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?

Vocabulary Habits

Here’s a conversation from a few days ago regarding lexis and grammar:

“I’m sure if you gave on group of them (the learners) a dictionary and the other a grammar book and sent them to London, the group with the dictionary would come back much more fluent” 

So, if it’s true that a well-developed vocabulary paves the way to fluency, how can we increase the odds of getting there? Certainly, learners bring a heap of bad vocabulary habits to the classroom from their learning experiences, baggage that if not examined and dealt with will obstruct them from reaching their full potential in English. The job of getting things in working order lies in the hands of the teacher.

That’s not to say however the whole process becomes a teacher-centred dictatorial mess. But to shake up the system, change needs to come from the top.


  1. How do you board language?
  2. Which vocabulary do you choose to correct?
  3. How do you drill language?
  4. Do you check how learners keep vocabulary?
  5. Do you test them on vocabulary? Do you recycle vocabulary?
  6. Do your learners know how to use dictionaries and research words?
  7. If you said “this is a verb + noun collocation”, would they know what you mean?

What are your vocabulary teaching habits? Try taking a picture of your board every day. Look at what you put on there. Does it reflect the ideals you’d like learners to hold about language?

Here are some questions I aim to answer in the next few posts:

1. How can you equip learners with the right strategies to find, store and learn vocabulary on their own?

2. Which teaching techniques create an optimum classroom environment for vocabulary acquisition?

3. What are the bad habits our learners have and to what lengths do we go in order to help them?

4. How do you integrate teaching pronunciation into vocabulary teaching? Holistic or not?

5. Recycling, revisiting, testing: is this our job to enforce it or to whip up motivation for learners to do it themselves?

The first topic I’d like to tackle regards vocabulary strategies and I’d love to know how you teach/foster these in YOUR classrooms. 

Phil Wade’s Course Skeleton

Course skeletons I love using Dale’s skeleton idea for classes because it lets you create or adapt a basic lesson format which can be used, reused, adapted for different levels, topics, learners etc. This ‘bare bones’ approach also lets you ad on anything in your ‘teacher toolkit’ as it is referred to a lot nowadays.

While, this approach seems great for one-off or general classes, the question of (as with much Dogme-related work) how well will it work in formal/academic situations is another matter. Well, being an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy I have jumped feet first into this predicament with Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings under one arm, well a copy of their Teaching Unplugged, an assortment of board pens and paper in the other. Trial and error, hit and miss, pass and fail. I’ve probably experienced all of them but now that I’m planning another lengthy uni-level course I am confident that a ‘course skeleton’ works, so here are my ideas on what this involves. It feeds off Luke Meddings’ idea of a ‘back pocket syllabus and aims to reduce course planning to 1/2 pages and with it very minimal lesson planning is needed as you keep an ongoing ‘living syllabus’ from reflections after each lesson which feeds into the next.

The course Plan

1)Clarify what the course is, it’s aims

2)What must be taught/learned

3)How long is it?

4)What would the students like to do?

5)What do you think would be useful?

6)How will it be evaluated?

1 page 3 bubble syllabus in progress

1)Draw a bubble and write possible topics

2)In another language/grammar you think needs covering

3)In the last write a few activities you think would work well Make sure to leave space in the bubbles for later additions+amendments

Lesson skeletons

Write down what sections you would like in each lesson.Such as discussion, writing, language, debate, role-play etc. Try to have about 5 things, So, for me and my new English conversation class I have:


2)Pair discussion

3)Group discussion

4)Class discussion

5)Language work


Now, before each class I just arrange/rearrange these as a tentative framework but depending on how the lesson goes I can move them. then I add on my toolkit ideas/activities.

After each lesson add/change your syllabus notes depending on: What works/students like What needs covering more, less What topics/areas would work well in the next class Here’s a sample class:

1)Students watch a video clip (in class or at home)

2)Pairs discuss what it was about and reactions

3)I elicit opinions and then help establish a discussion

4)Groups continue discussion

5)I focus on some areas of weakness on the WB and provide some practice activities

6)I refocus the discussion/topic

7)New groups discuss

8)Pairs write up

As you can see, I used the main elements but extended some of them. In the next class I could choose a topic and actually show a video or give a reading at the end which would help students compare their ideas. In another I could just do a whole class discussion activity or even start with some writing. After this class I would look at my bubbles and add and even change them and then tick of what I’ve done and choose what would be good for the next class. In this way, the syllabus is constantly changing and improving after each class and at the end you have a very concise summary of what has been done, ideal for testing.


Having a basic skeleton helps me keep each lesson similar but different Changing stages helps keep lessons fun and surprising The flexibility lets you choose the next best activity depending how the lesson evolves There is lots of room for personalisation You always feel that you have a plan


You do need to be flexible and let things happen You need to think on your feet A good relationship with your class is important