Students who are at the upper-intermediate or lower-advanced level can accomplish many tasks required in their personal and professional lives. They mostly have good fluency skills, although these may suffer when talking about a difficult or unfamiliar topic. They can anticipate and provide clarification, and this includes additional information for both concrete and abstract topics. And, in general, information which is presented is well structured.
As a result, many teachers find these students difficult to teach because their needs aren't as readily identifiable as beginner or lower-intermediate students. What should a teacher do with these upper-level ESL EFL learners that will further progress their skills?
Here are a few ideas:
Activate Vocabulary Skills: Students at this level generally have developed strong vocabulary skills, but much of the language still remains passive. In other words, they may understand challenging, infrequently used words, as well as be able to guess the meaning through prefixes, roots, and suffixes when encountered; however, they will be less likely to use this language when expressing ideas. They will generally restrict their speaking to simpler, higher-frequency, and more familiar language.
The teacher can provide opportunities for purposeful and engaging vocabulary acquisition and review, with the express purpose of using the words in later activities. Any key words selected by the teacher for the lesson should fit well with the topic, and may be introduced through context and/or explicit instruction.
Deriving meaning from context may come from an article or video, with the teacher first providing a list of key words for the activity. Students then read the article or watch the video, and identify when and how the words were used. Comprehension questions, matching exercises, or elicitation can then be used by the teacher to assess understanding and, if necessary, the need for further vocabulary activities.
Explicit instruction by the teacher can come via short explanations or examples of the new words, and this will help clarify how and when to use the key vocabulary too.
As another option, the teacher can recast language at the end of any speaking activity. For example, where a student said "a large amount," the teacher can suggest other word choices, such as "adequate" or "sufficient" or "excessive," depending on the intended meaning. The teacher can even ask how the meaning changes when "an adequate amount" is used versus "an excessive amount." This latter question promotes critical thinking, which in turn leads to more active and engaging exposure to the vocabulary.
Word maps, matching exercises, and fill-in-the-blankworksheets, just to name some alternative ideas, also work well.
Employ Discourse Markers: Again, students should have developed linking language at this level, yet they may restrict their range to only a repeated handful of choices. What's more, these discourse markers may not always be appropriate to the conversation, perhaps being either too formal or too casual for the situation; for example, "however" or "moreover" may naturally appear in writing, but often sound out of place when spoken.
...provide opportunities for purposeful and engaging vocabulary acquisition and review
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In the lesson, the teacher can introduce several new options to link information and ideas. The phrases can be specific for business purposes, academic presentations, etc. Alternatively, new phrases can be categorized, such as when expressing a condition or result, or when contrasting information.
As with vocabulary, the teacher has many options to introduce the new language. Context and explicit instruction serve as two examples. The teacher can also create worksheets which introduce, explain, and demonstrate use of the discourse markers.
Adjust Register and Tone: Even at upper-levels, students often are less likely to effectively manage appropriate register and tone. Register refers to style, such as formal or informal, while tone focuses on the attitude, such as informative or persuasive.
Students may convey a message inappropriate for the situation. The intended message might be more or less understood, but it may also be out of place. For example, the message might be too aggressive, conversational and informal, or overly serious. Compare: "Due to unforeseen circumstances at work, I missed my appointment on Thursday night." with "Because of an emergency at work, I couldn't attend my daughter's school play on Thursday night." Although the latter, even if somewhat formal, would be more or less suitable for the world of business, it is incorrect as an explanation for a personal issue. (By the way, this was an exact sentence a new business student told me, and it has struck with me since as proof of just how important register and tone are.)
To practice understanding and using the right tone and register, students can read an article or watch a video and then identify the intent of the writer / speaker. Is the delivery formal, informal, or colloquial? Is the attitude serious, sentimental, or argumentative? Are the sentences long and complex, or short and relatively simple? What word choices does the writer / speaker use?
The teacher can also introduce and explain various styles, based on the needs of the class. Students can then practice through role plays, mini-presentations, and discussion. This will allow students to use appropriate language for the situation, and handle circumstances in which the interlocutor is assertive, aggressive, and so on.
Improve Structure: Students should be able to organize their ideas with a clear, cohesive structure. This may prove more challenging with difficult, unfamiliar topics, as students will focus on the message rather than the organization. This may also prove more challenging if the rhetorical style of the students' first language differs from English; for example, Japanese speakers will provide the main idea at the end of their explanation. This is the opposite of the more usual main idea followed by supportive details employed by English speakers.
...students often are less likely to effectively manage appropriate register and tone
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If the teacher opts for improving structure in the lesson, students should plan, use appropriate connectors and cohesive devices, and so on. Mini-presentations serve as one especially effective means of practice.
Students first work through discussion questions on a specific topic, as this activates pre-existing knowledge. It also allows students to brainstorm and share ideas with their peers. As a next step, students prepare notes for a short two or three minute presentation with a partner, with the previously discussed information serving as the foundation for the presentation.
Focus on Communication Strategies: These are an integral part of communication. Speakers regularly employ stalling devices and fillers, which allow the person to organize his/her thoughts. Some stalling devices include "Ummm..." and "Errr...." and also "Let me see..." and "That's a good question..." Students should avoid stalling devices in their first language, or even worse, absolute silence as they organize their thoughts.
Circumlocution is also an important communication strategy. This practice refers to using other words, phrases, or explanations in lieu of exact words. The student may have forgotten the vocabulary, especially if it is infrequently used or highly specialized; however, the student may also never have learned the vocabulary. Practicing circumlocution allows students to smoothly deliver information no matter the topic, rather than resort to dictionary use.
And lastly, students can incorporate differentiated vocabulary and intonation for emphasis. Similar to improving vocabulary skills and adjusting tone/register, students should practice selecting alternative words and phrases to emphasize information. For example, here are three sentences to highlight how differentiated vocabulary and intonation can emphasize meaning:
A: I'm very hungry.
B: I'm very hungry.
C: I'm starving!
The first sentence is fairly plain, without any nuance of emphasis. The second sentence, although using the same language as sentence A, adds emphasis to describe intensity or immediacy; in other words, give me some food now! And lastly, the third sentence adds emphasis via emphasis and a more descriptive word choice.
The teacher can more easily identify the weaknesses of upper-intermediate and advanced ESL EFL students by focusing on vocabulary; discourse markers; register and tone; structure; and communication strategies. The teacher can more easily construct meaningful, relevant lessons that push the students' skills. And not only will the students get more enjoyment from the lesson, the teacher will too.