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#EFLproblems – Motivating Intermediate Students

College student smiling holding booksWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Ageliki Asteri’s Facebook comment about motivating Intermediate students.

Ageliki wrote:

How can I motivate a teen advanced level student to do better as this level is demanding to achieve a certificate and the students is ok with his intermediate plateau?”

This is probably a situation familiar to many teachers and my first consideration is to question why the student is satisfied with their intermediate level. If a student is in a class at upper-intermediate to advanced level, it is because that student has goals he or she wants to achieve. Tapping into these goals, and into that motivation, will enable teachers to help these students.

Set goals

I would suggest that first we need to make such students aware of what they still need to achieve. This could be in the form of informal quizzes or simple self-awareness. From this awareness, students should be encouraged to set goals for both language and skills development. Depending on the age of the students, I would make the goals short term so that students can feel they are progressing. This should give them confidence to set new goals and work to achieve them.

Focus on using the language

Students may feel they know the language, even about the language, but can they use it to communicate real information about themselves and their world? While expanding their knowledge of language, including revision of what they have already learned, encourage them to use it. It is one thing to be able to understand the present perfect, even to manipulate the different forms, but it is quite another to be able to use it to talk about life experiences and achievements.

Whenever I ask my students to talk about what they feel they have achieved in their lives, even those who are able to communicate this, do so without using the present perfect tense. They are usually surprised when I tell them and make an added effort to use it next time. Writing tasks in which they share their work, or freer speaking activities – like discussions, simulations, or debates – challenge students to use the language they have learned. Encourage students to be both more fluent and more accurate when using the language.

Challenge them to be better

I set up a class library in a class of about 25 Intermediate students with the aim of providing them with more contact with English through extensive reading. I did not test their reading, but often discussed how they were enjoying their books. They seemed very satisfied. I could have left it at that but I knew the readers series I was using was accompanied by a series of quizzes to test reading level. I told my students about this and asked if they wanted to take the quiz to see what their reading level was. They all agreed. I gave them the quiz, but before returning their scores, I asked each to write in their notebooks what mark they would be satisfied with as a percentage.

19 students out of the 25 received marks below what they expected. They were all high marks and, in general, they were very good readers. However, the quizzes showed them they were not really understanding (and enjoying) as much as they could. Equally important, they were not taking advantage of their reading to learn more.

This simple activity was enough for those students to come out of their intermediate complacency and work to improve.

Encourage independent learning

Many times students simply rely on the opinion of the teacher for how well they are doing. Too many times this attitude also includes passing the responsibility to the teacher for the whole class. However, it is important to encourage students to become independent learners.

Develop in your students the capacity to monitor their own language. Did they say what they wanted to say? Or did they avoid certain topics because they didn’t have the language? Encourage them to notice the kinds of mistakes they may be making. Are they mistakes they could correct themselves, but have left it for the teacher to do so?

As I have mentioned before, challenge them to be accurate, as well as fluent. Help them notice the difference between the English they use and the English of more advanced learners. At times, give them work that is well above their level. If students are studying for an exam, give them a mock exam at the beginning of the year. Let them see what they will be working towards in their English classes.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of motivating Intermediate students? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


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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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Best ways to support intermediate students

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.