Advanced ESL students are likely to have participated in hundreds, if not thousands, of English lessons. They have probably gone through several coursebooks, studied the most common grammar structures (each on more than one occasion) and learned vocabulary on countless topics. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are fluent in English and always confident about their language skills, but they all have different strengths and knowledge gaps. Here are some tips on how to make their learning experience more enjoyable and rewarding.
Let your advanced students tell you what they want and need from English classes. Ask them about their strengths and weaknesses, make sure you know when and how they use English (or plan to use it) outside the classroom, and let them tell you what has worked or not worked for them in the past. They should have an active role in shaping their lessons. So instead of following a ready-made syllabus, allow them to choose the topics they want to cover in lessons. Don’t be afraid to experiment: use authentic materials, flipped classroom, or any other methods they might suggest. Be sure to frequently ask for feedback to see how they feel about your ideas. Teaching advanced ESL students requires open-mindedness and flexibility, and is a great opportunity for you as a teacher to learn new things, too. Advanced students do appreciate a fresh take on learning.
Work on your students’ fluency first, and don’t prioritize accuracy over fluency. No one can learn or make progress with a foreign language just by learning to be more accurate. To be able to explicitly express their thoughts, students need to come across situations which require the use of, say, a certain structure, and for that to happen they have to speak as much as possible. If you feel your students could use some help with being more accurate, take note of any problematic areas you hear during the lesson and do a feedback session at the end. You can ask them to rephrase what they said or simply show them a better way of saying it. Advanced students have loads of knowledge of English, but they don’t always know how to put it to use. The teacher is there to help them organize what they know in order to make them better communicators.
A common problem in advanced ESL students is fossilization. The process takes place when a student habitually makes the same mistake. It’s usually one that would be considered significant even on lower levels, such as incorrect use of prepositions of time, or failure to create correct second conditional sentences. Fossilization is not easy to deal with, as the student has used the incorrect form on numerous occasions and it has never really impeded understanding. Moreover, they might sometimes not be aware of the problem or even be willing to fix it. To help your students with fossilization, you can briefly bring their attention to the problematic area, explain that there is a better way of expressing what they wanted to say, and make sure they know what the correct form is. Then, proceed with the lesson, but whenever they make the same mistake, interrupt immediately (e.g. by clearing your throat or using a prearranged hand signal) so that they can review what they’ve just said and correct themselves. This will help them create a ‘monitor’ which will hopefully be activated in the future when they make the mistake again.
Those advanced students who don’t use English regularly will in all likelihood forget a large part of what they have already learnt. They might have the understanding of a certain grammar structure or lexis, but will not be able to produce the language. What you should be prepared to do in such cases is try to activate their passive vocabulary. The most obvious solution is to let students use the language as often as possible. Use vocabulary revision games (like the ones described in this article), and take notes on the most problematic vocabulary areas to help you choose topics around them for future lessons. Encourage students to speak English outside the classroom, and if they don’t have this opportunity, to write in English (journals, social media, etc.). Most importantly, if you and your students share L1, don’t let them use it in the lesson. Questions like ‘How do you say X in English?’ do not help students learn. Teaching advanced ESL students means helping them become independent language users as opposed to making them reliant on the teacher. If they forget a word, encourage them to rephrase what they wanted to say, use synonyms and antonyms, or just explain (in English) what word they need. What’s interesting is that they often recall the word they had forgotten while trying to explain it, which is a great example of activation. When this happens, they are much more likely to remember the word the next time they need it, which they probably wouldn’t be able to do if the teacher had provided it.
The learning plateau, or the time when the learner feels they’re not making any progress, is especially common among upper intermediate students who wish to become advanced. It’s not an easy thing to overcome because the student already communicates well, knows the most important grammar and lexis, and is able to get by in English in almost any situation. To help your students fight the plateau, ask them to consider setting some goals. They should be realistic and measurable, e.g. learn ten new words or phrases from each lesson. This will of course require some additional work from you, as you need to be the one who regularly checks their knowledge. What you could also do is show them how to sound more natural in English. Work on phrasal verbs, idioms, discourse markers, ellipsis and cleft sentences. You will find many ESL Brains lessons to help you with this. Another thing you might consider is choosing lesson topics which students are not likely to have encountered in coursebooks in the past. It is always a great motivator to discuss controversial topics or unusual ideas. And again, this is where ESL Brains comes in handy with loads of lessons on up-to-date and thought-provoking topics.
What is your experience with teaching advanced ESL students? Do you have any thoughts or suggestions? Share them in the comments below!