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 http://www.wordandphrase.info. 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?

Lexical notebooks

In a previous post, I talked about lexical notebooks without really explaining their make-up or meaning to me. I need to admit right at the start of this post that I am no expert in keeping a lexical notebook or linguistics, nor do I consider myself a good language learner. However, I have found that keeping everything in one place, using a few techniques which I hope to demonstrate below, and a bit of revision, I have become a better learner of Italian lately and above all more confident and secure in my learning.

1. Idioms

The learning of idioms, especially for exams like CAE and CPE, is vital for many of our students. I dedicate pages of my book to lists of idioms which have come up in conversation or which I know there is a corresponding phrase in English I use. What are the problems I have encountered when learning idioms in Italian?

The learning of idioms, especially for exams like CAE and CPE, is vital for many of our students. I dedicate pages of my book to lists of idioms which have come up in conversation or which I know there is a corresponding phrase in English I use. What are the problems I have encountered when learning idioms in Italian?

1. Lack of context 

I never remember idioms when I read them listed on a page of a book of idioms. To remedy this I type the idiom into Google in various forms (past, future, infinitive) and look at the different contexts in which it appears. I take a few examples and write them in my book.  The more information you have about a word, the more likely you are to remember it and reproduce it. 

2. They are not always clear

I either ask a housemate to give me a paraphrase of the idiom or try to think of one myself. This expands my vocabulary, utilises more of my linguistic resources and gives me a point of reference for meaning (in Italian) when I need to revise.

Learners of English are lucky enough to have a plethora of online resources available to them in the form of websites and corpora. In a recent development project a colleague of mine and I developed some materials using examples from The BNC and Google Corpora to encourage students to deduce meaning of idioms from context. There is definitely some promise in this idea, I would like to include this in my learner training this year, including exercises with idioms and teaching students to use these tools available to obtain more information about a phrase/idiomatic expression on their own.

2. Collocation trees

David Warr’s Language Garden blog and seeing a student of mine using these inspired me to start doing the same myself. It is visually stimulating and adds a little variety to my book.

In fact,  I found that I kept making mistakes with this word ‘cena’ and realised it was time to put things straight, so I dedicated a page of my notebook to remedying this problem. I am the sort of student that self-monitors a lot, correcting myself and being very aware of the mistakes I make. On the plus side, it gives me lots of material to learn by myself.

3. Colligation: The grammar contained within a phrase

One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in Italian is when to use their subjunctive tense. Ask an Italian and they will rant for hours about the inflection of Italian verbs and how hard they are to learn, but I have certain reservations about the difficulty of learning verb endings; there’s no thinking required, no depth.

Having not had much success with the pedagogical grammar rules recited to me in Italian class a few years ago, I thought a new solution was needed. I came across something called colligation, which I understand to be the grammar patterns which are contained within the DNA make up of a chunk. E.g. ‘have an affair’ appears in the BNC in almost all cases in the continuous tense (past or present). It seems worth making a record of these syntactical secrets when teaching and learning to help students use phrases in the forms in which they are found. 

In this case I have opted for a longer distance colligation, based on general usage of the subordinate clause with a verb. I have heard the term ‘based on usage norm’ and this is what I have used.

So what does this mean?

I keep a record of what type of verb follows certain expressions (indicative or subjunctive) and base my usage upon that. 

It means I have a store of chunks I know are followed by a subjunctive, reducing the cognitive load while I speak and cutting out the need to learn too many confusing grammar rules.

I can keep a record of style-sensitive changes in the use of these two moods in Italian. That way I do not end up sounding like an academic in a chat with some friends when I am out and about. In English this could take the form of the stylistic differences between ‘will’ and ‘going to’.

How do I find this information?

Mostly on Google, looking at the context in which the phrase is used: facebook or social networking sites = more spoken, newspapers etc = more formal, interviews with political figure = more formal. I admit it is not fail safe, but for learning independently it helps.

4. Pre/post modification

Add an adjective before a noun and you pre-modify. A noun which has a pre-modifier can then be extended with a post-modifier. Students studying English who need to use more complex sentences could really benefit from this knowledge. OK, that is enough demonstration of pre/post-modification. If you have been seduced by them then I suggest reading Dave Willis’ ‘Rules, Patterns and Words’ (2003).

I keep a record in my book of the lexical and grammatical patterns of Italian syntax. Italian is a heavily post-modified language so I focus my efforts on noticing the types of structures that occur after the nouns. As I have no Italian teacher, I try and paraphrase the example to help me understand it more and ask friends to help me.

How does this help me?

1. I am better able to deconstruct complex Italian sentences.

2. I can contain more information in a spoken sentence.

5. Collocations in context

Words attached to a context are of course of great benefit to a learner of a another language. For this reason I make sure I keep pages of vocabulary I have found or heard concerning topics I usually talk about.

You might notice some highlighted areas. These are areas I need to be careful of because of mistakes I know I have made in the past.

How does this translate to my teaching?

1. I encourage students to find as much information about an idiom as possible, as it makes it more like to be produced. Training learners to find examples and decide which idioms are useful for them i.e. are they likely to use them? One does not buy films or books that are of no interest, so why idoms?

2. I teach ways of keeping vocabulary organised in a notebook, giving learners a push away from long list of decontextualized words and towards fewer words and kept in the company of their lexical friends.

3. Show students the importance of knowing the grammar contained within the phrases we use, where to find it and how it can help them learn fewer grammar rules and use grammar better and more naturally.

4. I teach and encourage students to improve their use of phrase structures, like formulaic expressions but formulaic structures.

5. I want to encourage students to ask more questions about the the grammar they find in use, noticing common structures and recording them in a sort of basic form to be called upon and used when needed.

6. I give homework that involves mining articles which interest students for lexis/collocations/phrases that interest them, hoping that this might become a habit.

In this post I have looked at form and meaning, using examples of how I have adapted what I have learned about language to learn Italian, translating my second language learning experience into how I teach. I have missed out pronunciation, which will form the basis for a future post.