I was recently asked what features I thought good C2 materials should have. It’s quite a good question, especially because there aren’t any good GE materials at C2 level. There are a number of books aimed at preparing students for the Cambridge English: Proficiency exam and of those, there are two that I rate highly: Objective Proficiency and Proficiency Expert. However there is, as far as I know, nothing for the more generally focused student and so that is an obvious, if somewhat niche, area to move into.
So what would my ideal book contain?
(1) Cognitive challenge
These are high level learners. You don’t get to be a high level learner unless you are already pretty good at the language and unless you already have a relationship with the language that exists outside of the classroom context. Most higher level learners engage with English by watching TED talks, films, listening to music, engaging with literature or by using English in some way for their jobs or studies. Asking them to come into the classroom and read a text and answer some questions or to listen to a text and answer some questions is pointless – it doesn’t reflect what they do in real life and at this stage of their learning is probably of very limited use developmentally anyway. What would be nice to see is to engage the learners in some kind of issue or problem that they can “solve” in class and where the input, text or audio, provides further food for thought or further content input (NOT solely linguistic) in relation to completing the task.
(2) Authenticity and Analysis
A shift in focus from input based language tuition to analysis and emergent language. Again, at higher levels, the learners are probably more familiar with the standard grammatical syllabus than their teachers are (!) and they don’t really need to look at the meaning form and pronunciation of mixed conditionals for what is probably the fourth year in a row. What they do need, is to develop meta-linguistic skills that will help them get the most benefit from their exposure to English, wherever that might come from. So this would involve working with authentic texts/audio and then looking at these texts from an analytical perspective, possibly involving aspects of socio-linguistics, so that the learners are looking at what speakers choose to say and why. Confrontational interviews (e.g. BBC Hardtalk) are quite good for this… But the idea is that the learners look at what is said, try and determine the function or purpose of what is said and then look at the language patterns that emerge.
A structure that might exemplify what I mean here is something like:
- Work in pairs. Think of five different ways of apologising to someone.
- Feedback – T focus on intonation and pron – sounding sorry as well as saying it!
- Input – watch Basil Fawlty apologising sarcastically to customers
- Assess Basil’s performance – effective, why? Why not?
- Listen again – note phrases for use.
- Look at language patterns – modal distance / past tense distance etc
- Analyse intonation
- Students create some kind of apologetic role play
(3) Production and feedback
My single biggest issue with the majority of ELT materials is that there is often very little opportunity for the learners to DO anything with the language they’ve been learning in the class. The learners may or may not choose to actually use the language from the input or analysis, but the opportunity should be there for them in every lesson. This means a well-designed, engaging, productive task. And it also means opportunities for feedback where the teacher is helping the students to notice what they could be saying better (or differently at least), either by using ideas from the input/analysis, or just in a more general sense (i.e. feedback doesn’t need to be limited to a focus on the lesson content).
(4) Proper topics
At this level, students should not be treated like they are imbeciles who can’t cope with the cognitive or linguistic nuances of expressing themselves on uncomfortable or controversial topics. At this stage of their linguistic development, these are some of the few areas for them left to cope with. Materials should move away from the “safe areas” and should embrace the real world. There are ways of dealing with PARSNIP type topics so that they don’t cause discomfort with teachers and learners and these are aspects of our world where it can be difficult to understand alternative viewpoints. With language and culture so tightly bound together, learners need the tools to discuss the differences between their own cultures and those around them, even if they don’t agree with the choices that other cultures make.
(5) Taking learning outside the classroom and bringing the outside world in.
Again, many higher level learners will probably do this already as this seems to be a habit they have. Materials need to reflect the ways in which learners might engage with the language outside the classroom and where possible should bring the outside world into the class. This represents language exposure and encounter in the real world, and the classroom is then a place to explore and analyse real world language use and a way in which the class can use real language to extend and develop their own lexical and grammatical resource.
For example: If the materials are presented on a double page spread, the final section can be a “task for next time” which either asks learners to go off and research an aspect from that lesson’s materials which they can bring back for the start of the next lesson – OR – can be a task that asks learners to pre-explore a topic and to come back to class next time with the information and language they encountered in their research.
Shouldn’t ALL materials involve these criteria?
(Or failing that, in the comments section!)
Monday 25 January 2016 at 15:26
Great post David! I agree with you when you say that at this level we should be going into the finer details of nuances with learners.
Here’s a link to a paper on “Grammar as Choice” – if you read through it, the level of detail exemplified in choosing one word over another is really intriguing stuff, and perhaps the kind of challenge higher-level learners might be looking for.
Click to access The-Grammar-of-Choice+.pdf
Tuesday 26 January 2016 at 12:06
And thanks for the Larsen-Freeman link, it looks like exactly the sort of thing we should be doing anyway. I do try and highlight the “speaker choice” issue, but I find so many learners want to know if what they’re saying is “right”, that the message “it depends” sometimes gets lost.
There’s a challenge for you though, how easy would it be to develop a higher level coursebook language syllabus based around the criteria in the article? Hmm. I sense a project looming…
Wednesday 27 January 2016 at 11:52
Do you want to work on it together? 🙂
Friday 29 January 2016 at 09:30
yeah I’m in! I’ve been struggling with my advanced group this year a bit as the book doesn’t really meet their needs, yet there’s an obligation to use it…. A different perspective / approach might be good!
