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‘Mind the gap’ – Supporting students beyond Intermediate

Robin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer, looks at ways of supporting students who are beyond Intermediate but not yet ready for Upper Intermediate level. Robin discussed this topic in his webinar on 20th February, entitled ‘Mind the gap’ – Helping your students to cross the intermediate threshold with confidence. View the recording here.

When I started teaching English in the early 1980s, adult coursebooks from all of the leading publishers ran to three or four levels – Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. This 4-level learning was a reflection of the limited strength of the then emerging ELT publishing industry, rather than the reality for the learner in the English language classroom, and inevitably there was a gap between what was available and what learners needed.

To bridge the gap that most students encountered between the four ‘official’ levels, one of the strategies we used as teachers was to change publishers. If a group was struggling at Elementary level and wasn’t ready to go on to Intermediate, for example, we would look around for an Elementary-level coursebook from another publisher. This worked up to a point, but often brought with it the disadvantage of changing from a style that learners had become used to, and which generated a sense of security, to a style that was new and that provoked different reactions from different students.

The new style was not necessarily better or worse, but it definitely felt different. For the more adventurous students this unfamiliarity often acted as a stimulus, and they took to the new book with few if any problems, and, initially at least, with genuine enthusiasm. But the learners in a group that were less sure of themselves (and who were usually the students that were finding it difficult to move up to the next level), would often tell you that they liked the old book better, and would even ask if it wasn’t possible to repeat the year with the same book.

Another problem with trying to bridge the gap with a coursebook from a different publisher was that the new book, quite correctly, assumed that the users were coming to the level for the first time. There is no reason to write a coursebook aimed at learners who have been using materials from a competing publisher. The only possible strategy is to assume that students adopting a coursebook at a given level, will be arriving at that level after successfully completing the previous one with a book from the same series.

The outcome of this situation in class was that material would, logically, be presented to learners as if they had never seen it before. This wasn’t the case, of course, and students often lost motivation when they embarked upon a unit that presented an area of language that they had already studied only the year before. I can clearly remember a strong sense of We’ve already done this! invading the classroom during these ‘repeat’ years.

As the teacher, I knew only too well that the group needed to go back to the language areas in question in order to, on the one hand, consolidate any previous learning, and, on the other, successfully cover what the class had demonstrably failed to learn the year before. In general, it takes a lot of skill to overcome the demotivating effect of going back in order to go forward, and often the new coursebook ends up being supplemented by original materials provided by the teacher. This is a solution that a) raises the question as to why the students have been required to buy a book they seldom use, and b) eats up serious amounts of a conscientious teacher’s free time.

Over the intervening 30 years since I began teaching, major coursebooks have expanded from running at three or four levels, to offering teachers and learners five or even six levels. The Common European Framework of Reference, whose influence has extended way beyond the shores of even the widest concept of Europe, started off with six levels, from A1 to C2, although the use of the ‘+’ sign to generate even more precise gradings is increasingly common. Theoretically, we can now talk about a 12-level system that progresses from A1 through A1+ to A2, and then on to A2+, and so on.

Although it is interesting to be able to refer to individual students with this almost mathematical precision, it is not feasible in practical terms to run a language school with as many as twelve different levels. In that respect, the six levels from Beginner to Advanced, the current default system in many private and public ELT institutions, constitute a strong basic structure. The progression from one level to another, whilst not without its problems, is realistic and generally motivating for learners.

There is, however, one level where again and again learners seem to struggle, and this is the step up from Intermediate to Upper-Intermediate. This is a critical step for many learners, and handled badly, it can lead to them becoming demotivated, and even abandoning their studies.

Learners abandoning English is a highly undesirable outcome. But as we saw at the beginning of this blog, neither changing publishers to repeat at the same level nor repeating at the intermediate level with the same coursebook, are very adequate solutions. Just as inadequate is the strategy of pushing Intermediate learners into an Upper-Intermediate class and hoping they’ll survive if we give them enough support.

