelor’s degree, 15% had a master’s degree, 1% a doctoral degree, and 5% held no academic degree. Of all instructors, 39% held internationally recognized language teaching qualifications such as the Certificate for Overseas Teachers of English (COTE) and the In-service Certificate in English Language Teaching (ICELT), awarded by Cambridge ESOL. Most of the teachers worked on a part-time basis, under semester contracts paid by the class hour. Many of them hold down other jobs in order to supplement their incomes. Only a group of nine academic staff members work full time without tenure and do administrative work.

The LC is extremely popular. The administration reports that as many as 20% of those seeking admission are denied a place because of physical space restrictions. A great deal of high-school and undergraduate students seek to register in the afternoon shift, leaving the administration with difficulties to accommodate all of them. Having a great deal of resources and being able to offer their courses at a low cost has allowed the LC to recruit students from a variety of sectors. It currently enrolls approximately 2,100 learners per term and has a diverse student population in terms of age (16 and over), educational background, and socioeconomic status. Since students do not receive credit in these courses, and because enrolment in any of them is not compulsory for the university students, the LC prides itself in providing the teaching of languages to those who want to rather than those who have to.

Although it was initially created as an effort to provide its services to the university community, the LC soon started to attract students from different sectors of the wider community. Curiously, the majority of the current school intake does not come from MAU itself. According to the student service department of the LC, 45% of students come from local high schools (grades 10 to 12), mainly public ones. An additional 25% are professionals who study languages when they are off work. The rest (30%) are undergraduates studying either at MAU or another local university. Most, if not all, of the learners seem to be studying languages to develop their academic and employability profiles.


This paper is based on a case study using ethnographic techniques to emphasize richly contextualized data to get at often hidden processes. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used. The qualitative work facilitated studying the status of the ELT field as a process, teachers’ interpretation of meaning, and our participant observer role in the fieldwork and analysis. The quantitative work, in the form of a survey, enabled both corroboration as well as new lines of thinking (Rossman & Wilson, 1991).

The study was guided by the following research questions:

What kinds of policies and practices related to ELT are implemented at the MAU?
What is the impact of these policies and practices on the status of the ELT field?

Data collection at this site started in 2006. The qualitative data was collected through three primary means: ongoing interviews with 14 teachers; observations of formal and informal meetings and interactions; and document analysis of current and archival documents. These multiple methods helped us provide the thick description considered essential for ethnographic research (Starfield, 2010).

The interviews included questions about LC teachers’ views about the role of leadership and professionalism in ELT. Both formal and informal meetings were observed one to four days a week, in staff rooms, classrooms, school halls, and faculty social gatherings. A record of these observations and informal conversations was kept in a research journal, which included “descriptive sequences” (Alrichter & Holly, 2005) that enabled us to focus on particular details, rather than general issues. In addition, a variety of documents, including minutes from meetings, policy statements, and internal memos were analyzed.

The quantitative data were collected by means of a teacher survey. A questionnaire was distributed to the whole ELT faculty (N=101) at the university, addressing issues related to the quality and impact of the English program at the university. A total of 82 teachers returned their completed questionnaires, giving a return rate of 81%.

For this article, three significant situations persisting over multiple academic terms were selected, providing the most continuous and detailed data. The data are represented by audio-taped conversations, observations of ongoing situations from field notes (i.e., personal and descriptive observations), written documents (e.g., memos, letters, and meeting minutes) and spoken interviews with almost one-fourth of the LC’s faculty (14) in each of the three specific situations described in the study.

The researchers as the main research instruments

We acknowledge that the researchers’ perceptions of the educational activities they see around them are filtered by their theoretical and epistemological lenses (Radnor, 2001). This idea, coupled with the fact that we conducted research as insiders, was a positive aspect for two reasons. First, it gave us “privileged access to data that an external researcher perhaps may never have gained” (Busher, 2002, p. 80). In addition, it enabled us to become “a major source of insight, hypotheses and validity checks” (Maxwell, 1996, p. 28; as cited in Radnor, 2001, p. 30).

However, we also recognize that conducting research as insiders implies some potential difficulties. It has been a long time since Burgess (1989) first warned the research community that the trustworthiness of the data used can be compromised when research is undertaken by insiders. However, we made every effort to adopt a professional and reflective approach throughout the research process in order to try to avoid potential conflict of interests. For example, the accuracy of the interpretation we made of all the evidence we had collected was confirmed by a fellow researcher who was then a visiting professor in the institution where the research took place.


While analyzing the accumulated data we had collected, we identified three situations in which the course of the ELT field in the institution is altered. Each of these three situations shows the efforts made by the institution to promote and improve the teaching-learning of the English language. However, they also show how the good intentions of these institutional efforts are altered from their original course of action at some point in their development. Although the situations are presented independently for simplification purposes, they are interrelated and they overlap.