Monday 25 January 2016 at 17:40
I typically prefer to focus on academic conversational topics. I like incorporating newspapers. At this point i dont believe in a set book but rather on focusing on self expression
Tuesday 26 January 2016 at 11:56
Thanks for commenting! Obviously, it depends on your context and your students and what they want out of the class. Set books can be useful in some ways and really annoying and constraining in others, particularly at higher levels, but I do think that in part this is because there is so very little out there for the higher level learner that looks at learner needs in the right way. Most advanced GE books are part of a larger series and so they not only have to follow the same format and layout of the lower level books, but they are mapped to a cohesive grammar and vocabulary syllabus and present language analysis and practice in the same way as the elementary book presents it. I’m not saying higher level learners need a book necessarily, but that if they’re going to have one, it would be nice if they had one that really looked at them and their needs differently.
Tuesday 26 January 2016 at 13:34
Great post, David and I’d really love to write that book! Sadly, I just don’t think it’d be commercially viable. I often describe language learning/teaching a bit like an inverted pyramid, at the bottom/elementary level, it’s fairly easy to decide what to teach, but as students progress, the possibilities for language and for student interests/contexts become wider and wider until what you have is actually a myriad different niches. We can identify some of those, such as in EAP and ESP, and market books to those groups, but the needs and interests of advanced learners in GE are so wide, it’s almost impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all book, I think. Are your students teens, young adults, business people, frequent travellers, ex-pats, retirees? Do they want to be cognitively challenged in their language class or is it just a relaxing bit of social interaction? Do they want to focus on current affairs or culture or literature or semi-academic topics or spoken interaction or linguistic analysis or …? I suspect that almost every class you asked would come up with a different mix and be passionately interested and vehemently disinterested in different things. I guess one answer would be pick-and-mix digital materials, but then lots of students (and teachers and institutions) do like to have a physical book they can take home and browse through and feel as if they’re working through.
If you come up with a solution, let me know and I’ll happily join in with the writing!
Wednesday 27 January 2016 at 11:57
I think those reasons you highlight are the exact arguments for scrapping the course book as we know it and replace it with resource packs – texts of varying topics that can be used and adapted by teachers. Especially in the technological age, we could have them available in electronic format, ready to be adapted and formatted as needs be, accompanied with pre-made exercises and activities for various levels.
Friday 29 January 2016 at 10:12
The other thing that suggests itself is a modular coursebook that is based off a needs analysis process. You write up (for example) a 100 hour course in 1 hour lesson bundles, the students do a needs analysis which highlights the areas to select and include and then the teacher selects from the bundle for the course length. Using print on demand technology, the learners get their own tailor made coursebook. Kind of what Julie was saying with the pick and mix idea? But I think that could work with print on demand.
We used a sort of similar system in China for business English classes, but it was based around photocopying the materials for the students and you weren’t meant to deviate from the materials – which were variable. I’m not sure what happened to the company concerned.
Friday 29 January 2016 at 10:00
And thank you for taking the time to comment! I take the point – at the very highest levels are quite niche to start with and do tend to devolve into specialisms. But. I still think there is a market and I think the numbers are there for a few books, if not a massive selection. What I’ve seen over the years (in a limited number of contexts to be fair) is that there are students who are motivated to be the very best language learners they can be – they have a really keen appetite for learning and they get through to CPE and do the exam and then there’s this sense of anti-climax because there’s nowhere else for them to go. Equally I’ve seen students in higher level exam classes who have no real interest in doing the exam – and as soon as it starts getting really exam focused and test preppy, they just give up.
How to structure such a book and what to put in it is really the question though… I like Anthony’s (see other comments)idea of a “grammar of choice” syllabus based on the Diane Larsen-Freeman article – something that moves away from pure language presentation and practice and moves into choice and analysis seems sensible. As for topics – I think it would be fairly easy to profile typical learner groups at this level, my instinct would be to say young adult simply because it typically takes young learners that long to get to the level, but again, I think that learners who get to this level do so because they have a wider relationship with the language and to an extent the world – it almost requires a wider focus that specialism does no favours for. After all, does a student who has got to about C2 level need lessons in a specific area like EAP? I would think probably not (if they have C2, they certainly wouldn’t need to do pre-sessional EAP!)and the same is probably true in business.
But this is mostly conjecture!
Tuesday 23 February 2016 at 22:05
Thanks for sharing your views here. What a great read!
It truly is a challenge to come up with topics that can interest everyone in a C1-C2 class. While it’s been a long time since I’ve taught one, I wonder if doing something along the lines of an “Open Space” meeting at the beginning of the term could help define topics students are interested in exploring. I’ve always been interested in having a class where at least 80% of the content is generated from student ideas on themes or questions/projects, but I haven’t had a chance to implement such a course yet.
Tuesday 26 January 2016 at 14:54
Perfect timing! I need some food-for-thought.
I’m finishing a C2 course in Spanish as a foreign language (as a student). The coursebook is not very good at this level. And the teacher, though experienced, seems a bit lost sometimes.
From what I’ve seen, teachers of Spanish tend to think:
* either that C2 students don’t exist in the real world, so it’s a good idea to start by revising B2 grammar (just in case)
* or that C2 students know it all, so there’s no need to plan your lessons in advance.
Friday 29 January 2016 at 10:02
That’s an interesting insight from the learner’s perspective Bartosz! Thanks for commenting – I guess the next question is what would you like to see / be taught in a C2 level course?
Monday 1 February 2016 at 10:47
here are some random thoughts from both a learner’s and a teacher’s perspective.
I don’t think a linear coursebook is a practical solution for C2 courses. I’d be much happier to use a photocopiable resource bank with ‘classic’ materials (that don’t date quickly) and supplement it with more recent newspaper/magazine articles or podcasts/videos.
2) (Standard) grammar
Test-Teach-Test might be the best approach for C2 groups. There’s nothing more frustrating than being taught a structure you can use quite well.
You don’t have to teach/revise ‘the conditionals’ if you test your students first. Maybe you find out they can’t use ‘unless’ correctly!
I had a C1 student who thought that “How likely are you …?” meant “Do you like…”!
