As a language teacher I often deal with problems other subject teachers can easily ignore. Some of these problems are easy to handle, others are quite persistent. One of my greatest
concerns at the moment is the difficulty a group of my students is having in making a
transition from the intermediate to the upper-intermediate level of
proficiency. I strongly believe these students have a cognitive capacity to
reach a higher level, so I wonder why they feel they're stuck. The fact that I have attended workshops and webinars to be
better able to deal with the problem hasn't helped a lot. Having read papers and articles related to this issue has been highly
beneficial for me as a teacher, but it doesn't prevent my students from struggling. The trouble is
that my knowing about the problem is not the only prerequisite for finding a
solution to it. It must be the students who realize that this struggle is an inevitable
part of the learning process and that they need to persist in learning, even
though they feel they're not making the same leaps in progress that they used to
make in the earlier stages of learning the language.
It's not easy for me to
infect my students with this optimistic prospect though. The problem is that if you feel you're hopeless at something, it's difficult for you to accept the fact that it may change someday just because other people tell you it will. You need to let this
purely cognitive fact enter your emotional sphere to be able to deal with the situation. So students must experience the obstacles
first and then start to believe that it's in their power to overcome them. It also helps when they see others who have already achieved the goal.
I've come across this
interesting article describing the difficulties related to the problem of the
intermediate plateau. This is how Jack C. Richards describes the features
related to the phenomenon in his Moving Beyond the Plateau.
1) There is a gap
between receptive and productive competence.
- While learners’ receptive competence continues to
develop, their productive competence remains relatively
- Language items that learners recognize and understand in
the input they hear do not pass into their productive competence.
2) Fluency may have
progressed at the expense of complexity.
- Learners’ language may be both relatively fluent and accurate but
shows little evidence of appropriate grammatical development.
- Complexity of learners’ language
does not match their proficiency level.
3) Learners have a
limited vocabulary range.
- Learners’ vocabulary development is still at the 3,000-word
- Learners lack knowledge of collocational patterns.
4) Language production
may be adequate but often lacks the
characteristics of natural speech.
- Learners’ spoken English may be accurate and fluent but
not always sound natural.
- Learners’ spoken English lacks appropriate use of chunks and
5) There are persistent,
fossilized language errors.
- Errors of both grammar and pronunciation have
become permanent features of learners’ speech.
- Errors persist despite advances in
learners’ communicative skills.
These are some of the problems I
observe in my intermediate class. First of all, my students understand more
than they can actually produce. This is fine until they fully realize this gap
and start feeling frustrated. "I have learned English for so long but I feel I'm not progressing any more", you sometimes hear them say. They do very well in listening
and reading comprehension exercises but they still struggle with speaking and
writing. It may sound a little confusing but sometimes they don't even realize
that they actually struggle. Most of them are (or consider themselves) quite
fluent and the minor mistakes they make keep escaping their attention until they get some kind of explicit feedback. Also, it is when they take part in an
authentic conversation, while abroad and chatting with foreigners in English,
when they realize that something is not quite right. They often report back
that their English is not as good and natural as they thought it was. This is most
evident when they meet their Swedish friends, for example. The truth is that students from northern European countries generally speak excellent English, and they don't seem to get stuck on the intermediate plateau (maybe they do but much earlier, i.e. at a lower age). My colleagues and I like discussing the cause
of this huge difference, but this is a topic for another post. This following table illustrates the situation (note: the report focuses on a different age group but it's not totally off topic).
|The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults. This figure shows the 2011 results, but our position hasn't changed a lot since. As I see it, the whole country is stuck on the intermediate plateau, i.e. moderate proficiency. |
Let's get back to my teenage students now. I've observed that although they can easily ignore or trivialize the flaws in their speaking performance, they are willing
to admit that writing is a skill they really need to improve. This is easier for them to acknowledge, probably because they struggle with writing in their native language too. I constantly reassure
them that practice makes perfect, but also that they need lots of
input before they can come up with some decent output. However, whenever I ask
them to underline useful phrases, collocations, or linking words in a text, for example, I
can see their reluctant expressions which implicitly say: Why should I underline this? I already know the words. It takes a lot of time to convince them that they won't be able to use a particular collocation
or a formulaic chunk of language if it's not part of their productive inventory, even
though they may already be familiar with its separate constituents. I remind them of the fact that they
will probably tend to find the easiest way out; they will simply rely on what they
already know, and thus their writing will lack the complexity which can be observed at higher
levels of proficiency.
At this stage, my students have mastered all the basic grammatical structures, but they still find it difficult to use them naturally and correctly. In my intermediate class, it's not unusual to hear a fairly good student utter he don't go or if people wouldn't produce pollution they would .... Vocabulary is another huge problem. Even
if the students focused on and dutifully recorded every word or collocation
they encounter in the coursebooks and texts we use (which they obviously
don't), this wouldn't be enough; their vocabulary wouldn’t increase quickly
enough to make them feel they're progressing noticeably. Obviously, there are students who immerse themselves in English outside their regular classes;
some play PC games, and they communicate in English with people from all over the world on a daily basis. Others watch films in English and listen to authentic podcasts
which they choose based on their interests. Not only does their vocabulary
increase dramatically but I've noticed that they gradually gain the characteristics of
natural speech. There are a few avid readers too, which is great for
language acquisition, especially for vocabulary extension. These are
the students who will soon
leave the intermediate plateau without even noticing any struggle.
I believe that most of the responsibility lies with the students themselves, and the teacher's job is to 1) motivate, 2) provide guidance, and 3) give plenty of feedback in order to prevent persistent errors from fossilizing. Fossilization
is particularly dangerous in monolingual L1 classes. I can see the despair in
my students' eyes whenever I draw their attention to a basic grammar error they've just made. "Damn it! I'm so stupid! Did I really say
this?" Yes, they did say it but since we share the same L1, we all understand one another's distorted language, which becomes a problem.
To sum up, the key is to constantly push
students towards a higher goal. It's vital not to let them remain complacent
and lazy, which is, quite understandably, the most natural and desirable state
for many of them. At this stage Demand High is the best approach I can think of. The students can communicate quite well, so it's hard to persuade them to put more effort into conscious learning. Also, I believe it's good to
praise them for their achievements but at the same time it's necessary to remind them that they're capable
of more. But most importantly, it's good to provide lots of input and
examples of language that is slightly above their level of proficiency. They will see that this is not the terminal station; they'll
realize there's still a lot to achieve and if it's done in small steps, the goal is definitely manageable.