Situation 1: Support for ELT

In 2003 the university’s central administration introduced a few changes that appeared to be aimed at placing the LC as the rector unit for all the institutional projects related to the teaching and learning of foreign languages. In a short time, the LC witnessed the implementation of three events. They were the appointment of a highly qualified and experienced professional as the director of the LC, the move to the new language LC building, and the financial support made available to the LC’s academic staff members to pursue higher degrees abroad. All these three events made the LC appear that it was undergoing a period of bonanza. A more detailed discussion of each of them is provided below.

The appointment of Ms. Rubio (a pseudonym) was made after she had returned to MAU after completing an ELT-related Ph.D. abroad. Although she had spent the previous four years in a foreign country pursuing her Ph.D., most of her professional experience (15 years) had been within this university context. She was asked to coordinate the efforts to improve the quality of foreign language learning-teaching provided by the university from her position as language center director.

Ms. Rubio’s strategy to achieve this aim was to focus on the promotion of the professionalization of its ELT faculty. One of her first efforts was to make the political arrangements so that the university’s central administration could provide financial support for some English teachers from the LC to engage in postgraduate studies in foreign universities. The criteria set to get access to such support were that the teachers held a bachelor’s degree, a language proficiency certificate and a language teaching certificate such as the ICELT. Between 2004 and 2006, 13 teachers, about a third of the entire faculty, had been supported financially to obtain their postgraduate degrees abroad.

The idea behind this effort was for these teachers to develop professionally so that by the time they returned to work they could contribute to the design and development of an institutional bachelor’s degree program in applied linguistics and ELT. The plan behind the implementation of this program was expected to have a multiplying effect in that it could help develop new ELT professionals. In addition to the implementation of the BA program in applied linguistics, the university, through the LC, continued providing its faculty with the opportunity to participate in a language teacher certification course called In-Service Certificate in English Language Teaching (ICELT) awarded by Cambridge ESOL.

The LC’s administration set out the development of an internal policy regarding the selection of faculty members. This policy required existing and prospective teachers to have, or at least to be in the process of obtaining, a bachelor’s degree and a language-teaching certificate for hiring purposes. With the implementation of this policy, the professional profile of the academic staff started to strengthen. By the second year after the implementation of this policy, the faculty profile experienced a significant improvement. According to Trejo (2005), who conducted a study on these teachers’ conceptions of professional development, the percentage of faculty members who held, or were in the process of obtaining, a bachelor’s degree went from 51% to 62% in two years. She stated, “the number of teachers who hold an in-service language teacher certification has increased from less than 15% to 75%” (ibid. 15). These figures reflected the progress made in the professionalization of the ELT faculty as part of the efforts made to improve the quality of the language teaching.

In addition to the appointment of Ms. Rubio, the university opened a new LC building in 2006. This building was fully equipped and exclusively designed for the study of foreign languages, specifically English, French and German, as an additional service for the university community and the general public. However, soon after the LC had moved to the new building, the university’s central office announced the dismissal of its director. Ms. Rubio had been in the post for four years when she was made redundant. The post was then taken over in 2007 by Mr. Flores (a pseudonym) who was not a member of the ELT community. A monolingual in Spanish, he was a history teacher with experience in management.

The appointment of the new director was followed by an escalation of resignation letters sent in by LC academic staff. Certainly, the LC’s academic staff turnover rates increased significantly in the new director’s first year in office. In one staff meeting, the professional development department presented a report on the faculty’s professional development needs. They reported that there was an increase in newly hired teachers, with most of them being inexperienced teachers; therefore, there was a need to reinforce the mentoring program already in place. Apparently, the LC was undergoing a generation shift among its faculty, as some of its members had left and some others had replaced them. The following extract of the slideshow presentation used at that staff meeting shows this issue:

We have now nine new teachers. This represents a 20% increase in newly hired teachers with respect to the last academic term. Most of them have little or no experience at all. Six of them already hold the TKT [Teaching Knowledge Test] certificate, but the other three do not have a formal teaching qualification. Therefore, they will be required to participate in our mentoring program. (Field notes dated June 10th, 2008)

The fact that there was a high rate of newly hired (and inexperienced) teachers at the LC certainly came as no surprise as the LC’s administration had witnessed that phenomenon in previous academic terms. The problem was also the fact that some members of the academic staff had started to leave the LC. Those members, however, were the ones who had enjoyed financial support for their postgraduate studies abroad, and they had recently returned to the LC. At that point, no one paid much attention to that issue. However, during the next two years, that tendency continued. By 2008, of the 13 teachers who had received financial aid to obtain master’s degrees, 10 had already decided to leave the LC. They argued that they would leave for different reasons such as their marriage and move to a different city or a job offer from another school of the private sector. However, their resignations were understood by senior faculty members as a disloyal practice on the one hand, and as a cause for concern about the academic quality provided by the institution on the other. The following quotation taken from an interview with one of the teachers illustrates this point:

When all the teachers returned from their masters’ studies I felt that the LC would become a very professional and organized place to work at. But now I see that many of them have gone. It seems like they only viewed the center as a means to obtain what they wanted and then they just left. And, unfortunately, all that affects the quality of the center. We now have a wonderful building, but we also need prepared people. All the high expectations we had before have gone too. (Rosaura, April 27th, 2009)

As other teachers we interviewed, Rosaura, too, was concerned with the possibility that the quality of language teaching/learning provided at the LC might be at risk as a result of the academic staff members’ departure. In fact, by the summer of 2009, an analysis of the profile of the teaching staff conducted by the LC’s professional development department found that as many as 40% of the teachers held neither a language teaching certificate nor a language proficiency certificate. It was only logical to think that this issue had a negative impact on the quality of the teaching provision. However, that did not lower the demand for English courses — people still continued to register for them. Admission rates continued to be steady over the next academic terms.

Situation 2: The Institutional English Program

The planning, coordinating, and implementation of the Institutional English Program (IEP) had traditionally been conducted by the State-wide English Academy, which was made up of all the English teachers in the different academic schools and faculties of the university. The State-wide English Academy’s meetings usually took place every three months at the central campus of the university, the capital city. As noted earlier, the Academic Development Department is in charge of all the academies. The IEP had been in place since 2002, so there was a need to revise it. The authorities from the Academic Development Department decided that this time the LC would also be invited to participate in the revision process of the IEP.

Some members of the LC took the opportunity very seriously. They also felt that there was a need for the university to implement an institutional strategy for the learning/teaching of foreign languages at the university level. Coordinated by the newly appointed director, Mr. Flores, these LC members started to work on the proposal whose main objective was to help undergraduate students develop their English language skills up to a proficiency level equivalent to B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR). The innovative aspects of the proposal included an increase in the number of courses to offer (from two to six) and the centralization of the assessment procedures. These meant that individual schools would no longer be allowed to design and implement their own assessment methods. Instead, the LC would now construct achievement tests which they would grade as well and they would send the result reports to individual schools. Soon after the proposal for the project was completed, they went on to present it to the state-wide English Academy in one of their quarterly meetings. The following is an extract taken from that meeting’s minutes:

The President mentioned that the proposal was presented untimely as the State-wide English Academy had just updated and approved the course syllabi for the IEP; and therefore, they (LC’s staff) should have considered the hard work the members of the Academy had done. Also, some of the participants in the meeting (teachers) expressed their disapproval of the way in which the project was presented to them. They complained that it was not presented to them as a proposal, but as an imposition by the LC people, arguing that they had the Rector’s support. In addition, some of the members of the Academy felt that the project limited to a large extent their right to exercise their professional judgment as it proposed the use of particular teaching materials (course book) and assessment methods without taking into consideration their teaching context. (Meeting minute dated August 21st, 2007)

This extract shows the evident tension that this event created between the Academy members and the LC’s academic staff as to who should be responsible for the administration of the IEP. There was certainly a good intention on the part of both parties and they both felt that they had the right to lead the IEP. However, what both parties seemed to have overlooked was the feasibility of the project. They both saw the need for the IEP to undergo major changes if it were to succeed at improving the quality of English language teaching/learning. However, there was already an antecedent that a similar proposal had been put forth by former English Academy administrations, with no success. Such an antecedent was dismissed, though. The debate of whether the university should implement a revised strategy for the learning of foreign languages continued for a long time after that meeting, at least in informal conversations, but it never took place in formal and institutional spaces. Today, few schools (15%) follow the LC’s project but only on an informal basis and is self-financed rather than supported by the university.

Situation 3: The new exit requirement for undergraduate students

The value given to English is also evident in one of the policies implemented at MAU. English now features very strongly in the requirements for undergraduate students. From 2005 onwards, students have been required to obtain a minimum of 450 points on the institutional Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the equivalent on other internationally recognized English tests if they are to be eligible for graduation (analysis of the Institutional Development Plan 2006-2010). This policy reflects the pressures that Mexican universities are facing. They are now being required to provide measurable evidence of their educational quality if they are to accredit their educational programs, and therefore, to compete for the allocation of funding. The underlying assumption of this policy seems to be that by setting this target for students, they will be encouraged or forced to improve their proficiency level in English.