3) Grammar and vocabulary / Production
Even more importantly, you should check that students use advanced structures and vocabulary. Some smart students have mastered avoidance strategies and they sound more advanced than they really are.
4) Grammar of choice / Grammar in texts
Students at this level don’t need to learn new structures (there aren’t many anyway). Still, they need to learn why certain structures are better than others in certain contexts. (Typical use-of-English transformations don’t count!)
I like to work with different reconstruction tasks, compare different versions of the same text, look at things from different perspectives (a recent event will be narrated in a different way than sth that happened 50 years ago). It’s not just grammar practice. These exercises help students write better texts, too.
5) Input / Difficulty
‘Interesting’ texts stimulate class discussions, help learners be motivates, etc., but many of them don’t teach anything interesting. If pupils can scan a text quickly, they are unlikely to notice interesting things about it. From time to time, it’s a good idea to use texts that your students won’t understand at first. Either because the language is very difficult or because the accent is quite difficult or because the content is unexpected.
I’m addicted to a few Spanish columnists and read their texts even when I am very busy at work. They use quite sophisticated vocabulary that many educated native speakers of Spanish don’t understand. It’s fun to learn words that your teacher doesn’t know 🙂
6) Input / Range
Use texts on the same topic written by different people, e.g. left-wing/right-wing newspapers; articles which present facts and those with opinions; opinions expressed by ‘serious’ journalist vs. bloggers.
7) Humour, irony, etc.
Use cartoons and comic strips. The shorter the text, the more difficult students find it to decode its meaning.
Also, at this level students need to learn to read between the lines.
Teach them to use a collocations dictionary, esp. when they have to write sth!
Monday 1 February 2016 at 10:55
And, most importantly:
Always tell your students WHY you’re doing what you’re doing.
Tuesday 26 January 2016 at 18:33
Excellent points and savvy suggestions. Points 3, 4, and 5 should be common sense, but remain extremely rare in both ESL and EFL textbooks.
By the way, you might find CompellingConversations.com with its many fluency-focused activities that appeal to many advanced English language learners. Of course, I am biased as the co-author, the book, however, has some in over 50 countries. You can find free sample chapters on the website.
Tuesday 26 January 2016 at 20:27
Interesting post, and in answer to your closing question, it’s a trick one, but I generally think, no actually. Different levels have different issues, and while I think ‘proper topics’ and ‘bringing the world to the classroom’ obviously have a place at all levels, I’d suggest analysis, say, is of very very limited utility to most Elementary students.
By the way, a few years back, when Innovations Advanced first came out, we hawked a talk on this topic around for a while. Excuse the appalling self-indulgence of re-posting the whole thing, and of course feel free to trim, or just cut and keep somewhere or block or whatever, but here’s what I came up with back then. I think the main difference is there’s a stronger focus on what language needs to get covered at this level and why here:
Teaching the know-alls.
Let me be open here: this talk is about writing an advanced level book. It has to be like that because it is only through being asked to write one that I returned to teaching high level classes, having had a break from them for four or five years. It’s not that I don’t like advanced students as people, I always just found that lower level teaching was more rewarding, you could see more of an improvement, just see more the point of it all. Whereas in the past, when I taught advanced students, I would frequently think of them and occasionally rant in the staffroom:
What is wrong with them? Why do they insist on coming to class? Why don’t they just get out there and do something with their English? Get a job or a boyfriend, instead of looking at me with those jaded, been-there, done-that eyes. Just what is it that they want?
What I now realise is that rather than raging at my students and coursebooks in annoyance and desperation, I should have actually taken a step back and actually tried to answer these questions. What is wrong with them – or rather their English? Why do they come to class? What do they want?
I think for a long time my answers to these questions had been inherited more than considered. When I started teaching my impression of what students wanted was difficult grammar transformations. Loads of random idioms and ‘difficult’ words. Literature – especially the classics. Oh and teachers with beards! Or to transform that into ‘Advanced’ English:
Not only was it the transformations of cleft sentences and inversions appeared most wished for by students, but also – a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush – plentiful idioms. Moreover, it was felt they delighted in literary texts and analysis, in addition to their appetite for rarefied words and facial follicles on their teachers.
I say that this was my impression when I started teaching, because in fact for the first year or two of teaching I wasn’t allowed to go near an Advanced class, let alone proficiency. In fact, where I worked in Britain, the teachers of higher-level classes were paid more per hour than those who taught upper intermediate or below. I would see these bearded, tweedy teachers walking round with piles of photocopies from various dusty tomes, and occasionally here the class next door as they read through The Importance of Being Earnest. So you’d hear someone going “A handbag, a handbag”. I remember one time going past when the door was open and this really gruff deep, deep German voice saying “To lose one parent is unfortunate, but to lose two could be considered careless”
It reminded me of some fairly torturous school English classes reciting Shakespeare. It certainly all created the feeling that these classes should be more akin to English degrees and the teachers more like lecturers. It seemed communicative methodology was no longer appropriate – what we had was more like the old grammar translation. So when I finally got my chance to teach Advanced students, being young and arrogant, I thought right I’m going to be different- fresh, communicative. My ego was soon to be deflated.
To begin with, I did a lot of questionnaires, occasional role plays, conversations and the like – chatting essentially – and for a while everything seemed to go quite well. I – and maybe they – felt it was a release from their fusty old teachers with their fusty old grammar books. However, chatting is one thing, but I think students come to class (in answer to one of those questions) to learn something new. Taking this more task based approach – though I’m not sure I was quite aware that was what I was doing – I was trying to get them talking and then from that trying to correct and shape their language. But there lay a problem. I would sit there with paper and pen in hand – not interrupting myself (a mistake in itself) – waiting to note down their mistakes and shape their language. After five, ten, fifteen minutes of this I would frequently have almost nothing to write down. And even then when I wrote these errors on the board they were generally very quickly and sometimes rather dismissively corrected!
