Sometime after the high beginning level or a year of study, something happens to many ESL students.
Formerly attentive eyes glaze over; always before enthusiastic students now are lethargic; absences go up, and sometimes students stop coming to class all together. “I’m so bored,” and “We’ve done this before” are frequent refrains about the class and instruction. What is going on? Instead of giving in to frustration, you might consider facing your students are dealing with the dreaded plateau.
What is the plateau?
This is a basically intermediate level where students have acquired a certain amount of fluency. They can understand and be understood in most routine social situations in English. They are still markedly nonnative speakers, however, with distinct differences between their grammar and pronunciation than that of native speakers. Getting past this plateau and on the way to true advanced, fluent, and correct English speech is difficult, and it’s not coincidental that most second language learners worldwide don’t get past the intermediate level.
So how do we help our students avoid getting stuck at eternal intermediate speakers and beat the odds in making it to the advanced level?
5 Methods of Getting Past the Dreaded Intermediate Plateau
Address Class Needs
Do a diagnostic at the beginning of class, such as having students write a “phone message” dictated by you and then do a simple writing assignment, such as a “life lesson” students learned. In this way, teachers can begin to get an idea of students’ varied skills and can begin to plan the activities around common needs—if most students need to work on past tense verbs, for example, or sentence fragments, then that is where the focus should be, no matter what the class text might suggest.
Address Individual Needs
If possible, interview each student, discussing his or her future plans and what he or she wants to get out of the course. If it’s not possible to interview each student, have them make tapes of themselves addressing their plans and goals. In this way, can the teacher can find some common goals to focus on: perhaps a majority of students want to go into the health care industry, for example, suggesting a focus for vocabulary instruction. In addition, some common areas for pronunciation instruction, such as stress and intonation, can also be identified.
Address Curriculum and Materials
Many institutions are not prepared for addressing the needs of the intermediate student. I remember teaching a group of high beginners/intermediates the distinction between the simple and progressive present tense—over and over. The school had a “grammar –centric curriculum” and most of the materials seem to focus on this particular verb tense distinction. If the same material is repeated, of course students will complain of boredom. Look into instead some of their more advanced needs: grammar such as the passive voice and stress and intonation patterns for pronunciation, for example, are issues that can begin to be addressed at an intermediate level.
Most students at this level have identified specific goals, and may find some curriculum too elementary or irrelevant to their needs, hence the complaints of boredom. While the short stories of O’Henry and poetry of Robert Frost, for example, might be charming, especially to students of literature, ESL students might have limited patience for this as their needs are more immediately related to developing job or academic—usually non-arts and literature related—skills to survive in the work or academic world. Tie these goals to the curriculum by having students read and write relevant workplace and academic documents such as memos, reports, and essays.
Tie the Class to the Outside World
Because they will shortly be entering this outside world, connect students to it! Have them go on fieldtrips, if possible, to important local sites. For example, my city of Sacramento, California is the seat of government of the largest and one of the most influential states in the nation, so taking students to the State Capitol and learning about what the government does and jobs that are generated by it is valuable learning for students. In addition, Sacramento is located in the Central Valley of California, one of the richest sources of agriculture in the world. A trip south to Lodi, California, for example, will give students exposure to the powerful wine industry. In addition, right in our city is a branch of C and H, the sugar company, again giving students exposure to the agricultural industry. These field trips can be tied back the classroom with related readings, as the history of wine and sugar production are long, multicultural, and rich in human interest. In addition to the readings, study of individual industries usually is replete with new vocabulary: for example, the word for the study of wine is “oenology,” something I learned not long ago.
Besides field trips to places off campus, students can stay on campus and sit in on lectures of classes related to their interest by prior arrangement; usually the professors of these classes are happy to have them there. Finally, guest speakers in the fields of medicine, law, and technology can visit the class and talk about fields related to the students’ interests; other teachers might be good resources for these speakers as these are fields their spouses and friends could be in!
Satisfying the needs of intermediate students is not easy. It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of repeating the same curriculum of presenting the verb tenses over and over again until students “master” them.
However, given that it might take several years for such mastery and that students at this level have other needs, it is important for the growth of the intermediate student to expand the curriculum into more academic and work-related curriculum and materials to truly meet their needs.