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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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What makes a good coursebook

esl coursebookRobin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer offers practical examples about how a good coursebook supports effective goal setting.

In August in response to my webinar on helping intermediate students, I received an email from Alina de Palma, who teaches in Brazil. She told me:

“My students and I set goals in February this year and it was really great, they felt extremely motivated at that time, but the goal was more like a long-term goal, so now I do not feel that energy anymore. Besides, I think I have set very subjective goals with some of them and that leads to my question … about what kinds of goals to set.”

What kind of goals to set?

This is a key question and worth considering when choosing a good coursebook. In general terms, we usually relate goal-setting to something we do at the beginning of the year. We enjoy doing it but then the goals get forgotten, or they were too vague in the first place to be operational. Going to class aiming at the same ill-defined, long-term goal (Improve my English! for example), soon fails to provide much motivation. In fact, it can become a source of discouragement.

How do we get round this?

Like Alina, I ask students to set goals at the beginning of a course. I ask each student to write these down and then I collect them in. Here’s what one student wrote recently before an intensive course on pronunciation:

My goals would be to:

  • Improve my intonation.
  • Have as little Spanish accent as possible.
  • Detect and eliminate specific mistakes that I might be repeating.
  • Learn how to interpret the phonetics in a dictionary.
  • Be more confident when dealing with unknown environments (I mean when you don’t know the audience or there are other “risk” factors).
  • By better knowing the phonetics and the pronunciation I hope to improve my listening as well.

This student was exceptional. Most learners aren’t able to articulate their aims so clearly and as a result, they set goals that are too vague.

With a new group of students, it’s useful to make a summary of the initial goals they wrote down and then make the summary available to everyone. Some goals will be common to all, and it’s useful to refer back to these on a fairly regular basis as you’re teaching. For example, at the start of a lesson you can point out that the listening work you’re going to do that day ties in really well with the goal everyone had written down at the beginning of the course about “understanding colloquial native-speaker speech better”. It’s really important to tie in what you do in class each day to pre-course goals so that learners see that you have a plan, and that class activities really do serve their needs.

At a different level, I try to get learners to set short-term goals. The problem here is that most learners don’t know how to articulate these, and so one useful way to help them is to give them a list of possible short-term goals for a lesson, and let them choose two or three. These can come from the contents of the unit the class is about to start. Good coursebooks will state the language learning aims for each unit somewhere in the book, often at the start of each unit. As we begin a new unit or lesson we need to make the goals specific by talking through them with your class or writing them on the board. Without our guidance, many learners simply don’t pay any attention to them.

It’s also useful for us as teachers to clarify to our learners what we are going to do that day and why. Sometimes we are so familiar with what we are doing that we forget to tell our learners why we are doing it. But for them it is often the first time and the logic behind class activities isn’t necessarily clear to them. Adults in this situation will usually passively follow our instructions, but not really engage with the lesson. With rowdy teenagers you might have discipline problems.

At the start of the class use the coursebook to point out the lesson aims and contents. This should help learners to set personal short-term goals for that lesson. The CEFR ‘can do’ statements are useful here as they set out in objective terms what learners should be able to do (better) at the end of a class. Most good coursebooks now use these in one way or another.

The above notwithstanding, I find the best source of short-term goals comes from learners reflecting individually on performance in specific areas at the end of a class. Listening is a nightmare for most of my students, so when we finish a listening activity I get them to reflect on how they did individually. I do the same with fluency activities. After a speaking activity I might ask students to think about their performance and to ‘identify’ with one or two of the following typical problems:

  • I couldn’t find the words I needed for the activity.
  • I had problems with the pronunciation of many/some/a few words.
  • I got halfway into a sentence and then didn’t know how to finish it.
  • I didn’t always understand what my partners were saying.
  • I didn’t speak because the other people were much better than me.

Identifying an individual problem goes a long way to setting a personal short-term goal for a future lesson. These will all be specific to each learner, which is very important.

Finally, we need to be careful not to spend too much time on goal setting or it will become a chore and will de-motivate our students. What matters is to find the balance between setting goals and achieving them. It is also very important to help learners to enjoy their success when they have achieved their goals. One goal I used to set new elementary-level students was that by December I would be able to give the whole class in English (not often done in Spanish secondary schools). When we achieved this – usually by mid-November – we celebrated our progress. This was inevitably a turning point in the year for the group, and was the moment when I began to move towards the students setting their own goals, both long-term and short-term.

Like many things in ELT, goal setting isn’t natural to learners, and it requires us as teachers to take them to the point where they can do it for themselves. But we need to be patient, and we must avoid setting ourselves unrealistic goals about goal-setting.

To find out more about what makes a good coursebook why not join my webinar on 31st October?


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Pronunciation for Young Learners

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, author of the pronunciation SIG journal, Robin Walker explores the place of pronunciation in the upper primary classroom.