What I now realise is that tasks in themselves were not a problem; it was the fact that I was looking for the wrong things to correct. In fact, simply looking would better express the mistake I made. That’s because, as we shall discuss again later, Advanced students in a way don’t need much more language because they can express themselves quite effectively and accurately. What I needed to think about more was what they could’ve said but didn’t. Unfortunately, as a young – and now not so arrogant – teacher I didn’t fully grasp this. And really why should I have grasped it because neither did the received wisdom of my more experienced colleagues, my coursebook or diploma, which I fell back on. This meant more grammar, words and idioms and skills work. These are, of course, not bad things in themselves but neither my colleagues nor coursebook at that time recognised the importance of thinking about context, collocation, and chunks. I think I – and they – had more of a focus on difficult rather than new. Take this vocabulary exercise from a coursebook I used at the time.
Explain the difference between these words:
a. shack / hut / hovel / shed
b. houseboat / boat house / narrowboat / cabin cruiser
c. cabin / cottage / bungalow / villa
d. surroundings / environment / atmosphere
[this is from WORKOUT Advanced]
There are I think a number of problems with this exercise and many others which I did in the past of a similar nature:
It’s single words: How do you know the difference? How do you use them?
It’s very difficult for a teacher to do, let alone a student. It’s not that the difference between
They’re all nouns etc.
And for all that how much is actually new? And of that new language how much is actually something that will develop students communicative abilities. I think similar things often happen with the way grammar is treated. I often got students to compare pairs of similar sentences and discuss the difference in meaning. Or matching example sentences with different grammatical meanings. For example: which adverb:
a. describes how often something happens
b. intensifies an adjective
c. emphasises the verb
d. describes where the action happens
e. describes when the action happens
f. indicates how long an action continued for
g. commenting on the noun phrase
I’m really not sure how useful such an activity is for a student. But more to the point again the language often wasn’t very new. These are the words chosen for an exercise in one coursebook:
after thirty five years of living there
when I’m abroad
all my life
for seven generations
until very recently
This seems the opposite of an adage I was taught on my diploma about using authentic texts. Don’t simplify the text, simplify the task. Here you don’t make the language ‘more difficult or new’, you make the task more difficult.
Of course, following coursebooks and advice, I would do the difficult grammar and idioms, but I think the problem here was the focus on the grammar rule, the transformation task, without thinking clearly enough about context. And then I would get students to produce examples for the sake of practice rather than thinking about context. As a result you would have examples such as:
Never will I forget holding him for the first time.
He is assumed to be earning lots of money.
The sentiment I understand, but it just doesn’t sound right – whether written or spoken.
Finally, I would do skills – which generally meant finding any kind of authentic text which vaguely touched my fancy, picking out a few tricky words and getting students to try and guess the meaning.
I would not say that these classes were disastrous or worthless but still they appeared dissatisfied so hence my rant … what’s wrong with them? I could say that students probably felt ‘stretched’ and ‘challenged’ and all those other things that advanced students should have done to them, but if I was honest stretching was sometimes more like torture at times, ‘challenging’ more like putting students in their place and yet at the same time wasn’t teaching enough new, relevant language.
So coming to write Innovations Advanced and teach as we were doing so – we turned to those questions again.
As we have established now, what’s wrong is not really the right question. Instead we should try and think what would make their English different and better. To get a grasp of that, the CEF is a good guide. Now I can’t use all the different sections, so, for reasons which will become apparent a little later, I’ve chosen ones on speaking and conversation. If you can, have a look through and isolate the factors which make a C1 different from a B2.
Well, onene thing is that C1’s have a good command of a broad range as opposed to sufficient range. So they are more practised at general topics but also have that wider knowledge within academic, professional and leisure topics.
I realise some topic ‘genres’ we feature in the book are a bit vague but hopefully you can also see that there is a broad range and the topics are clear. And I think that IS important because students see themselves moving on a bit quicker, rather than following ten pages of a rather vague topic. Not only is there a broad range of topic there is also a range of register, so that more colloquial subjects such as humour and taboo, have more academic like texts about political correctness and swearing, while more serious ones like economy and finance are balanced by lighter magazine like articles such as the one you can see on the next page about debt. In all the units there is a double page spread based around conversation and listening while the other is based around a text. The key thing in both is – as with other levels of Innovations – thinking about the kinds of things people say in and around a topic. What you realise when you do this is that firstly, there’s a lot of language which will be new to an Advanced level student but also that these are frequently not exactly idioms and certainly not of the bird in the hand variety. Often they are new collocations with familiar words like debt. Sometimes we can focus on something like saddled with debt, but miss let it play on your mind. We want to try and get students to focus on both – and both are often glossed in the TB. What we don’t focus on though is single words. A good command comes from a broad and better knowledge of collocation.
There are a number of ways you get students to focus on these collocations and chunks – suggestions from audience – many of which are picked up in vocab focus activities. Finally, the other thing we try to do is to encourage Ss to talk about texts in relatively natural ways, which also show their comprehension.
Basically there’s very little difference as far as grammar is concerned – C1’s don’t make mistakes as opposed to just correcting themselves. Certainly students will need to broaden their range of grammar structures appropriate too context, they may need a little reminding from time to time, but grammar really isn’t their problem. Which is why vocabulary has a much more central role in the book. Basically every exercise is aimed to give an opportunity for the teacher to teach new language and students to learn. Where we do focus on grammar there are four types:
1. Word building – is it grammar? Kind of. But not a structure. It’s a theme.
2. lexical phrases fulfilling a grammatical function – comparing prediction etc.
