Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Best ways to support intermediate students

Robin Walker
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Oxford University Press and presented by Robin Walker.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Most students reach a plateau around the intermediate level.  How can we as teachers support them and help them through this difficult stage of their language learning?

Mapping the intermediate plateau

How do our learners perceive the plateau?  They characterise it as:
  • frustrating
  • not learning new things
  • a lack of progress
  • having a lack of motivation
  • being stuck
  • struggling
Typical things students say at this stage:
  • 'I've seen this before.'
  • 'I need more words.'
  • 'I'm losing control.'
  • 'I'm making more mistakes than ever.'
  • 'I can get by, but...........'
  • 'I'm afraid......'
Grammar on the plateau
 
Students are bored with seeing the same grammar structures, but the teacher knows the student doesn't have the right command of the structures.
 
Teachers need to:
  • Re-present old grammar in new and engaging ways.  They need to make it challenging and interesting.  When students discover the holes in their own grammar knowledge, it's very motivating for them.
  • Extend the known structures - for example, add non-defining relative clauses when students already know about defining ones.
  • Activate grammar - at intermediate level, students often see grammar as a system, but they haven't activated it.  They're not using grammar to communicate effectively.  Students learn as much, if not more, by using the language rather than simply studying it.  Output is so important.
Vocabulary on the plateau
  • Extend vocabulary through known topic areas - there should be an evolution in the level of vocabulary by introducing synonyms and antonyms and the idea of connotation (positive, negative and neutral). Extend word families and build up networks of words.
  • Teach high frequency words and verb phrases and how to use them meaningfully.  With verb phrases, teach the verb and the preposition together.
  • Teach lexical chunks and how to use them - e.g. Can you tell me?/Could you tell me? - teach these almost as a single word in order to get the pronunciation right.  Another example - the 'useful language' given in English File books - it's good to put these chunks on cards to be used during discussions.  Leave them on the tables as reminders.
  • Teach vocabulary and pronunciation together.
Pronunciation on the plateau
 
IPA is important because it allows students to access a dictionary fully.
 
Pronunciation to teach to get students off the plateau:
  • Key consonants - consonants are more important than vowels in being intelligible.  Problem consonants vary depending on where your students are from.
  • Clusters/word boundaries - groups of consonants coming together can be a real problem for some learners.
  • Linking
  • Sentence stress and rhythm - focus on stressed words, not unstressed ones, as this conveys meaning more effectively.
  • Vowel length - don't worry so much about the pronunciation of vowel sounds as these vary so much amongst native speakers, but vowel length is important.
  • Word stress - this can be given slightly less priority.  It only appears to affect native speaker comprehension and so is not so much of an issue in communication between non-native speakers which makes up most interactions in English.
Learner independence
 
We can't carry our students to the top of the mountain!  We can guide them, but they are the ones who have to do it!
 
We may have to teach our students how to learn independently.  We can show them:
  • peer correction/peer learning
  • VLEs (Edmodo, for example)
  • links to useful websites
  • how to find an English penfriend or Skype mate
  • authentic materials
  • Twitter
  • extensive reading
  • how to use a dictionary properly
  • how to develop a vocabulary notebook
  • where to look for English - on the street, on TV, on the internet, etc.
  • coursebook support
  • how to record their progress off the plateau through learning logs, test results, portfolios, etc.
Psychology for the plateau
  • Measuring progress - as students progress it becomes much harder for them to notice real improvements.  Learner diaries are a good way for them to reflect on what they've learned and how they've improved, as are portfolios of their work, including recordings of their speaking.
  • Goal setting - students and teachers can't be thinking about the final outcome at the beginning.  We have to set small, achievable goals.  As students succeed in these goals, they're motivated to continue their journey.
  • Believing - students must have self-confidence and believe that they can achieve their long-term goals.  As teachers, we must instil this confidence.
 

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