Our experience as members of the English language teaching community shows that faculty members (language teachers) and policy makers were more concerned about the consequences of this policy than students themselves were, as the following extract taken from our field notes shows:

No one wants to make the decision to set the final official date for this policy to come into effect. I am afraid authorities feel that the application of this policy will have a negative impact on failing rates, and therefore on graduation rates, with all the negative consequences of this. (Field notes dated April 26th, 2011)

A survey was designed to determine the impact and the quality of the IEP of the university. The Spanish-medium questionnaire was distributed in hard copy to 101 teachers, covering the six campuses/sites that make up the university (see Appendix). Of the 101 teachers, 82 returned their completed questionnaires. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this survey was the evidence that teachers took the opportunity to identify weaknesses in the program and to propose ways of improving the quality of the English language teaching and learning provided by the university. In particular, they were able to delineate the problems with the implementation of the exit language requirement for undergraduate students and to propose possible solutions. Table 1 shows the problems with the implementation of the exit requirement identified by the teachers.

Table 1. Reported problems with the implementation of the exit requirement

Reported problems Mentions Percentage
Students’ low motivational level 54 66
More English courses needed 43 52
Students’ low academic and socio-economic level 32 39
Large and heterogeneous groups 28 34
Lack of language learning facilities (Self-access Centers) 25 30

As can be seen in Table 1, the most frequent challenge to meet the exit requirement identified by the teachers was related to the students’ characteristics. A lack of students’ motivation was the predominant concern cited here (by 66% of respondents). They expressed concern that the students showed little or no interest in learning a foreign language. A recurrent view was also that students were grouped into large and, in terms of language proficiency level, heterogeneous classes. Almost 34% mentioned that teaching large classes of students with diverse levels of proficiency has a negative impact on the learning quality. A perceived low academic ability of students to develop the proficiency level required was also a common hindrance, with 39% reporting that students had serious academic deficiencies as a result of the poor learning context of their previous educational level, namely high school.

Closely related to the teachers’ concern about students’ characteristics is their perception that little or no support was provided by the university authorities to increase the number of English courses offered to students. More than half (52%) of the teachers cited that the university should provide more courses, so that the students could develop a higher proficiency level in English and therefore could meet the exit requirement. They argued that since most students come to the university with little or no knowledge of the English language, more courses were needed to meet the objectives. Although they were aware that the language centers were there to provide higher-level courses, they felt that the centers did not have the capacity to attend to all the students, and many of the students could not afford to pay for the tuition fees.

Finally, infrastructure was also an issue identified by the teachers as a factor interfering with the development of students’ language learning. 30% raised the issue that many schools did not have facilities such as a language lab or a self-access center where students could practice and develop their English language skills. They warned that such an issue also prevented the students from developing the English proficiency level needed to meet the exit requirement.

All these issues raised by the teachers are certainly problematic. For example, offering two 60-hour courses may be insufficient to help students develop the proficiency level in a foreign language equivalent to that of 400 hours, as suggested by the CEFR. Similarly, expecting the students of a public school to be self-motivated to learn a foreign language or to have a strong academic background may be unrealistic. In addition, having facilities such as a self-access center in every single school or faculty of the university may also be difficult. However, we need to raise the question of whether the solution to these problems would suffice. Unfortunately, there still was a difficulty unforeseen by many of the stakeholders.

As mentioned before, in 2005 the university implemented an institutional policy requiring undergraduate students to demonstrate their English language ability equivalent to a B1 level by means of an external language proficiency certificate exam. This meant that those aiming to graduate in 2009 would need to meet this requirement. However, when the date for this policy to come into effect approached, the Academic Secretary, the authority responsible for all the academic issues, decided to postpone it. A memo was sent to all the academic departments explaining this situation and stating that the policy would now apply only to students whose programs started in the fall term of 2007 rather than in the fall term of 2005. The following is an extract from the memo:

As stated in Article 78 of the university students’ rules and regulations, approved by the University Assembly in its 244 session of the fifth day of July 2007, one of the requirements to obtain the bachelor’s degree is the acquisition of a mid-intermediate level of proficiency in a foreign language, preferably English. We are now proposing that the requirement no longer be applicable to students who started their undergraduate programs in 2005. Rather, the requirement will now be applicable only to those students whose academic programs started in the fall of 2007. (Memo dated March 19th, 2009, our translation)

Arguably, the authorities suspected that many, if not most, of the students would struggle to meet the requirement, and that would affect the university’s quality indicators, namely graduation and completion rates as assessed by external accreditation bodies. It seemed that they would want to extend the beginning date in the hope that the students and teachers could have more time and energy to prepare for the examination. However, when the new deadline came for the second time, a similar situation took place. A meeting with all the deans of the schools and faculties of the university was organized. The deans were presented with a memo of a new proposal, along with a slideshow presentation of the operative strategy of the proposal. The following is an excerpt of that memo:

Considering that those [undergraduate] students whose programs started in the fall term of 2007, and therefore will be graduating in December 2011, will need to comply with this requirement, the following proposal is presented [to the Board of Deans]: Those students who have taken language courses in either schools or faculties, or the LC, or in any other external institution are required to TAKE and PASS the English Language Examination (EXIT), which will be designed and administered by the LC. This Department will then issue a constancia (internal certificate) to those students who pass the examination, stating that they have complied with the exit requirement. Alternatively, those students who already hold an external nationally or internationally recognized language proficiency certificate will need to bring it to the LC to validate it. They will then get the constancia, stating that they have complied with the exit requirement.