3. Advanced structures – yes it’s inversion! But limited to context – and lexical!!
4. A number of activities which take a fairly global view of say auxiliaries, or modals or perfect tenses, but again short exercises, integrated with listenings or texts. The important
The aim is to encourage students to think, notice, and correct themselves.
Finally, The other way we often give students a chance to repeatedly monitor and correct their grammar is through vocabulary, by getting students to put vocab in the correct form – see how’s business.
Fluency, interaction, coherence
Partly because we are a little short of time, I’ve lumped these categories together, but I think they also share an interesting characteristic, which is the emphasis on chunking. B2’s fluency is hampered by searching for patterns and expressions. In other words, C1′ and C2’s know more of these chunks. Under interaction, C1’s can select a phrase, from a readily available range. In terms of coherence, they again talk of organisational patterns, which I take to mean the ways conversations develop, patterns such as initiate, respond, comment. Adding reasons or examples to comments etc.
What these all show are the centrality of teaching not just words plus grammar but teaching lots of fixed and semi fixed expressions to aid fluency. Some of these are those arguing / turn taking expressions such as:
It’s a nice idea in theory, but I just don’t think it works in practice.
I have to say,
I’ve got grave doubts about it myself
I’ve got a few slight reservations about it
I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea
I know what you mean in a way, but…
Fair enough, but…
I agree with you up to a point, but…
If they did that they’d be a riot.
The country would just grind to a halt.
if you ask me,
What annoys me most is the amount of…
Well what concerns me most is the fact that…
Spare me the details
I could go on… and indeed these and many other expressions are explicitly taught in the book. However, I also think we shouldn’t forget that in those patterns of conversation where we often exemplify or comment on our initial comment, there are also often many expressions to aid fluency.
Finally, with the conversation section in the CEF you’ll have noticed the extra emphasis on emotion, allusive intonation and language and joking. Apart from having a unit on humour, we dealt with this is in part through having humour and banter-like comments in the tapescripts. How funny you personally find these are of course up to you, but they kept us amused when we were writing – and if you can’t laugh at your own jokes…!
Another way is teaching expressions and doing role plays where students are arguing or showing emotion. And finally, we try to help students move forward in terms of pronunciation / language exercises such as ones showing surprise and sarcasm.
Why do student’s come to class?
So we’ve seen what the CEF suggests students need to become more advanced speakers of English and I hope you think that we’re going someway to catering for those needs. But is that what students want? Is that why they come to class?
My personal belief is that students at all levels primarily come to class, to learn, practise, maintain and develop their speaking. Much as I would like them to do more outside the class, the reality – especially in monolingual settings – is that they may simply get no other opportunity to use their English in communicative ways. However, as my early teaching experience suggested, and indeed as the CEF suggests, becoming a more Advanced speaker actually takes you into areas of academic and professional life where students may on the one hand need to become more fluent writers, but also where the lines between written and spoken English become more blurred. Students who want to take their English to a higher level, are more likely to have academic and professional goals which may require the taking of exams.
There’s no particular reason for the order of units, no particular need to do all of them – which brings me to my final point and it’s an uncharacteristically humble one. The reality is that by the time you reach B2 and wish to progress beyond it, there is still a vast amount of language to learn. Enormous amounts. Making choices about what to teach is important and we feel the best way forward is to think about the kinds of conversations students want to have. However, that choice is still relatively arbitrary compared to the range of interests students may have and I have no doubt there will be occasional things you disagree with or feel you wouldn’t say or just have no interest in. Replace them, but still use the same principle – what would you say, who to, when, and why?
In the end this remains a general English coursebook – it’s not English for mechanics or fisherman or stamp collectors or lads on the pull, or psychology students or chefs, or rowers or mountaineers. In the end, and I speak as the author of a book, we have to recognise and we should tell our students that the real way forward still is to get out there, do something with their English, engage with their interests in English and not just sit in a classroom doing yet another textbook!
Friday 29 January 2016 at 11:06
Thanks for taking the time to comment and thank you also for the “talk” – I agree that different levels do need different approaches: on Saturdays my classes move from three hours of YL elementary to three hours of YA advanced and leaving aside the age difference, the classes have to be very different in approach simply because the advanced students can do so much more. But the principle of including challenge, for example, applies in both. I take the point about needlessly complicating tasks, but that isn’t quite what I mean – many coursebooks consider language manipulation to be enough and they take a PPP model and then leave off the final P so that all the students do is essentially a transfer task – they take the grammar out of the box on page 21 and transfer it into the box on page 22 and while this might be useful for them in terms of recognising the form and of recognising the patterns that the form comes into, it doesn’t really help the students to determine how and when to use the target structures and that therefore there should be tasks or activities that do help the learners to do these things.
This also comes into the point about production – and I appreciate the difficulty of creating productive tasks for specific language points, but given the time, effort and money that publishers put into creating coursebooks, it seems a bit ridiculous to leave these things out.
One of the key things I took out of your post was the line about “what they could have said but didn’t” and in any coursebook where the language is parceled up and examined in discreet component, the opportunities for looking at what the learners didn’t say are limited – indeed the focus is never going to be on what the learners didn’t say because the materials and the teacher (and probably the learners as well) are all busy focusing on saying “the right thing” which is whatever the language point in the book happens to be. So my point about using materials to examine and analyse what is actually said in (quasi) authentic situations means that you can show the learners what the possibilities are rather than focusing them on a single point to “master”.
Again – thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation!
Friday 5 February 2016 at 17:34
Thanks for being so tolerant of my self-indulgent ramblings above, David. It’s an interesting discussion, and I’m happy to be a part of it.
