Adrian Tennant offers advice to a teacher who is concerned about how to support a student whose levels differ from skill to skill.

I have a student at beginner level, he is 14 years old. His reading and writing is correct for his level but his comprehension of written text and verbal conversation is more of an intermediate level. This causes him great frustration as he understands what is being said or written but cannot communicate as he does not have the tenses or the vocabulary to relay his thoughts or ideas.

I was thinking about continuing to teach him at his current level to correct and improve his sentence structure and vocabulary, whilst once a month we would listen to an intermediate level podcast. As a secondary school teacher, I would say this is a good way forward but, as I am new to teaching English, I am concerned this may cause confusion with learning tenses and may be a bit too soon for him. He does have a good grasp of his current level. Maybe the task in hand is to concentrate on his conversational skills. He is underachieving in this area at school.

Awaiting your advice,


Sharron De Coster

Hi Sharron,

This is a very interesting question which contains a couple of strands. Firstly, different abilities across the skills and, secondly, the order in which to teach language items (both grammatical and lexical).

Let’s start with the issue of language level. First of all, it is important to say that this kind of situation is not uncommon – in fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the norm. It is very unusual for anyone to have the same level of English across the skills. Many students will be better at reading, for example, than at listening or writing. This can be due to a number of factors such as exposure, i.e. they have more opportunities to read English; focus, e.g. writing is often the neglected skill, not done in the classroom as it’s time-consuming and simply given as homework; and first language skills, i.e. a student may not be very good at putting their ideas across in their own language, so trying to do it in a foreign language just adds to the complexity.

Here you also mention the sense of frustration. Again I think that is natural. I’ve often found myself in situations where I’m speaking a foreign language, I know what I want to say but I just don’t have the language (both the vocabulary and grammar) to do it. However, if you are teaching your student one-to-one, I think you’ve got a big advantage and you can employ a great strategy which is to give him the vocabulary and some of the structures he needs to express himself. You don’t need to follow a prescribed syllabus or coursebook, you can find out what he wants to say/use the language for, and help him do it. By doing this, you’ll lessen his frustration and this will increase his motivation and almost certainly his progress.

Now, let’s move on to the issue of which order to teach things. You say in your letter that you are concerned that listening to intermediate level podcasts ‘may cause confusion with learning tenses and may be a bit too soon for him’. My answer is very simple – don’t worry.

The first thing to say here is that there is no hard and fast rule about which item of grammar should be taught first and then next. Also, even a supposedly simple tense such as the present simple can be difficult to learn and has many different aspects – some of which we tend to teach much later on. Language learning is not linear – we don’t learn one thing and then move onto the next, it’s more like a double helix with different parts of the language intertwined.

One of the big problems caused by coursebooks is the fact that they seem to lay out a linear path and an order for teaching grammatical items. But here it might be worth us questioning why certain items appear when they do – could it be more because they are easy to teach (and write about) rather than because they are easy to learn or could it also be due to the fact that this is the order in which it’s always been done?

It’s quite evident that students don’t simply learn something because it was taught, but they learn it when they are ready. Therefore, it might well be that one student is ready to learn a particular structure or item of vocabulary before another student. Being able to give your student what he needs or wants at the time he needs it will certainly make a huge difference.

Finally, let’s look at some of the materials on onestopenglish that will be useful. I’d have to say that I wholly agree with your idea of using podcasts with your student. This will certainly help develop his listening skills, but it will also help develop other areas of language including his range of vocabulary and awareness of how tenses are used.

Of course you might want to use the popular soap The Road Less Travelled but there are other great podcasts including the Live from … series which includes a range of topics, so there should be something of interest. Plus, these have worksheets that develop other areas such as vocabulary, grammar and speaking skills. I wouldn’t worry too much about the level indicated, but rather look at the topic.

Also, using one of the podcasts linked to the Macmillan Readers series is a great idea. Why not try The Space Invaders and ask him to read the book as well. And finally, with the podcasts, why not try one of the mini-plays. There’s a great one about football fanatics. I’d also suggest using the Spot on news lessons for teens, as these include topical lessons with a range of tasks.

I’ve always argued that the key to language learning and development is exposure – the more a student reads and listens to the language, the better. As a teacher, if you can help your student to learn to notice the way the language is used and to develop these strategies, the more effective this exposure will be.

Anyway, good luck and please keep us informed of any developments and how you have used the materials available on onestopenglish.

Adrian Tennant