For those students aiming to graduate in December 2012 will be required to adhere to new mechanisms related to the exit requirement. Such mechanisms will be discussed and approved by all the deans of the schools and faculties. Therefore, we will be accepting and reviewing proposals in the next meeting. (Memo dated October 11th, 2011, our translation)

The excerpt of the memo clearly shows that the announcement was made just two months before the prospective graduating students were required to fulfill the exit requirement if they were to be eligible for graduation. The announcement, however, suggests that the intention of the authorities was to provide the students with one more option to meet the exit requirement such as passing an institutional language proficiency examination. However, in the end, the university developed an amnesty plan. All the undergraduate students who did not hold a valid language proficiency certificate were asked just to register and take the institutional test. That meant that since the university had not been able to provide clear and prompt guidelines and support for what the exact English requirement the students had to meet, now they would not be required to attain a minimum specific score on the test. The university authorities, however, agreed that the amnesty plan would apply only to the first cohort of students as an emergency situation. They stated once more that subsequent cohorts of students shall indeed need to comply with the original exit requirement.


We want to highlight some key issues that have emerged from our discussion of the case of MAU. The first set of issues relates to the paradox that schools like MAU represent. On the one hand, we argue that the value and importance given to the learning of the English language by many people in Mexico continues to be high. This issue was reflected in the high and sustained students’ registration rates for the English courses at the LC in particular, and in the fact that English features very strongly across the university curriculum for undergraduate students in general. On the other hand, it seems that all this importance of and enthusiasm for the learning of the English language has not been fully capitalized by members of the ELT field.

There is no doubt that the university has made every effort to provide students with opportunities to develop their English language skills. Examples of these efforts include the allocation of new infrastructure for the learning of foreign languages, the provision of funding for the LC faculty to pursue higher degrees abroad, the implementation of an Institutional English Program, and the establishment of the exit English language requirement for all undergraduate students. While the educational value of these efforts may need a deeper examination, such examination is certainly beyond the scope of this study, and perhaps could be the subject of future research. What this study has tried to do is to show how all these efforts undergo a series of social and political difficulties that prevent them from consolidating. This was evidenced in the abrupt change of the LC’s administration, in the failure to complete the joint project of the revised version of the Institutional English Program between the LC’s academic staff members and the members of the State-wide English Academy, and in the continuous delay of the starting date of the exit requirement for undergraduate students.

At a surface level, what these difficulties appear to have in common is a lack of commitment to giving continuity to institutional projects and policies. In other words, projects and policies relating to the English language teaching and learning are implemented at the university, but their courses of development are either interrupted or corrupted for different reasons. However, at a deeper level, each of these events represents a distinct challenge for the ELT field, and therefore, they need to be analyzed separately.

Situation 1 shows the impact that decisions made by external people, usually in powerful positions within the institution, have on the life of the ELT area. The abrupt change in the administration of the LC reveals how certain decisions relating to ELT are still motivated by political reasons. It shows how someone who meets a desirable profile is first appointed as director, but a few years later she is removed and replaced by someone who is not a member of the ELT field. This practice seems to resonate with Farmer’s (2005) argument that decisions about the provision of ELT in Mexican contexts are made with little or no expert input.

Yet, this is not to say that good leadership and management in ELT can only be exercised by members of the ELT field. In fact, the literature on educational leadership (Leithwood & Reihl, 2003) suggests that a school leader is only responsible for 7% of what happens in schools. For example, the steady progress made in student registration figures at the LC can also serve as evidence of success. Given the high importance attached to the learning of English and the fact that the LC has an adequately resourced building and the lowest tuition fees in town, the LC continues to attract many students. However, it appears that the impact that such decisions have on the ELT field is rather subtle. They send the message to the members of the ELT community that there is little or no appreciation for what they do and that they can suffer the same fate at any time regardless of their academic achievements or professional background. The consequence of this was the teachers’ and academic staff members’ departure. When they witnessed the replacement of the one who had supported them professionally, and considering their poor employment conditions, they took advantage of the situation and looked for other personal or professional opportunities and left as well.

Situation 2 serves to analyze the extent to which we ELT practitioners advocate for our profession. Scholars such as Nunan (2001) and Pennington (1992) have strongly suggested that we practitioners are still not very good at advocating for our profession; therefore, they argue that we must become involved in social and political action. This research, however, has shown that it is difficult for ELT practitioners to collaborate. This was evident in the struggle for the assignment of the management of the Institutional English Program between the LC administration and the members of the English Academy. We argue that ELT practitioners first need to learn to resolve internal conflicts before engaging in the social and political action proposed by Nunan and Pennington.