I totally agree with what you’ve said about the need for challenge at all levels, but I think there’s good challenge and bad challenge. Bad challenge is the kind of ridiculous activities I described earlier where the language being looked at is itself very easy, but the way the task forces students (and teachers!) to interact with it is incredibly difficult. This still seems to be more common that it should be at higher levels. At lower levels, bad challenge often involves grammar for its own sake (along the lines of “I am not German. I am English. We are not Argentinian. We are Belgian. Dracula is not Spanish. He is Romanian.) So yes to challenge, but we need to be clear about what kind of challenge IS appropriate, what kinds can be bad and why.
With regard to the PP / PPP discussion above, I think this may be where we diverge. As far as I understand it, you seem to be arguing for more PPP even at Advanced levels. I think this is one of the things I’d personally really much rather NOT see at this level – for several reasons. (a) a lot of the grammar they’ll meet at this level is very niche, very connected to specific kinds of genres / contexts and very tricky to practice in any discreet, isolated way. Articles always struck me as a classic case in point. You can go over the rules, all 8 million of them, you can do controlled practice activities, fine, but what on earth is a meaningful communicative or creative practice for such an area? The same is true of much of the grammar that gets looks at with advanced learners. I think also (b) part of the issue (and not only at this level, by the way!) is that structures practised in isolation distorts the reality of the way items are used. In everyday usage, structures interact with other structures and with lexis in complex ways. Finally, I think that if you’re still thinking that more rule-study followed by practice and production will actually lead to students “determining how and when to use the target structures” in anything other than an abstract sense, then you’re more optimistic than me. Students can understand usage in an academic sense, can produce the items correctly in both controlled and freer practice yet still make mistakes or not use the items at all in real communication – for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps heightened awareness is the best we hope for; maybe increased ability to notice patterns and an enlarged receptive lexicon is actually a good result rather than a failure? In the end, inability to utilise recently encountered items will remain for a long time and it’s only endless exposure and input and noticing that slowly makes a difference. If the third P stage was all they needed, then surely there’d be better examples of accurate production of things they have endless PPP versions of lower down?
Anyway, I’m rambling again.
I have two small kids to attend to.
And it’s been a long week.
Will try to post more over the weekend.
Saturday 6 February 2016 at 14:20
One final thought on what you said above, if I may, David.
I think classroom material CAN actually predict and anticipate at least some of what students at any given level are likely to want to say about particular topics – and can feed some of this language in, whilst still leaving space for them to try and express alternative meanings. However, it’s only possible if you’re STARTING by thinking about the kinds of conversations they may want to have, and then thinking about what those conversations look / sound like.
Of course, the teacher then also has a crucial role to play in terms of listening in as students talk and feeding in things they ‘could’ve said but didn’t’ too.
I guess all I’m saying is that just because language is “parcelled up and examined in discreet components” doesn’t mean that students won’t need it or want to use. of course, it doesn’t necessarily they will either. 🙂 The issue for me is what the language is, how useful it may be and why it’s been selected rather than the parcelling up or its location.
Wednesday 27 January 2016 at 10:22
This is a really interesting post and reminds me a lot of my first teaching job. I was working in a language school in the UK and I was fresh off the CELTA course so I still had the all the lesson structures (ppp et al) floating around in my head. I walked into an advance level class and started teaching something about jobs – I think we started with a jobs A-Z board race. Well, by the end of the week students were complaining that my lessons were too easy and I was absolutely mortified.
I started using the course books after that and things improved a little, although now my students complained that every lesson was like a ‘UN summit’ and why did we have to spend every lesson solving ‘world problems’? I think that sometimes course book writers assume that advanced level students want to study and talk about more academic issues. Of course some of them do, but there are others who just want to speak really well and learn English to live and settle in the UK. I think this also applies to lower level learners who might enjoy talking about ‘big issues’ too, instead of the more banal stuff like ‘shopping’ and ‘travel’. Lower level language ability doesn’t equal low level thinking ability and vice versa.
Friday 29 January 2016 at 10:21
It is always a balance isn’t it? Obviously the more you teach certain levels the better able you are to anticipate learner needs and wants, but there’s nothing like actually asking them what they want to see in the class! It sometimes seems like needs analysis is seen as only necessary in business English or for one to one teaching, but I think it has a lot to offer the GE classroom as well!
I think the academic issue is possibly slightly misplaced, I think it’s more that in an advanced coursebook (and class) you are trying to model more sophisticated structures and vocabulary and typically in authentic materials you find these in more academic subject matter. That’s one theory at least!
Thanks for commenting!
Saturday 6 February 2016 at 14:27
I think this is a spot-on observation Leah. I’ve often said that one of the main differences between Elementary and Advanced students is not that the conversations themselves necessarily change (though, of course, the range of conversations you can participate in increases as you get better), but that your ability to participate in them improves. As such, an Elementary student should be happy to manage the following:
What do you do?
> I’m a teacher.
Do you enjoy it?
> Yes, I love it.
An Advanced student student wil still want to be able to have this ‘elementary’ conversation – and many others like it, but to have it better, so would maybe be pleased to manage something like this:
What do you do?
> I’m a teacher and teacher trainer, based in London, but I do quite a lot of bits and pieces overseas and I also co-write coursebooks too, in my so-called free time.
And do you enjoy it?
> Yeah, I love it, especially the teaching part. Don’t get me wrong, the writing’s great too, of course, but sometimes we have to work to very tight deadlines and it can be very stressful.
If such improvements are to occur, we need to allow more recycling and use input that goes over the same ground we’ve previously covered, but from a more complex perspective and thus presents new ways to layer output.
I’m totally with you too, btw, on the idea of having basic versions of more ‘adult’ conversations in lower-level coursebooks. That’s certainly the way we’ve tried to handle things with OUTCOMES: you may be a low-level learner, but you may well also be a very smart adult with views you want to learn to express in at least a basic way.
