4 tips to help you teach advanced students

I don’t think I have ever taught or observed an advanced lesson that went seriously wrong. I mean cringe-worthy wrong.

Which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

After all, advanced students have been in the game long enough and know enough English to ensure that most of our lessons run – at worst – relatively smoothly. Except perhaps for those all-too-familiar “How do you say X?” questions (X = a word YOU don’t know), which they seem to pluck out of nowhere, at the worst possible moments. Yes, the ones that will make you wish a hole would open up in the floor and swallow you, while you hunt around – in vain – for a minimally plausible, face-saving answer. But I digress.

However, time and time again, I have walked out of lively, fun, seemingly trouble-free C1 lessons, wondering deep down how much learning had really taken place.  And this has bothered me at least since 1996, which is when, for reasons I won’t go into now, I first stopped and began to take a close, hard look at advanced learners and their ever-so-overlooked needs.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned since then:

1. It’s important to go beyond skimming and scanning.
The extent to which L1 reading strategies actually do cross over into L2 is still up for grabs, I know. But at C1, regardless of strategy-training and L1 reading proficiency, students will usually be able to get the gist of most texts that come their way – not least because they know a lot of English already. This means that in class it’s critically important to devise tasks that will help them “squeeze the text dry” rather than only hover over it. I’m talking about an overt and systematic focus on sub-skills such as identifying metaphor, distinguishing fact from opinion, understanding sarcasm and so on, which, for whatever reason, some C1 coursebooks still pay scant attention to. So, when doing reading activities in class, the key question to ask yourself is: “Is this something students could be doing on their own, at home, without any guidance / further input / clarification?” If the answer is no, then you’re probably on the right track.

2. It’s important to go beyond listening for gist.
A few years ago, I remember trying to dissuade an advanced student from dropping out of her course. She complained, among other things, about the amount of classroom time spent ( “wasted”) on gist-type listening activities she “could’ve been doing on her own, at home, by simply accessing youtube.” I don’t remember exactly what I told her way back then, but in hindsight, I think I can see where she was coming from. At C1, providing students with increasingly challenging material and devising the same old comprehension tasks just won’t cut it. Not in this day and age, where students can listen to English outside the classroom 24-7 if they want to. To address this issue, I believe we ought to go beyond the usual gist / true or false / multiple-matching tasks, take the bull by the horns, and try to help them understand what was actually saida skill that the communicative era has pushed to the sidelines of ELT for far too long. Teaching students how to understand what was actually said (as opposed to what their background knowledge tells them might have conceivably been said) entails, among other things, making room in the syllabus for tasks that help students – especially adult students –  understand fast, connected speech. I’m talking about post-comprehension activities focusing on features of connected speech which hardly ever get taught, such as the silent /h/ and the schwa in “I talked her out of it” or, say, the flap to in “Do you want me to go?” By going beyond comprehension and also focusing on perception skills, you’ll be in a better position to help students deal with authentic English (I know this is a thorny concept, but I’m not going there – not today) outside the classroom, regardless of context or topic. Remember: in real life, there’ll be no pre-listening or teacher-led schemata-activation.

3. It’s important to throw students in at the deep end from time to time.
At C1, students will have been exposed to most of the grammar they need to use in order to be able to communicate well. You know that, they know that. What only you know is that being able to describe a rule (declarative knowledge) is one thing, using it spontaneously (procedural knowledge), quite another, which explains why there’s still so much grammar review at C1. Remember: A surefire way to kill your lesson before it even begins is to tell students that “today they’re going to learn / review the third conditional”, as if they had never seen it before. Instead, use a T T T (test-then-teach) approach: Devise a simple meaning-focused task that will somehow “trap” the target structure and encourage students to use it. Then, use their attempts / mistakes to show them that, yes, a little brushing up is probably in order. 
As an added bonus, this sort of “pushed output” will probably enable students to process the new input better (i.e.: “Oh, so that’s what I should’ve said when I meant X”).

4. You must create a classroom culture where precision and complexity matter
This is by far the trickiest one, I believe. Here’s the first thing to bear in mind:  If you want your advanced students to sound more advanced, then you should begin by using more advanced English yourself. This comes naturally when we teach basic – intermediate learners, since most of what we say will probably be at the right level of challenge to act as raw material for acquisition – or i + 1, in the words of Stephen Krashen. When dealing with advanced students, however, I believe we should “doctor” our English and make a conscious effort to use language the students wouldn’t necessarily be able to produce and might even experience some difficulty understanding. I took this so seriously when I began teaching advanced students back in 1871 or something that I remember making a list of “expressions to use in class” as part of my daily lesson plan.
However, simply providing our advanced students with quality input is not enough – and here’s where the Krashen reference falls short. It’s also important to train them to go beyond meaning (what is said) and, from time to time, focus on form as well (how we’re saying what we’re saying). This is not easy, of course, nor does it come naturally to everyone. The good news is that there are simple classroom tweaks that can help you encourage the kind of noticing that I’m referring to. Here are three quick examples:

4a: Use WH-questions illustrating some of the “advanced” lexis you want to zero in on:
You: So, Marcos, where do you stand on this?
Marcos: What?
You: What’s your opinion? Where do you stand on this?
The fact that Marcos didn’t understand the question probably made it more salient in the input and, therefore, more noticeable.

4b: Use Yes/No questions illustrating some of the “advanced” lexis you want to zero in on:
Teacher: Pedro, did it live up to your expectations?
Pedro: What do you mean?
Teacher: Was it as good as you expected?
Pedro: No.
Teacher: So it didn’t live up to your expectations, then?
Pedro: No, it didn’t live up my expectations.
Teacher: It didn’t live up to your expectations?
Pedro: No, it didn’t live up… live up to my expectations.

4c: Provide your advanced students with short bursts of input-flooding:
Teacher: …which is why I agree with Carlos that parents need to set the example first. Setting the example involves (…). Setting the example also entails (…). What do you think?
Maria: When parents give the right exa… set the right example, they…

Creating this sort of classroom culture, where precision and complexity matter, depends on your ability (and willingness!) to keep the focus on meaning (what is said) and form (how it’s said) running parallel throughout the lesson. This, I believe, is also the key to better, more principled error correction, as I argued in my last post.

How about you? What do you think we should keep in mind when teaching advanced students?

Thanks for reading. See you next month!

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Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

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