Conflicts like this perhaps arise because academic staff and faculty members of the LC and teachers teaching at the different schools and faculties of the university have traditionally worked independently of each other. This way of working matches the description of the way in which other public universities in Mexico work, as discussed by Davies (2009). A possible way to overcome this challenge is through the provision of more institutional spaces where the ELT community of the entire university can interact with one another despite their differences in employment status with the purpose of bridging the gap between these two kinds of ELT provision. Such a responsibility, however, is only likely to prosper if it is left to insiders who have strong academic profiles and, above all, professional credibility.

Similarly, situation 3 makes evident the way in which certain institutional policies and practices thought to improve the quality of the ELT provided end up being counterproductive. The authorities designed and implemented an institutional policy that required all undergraduate students to comply with an English language proficiency requirement. However, the starting date for the requirement to come into effect was continuously postponed or modified. The question that this issue raises is why the very same authorities that proposed the implementation of such a language policy now look for short-term solutions to a problem that arguably they contributed to creating. All this, however, jeopardizes the credibility of the policy itself and of the English language teaching-learning provided by the university, and therefore, on the identity of the ELT field. As noted in the literature review, Davies (2009) had already warned us that the credibility of the ELT field would be compromised if students and teachers experience these kinds of practices in school settings.

Finally, we wish to emphasize that this study has attempted to analyze the determinants of success of the ELT profession in Mexico and elsewhere. We have also tried to show the value of conducting research to raise current and prospective ELT practitioners’ awareness of some of these factors. We also invite colleagues around the world to continue generating knowledge that can assist our profession in its consolidation process. We are sure that our joint efforts will help us achieve that.

About the Authors

Alberto Mora holds a doctoral degree from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. He also holds a master’s degree from the University of Texas Pan-American, USA. He works at the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas, México. His research interests include language teacher education and critical issues in TESOL.

Paulina Trejo holds a Doctoral degree from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. She works at the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas, México where she teaches in the BA in Applied Linguistics program.

Ruth Roux holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition / Instructional Technology from the University of South Florida, USA. She teaches in the BA in Applied Linguistics program at the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas, México.


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Estimado colega:
Estamos solicitando su participación en la presente encuesta que realiza la Secretaría Académica de esta Universidad en coordinación con su Unidad Académica. El propósito de la encuesta es conocer su opinión con respecto a la calidad y el impacto que el programa Institucional de inglés de esta Universidad ha tenido. El objetivo general es identificar las áreas que requieran mejorarse y poder orientar nuestros esfuerzos en brindar a nuestros estudiantes y a los futuros estudiantes una mejor calidad en el servicio de enseñanza/aprendizaje de idiomas extranjeros. La información que proporciones será tratada con estricta confidencialidad.

El cuestionario está compuesto de 5 páginas e incluye 8 secciones cortas y se calcula que lo pueda terminar de contestar en NO más de 15 minutos. Agradecemos de antemano su sinceridad al responder a todas y cada una de las preguntas.


Sección 1. Datos generales
Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada.

1. Género      (    ) Masculino      (    ) Femenino
2. Edad     (   ) 21 años o menos      (   ) 21 a 30 años      (   ) 31 a 40 años          (   ) 41 a 50 años      (   ) Mas de 50 años
3. ¿Cuántos años ha estado trabajando en el área de enseñanza de lenguas?
     (    ) 0 a 3 años      (    ) 4 a 7 años      (    ) 8 a 11 años      (    ) 12 a 15 años      (    ) 16 o más años
4. ¿En qué niveles educativos ha usted ensenado lenguas extranjeras?
     (    ) Educación básica      (    ) Educación media/media superior      (   ) Educación superior
     (    ) Sector educativo privado      (    ) Centros de lenguas
5. ¿Cuántos años ha estado trabajando dentro de la MAU?
     (    ) 0 a 3 años      (    ) 4 a 7 años      (    ) 8 a 11 años      (    ) 12 a 15 años      (    ) 16 o más años
6. ¿En qué tipo de escuela trabaja dentro de la MAU?
     (   ) Centro de Lenguas          (   ) Unidad académica
7. Es usted profesor:
     (    ) De tiempo completo      (    ) De horario libre      (    ) Otro
     (especifique   )__________________________


Sección 2. Sobre su formación profesional
Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada.