Monday 8 February 2016 at 09:24
Hi Leah, David and Hugh,
When I went off to teach in Argentina, I had had a good few years experience in the classroom, as well as the CELTA, an MA, the Delta and the IH CAM. Despite all of this, when I was given two very advanced groups, I really struggled to teach them. As far as I could tell, comparing these two groups with my previous teaching groups in the past, these guys were pretty much perfect.
The course book wasn’t a solution. It never contained anything new, and unfortunately the topics never interested them.
The school I was at, IH Buenos Aires, ran regularly training sessions and we had a couple of sessions which looked at what to do with Learner Language. This seemed to be the solution to my problem and it echoes what Hugh has written in this comment stream.
The learners could express themselves fine and pretty naturally. However, in preparation for the CPE exam, they needed to express themselves much better. So, when asking questions such as “What do you do in your free time?” I would get responses such as “Drink coffee and sleep.” I would take their responses, put them on the whiteboard and try to get them to ‘upgrade’ them. I usually had a better upgrade up my sleeve. In the end, they would start producing responses such as “Well, when it comes to me and my free time, I must say I’m quite the coffee aficionado, and I just love going to coffee shops and sampling all the different varieties of coffee they have. Marvelous stuff. I highly recommend it, even if you only like coffee a little bit.”
There is more to it than just that, but it was those training sessions and my attempts to implement what I had learnt in the classroom which led to this post, where you can find more details: http://eltblog.net/2015/10/16/5-ideas-for-learner-language/
Do any of you use this Language Upgrade approach?
Tuesday 9 February 2016 at 15:12
Hi Anthony –
Interesting stuff. I’m kind of half with you, I think.
My own feeling is that no mater how good they are, there will still be plenty of language they don’t know yet … and also plenty of new collocates, phrases, etc. featuring words they have met, but need to broaden their knowledge of.
It may well be the case that some material is too easy, but it could also be the fact that as teachers, we don’t always go deeper into usage when items that students already know come up, thus exacerbating the situation. To give an example, if an exercise has EXACERBATE A PROBLEM in it and students know it, it is an opportunity to add to what they know by maybe trying to elicit / teach IT’S A SEEMINGLY INSOLUBLE PROBLEM or IT’S THE RECURRENCE OF AN INTRACTABLE PROBLEM or something similar that’s suitably challenging. I guess all I’m saying is that even if teachers feel the material is being consumed by students quickly and that they ‘know’ it all, there’s always something that can be added to the mix, derived from what’s there, that ups the load.
Oh, and I’ve yet to meet a student who didn’t learn plenty from any given page of Innovations Advanced! 🙂
In terms of upgrading, I think it’s more important to work with what they actually say rather than put words in their mouths, myself. I’m assuming a degree of comic irony in your portrayal of the annoying blase coffee hipster above, yes? But for me if someone says DRINK COFFEE AND SLEEP in response to a question about what they do in their free time, that’s a perfectly adequate response to what’s a very banal question and I wouldn’t do anything to it.
It’s more, for me, when advanced students say things like MY FATHER AND I ARE QUITE DIFFERENT IN POLITICS, which is basically still technically fine and comprehensible, but would be better expressed as ME AND MY DAD DON’T REALLY SEE EYE TO EYE ABOUT POLITICS. I might get that on the board and then maybe add I’VE JUST LEARNED TO STEER CLEAR OR CERTAIN TOPICS. So a similar, but different slant on what you’re on about, I think.
Wednesday 10 February 2016 at 20:26
I´ve found when trying to get students to upgrade language it can be a big help to get them upgrading each other. I´ve mainly worked in a Spanish context for the last few years but this really seems to work far better than upgrading themselves. Working on downgrading gets the point across as well. Less is sometimes more and all that.
The big change I made was concentrating on activating the huge amount of passive knowledge a lot of my students had. This isn´t precisely measureable but going by feedback most students felt this made a real difference.
This is what I did with an almost superhuman group of post advanced students who had been on a four week course before they walked into my classroom.
I got the students to streamline their enormous notebooks from the previous course over a period of about a week(at home!). This involved them ranking the most useful chunks and gradually whittling them down to prompts. These could be initials i.e INHYAA for i´m not hearing you at all, picture prompts or cryptic clues. They then spent five minutes testing each other (having swapped books!) and after this they took home ten things they didn´t know from their partner´s work. After a few weeks they then started to grade their partner on the language they had produced, giving them a simple score starting from five and going up or down depending on a given criteria. One class it was richness, the next was clarity of purpose and we even played around with being verbose and later on vague.
I think three things worked here. Firstly, there was a real sense of bonding with their partner and that together they were not treading water. Secondly, the element of playing with the language really helped broaden their horizons. Finally, it was very time effective. It wasn´t exactly competitive but everyone wanted to be in on what was being said.
What actually made it work?
They were a great group.
They all got on.
They were all young learners meaning they had an age range from 18 to mid forties but they all had that spongey characteristic where everything seemed to stick.
They were all driven.
I´m not saying this is the answer or indeed an answer. However most of that group of students can now come up with something approaching the last sentence or indeed this one, With their eyes closed…..
Friday 12 February 2016 at 12:08
Hi Mike –
The most interesting part of your comment above is the fact that consciously brought a focus on memorising and internalising the new language into the classroom and integrated into what you were doing.
I often do a very similar activity to the thing you describe where you got students to write the first letters of each word in a chunk or phrase and to then recreate the whole from this condensation. I’m also a huge fan of anything that involves students testing how much their partners remember and forefronts the importance of memory in learning.
