Teaching Higher Level Students

Teaching higher level students is different from teaching lower level students. This is basically because they know something. They do not all know quite the same things though. Their inter-language is at different stages of proficiency. Your job is to help them improve their inter-language and help them refine their language knowledge and learn, for themselves, what they do not know, but need to know.

Here are 15 key principles about teaching higher level students.

Principle 1: Develop repertoires.

Advanced users have a repertoire which they can use in different situations. You could measure someone’s repertoire as a way of testing their level. In answer to the question ‘How are you?’, an advanced learner can draw on a range of responses.

  • Fine, thanks.
  • Very well thank you. How are you?
  • Good.
  • Not bad.
  • Could be better.
  • Can’t complain.
  • So so.
  • Comme ci comme ça

You should work with learners to develop their deployable repertoire.

Principle 2: Complexity is key.

An advanced learner can use complex language when required. Their responses will be:

  • [Appropriately] grammatically complex.
  • [Appropriately] lexically complex.
  • [Mainly] grammatically and lexically correct.
  • And perhaps most importantly, propositionally complex.

Principle 3: C1 teachers C1.

At lower levels learners really need teachers who are, at a minimum, at two levels higher proficiency than them. This is because at lower levels the main role of a teacher is as a ‘knower’. At higher levels, C1, C2, it is impossible to find a teacher two levels above, and it is also impossible to know it all at these levels anyway.

Principle 4: C1 level is huge.

No-one can know all the language in C1 (or C2); it’s just too much lexis, that is. The teacher should know the grammar; there is no C1 grammar. They should be ready to help the learners learn what lexis they need and to incorporate it into their language repertoire.

Principle 5: The learning task changes.

At lower levels grammar needs to be introduced and practiced with the key lexis, and skills developed. At an advanced level the learners need to learn more lexis, refine their grammatical knowledge and refine their skills. They should leaner the lexis they need by using their grammar and skills, and by using them, refine them.

Principle 6: Coaching is required.

The teacher is no longer required to be a knower, though they will know the grammar better than the learners, probably. Instead they need to focus on the learners’ performance in speaking and writing and coach them to do better; to build up their lexical resources and their language repertoire.

Principle 7: Communicative teaching requires communicative tasks.

Contextualised Grammar is not communicative grammar. This kind of task is not communicative in any meaningful way.

Let’s compare a couple of tasks:

  1. Read this text and answer these questions (which I have devised). Communicative value: minimal.
  2. Read this text and tell me what you learn. Communicative value: better. There is a real information gap here. I don’t know what you don’t know.
  3. Read these texts and prepare a presentation. Or write a report./ Communicative value: good. You use the information from the texts and then communicate it to me. This is meaningful and purposeful.

Principle 8: Purposeful and meaningful tasks.

Tasks should be meaningful and purposeful. Full stop. End of story.

Principle 9: Grammar use and refinement.

Learners should use their grammar and by suing it refine their understanding and control of it. We should focus on improving their:

  • Complexity
  • Control
  • Consistency
  • Errors do not impede communication

Areas which we should focus most attention on at this level are:

  • Noun phrases
  • Collocations
  • Prepositional phrases
  • Modals, passives, conditionals, speculation

We do not need to present this language in big teacher-led presentations. We need to encourage the learners to notice this language.

The learners need to be able to work well with reality and with formality.

Many learners will need to learn to use the full range of formal language rather than relying on restricted informal usage.

Principle 10: Topic Lexis, practiced.

We need to encourage our learners to expand their lexical knowledge. In particular we need to focus on:

  • Topic Lexis
  • Synonyms
  • Collocations
  • Connotation
  • Register

They need to develop their opinions about different aspects of topics and support these opinions with reasons and examples, and to practice giving their opinions. Fluent language is practiced language!

Principle 11: 4Cs and T. Skills – topic and task choice.

The 4Cs and Transversal skills are very fashionable these days.

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Critical and innovative thinking
  6. Interpersonal skills
  7. Intrapersonal skills
  8. Global citizenship
  9. Media and information literacy
  10. Other: problem solving, communication, teamwork  and leadership

If you choose meaningful and purposeful tasks then these will take care of themselves.

Principle 12: Reading and Listening – as sources.

We need to abandon the ‘read the text and answer the questions‘ approach. The learners should read or listen to a text and extract meaning, synthesize what they learn about the topic with what they already know, and synthesize the new language from the text with what they know, and then use the content (ideas and language) in a meaningful way.

Principle 13: Writing and Speaking practice are key.

The learners should engage in meaningful and purposeful speaking and writing tasks, like:

  • doing projects
  • creating infographics
  • making presentations and giving talks
  • writing essays
  • writing biographies
  • doing a research project

If they do a research project, the only criteria for the topic is: Anything which interests them!

Principle 14: Homework focused on research.

We should abandon all those controlled practice type gap fill and sentence completion tasks beloved of workbooks. The only homework we should give is on research tasks so the learners find information which they will use for speaking writing tasks in the classroom.

Principle 15: Engage with the language! Use the language!

This principle encapsulates all the others. Keep this in mind.

© Robert Buckmaster 2022