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Best ways to support intermediate students

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Hikers walking on a mountainRobin Walker takes a look at how teaching Intermediate level students differs from teaching students at other levels.

I’ve spent most of my life climbing mountains, first as an adventure-loving schoolboy, then later as a serious participant in a sport that has taken me all over the world. They’re an interesting phenomenon. They figure constantly in our lives, even if we don’t live near them, or contemplate ever climbing them. Advertising uses images of mountains constantly, and we refer to them without even realising it in our every-day language – I’ve got a mountain of work to do. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

They come, of course, in many sizes, and can be easy or difficult to climb because of that. Not unnaturally, the bigger they are, the harder they generally are to climb. It’s similar to learning languages, especially if we look at the process in terms of where we start from. Learning English if you are Dutch or German, isn’t as difficult as learning English starting from a first language like Japanese or Farsi, where you don’t even share the same alphabet.

But apart from absolute size, I’ve noticed that the shape of a mountain can strongly influence your chances of success, especially when you haven’t taken this factor into account. Even if two mountains have the same size, one can be more difficult than the other because of the ‘shape’ of the journey from the bottom to the top.

Some mountains, for example, are like the Matterhorn. Their shape is one of constant, challenging technical difficulty. I’m desperately trying to learn Polish at the moment, and this is the shape it has taken on for me. It has started steep and technical, and there is no indication that it’s going to get any easier. In fact, right now, I’m heading back down to base camp to rest and recover.

Other mountains are really steep to start with, but then they ease off, and if you’ve got over the first, very demanding section, you know that you’re going to make it to the summit. There’s a mountain very close to where I live here in Spain that has exactly this profile, and when I first climbed it, it was an incredible feeling to get halfway up and to realise that the worst was over.

It’s been like that for me with Spanish, as well. At first, with all the verb endings, the tenses, the masculine and feminine, and the (to an English speaker) bewildering subjunctive, it seemed as if I’d never get off the ground. And then suddenly it was happening, I was making progress (most of it upward), and the ground was receding into the distance. No one was holding my hand now. I’d become autonomous – using and learning, learning and using, but with the climb under control and the summit within my grasp.

There is a third mountain shape I’d like to describe, because it concerns us a great deal when it comes to teaching English. It’s the mountain that is not too steep to start, and not too steep to finish, but that has a huge plateau area somewhere around the middle. A plateau is a large, flat area of high land. The highest summit in the Pamir mountain range of Central Asia, Ismoili Somoni Peak, has a very large plateau just over halfway up.

At 7495m high, Ismoili Somoni is a big mountain. But for most mountaineers, it’s not its size that makes it so difficult to climb. Rather it’s the plateau, which is wide and featureless, and takes a full day to cross. You can easily get totally lost on it if you’re not careful. Worse, still, although it’s taken a huge effort to get up to the plateau, the summit still feels a lifetime away.

For many learners of English, the intermediate plateau is equally huge. And different things can happen when they get there. A few will go on without any problem, and will finally reach their chosen goal. Others will abandon their attempt as soon as they spot the magnitude of the task ahead. Many, however, will struggle bravely, but not effectively, to get across the plateau, keen to get to the other side, but not sure how best to do so.

I actually failed to get across the plateau during my attempt at climbing Ismoili Somoni Peak. Nobody had told me about it, so mentally I wasn’t prepared for the work that was required of me. It was disappointing, but it didn’t stop me loving mountains, and in a life spent climbing them you have to learn to accept occasional failures.

But as an English teacher I’m not happy if I see students struggling to get across their personal intermediate plateau, and I want to help them. I can’t carry them, of course. They still have to do all of the climbing. It’s them who have to put one step in front of the other and deal with the altitude. But what I can do is to guide them so that their efforts are rewarded with a real chance to tackle the summit. In my webinar on July 17th, we’ll be sharing ways of guiding our students across the plateau. It would be great if you could join me.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

10 thoughts on “Best ways to support intermediate students

  1. Thanks for this! I see this plateau all the time. Before reading your article, I likened it in my mind to telling a beginner, “You have to walk up the stairs to the top of each building in this city. Start with this building here and from the top you’ll see the rest.” And beginners run up that first building’s stairs, excited to see the view. And when they get to the top, having conquered the first building, they see that they’re not in a small city with a few 20-story buildings but rather a vast metropolis with building after building to climb up and no end in sight. And somehow we have to keep them climbing. I’ll be at your webinar if I possibly can!