1. ¿Qué nivel educativo ha completado?
     Grados académicos:     (   ) Licenciatura      (   ) Maestría      (   ) Doctorado
     Certificaciones de enseñanza:      (   ) TKT      (    ) COTE/ICELT      (    ) Otro
     (especifique   )__________________
2. ¿Con cuál de las siguientes certificaciones de inglés cuenta? (Favor de marcar todos los apropiados)
     (   ) TOEFL      (   ) TOEFL institucional     (    ) TOEFL IBT      (   ) por internet
     (    ) IELTS      (    ) FCE
     (    ) Otra      (especifique   )_____________________
3. ¿Con cuál de los siguientes reconocimientos cuenta
     (    ) Perfil PROMEP      (    ) SNI      (    ) Otro      (especifique   ) ____________________________


Sección 3. Sobre su contexto educativo/ unidad académica de adscripción
Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada.

1. ¿Qué tipo de formación académica le es requerida para trabajar dentro de su unidad académica? Favor de marcar todos los apropiados)
     (   ) Bachillerato     (   ) Estudios normalistas     (   ) Licenciatura     (   ) Maestría
     (   ) Certificación de enseñanza
     (   ) Otra   &nbsp(especifique)_____________________
2. ¿Cuántas horas frente a grupo enseña por semana
     (    ) 4-8 hrs     (    ) 9-12 hrs      (    )13-16 hrs     (    ) 16 hrs o mas
3. En promedio ¿Cuántos estudiantes tiene en su salón de clase?
     (    ) 15 a 20      (    ) 21 a 30      (    ) 31 a 40      (    ) 41 o mas
4. ¿Es requisito que sus estudiantes aprueben algún examen estandarizado de dominio del inglés institucional, nacional o internacional para poder egresar de sus programas académicos?
     (   ) Si      (   ) No      (   ) No estoy seguro(a)     (   ) Desconozco
     En caso afirmativo por favor especifique cuál examen:__________________________________
5. En caso de haber contestado afirmativamente la pregunta anterior ¿Influye este examen de alguna manera en su estilo de enseñanza?
     (    ) Si      (   ) No

     En caso afirmativo por favor especifique cómo:__________________________________
6. ¿Cómo se evalúa su desempeño docente en la unidad académica de su adscripción? (Por favor seleccione todas las que apliquen).
     (   ) Autoevaluación
     (   ) Evaluación anónima de sus estudiantes
     (   ) Evaluación de sus colegas     (   ) Evaluación de coordinador o supervisor
     (   ) Desempeño de los estudiantes en exámenes estandarizados nacionales o internacionales
     (   ) Inspección de los productos académicos de los estudiantes por organismos acreditadores
     (   ) Otra  (especifique)_____________________
7. ¿Cuáles son sus principales responsabilidades dentro de la unidad académica de su adscripción? (Por favor seleccione todas las que apliquen y coloque un asterisco (*) junto a su función principal).
     (   ) Docencia      (   ) Investigación     (   ) Desarrollo de material didáctico
     (   ) Coordinación de profesores     (   ) Capacitación de profesores
     (   ) Desarrollo de planes y programas de estudio

Comentarios adicionales _____________________________________________________________


Sección 4. Planeación
¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con las siguientes aseveraciones con respecto a la planeación del Programa de Inglés? Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada en la tabla tomando en consideración los siguientes valores:

5=Totalmente de acuerdo   4= Bastante de acuerdo   3=Neutral   2=Bastante en desacuerdo   1=Totalmente en desacuerdo

5 4 3 2 1
Los objetivos del programa son adecuados a las necesidades de los estudiantes.
La organización y estructura del programa de inglés es adecuada
Los contenidos son consistentes con los objetivos del programa de inglés y de la institución
Los contenidos son apropiados para satisfacer las necesidades de los estudiantes previamente detectadas
El número cursos de inglés y el número de horas asignado al trabajo presencial es el adecuado para el logro de los objetivos del programa.
El número de horas de trabajo independiente asignado al estudiante es suficiente para apoyar un aprendizaje significativo
Las competencias lingüísticas que se espera que los estudiantes desarrollen con el programa de inglés son congruentes con los objetivos del programa
El programa provee de servicios y apoyos académicos a los estudiantes tales como tutorías, club de conversación, trabajo dirigido e independiente en el laboratorio de idiomas, etc.
El proceso de ubicación de estudiantes asegura que éstos estén calificados y se beneficien de su programa de estudios
El programa de inglés tiene asignada la infraestructura y el equipo apropiado en cantidad, calidad y disponibilidad para lograr sus objetivos educativos y de servicio
Existen suficientes materiales y recursos didácticos y son de buena calidad y accesibles para las necesidades y posibilidades de los estudiantes.
Los profesores de inglés de su unidad académica poseen el perfil profesional apropiado para atender las necesidades lingüísticas de los estudiantes.


