Challenging Higher-Level Learners

It can be daunting to have a group of near proficient speakers in front of you; they’ve dedicated years to studying and perfecting their language. What’s more, you might find yourself faced with an advanced grammar-driven syllabus that your class would eat for breakfast. How do you make sure that they don’t finish the course feeling slightly short-changed? I’ve put together  in this post a few tips I’ve amassed over the past few years teaching advanced classes:

1. Get their hands on their own language

I bring my MP3 player to most lessons in case I’ve planned a discussion or a moment arises that’s suitable for recording the class. Of course, get their consent before recording – the first time can be a bit daunting. With the recording, you can play it back and correct as a class, transcribe it for a delayed error correction session or send it to your learners after class with a follow up activity. Either way, it gives your learners a great opportunity to get their hands on ‘their language’. At higher levels especially, motivation can be lower and there’s the temptation to become a bit complacent with their language. This added extra opens up a whole new dimension to working with what students provide you with.

You can also use this information for individual goal setting with learners or to give individual feedback on common errors or over-reliance on certain vocabulary/structures.

2. Take control of their own learning

I usually introduce my advanced classes to I teach them about collocation and colligation and set them tasks to research new vocabulary and find alternatives across formalities, examples (with their grammatical patterns, e.g. I’m coming down with a cold – preference for the continuous). You can dedicate time at the start of class to sharing the results of the research.

3. Explore new contexts and functions for their language

Maybe they’ve done the same simulations a hundred times before. Change the paradigms a little by playing the angry client, the pushy boss, the colleague with emotional problems – these will put their linguistic skills to the test as they try and negotiate their way through new and challenging contexts.

4. Practice with longer turns

The safe zone – a collection of short turns negotiated between two or more participants in a conversation – that’s what I call it. C1 and C2 levels can comfortably remain here for a long time without pushing themselves to the limit. On the other hand, how are they at taking a longer turn? Describing a process, talking someone through the challenges of their jobs, filling someone in on the events of the previous week? Your learners will have to dig deep to find the right discourse features, vocabulary and grammar to successfully complete longer-turn tasks and feedback on this will be all the more immediate.

5. Listening

Your class can converse like pros, but can they follow a longer conversations, news programmes or a presentation and give feedback? These tasks are much more cognitively cumbersome and will add an edge to classes. You can even link it in to the recordings of previous discussions or longer turns and make comparisons between their language a more proficient models.

What are your tricks to make sure lessons leave your learners feeling challenged and satisfied with the content of your lessons?

12 thoughts on “Challenging Higher-Level Learners

  1. osnacantab says:

    Dale and others,

    One method I have used in the past for getting advanced learners to write is to invite them to write themselves into a chosen scene from a novel.. One that worked well was Jenny Diski’s Rainforest. In it a lecturer, Mo, I think here name was, is visited by a male lecturer who is embarrassingly chauvinistic. My students were invited to enter the room and take part in and extend the conversation.

    Dale. Share with us, if you will, details of your MP3 player.


    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi, Dennis. Great to see you here.

      I will have to try that idea of writing themselves into a novel. I can immediately think of a few books I’d like to write myself into in Italian! You know, I think I might try that same idea with a C1 class I have in the next two weeks. Does it lend itself to speaking as well?

      The MP3 player? Do you mean the recordings of the students or how I use it? It’s just an ipod touch with a voice memo recording facility that I use to record students from time to time. After the lesson, I can sit at the computer transcribing what they say or I can send it to them. Sometimes, we even listen back in class with a set of criteria to evaluate with.

      Sometimes I use it for simulations, too. Especially with individual students, it can be a real test of your skill to note down and act the role of the other person. It gives time to me and my learner to concentrate on the task in hand. We then listen back to the recording and evaluate which bits we liked and which we can improve. There’s often also discussion about the questions we asked and we talk about answering them to different people (your boss, your friend, an angry client).


  2. phil wade says:

    My favourite topic Chia.

    I have lots of high levels, always have. One is C2 and got 990 in the Toeic. Another teaches at school in English. Both just want practice and to have real conversation. They don’t like having an English class with exercises or me highlighting mistakes, they don’t make many. This is because they operate within their boundary. Get them onto another topic and you may see there are linguistic gaps but they’d still get 8 or 9 in IELTS.

    Our lessons are speaking-based with texts and video used for topics. I’ve learned to highlight interesting language and then talk about it using collocations and phrasing rather than make exercises. For instance, “given the degree to which Armstrong adamantly denied allegations of drug use, would you say that he deserves what’s coming to him?/would you agree that he should face prosecution for leading people on/are you of the opinion that he should be made an example of?

    I’d use these questions and help out with the understanding if it was an issue and also the answers. Depending on what was identified, I’d then adapt the discussion.

    So, advanced students can be interesting and challenging. I used to spend hours trying to find materials for C1 and 2 classes. It was hard as they would often do CPE so I couldn’t touch that stuff. Not sure what adv level materials are like now though.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Phil, I knew you’d pop up sooner or later on this thread! As I was writing it, I thought of you.

