Thursday, 10 March 2011

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When The Path Becomes Bumpy... Part One.

clouds over hills

A common problem that we can encounter when teaching intermediate students is helping them to continue their progress through the language. In the early stages of language learning, it is much easier for students to feel that they are improving as they have a lot to take in, so their abilities should increase at a notable rate. Once students more or less reach intermediate level, the rate of progress often slows to a point where the learners begin to think that they are not learning at all, or even going backwards. 

This is probably not true, but compared to their previous experiences, the whole thing can begin to feel frustrating and pointless, and I don’t need to point out how damaging this can be to both the student and the teacher. Subsequently, it is essential for us teachers to recognise when this occurs and find a way to deal with it.

I have created an eight point plan which I believe will help students get over this figurative bump. It is designed for a one to one adult learner in an EFL setting, but could be adapted for other situations. They are not ranked in order of importance, or chronologically, as it really depends on the situation. Some of them are things I have tried before, and others are things I am planning to do in the coming weeks. Here are my first three ideas, with more to follow next week.


One of the aims needs to be to introduce as much English into students life as they can manage comfortably. One easy way is reading, which they can do little and often and at a time that is convenient. They should read for pleasure, so if it’s boring or they don’t like it, they should stop and read something else. It shouldn’t be study time, so if they must check some vocabulary, they should note it down or underline it and check it later. It shouldn't stand in the way of their enjoyment. 
One practical way to try and encourage the reading habit is to have your own library of books which they can borrow from. Of course they can read their own materials if they wish, but borrowing from the teacher adds extra incentives. Firstly, they’ll be impressed and grateful for your efforts, and they’ll know you’re serious about it. Secondly, if they’ve borrowed the book from you then they have an incentive to read it and give it back to you - it’s your property after all. Thirdly, presuming that you’ve read the book before, it gives you common ground for discussion during classes. You can ask how the student is getting along with it, which will lead to some very worthwhile and productive conversation, or let you know that they haven’t been reading it and you can prompt them again.

Following on from above, the same should also apply to authentic listening, and podcasts are a great way to do this. Often students will watch BBC News and CNN, as well as sitcoms and movies, and while this is obviously very valuable, I also like to encourage them to listen without pictures and body language to help them. It’s harder, but done regularly, can really help learners to become accustomed to the finer points of the language.

Finding the right podcast can be tricky, as they are often pretty challenging for this level if authentic, or too easy if designed for learners. I'm open about this with the students and tell them that this is likely to be a challenge, but it's with a long term objective. Just like the reading, they should choose things that they find interesting and try to get into the listening habit, whether it's on the train, in the car, or while doing the washing up. The point is not to understand everything, but to engage in a long term listening plan that will eventually increase their listening skills as well as other language abilities. It's vital that they understand this, or they are likely to become disappointed and subsequently demotivated.
Word Wise

In the last few months, Jason Renshaw has posted some gems over on his blog, and this was one of them. In essence it’s a way for students to keep a detailed record of the vocabulary they learn in class. Unlike the huge lists of words that students often keep, this document has only three words per page but goes into a great deal of detail for each one. The student can create examples, pictures, related vocabulary and write full sentences using their new words. A student that uses the Word Wise document properly will acquire new words and phrases with a deep understanding, and importantly at this stage, will recognise it too.

More ideas to follow next week...


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