Sección 5. Ejecución.
¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con las siguientes aseveraciones con respecto a la ejecución del Programa de Inglés? Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada en la tabla tomando en consideración los siguientes valores:

5=Totalmente de acuerdo   4= Bastante de acuerdo   3=Neutral   2=Bastante en desacuerdo   1=Totalmente en desacuerdo

5 4 3 2 1
Los métodos de enseñanza-aprendizaje son adecuados para el logro de los objetivos del programa.
El programa de estudios se cumple íntegramente y se lleva a cabo sin contratiempos
Los materiales y recursos didácticos usados son adecuados para el logro de los objetivos del programa
Los estudiantes tienen a su disposición los servicios académicos que contribuyen en su aprendizaje significativo
Existe congruencia entre los métodos de evaluación de los aprendizajes de los estudiantes y los objetivos del programa
Los estudiantes reciben retroalimentación detallada y puntual sobre su desempeño académico

Enumere los tres principales retos a los que se enfrenta durante su práctica profesional:
a) ____________________________________________________________________________
b) ____________________________________________________________________________
c) ____________________________________________________________________________

Enumere los tres principales retos a los que sus estudiantes se enfrentan al aprender inglés:
a) ___________________________________________________________________________
b) ____________________________________________________________________________
c) ____________________________________________________________________________


Sección 6. Evaluación.
¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con las siguientes aseveraciones con respecto a la evaluación del Programa de Inglés? Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada en la tabla tomando en consideración los siguientes valores:

5=Totalmente de acuerdo   4= Bastante de acuerdo   3=Neutral   2=Bastante en desacuerdo   1=Totalmente en desacuerdo

5 4 3 2 1
Los planes y programas de estudios de inglés se revisan periódicamente para ajustarlos a las demandas del entorno global.
Los aprendizajes de los estudiantes se someten a evaluaciones externas para la obtención de su certificación.
El trabajo colegiado entre los profesores de inglés al interior de su UAM es de alto nivel.
Lo procesos de evaluación del desempeño profesional de los profesores de inglés se realiza de manera sistemática y con propósitos de mejora continua
Los profesores de inglés reciben oportunidades continuas de capacitación y desarrollo profesional congruentes con sus necesidades profesionales.
Se recaba información sobre la calidad del programa de inglés al interior de su UAM de manera sistemática.

Comentarios adicionales_____________________________________________________________


Sección 7. Competencias lingüísticas.
¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con las siguientes aseveraciones con respecto a las competencias lingüísticas que los estudiantes logran desarrollar con el Programa de Inglés? Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada en la tabla tomando en consideración los siguientes valores:

5=Totalmente de acuerdo   4= Bastante de acuerdo   3=Neutral   2=Bastante en desacuerdo   1=Totalmente en desacuerdo

5 4 3 2 1
a) Poseen suficiente vocabulario para expresarse sobre la mayoría de los temas pertinentes para su vida diaria como familia, aficiones, trabajo, viajes y hechos de actualidad.
b) Se comunican con suficiente corrección gramatical en situaciones cotidianas. Aunque cometen errores, queda claro lo que desean expresar.
c) Sui pronunciación es claramente inteligible, aunque a veces resulta evidente su acento extranjero y cometen errores de pronunciación
d) Se expresan oralmente con relativa facilidad, a pesar de algunos problemas al formular su discurso son capaces de seguir adelante con eficacia y sin ayuda.
e) Son capaces de escribir textos sobre la mayoría de los temas pertinentes para su vida diaria de manera organizada y gramaticalmente correcta.
f) Comprenden textos escritos sobre temas tales como familia, aficiones, trabajo, viajes y hechos de actualidad.
g) Comprenden conversaciones sobre temas tales como familia, aficiones, trabajo, viajes y hechos de actualidad.

Comentarios adicionales_____________________________________________________________


Sección 8. Impacto del programa de inglés en la vida de los estudiantes.
¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con las siguientes aseveraciones con respecto al impacto del Programa de Inglés en la vida de los estudiantes? Por favor seleccione (√) la opción más apropiada en la tabla tomando en consideración los siguientes valores:

5=Totalmente de acuerdo   4= Bastante de acuerdo   3=Neutral   2=Bastante en desacuerdo   1=Totalmente en desacuerdo

5 4 3 2 1
a) La enseñanza -aprendizaje del idioma inglés es necesario en los planes y programas de estudio de nivel universitario.
a) La materia de inglés se integra adecuadamente con el resto de las exigencias académicas de los programas académicos
a) El Programa de Inglés prepara a los estudiantes de manera adecuada para poder participar en programas y/o intercambios académicos en el extranjero
a) El Programa de Inglés prepara a los estudiantes de manera adecuada para poder tener éxito en contextos laborales en donde se requiere el uso del idioma inglés
a) El Programa de Inglés prepara a los estudiantes de manera adecuada para poder interactuar adecuadamente en contextos cotidianos internacionales

Comentarios adicionales _____________________________________________________________

Le agradecemos su tiempo para contestar este cuestionario.

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