A few years ago I was crossing the playground in Spain, on my way to a training session with local teachers. As I was going past two young girls I heard one of them say ¿Jugamos al inglés? (Lets play English). The idea of ‘playing English’ roused my curiosity, and I stopped and eavesdropped. What followed was a stream of sh- and z-like sounds with not a word of actual English among them. But the rhythm was very English, and very un-Spanish.

By the time they get to the 9-15 age group, young learners are usually very aware that English feels and sounds different to their mother tongue. This makes this a great age for working on pronunciation, and offers us an opportunity to sow seeds that will produce very tangible benefits. We know from experience, for example, that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get a short phrase out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce, and as teachers we are sometimes guilty of misinterpreting these ‘gaps’ in production as gaps in a learner’s knowledge or understanding.

But poor fluency isn’t the only outcome of poor pronunciation. Listening is a nightmare for students with limited pronunciation skills, either because they simply don’t recognise key sounds or words in their spoken form, or because they have to concentrate so hard when listening that their brains very quickly overload and ‘block’. When we spot problems with listening we are tempted to respond by doing more listening work, and are frustrated when this has no effect. What is need, of course, is focused pronunciation work.

Although problems with speaking and listening are obvious to us, poor pronunciation can also badly affect reading and writing. At the level of writing, for example, students might write coffee instead of copy, or berry instead of very. My tourism students used to write Festival at the beginning of a series of points in favour of an argument. At first I didn’t understand where this was coming from. Then they told me that I said this a lot in class. What do you think I was saying? (Answer below*)

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Pronunciation Matters – Part 2

Continuing from last week’s post about teaching pronunciation, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, talks to us about the challenges of teaching and learning pronunciation.

Q: What are the challenges for teachers when teaching pronunciation?

RW: The main challenge is the need to gain and maintain an adequate level of pronunciation knowledge and competence in each of three areas:

  • your own competence in the pronunciation of English. This doesn’t mean having a perfect accent (whatever that means), but there is obviously a minimum competence with pronunciation, just as there is with grammar or vocabulary.
  • your knowledge of how the pronunciation of English works. Obviously if you don’t understand this, it’s unlikely that you’ll be very effective in helping your learners to improve their pronunciation.
  • your competence in terms of teaching strategies and techniques. It’s not enough to know ‘about’ pronunciation, or even to be a native speaker. You also need to know as much as you can about teaching pronunciation to others.

Q: What challenges do students face when learning pronunciation?

RW: The first challenge is to do with the distance between their mother-tongue pronunciation and that of English. In that respect Dutch, Polish, or Scandinavian students, for example, have a lot less of a mountain to climb than Spanish, Greek, or Japanese learners.

A major challenge for most adult learners of English, however, is to ‘re-tune’ their ears so that they become sensitive to sounds and other features of English that don’t exist in their mother tongue pronunciation. I’m struggling right now with some of the consonants of Polish precisely because we don’t have these sounds in English. And if you can’t hear a sound, you’re not going to be able to pronounce it.

And an increasing challenge now that English is a lingua franca is the variation in accents – both non-native speaker and native speaker – that learners will encounter as they travel around the world and put their English to use.

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Pronunciation Matters – Part 1

Pronunciation could be a tricky area for both students and teachers, but it is a vital skill for students if they wish to be understood in the real world. Pronunciation expert, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, gives his views on teaching pronunciation.

Q: How has the attitude to teaching pronunciation changed recently (if at all)?

RW: I don’t really know, but if I think about pronunciation at teacher’s conferences, I have to conclude that the attitude most prevalent today is lack of interest. There are very few talks on pronunciation at conferences now, and attendance at these talks is too often closer to ten than to a hundred and ten. Similarly, if you browse through teacher’s magazines, you don’t find too many articles or regular features on pronunciation.

Q: Does pronunciation matter?

RW: Teachers know from experience that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get the words out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce. Then of course, if your pronunciation is poor, listening can be a nightmare, either because you simply don’t hear key sounds or words, or because you have to dedicate so much processing power to listening that your brain very quickly overloads and blocks.

Less obvious is the impact of poor pronunciation on reading and writing. At the level of writing, the impact might be merely anecdotal. My students would often write ‘crap’ instead of ‘crab’ because of limitations in their pronunciation. But at the end of her talk on L2 reading at the 2008 IATEFL Conference, OUP author Catherine Walter told the audience that if their learners wanted to read better, they would have to improve their pronunciation. She was not being facetious here. She was basing this invaluable piece of advice on serious academic research into how we read.

Speaking, listening, writing, reading – competence in all four skills is closely related to competence in pronunciation. The same is obviously true for vocabulary, and even for grammar, as is witnessed by the pronunciation CD that accompanies the Oxford English Grammar Course.

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