“I teach intermediate to advanced learners most of the time, and I keep seeing the same trend. Once they reach a plateau, they get discouraged and eventually abandon their studies. What can I do to help them succeed in getting past this barrier?” *
Nothing is more frustrating than the feeling of being stuck. And there comes a time when every ESL student feels they are not making any progress. They are not learning as fast as they used to – they don’t notice any changes in their fluency or ability to speak English. But before we tackle the “how” to help them past this language learning plateau, let’s look at the “what” students feel versus what is actually going on.
What ESL Students Feel
Students who are stuck in a plateau have mastered the basics. They can get around in English, ask questions and even feel comfortable speaking with native English speakers. But as they continue their studies, the feel they are making very little progress. They don’t feel more “advanced” than the previous year, though they’ve taken a test that proves they are ready for the next “level”. Every now and then they might learn a new word, expression or skill, which brings them great satisfaction. But in the past, they learned new things every day. They are aware that their English is not perfect and that it can be improved, but they simply don’t see it happening.
What is Actually Going on
Although students may feel they are stuck and not making progress, technically they are; they are just not seeing it. When students start learning a foreign language from scratch, the learning curve is very steep. They learn by leaps and bounds on a daily basis. As they progress in their studies, the learning curve starts to flatten out – cue the infamous learning plateau. It is at this stage that an autopilot kicks in, and students think and say things in English automatically, without much thought or deliberateness. (Whereas in the beginning learning had to be very focused and deliberate because they knew very little). But this does not mean they will necessarily remain stuck there. There are things they can do to switch off the autopilot and reach a more fluent, improved, advanced stage.
Here's How You Can Help Your ESL Students Get Past the Language Plateau
Turn Their Attention to the Autopilot
ESL students reach a point where they make the same mistakes – they repeat them again and again, no matter how many times you correct them. These mistakes have become entrenched or fossilized. They say things without really thinking about what they’re saying. The first step towards getting past the plateau is directing your students’ attention to this – that they’re speaking on autopilot. They need to go back to what they did in the beginning and make their learning (and speaking) more deliberate. This does not mean they will necessarily have to sacrifice fluency for the sake of accuracy. But they need to become more accurate if they want to achieve better fluency.
Students get stuck in autopilot because they’re also doing the same things. More of the same thing will not help them improve. They need to do things differently to get unstuck. So if students watch entire movies in English and feel that their listening comprehension is not improving, they might need to watch shorter videos. If they spend hours doing grammar exercises and feel they are still not using correct grammar when they speak, it is because they need to get out there and speak to others (preferably native speakers). So help students identify which learning tactics they can replace with new strategies.
Focus on Specific Goals
The plateau is a vast plain of knowledge and areas that might need improvement. What is it that your students are particularly stuck on? Pronunciation? Vocabulary? Speaking? Try to focus on one area at a time until your students start to see some improvement.
Give Them Constant Feedback
If you have students working on improving their pronunciation and reducing their foreign accent, be sure to constantly provide feedback on their efforts. Break the main goal into smaller, more attainable ones. Have they mastered certain consonant sounds? Which ones do they still need to work on? Keep recordings of your students speaking or pronouncing certain sounds, so they can hear for themselves which areas still need improvement.
Teach Them to Self-Correct
ESL students who are speaking on autopilot, don’t listen to themselves. This is evident when you correct mistakes.
S: Last night I speak to my sister.
T: Last night you what?
S: Sorry! Last night I spoke to my sister.
The student knows the correct form of the verb in simple past, but was probably speaking too fast to notice they made a mistake. Train students to become more skilled at self-correction. Highlight the importance of listening to themselves, really listening and paying attention. There’s no better way to eliminate those mistakes that have been fossilized.
In an effort to overcome a language plateau, the important thing is not the number of hours your students spend per day practicing or repeating things.
The important thing is how they spend their time. If they spend it on a deliberate, conscious effort to overcome a specific barrier, they should be able to move past their plateau and climb to new heights.
* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you need any advice on a particular topic, share your question in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!