The fact is that if we are really going to ‘Mind The Gap’ that Intermediate students face, what is needed is an Intermediate Plus coursebook. This will be a coursebook that:

a) is from the same publisher as the book the group used at intermediate level,

but that:

b) tackles material from this level in fresh and engaging ways.

This is precisely why OUP and authors Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden and co-author Mike Boyle have created English File Intermediate Plus. In my webinar on 20th February I’ll be looking at this especially in terms of grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking, four key areas for learners hoping to progress to Upper-Intermediate.


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Six levels, six stages – in sixty minutes

How is the ‘Can Do’ ethos of Headway linked to the aims of our students and the CEFR bands? Stacey Hughes will be exploring this question in the webinar: “Six Levels, Six Stages – in Sixty Minutes” on 28th November 2013 at 9:30 and 15:00 (GMT).

In the past, learning a language involved learning more about language than learning to do things with the language. What pedagogical issues does this shift in focus raise? How does it link to student expectations in the kinds of tasks we set for them?

The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) focuses on what students are able to do at different levels; in other words, what they are able to talk and write about and what they are able to understand from reading or listening. It is this focus on what learners can do with language – how they can effectively use language for communication – that Headway brings into its activities.

When aiming to help students achieve their learning goals, we also need to consider who our learners are and what are they learning English for. What kinds of activities and topics can course books utilize that will improve students’ ability to communicate effectively in a language? How can we extend this learning outside of the classroom?

These are some of the issues we will explore in the webinar. Using some of the CEFR level descriptors, we will identify language skills from six different level bands. We will also look at Headway’s approach to learning and see how it links to the practical application principles in these descriptors.

As teachers, we know that students gradually build up proficiency. However, students need frequent, reachable goals to see their progress. They also need to see the connection between what they are doing in a course and how it is useful for them in using the language. This webinar will show teachers how they can join the dots between activities in Headway with ‘Can Do’ objectives.

Register for the webinar now.

Webinar times


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Benchmarking your curriculum to the CEFR

Teacher and students in classMeghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. In this article, she gives an overview of the Common European Framework of Reference and explains why it is useful as a benchmarking tool.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) is a document created by the Council of Europe – Language Policy Division and has become the standard for measuring language competency in Europe and in many countries across the world. It has increasingly been used as a tool for benchmarking national curricula and language certificates1. The CEFR measures language ability at six levels: A1 (Beginners), A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 (Language Mastery). It is designed to describe how language users communicate and how they understand written and spoken texts. Each level describes what a learner ‘can do’ in relation to a specific communicative competency and scales for each competency are broken down into individual level-specific descriptors, for example:

Overall Reading Comprehension, Level B2:

Can read with a large degree of independence, adapting style and speed of reading to different texts and purposes, and using appropriate reference sources selectively. Has a broad active reading vocabulary, but may experience some difficulty with low frequency idioms2.

How can the CEFR be used?

The CEFR is NOT a set of rules or a teaching methodology to be strictly adhered to. The scales and descriptors are designed to serve as a basis for curricula to be built upon and may need to be adapted and expanded upon depending on your unique teaching and learning context. The European Language Portfolio3, a useful tool for learners to record their language learning experiences and achievements, provides additional support for institutions benchmarking their curricula to the CEFR.

Why do we use the CEFR?

The CEFR was created for the purposes of having a universal scale with which to measure learners’ communicative competences. Throughout the world, educators may have different views about what an upper-intermediate student, for example, should be able to do. The CEFR helps educators to break down these boundaries and ambiguities between institutions and learning contexts. By benchmarking your own institutional curriculum to the CEFR, you are able to provide a clear set of standards for describing language ability that are mutually recognizable across time and contexts. It also serves as a way to plan transparent and realistic learning objectives and map learners’ progression.

1 The Council of Europe – Language Policy Division (http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/cadre_en.asp)
2Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (CEFR), p. 69.
3The European Language Portfolio (http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/)

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