  2. Hi Susan
    I’d not thought about likening the plateau to buildings in a city, but it does seem to me that you have to give students some sort of image that allows them to visualize the intermediate plateau. And I imagine that wherever students are learning English there’ll be some suitable local analogy. I was out running the other day, for example, and it occurrred to me that the middle phase of an extended training programme for whatever sport you practise usually has a plateau feel about it. So much already done, but so much still to do. But as I say, whatever analogy or image we use for our EFL plateau, I think it is essential to bring the issue up openly in class as a first step in dealing with it.

  3. Pingback: Best ways to support intermediate students | Me...

  4. Yes, there is a plateau at intermediate level… potentially!
    Intermediate level is an exciting time. The students can communicate well. They get a sense of their own great achievement(s) and progress. The teacher’s role is to build on that adrenaline buzz; use it to advantage; make/keep the lessons exciting, fun, challenging.

    Stretch the more capable students, even by giving them more demanding tasks than their ‘course’ requires. Go outside the box. They’ll love you for it!
    For the less capable students, continue give them enthusiastic support and encouragement, keep them involved in their own learning process.
    Class work needs a lot of careful planning in order to (i) accomplish objectives, and ((ii) keep everyone fully involved. Build and maintain a rapport with each student.

    Although we all know that intermediate students still have a long way to go, always keep them focused on the ‘now’ and the ‘immediately achievable’ goals. This way they won’t be deterred by dwelling on the ‘long struggle ahead’ but, rather, on the immediate and ongoing pleasures of their own accomplishments!

    An English language teacher must do two things…
    1. continue reinforcing what has already been achieved, and
    2. keep the students focused on what is immediately achievable.
    By involving the students in this dual-pronged process, they will soon find they have reached their higher goal(s) before they even realize it!

  5. Reblogged this on Teaching English: Ins & Outs and commented:
    Couldn’t agree more.

    Each level has its own issues and learners deserve to be informed about them at the very least. That plateau is truly disheartening, and even worse, you never know whether it’s finished or you are still lingering somewhere in the middle. (Incidentally, being in the middle implies there are some boundaries, which this plateau doesn’t seem to have)

  6. Addendum: Of course, reaching plateaus in learning IS like climbing a mountain! I once climbed Ben Nevis -well, I ran up it, actually! (I went up the easy route!)
    Ahead of you from the base point you see a summit. You go for it. But when you get to the top… you see ANOTHER summit, a new goal that you couldn’t see from your earlier position! The whole climb up Ben Nevis is a series of smaller climbs. And at no stage can you actually see the real top! Even when you reach the REAL top, you are not sure you really have until you realize that there are no more summits ahead of you!
    Learning a language is a series of achievable small climbs. There are peaks and troughs, but each new peak is higher than the previous one. Of course, the prime objective is always the top. But, on Ben Nevis at least, you cannot see it until you are there!

  7. Thanks for posting. It’s really impressive linking languages with types of mountains for understanding them better.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sonu, Bryan and esgaleth.

      There’s so much hard teaching experience wrapped up in Bryan’s main comment and I’ll be referring to things he brings up on Wednesday. But staying with plateau’s and mountains for now, I think we need to accept that the shapes that both ‘plateau’ and ‘mountain’ conjure up in the minds of some learners can have a negative impact on their motivation.

      Of course, they are metaphors and not reality, and so they need to be used with care, or simply abandoned if they aren’t proving helpful. But if a learner is seeing his or her particular plateau as boundless and featureless, it’s doubly important for us as teachers to step in and help them to create both shape and a sense of direction. Again, this is something I want to look at during Wednesday’s session.

      Overall, I’d say that carefully used, the ideas of mountains (or any similar sport that deals with a prolonged effort in order to reach a distant goal – long-distance running comes to mind) can genuinely help learners to visualize the journey they’re making, and then to start mapping progress, etc.

  8. Pingback: Blog Review: OUP ELT Global Blog | ESL Review

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