      Your Armstrong example reminded me of a class or proficiency students I had in the summer. It means you really have to pay attention to YOUR language in class. Stop, wait and think “is there a way of saying this that’s richer in language”? All it takes is an engaging topic (with video or recording), some chatty people, a teacher willing to let go of the reins and prepped for some in-depth language work and some language-curious students.

      One question I have is how come course material seems to do the opposite? It’s much more language-heavy than at lower levels. Is the assumption that after years and years of learning English, what CPE students need is lashings of dense texts and complicated language transformation exercises?


      • phil says:

        Yes. I don’t know many ADV books that are suitable. I think it’s because they just use the same method from Beg to Adv. Also, I think it’s pretty hard to decide what to put in an Adv book as students are pretty good and have English tastes. I find the Adv grammar is often just a ‘for the sake of it’. For me, much of the work is getting them to actively use everything they know and then corrected wrong parts and adding on more. That is hard to do with a book. I know a few places that only do GE to Upper int then push students into a CAE class then a CPE one. Those courses are pretty good and really push students but hw about ones who don’t want an exam class?

  3. Michelle Hughes (@wellmichelle) says:

    Thank you for sharing your ideas, as you said we can easily feel daunted by how much our students know at higher levels, but it is important to push them to explore the language more and keep developing their language skills. Spending time focussing on collocations and finding them in a text is essential. I teach mainly teenagers who are C1 or C2 level, I find that they often feel that they have understood a text well, that is until you start examining the various collocations, idioms, and fixed expressions in a text – it’s important, as you say, that they have the necessary tools to explore the language and to take control of their own learning.
    Dealing with longer texts is something which I work on with my students. We tend to explore a topic over a number of lessons, so I often bring in a selection of articles which address the theme in a variety of ways (I usually get these from newspaper websites, like,, etc.). In groups of three or four each student spends time reading his/her article. They highlight the key points and interesting collocations, I move around the class helping them with this, and once they’ve all read their articles they present it to their group, and then the group discusses the points raised in it. Students also share the language they have highlighted, explaining it to each other, and note down the new collocations. I find they become more confident discussing a wide range of themes, become better at developing their opinions and become more aware of looking for language used in different ways. As they keep a list of the language they’ve come across I then challenge them to use some of the new language when they are doing a writing or speaking task.
    I’m looking forward to trying out – it looks like a very interesting site.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for commenting, Michelle.

      We’re definitely singing from the same hymn sheet, Michelle. Give them the tools and then let them explore language – it’s so empowering. Do you ever set them contextual limitations for finding phrases they like? I mean, that fit in with the lexical chains within the article? I sometimes find it’s good for a quick nudge in the right direction. Other times, it’s not needed.

      A great article on collocation and also (in the comments) lots about co-text of language as it appears in a text

      It’s great when you put in the hours helping students mine texts and develop their knowledge of collocation, fixed expressions and idiomatic language. One day, a few hands shoot up and ask “what’s a frequent collocation for that verb”. Call me a geek, but that really makes my day!

      Good luck with wordandphrase! I should really post a Wordanphrase guide for anyone interested. Hmmm, blog post for next weekend sorted!

      Thanks for stopping by,


  4. Jake Thomas says:

    Hi, Dale! I’ve had difficulty challenging higher level learners. Because I have a mixed group, sometimes I focus more on the struggling ones. This results to boredom from the advanced group. Reading your post has given me ideas on how to deal with advanced students. I’m excited to try them.

  5. erikspen says:

    I’ve been struggling with this as well. I’m a new teacher and have a group that ranges from beginning teachers for kids that don’t speak well to near-native speakers who’ve been teaching for 15 years. The coordinator simply wants them to speak to a native and expects magic to happen.

    At first, we focused on pronunciation. Classic play-analyze-reproduce. But they never repeated audio on their own, nor recorded themselves speaking as I had asked. Worse, the less advanced teachers refused to speak beyond short, confused phrases while the advanced ones mainly tried to joke around.

    Next, I tried fun articles containing slang or celeb gossip. I filled it with translations for slang, made an audio recording, and recorded a second story that plays around with the same vocab in other contexts. During class, I randomly highlight some phrases and we talk about different contexts for those words, etc. It’s good vocab for the less advanced and at least entertaining for the advanced. But again, the advanced ones love joking around, it’s fun, but the less advanced keep quiet unless they’re specifically asked (which I do often). Also, despite everyone saying they loved the material, there was almost no time spent preparing or listening to the audio outside of class.

    Lastly, I usually finish off the class with phrases that I’ve come across in their own native language and challenge them to translate them. Strangely, this is what they all enjoy most. I challenged them to read and listen on their own, then bring those phrases that they found most interesting to class for group discussion. …but, big surprise, no time for reading/listening they say.

    So, I’ve been looking on blogs like this one for group activity ideas. Thanks for the suggestions.

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