An article offering practical solutions for teaching English at advanced levels.

I really enjoy browsing around your website, it is of great help to teachers round the world. I feel that 'Teaching at advanced levels' is a topic which is often overlooked. I teach students who are planning to take CAE or CELS Higher and sometimes it is hard to get rid of their feeling that they know everything (when they don't) and that we are always doing the same things. How can we 'teach' them grammar at these levels and get them to use more sophisticated language when writing or speaking? How can we teach them reading skills in a way that is not boring for them (I mean 'teach' and not just doing exercises which is just exam practice).

Laura from Uruguay

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your question, which stimulated me to think a bit more deeply about the problem of advanced learners and how to motivate them. This is something I have been concerned about for a long time. There are plenty of materials for beginners, but as you go on, there are fewer and fewer.  I guess it comes down to two main points of focus: 

  • How to get them to do better and faster the things they know how to do already.
  • How to get them to do new things.

Here are just a few ideas which might serve both these objectives. I apologize if you are already familiar with some or all of them. In this era of superchoice and info glut, it is increasingly difficult to find anything totally new!

  1. Set up reading circles. Members of a circle all agree to read a given book or article in time for a given meeting. Members take turns in leading the group by giving a review presentation or a study paper for the others on the text in question. Ideally, the circle members decide for themselves what they will read. (One interesting topic area is the English language itself: history, sub-varieties, oddities, etc.
  2. Set up projects. These should involve students in reading / researching, discussion, collating and selecting, and drafting / publishing. In particular, this facilitates 'narrow reading' i.e.. reading of a number of different texts on the same theme, thus giving repeated exposure to lexical items and discourse features. Again, topics are best chosen by students themselves.
  3. Use more literary texts. There is now an abundance of books and articles on how to do this. Literature both challenges students to make their own sense of texts, and offers them opportunities to open up their affective side to the language. Within literature, I would, of course, include creative writing. One very useful forthcoming book in this area is Jane Spiro's Creative Poetry Writing (OUP 2004 ) - a real cornucopia of good, practical ideas.
  4. Encourage students to keep journals. You need to make sure that they know what kinds of things they might write about, and to collect the journals regularly so that you can give them feedback. Some of my students, for example, keep a thesis journal where they record their progress and feelings about their thesis as it develops. Others keep a creative writing journal, where they record their feelings, thoughts, ideas and even rough drafts of poems, stories, etc.
  5. Arrange for students to write real letters. For example they could write to support victims of civil rights abuse (through Amnesty International), or to protest about environmental abuse (through Green peace etc.). Even setting up the exchange of real letters between you and your students, as suggested by Mario Rinvolucri and others in their book Letters (OUP), can provide a rich vein of linguistic (and affective) ore.
  6. Organize a news transcription service. They are each allocated a day and a time to watch a news telecast ( CNN, BBC World, etc.). They record it, then transcribe it, then produce a transcript of the news for their classmates, and for others in the school. (The same can be done for Films, videos etc. See Stempleski and Tomalin's Film OUP.
  7. View a film in their mother tongue. Ask students to provide subtitles for key scenes. They can, of course, do this in reverse by writing mother tongue sub-titles for English language films.
  8. Ask students to write a screenplay. This could be for an extract from a play, novel or short story. This involves them in visualizing how the scene would be played, not just what is said.
  9. Set up word search projects. Use resources such as the Longman English Activator, or John Ayto's 20th Century Words (Longman 1999). They can, for example be asked to find out the date when a word was first attested in the language, what its origin was, and how it has changed (or not changed) its meaning.
  10. Bring in native speakers. Ask them to talk to your students on topics of interest to them, to be interviewed, to provide insider information to feed into projects etc.
  11. Ask students to surf the net. Web sites which contain unusual text-types are helpful in enlarging the awareness and range of students. For example, female students might be asked to surf for information on Sumo wrestling. Male students to surf for embroidery sites. (I owe this idea to Mario Rinvolucri and his co-authors.
  12. Organize an e-mail link. Set up a link with students in another institution, preferably in an English-speaking country.
  13. Collect samples of email messages (in English). Ask students to analyze the language. Which parts most resemble written English, which features are more representative of spoken English? (For more information on this see David Crystal's Language and the Internet (CUP)).
  14. Conduct searches of computer corpora. Students can investigate how certain structures, words, collocations etc. actually work, and draw up rules for their use. Using concordances can radically affect the way students view grammar, for example. If you are looking for problematic aspects of English to investigate, you could do worse than look at Michael Swan's Practical English Usage OUP.
  15. Ask students to teach some of the classes. There is no better way to learn something than by being required to teach it. The topic could be an aspect of language, or a content area.
  16. Ask student to do a SWOT analysis of their English. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. Doing an analysis can form the basis for very useful discussion, and the drawing up of plans to improve particular aspects of their English language proficiency.
  17. And finally... Why not just ASK the students themselves what they perceive as felt needs in improving their English?

My fingers are beginning to seize up, so I shall stop here. I hope however, that you will go on, and that some of these ideas may be immediately useful, and that others may spark some ideas of your own. Thanks again for setting me off on this!

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