Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: Proficiency students

Type: Article

Lindsay Clandfield offers some advice to a teacher in Poland whose Proficiency-level students are no longer challenged by their coursebook.

Hi,

I'm really struggling with coming up with ideas for a Proficiency-level class. They're so strong that very few grammar games or reviews seem to work for them, and most class discussions, debates and role plays don't really challenge them either. (One of them lived in the UK for ten years.) I realize they need work on idioms, collocations and high-level vocabulary; however, I'm running out of ways to present this in an interesting manner and, if I'm honest, the coursebook is terrible. 

The other problem is that they have an exam this summer, but despite their extremely high language competency, they seem unable to do the speaking tasks in the practice exams! They badly need work on structuring their answers, confidence- and fluency-building, and encouragement to actually produce the high-level vocabulary I know they have - and yet, when I give them exam practices, they flatly refuse to do them, saying they're both 'boring' and 'too difficult'.

Do you have any suggestions? I'm really at the end of my tether!
Emma, Poland

Hi Emma,

Your question is a valid one, and I can certainly see why you are at the end of your tether. Teaching Proficiency level students can be extremely draining especially if you are using materials that focus on discrete grammatical items (or even vocabulary items) which they may in all likelihood have seen before or, worse, will never see again. Without knowing your class better, it’s hard to come up with a single magic solution but here are some suggestions which might give you and your students a renewed burst of energy.

1. Start using fiction

By this I mean short extracts or chapters of (authentic) works of contemporary English fiction. Impossible to find in your part of Poland, you say? Not anymore with the internet. One site I’ve used for this is http://www.bookbrowse.com/. Give the students ten minutes or so quiet reading time at the beginning of class. Then ask them to do any or all of the following:

  • provide an oral summary of the excerpt
  • choose four (or five, or three) unknown words or phrases and discuss what they think they mean (they then check with a dictionary)
  • say if the excerpt reminds them of another book or film (even in their own language)
  • discuss what they think the rest of the book is about, the main themes and whether or not they would like to read it
  • write a short reaction to the text they read, and be ready to discuss it

Choose one of these tasks rather than making comprehension questions. It’s easier to set up, could lead to more discussion and may be more challenging. Eventually ask students to bring in their own fictional extracts from books they like and repeat the exercise. Keep a track of words and expressions that come up for revision material.

2. Use the news

Similar to the above, but this time bring in short news stories. You may be doing this already, but if not then I recommend you start. You could ask students to do similar tasks to the above or – if you just want a worksheet with it all done for you then you could check the Guardian Weekly advanced news lessons on onestopenglish. I’ve written a fair few of them in the past, and the level of the advanced lessons is really quite advanced indeed.

3. Personalize exam tasks

Your students baulk at the exam tasks you set them, saying that they’re boring and too difficult. To meet the first objection, it’s time to look for other ways of giving them the same practice. Here are some suggestions, based on the type of questions in the Cambridge Proficiency Speaking Exam.

Exam question type: individual questions on a topic
Sample question: If you could live in any other country, apart from your own, which would it be? Why?

Ways to adapt:

  1. Answer the question truthfully, then answer it a second time but tell deliberate lies; embellish and exaggerate your answer as much as possible.
  2. Answer the question as you think your partner would answer it. Then check back after.
  3. Answer the question once, then answer it a second time but this time you must include the phrases or words your teacher gives you (you will need to prepare some questions for this).

Exam question type: comparing photos in the coursebook/exam
Sample question: Look at these pictures and talk together about why you think they might have been taken.

Ways to adapt:

  1. Ask students to bring in three interesting photos they have taken or are of them, their families, etc. Mix these up and redistribute them so each pair has six photos. Get them to do the task.
  2. Go out with a digital camera and take six to eight photos of the town or people in it but from interesting angles. Print these all on a single paper and make copies for the students. Get them to do the task.
  3. Create an imaginary, strange context for the boring photos in the coursebook task (e.g. they were all taken by a spy; they were all taken by a person with one week left to live, they were all taken by a couple very much in love, etc.). Get students to do the task with this context in mind.

4. Do some improvisation

Improvisations, or ‘improvs’ are short drama exercises. At the level your students are at, they have the language to be able to do these activities which are for native speakers. An example would be to write down, on separate bits of paper, all those expressions you want them to use. Put these in a bowl or a box. Two students come up to the front and have to improvise a conversation on a topic of their choosing (food, weekend, films, whatever). When you clap, one person has to grab a phrase from the bowl and try to work it into the conversation. You can see a whole bunch of these kinds of activities on http://improvencyclopedia.org/.

5. Record them

Finally, this last suggestion involves getting more technical. Three years ago I would not have suggested this, but now it’s becoming easier and easier. To help students improve their speaking I suggest you record them, or get them to record themselves. They could do this with their mobile phones or with MP3 players. You only need one recording device for every two or three students in the class. Here is one procedure you could follow:

  1. Put students in pairs and assign them a speaking task. Tell them you want them to try and do the task for a minute and to record themselves while they do it.
  2. Students do the task.
  3. Ask them to listen to the task again. They can do one of two things here: a) transcribe the conversation, or b) listen for mistakes or things that they could have said better and make a note of these.
  4. Do feedback on this as a group.
  5. Ask them to repeat the speaking task, but this time to try and do it better (i.e. fewer mistakes, using more complex language or concepts, etc.).

If you are feeling really technologically adventurous this could just be the beginning. Further steps could involve:

  • Filming the students doing a task or presentation with a digital camera or video camera.
  • Asking students to film themselves at home with a webcam talking about a subject they are interested in and sending it to you or uploading it to a shared site.
  • Using one of the ‘better’ videos and adding subtitles to it (subtitling in English what the students said in English; this means that you can all watch and read the clip and it’s easier to pinpoint specific things). Worried you can’t add subtitles? Ask if any of your students can! This kind of thing is getting easier and easier all the time.

Good luck!

Lindsay Clandfield

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Thanks so much for your lovely comment Lockhart!

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  • Thank you tremendously, that was a really really helpful contribution for me. I'm beginning with a CPE class and was having the same doubts. I love your ideas and above all that you support them with sound reasoning. I'll be coming back to your response for weeks to come!

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  • I really like the number of different suggestions. My experience with English learners from Eastern Europe, although today many of them go abroad and immerse, is that the previous learning style at their own schools regularly shines through especially when short before exams. The fear of making mistakes seems to prevail. And the less a task can be prepared for, which is always the case in higher speaking modules, the more fear increases.
    To expose learners to different methodologies and to make learning topics relevant for each learner at a very early point of teaching, generally leads to a more natural and better performance during tests and exams.

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