Tuesday 16 February 2016 at 17:06
Hi everyone – Sorry I’ve been a bit delayed in coming back to the conversation, but thank you so much for keeping it going!
I wanted to clarify my thoughts on PPP a bit because I’m not arguing for more PPP per se, just that where P and P are included, so should the final P. To take two examples from recent weeks, one with my class of young learner elementary students and the other with my advanced (pre-cae) group. In both cases the structure of the material was pretty much the same: Language is presented in a text (reading for elem, listening for advanced) and there are comprehension questions related to the texts. Then some example sentences are used to determine the rules and we move on to the practice exercises. In both cases, we then turn the page to find something completely unconnected to the page before. My elementary group were working with the past continuous and my advanced group were looking at pronoun referents and determiners. And that was it. Finish the practice activity and thank you, move on. What’s the next thing?
I understand the rationale behind this kind of (scaffolded) inductive approach and I accept that input does not always equal intake and that having this kind of explicit focus on a language point can aid this intake, but so too can giving learners an opportunity for language use as it asks them to reflect on how and why to use the form. At elementary level, this is not beyond the realms of possibility for the majority of language points a learner is likely to encounter and I don’t understand why they are so very often left out.
At higher levels, I take the point – it is quite difficult to find a communicative activity where learners are naturally using pronoun referents and determiners in a way that doesn’t make them sound like creepy stilted idiots: “Would you like SOME cheese? Why thank you, THIS is SUCH a nice party!” (although now that I think of it…..) But at the same time language use does not need to involve production, and in this scenario looking at the way in which this kind of language is used to add cohesion to a text or to develop ideas of theme and rheme in paragraphing would have been a more useful thing to do than abandoning the language point and moving on to something else entirely.
Ideally though, at higher levels, I don’t think there is a need to look at language input in the same way as lower levels – as has been mentioned above and elsewhere, taking this kind of atomistic decontextualized look at isolated components of language doesn’t really help learners see how it all fits together. This is why I really like Anthony’s idea of the Grammar of Choice syllabus, which, I think would also work really really well with the idea of language upgrading. I think that sometimes when the material focus is on a specific language item, the feedback on performance becomes more about correcting mistakes (also useful) than this reformulation and upgrade process. It would also fit in a lot more neatly with a task based set of materials, where the input could come from an authentic model and go through an analysis stage.
What do you think?
Wednesday 17 February 2016 at 08:38
I think you’ve nailed it when you say that at higher levels there’s less need for production. It’s a fundamental difference. At low-levels, pretty much everything you teach should be geared towards use and should be practisable – and practised – in class, while at higher-levels, little of what you teach will end up being used actively by most students and even if it is, it won’t be used often. The vast bulk of language work is simply building up the receptive lexicon, keeping it moving, expanding it, honing it.
That said, a few caveats: (1) Whilst I agree that at low-levels, practise is crucial, we’re deluding ourselves if we think that this automatically or inevitably leads to uptake or the ability to repeatedly and accurately use the items across a range of contexts. (2) Repeated exposure and repeated re-noticing opportunities remain crucial throughout the learning process. (3) Spending another hour looking at words like SOME and SUCH rally isn’t going to develop the communicative repertoire or competence of advanced students. To me, this sounds like a classic case of materials complicating things by making relatively simple, relatively low-level language hard in class through tricky tasks. (4) With lower levels, much of the problem comes from still thinking about practise meaning something along the lines of ‘practising the past continuous’ as this leads to the creation of weird decontextulaised sentences and increases grammar anxiety. Instead, I’d rather see that embedded within something like ‘practise telling anecdotes’ and within THAT there might be sub-genres you can return to and practise over time, such as ‘tell each other about a scar you have and how you got it’, ‘tell each other about about how and when you met a friend for the first time’ – these all COULD include the past continuous as well as, maybe, the past perfect, but also need particular lexis, responses, etc. Crucially, though, they’re real conversations, not just a third P thrown in for the sake of being seen to have one. (5) I think you’re taking a real risk at advanced levels if you go down the authentic route as there’s so much irrelevant cultural, historical and linguistic content in almost any such text. There’s also a lack of CONSCIOUS recycling of items already covered and no guarantee that the text will contain enough USEFUL and still relatively high frequency language for students to grapple with.
Think that’s it for now.
Tuesday 23 February 2016 at 20:42
This is an absolutely fascinating discussion. Thanks for starting it off David! I’m not going to add anything to the debate about what the materials should cover because I think pretty much everything is here already, but I am going to add the C2 non-exam void may finally have something to (begin to) fill it. Keynote is a new series from National Geographic/Cengage based on TED talks. It covers B1-C2 and I contributed to the workbooks for B2-C2 🙂 I’m hoping to use the C2 books at our school next year for those students who don’t want to work towards CPE but still want to take classes. Thought you might be interested 🙂
Monday 29 April 2019 at 20:03
I’ve just rediscovered and re-read this post and thread. I’ve been teaching a Proficiency group this year and wish I’d found it 8 months ago! But there are still some ideas I can use.
And Keynote Proficient has been joined by Speakout Advanced Plus and Hugh and Andrew’s Outcomes Advanced, which I think is a C1/C2 level book, though Hugh may disagree 🙂
Monday 29 November 2021 at 15:31
The information in these posts are so useful and resourceful as well as downright inspiring.
Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts and ideas down and into useful pointers.
It nudges one to think outside the box, and of ways to better your learning process and uplift your classes.
I am certainly going to put some of these ideas to the test and will keep you posted on my progress!
I am but a babe in the teaching environment, however, I am hopeful to help and give my own input at some stage when I am more at ease and familiar with the teaching and training programs.
Until then, I’ll enjoy getting great ideas and input from yourselves and keep my own learning curve growing!
Keep this going, I love, love, loved it!