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!

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.

  • Kevin Stein
    Posted at 09:45h, 10 março Responder

    Hi Luiz,

    Just a great post filled with tips to keep more advanced challenged. I also think these same ideas are pretty applicable to the intermediate classroom as well. I’m not a huge fan of skimming and scanning in the best of situations and having students take a deeper (and often times much more interesting) look at a text is almost always worth the class time. And the idea of searching for sarcasm (or even truthiness, or the slant of a story) is just another way to work with a text which usually requires multiple readings.

    Anyway, the whole post is just a gem and it’s got me thinking more about how to stretch and challenge my students (and myself).


    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 10:09h, 10 março Responder

      Thank you, Kevin. You’re one of my favorite bloggers in the whole blogosphere, so your words mean a lot. 🙂
      You’re right – a lot of what I said applies to B1/B2 as well.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 10:54h, 10 março Responder

    Another great post Luiz, with some great tips. I totally agree with what you say about skills teaching. Re- teaching strategies (as opposed to just practising skills), I saw a great Delta lesson (listening skills) a few years back which taught simple rules of sentence stress (i.e. stressing content words) to help learners with transactional listening. It worked really well and the learners felt really empowered.

    It’s a shame this isn’t more common. I completely agree with the sentiment that learners shouldn’t be able to do what they do in class on their own at home. Otherwise, what’s the point of us? : )

  • Luiz Otávio Barros
    Luiz Otávio Barros
    Posted at 12:02h, 10 março Responder

    Hi, Damian
    Thank you!
    Isn’t it funny how we seem to share the same beliefs about, well, basically all key issues in ELT?

  • Eduardo Trindade
    Posted at 18:59h, 10 março Responder

    Hey, Luiz!!
    Great post, as usual, my friend!! And not only for the great ideas you’ve put in there, but also for the really well-chosen hiperlinks.
    The didactic use you’ve made of hiperlinks makes it a lot easier for inexperienced teachers to understand all the important pedagogical concepts mentioned in the post.
    And that’s what blogging’s all about: Producing interesting, relevant content and hiperconnecting sources of relevant information that can add to (or explain bits of) our own text!
    Thanks for the great reading!
    Gde abs

  • Luiz Otávio Barros
    Luiz Otávio Barros
    Posted at 20:55h, 10 março Responder

    Thank YOU, Edu, for your generous words.
    Yeah, links are important. For are all the reasons you mentioned, of course, and another one: Texts that link externally to other sources tend to rank a bit higher in Google searches. 🙂
    Um abração

  • Marcos Gazzana
    Posted at 22:27h, 10 março Responder

    Great post! I particularly like the last two items (3 and 4 I mean). Nice links too! Thanks for sharing.

  • Leandro Zuanazzi
    Leandro Zuanazzi
    Posted at 11:35h, 11 março Responder

    Great reading indeed, Luiz! That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about since I started teaching a so-called ‘conversation-driven course’ earlier this year. Although it is, as usual, a mixed-ability group of students, I feel that both stronger and weaker learners can benefit a lot from these kinds of activities you’ve suggested.
    And yes, the links are extremely helpful as well.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas!

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 13:02h, 11 março Responder

      Leandro, thank you for your kind words.
      The issues I’ve addressed in this post become ten times more critical in a “conversation-driven” advanced class, with no formal syllbus as such. In this kind of course, teachers and students end up having to co-build a syllabus that is essentially organic, “on-the-go” and based on emergent language. At lower levels, it’s relatively easier to teach language at the point of need as they say: A2 – Student needs to tell a story, can’t use the past continuous well, teacher helps. B1 – Student needs to hypothesize about the present, doesn’t know how, teacher highlights second conditional. At C1, things begin to get a little more complicated. True, there’ll be lots of “How do you say X” questions, which the teacher can use to create a mini lexical syllabus. But not all of these words will necessarily be syllabus-worthy, if you know what I mean. Plus, more often than not, students will be able to paraphrase and get their ideas across using the language they already know. So it’s up to the teacher to identify “points of need” that would’ve gone unnoticed at lower levels: Student says “I don’t think he will succeed”, teacher sees this as an opportunity to teach / review “unlikely”. And so on and so forth. But this sort of intervention can only work if you establish, as I said, a classroom culture where complexity matters. Where precision matters. Where it’s not OK to simply settle for what you can already do well.
      Um abraço!

      • Leandro Zuanazzi
        Leandro Zuanazzi
        Posted at 10:19h, 12 março Responder

        That’s right, Luiz. During the last couple of lessons, I’ve been trying to establish this classroom culture where complexity and precision are keywords – which is not at all easy, if you ask me. It seems that learners who are closer to a C1 level don’t feel the need to ‘upgrade’ their language (yet), whereas learners who are still B1 have a much bigger gap to bridge.
        Thanks again.
        Grande abraço!

  • Edita
    Posted at 16:55h, 11 março Responder

    Very useful tips, thank you very much for them I will try to use them with my advanced groups and hopefully they will enjoy 😉

  • Cherry M Philipose
    Posted at 18:48h, 13 março Responder

    Hi! I had always found teaching advanced students a daunting task. After reading your post realised there are actually many possibilities hidden which go untapped because of that mental block. Will keep in mind the ideas of this blog post when I teach advanced students again. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Happy to learn together.


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