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!)