Thursday, 5 May 2011

To Intermediate and Beyond...... #eltchat Summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place on Twitter at 12 noon BST on Wednesday 4th May, 2011. The topic was:

What stops many adult learners from progressing beyond intermediate level?  Is there a barrier?

(Or, as the question was posed by @pjgallantry, 'Is there some kind of linguistic 'glass ceiling' which some students simply can't get through?') 

As usual, it was a fast & furious chat, but, on this occasion, it separated quite neatly in to two parts:

1. The answer to the original question
2. What can we do to motivate and help   students who want to progress, but who are finding it difficult?

Reasons why students stop at intermediate level

  • Intermediate level is simply good enough for most people's needs
  • Students run out of time
  • There's a realisation that it's just too difficult beyond intermediate level (e.g. the exam expectations for PET & FCE are markedly different) 
  • When learners hit intermediate level, they can get by in most situations & sometimes decide they don't need to improve
  • Learning English becomes more tricky & time-consuming after this level
  • Spiky profiles can be a barrier, e.g. poor writing skills can hold some students back
  • A lack of motivation & interest
  • Some students are put off by having to do more writing at advanced levels
  • Some people have a propensity for languages & some don't 
  • It's human nature - we start new things with a lot of interest & gradually the interest wanes
  • The jump from intermediate is seen as being too high, especially when using course books
  • It is much harder to sense (from the student's point of view) and to measure (from the teacher's viewpoint) progress from intermediate to advanced than it is in the lower levels
  • A sense of frustration - of 'getting nowhere fast'
  • Government funding for migrant English courses runs out at intermediate level leading to a big drop-out after that (this from @cioccas in Australia)
  • Students are learning English for a particular reason (e.g. driving lessons) & this need is met by reaching intermediate level
  • Learners have other responsibilities (e.g. work & children) which prevent them from continuing their English studies
  • It's difficult for students to progress beyond intermediate level if they don't live in an English-speaking country (this was disputed!)
  • Students are unable to afford private language tuition & funded upper-intermediate & advanced courses aren't easy to come by
  • Many advanced level courses are exam based & this isn't always relevant/appropriate for students
  • Intermediate level is often good enough to get a job, even jobs teaching English in some cases!
  • Learners become demotivated due to a focus on grammar rather than on communication
  • Real proficiency in a language requires a breadth of knowledge (language & culture) that many adults don't have time to invest in
  • The internet is influencing drop out rates - students feel they have learned enough to be able to progress online on their own
  • Students don't understand that their learning needs to 'expand' rather than progress in a 'linear' fashion during the upper levels
  • Perhaps teachers need to question themselves as to whether they are to blame for students not continuing?
  • @englishraven reminded us not to assume that learners just 'stop' - perhaps they stop taking classes and progress well enough without them

At the end of the first 'half' of the chat, the question was asked as to whether teachers were superfluous beyond intermediate level.  Having established that we still had a role to play (thanks, @theteacherjames!), we went on to discuss:

What can we do to help students to progress?

  • Motivation is the key! (@Thamesville told us about the samurai students in Japan who truly want to master the language!)
  • Perhaps our intermediate courses should inspire students to continue to the upper levels
  • Aim for fluency rather than communicative ability to excite students who have reached a plateau
  • One-to-one attention is important as all learners have different 'plateaus' (clearly, this is easier when teaching individuals rather than  groups
  • Make an effort to make students realise that they are progressing, despite how it feels to them
  • Offer non-exam based upper level courses using authentic materials rather than course books
  • Compare students' work at the beginning & the end of their course to show them their progress, through a written task, a presentation, or by recording them
  • Use language in as realistic scenarios & settings as possible
  • Move beyond the coursebook (back to dogme again!)
  • Encourage students to see English as the medium through which things are learned, rather than as a subject to be learned.  We can do this through offering courses in art, cookery, English literature, history, etc in English (CLIL in action?) As @sandymillin told us, 'What helps me is an interest in the cultural side of things... language is secondary - the way I find out more about the culture'
  • Encourage students to use their English outside the classroom
  • More portfolio work so that students see an improvement & can go back & mark their own work
  • Give learners more say in developing materials & lesson ideas 
  • Encourage self-directed & reflective learning with the classroom acting as much more of a meeting place
  • Develop extensive reading or a love of music or film to motivate students to go further (the extensive reading idea proved very popular & might well be the topic of a future #eltchat!)
  • Take more of a task-based, experiential approach with upper levels
  • Get students to teach each other a lot more by rotating leadership in class
  • Suggest that students set up their own 'English club' where they can meet & chat in English, preferably over a glass or two - we all agreed that most students' levels improve after a drop of the hard stuff!

Other points

  • From @hartle - some learners are happy with intermediate level and want to maintain it (@rliberni 'if you don't use it, you'll surely lose it!'), so then we need to look at maintenance courses focusing on discussion groups with skills & some language work, but with a greater social element
  • @englishraven pointed out that coursebook sales taper off sharply after intermediate level 
  • It's difficult to get good teachers for upper levels - many don't do well under the spotlight & are afraid of getting caught out by difficult questions. Also, with ELT Taylorism & wage structures, the good & experienced professionals have disincentives to hang about
  • @englishraven suggested that coursebooks for upper levels should be more like magazines with more content & fewer exercises. @rliberni proposed an adaptable print on demand book.
  • @legyened reminded us that we should also celebrate the fact that so many students manage to get to intermediate level unscathed & with their love for English intact!
  • The move from intermediate to upper levels was expressed in a metaphor by @LizziePinard - 'rather than being like a river, it becomes more like an expanding lake .... and with no current moving them along, they get sluggish to keep swimming!' I think quite a few of us enjoyed this analogy!!

In conclusion, the consensus was that many students stop at intermediate level simply because they don't need to go on and we, as teachers, need to accept this and to be there for them if and when they have a need for higher level English.  For those learners who want to continue to improve, but are finding it difficult for whatever reason, we have to be needs aware and be in a position to offer alternative learning strategies to enable them to reach their goals.


Via @cioccas 'Moving Beyond the Plateau' by Jack C. Richards - video and PDF

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