Somehow I always seem to end up teaching an advanced class in the summer: usually highly educated European teenagers popping over to the UK for a few weeks’ refresher course.
They bring their own range of challenges. Some are gluttons for work and demand a sophisticated, highly challenging syllabus, while others are all too happy to coast on what they have already achieved and have no interest in improving any further. Some are intelligent, articulate, and fascinating individuals, while others can be highly critical, endlessly questioning claims and requiring justification for teaching methods. Some may be used to a very intense style of study, including heavy workloads and in-depth knowledge of grammatical terminology, while others may have learnt English very informally, and be ignorant even of the names of the tenses.
Here I share a few tips, based on what has worked for me teaching an advanced class this summer.
I have generally found that organising the course around skills rather than grammar structures or vocabulary topics works better for advanced learners. This doesn’t mean that you don’t teach grammar or vocabulary – but start with what arises in class, through the texts you use, or through correcting or improving students’ output.
There are various reasons why I think this works better: one is that it allows you to draw in a wide range of grammatical and lexical areas within one lesson, which mimics the way that advanced students actually have to deal with everything at once, when trying to understand or produce complex texts. Also, it means that you don’t have to deal so much with meta-language, if you have students in your class who have picked up their English rather than learning it formally. Collect their own errors, and ask them to correct them by thinking about what sounds better, without worrying too much about the rules. Meanwhile students who have a good grasp of the linguistic rules and meta-language can approach the problem that way, if they prefer.
Don’t forget that at this level it’s important to keep drawing students’ attention to chunks of language, such as collocations, fixed expressions, sentence frames, and idioms.
An advanced class is the ideal forum for exploring more controversial topics – they should able to express nuanced opinions without causing unintended offence, and they are able to deal with the authentic texts which you’ll need in order to teach these topics, since they often aren’t covered in ELT coursebooks.
Offering a variety of topics a great way to give students an element of choice, which should help keep them motivated and engaged. Other ways to build choice into your course are: getting students to choose the texts, offering a choice of tasks, and negotiating your plan for the week every Monday.
At this level, students thrive on the challenge and motivation of authentic materials. The challenge for the teacher is preparation. My advice here is to spend your time finding the right text – the most suitable passage from a novel or clip from a film; the article from today’s paper that will have the most mileage for your lesson. Don’t spend time preparing comprehension questions or activities to pre-teach vocabulary – let the students do the work for you. A list of open-ended questions that can be used with a wide range of different texts can be downloaded here.
Don’t be afraid to lean towards the literary end of language teaching. In reading and listening, analyse the writer’s use of style, choice of vocabulary, characterisation, argumentation etc. Discuss the emotions or ideas evoked by the text. Ask why it’s effective. Get students to choose a favourite phrase, favourite moment, or favourite argument. These exercises will help them focus on what makes good writing (or speaking) and try to recreate these features in their own production.
Make sure your productive tasks provide enough challenge. If your students are already expert essay-writers, why not branch out? Give them creative tasks (e.g. descriptive nature writing; story writing). Make tasks more challenging to avoid boredom (e.g. go beyond the standard IELTS Task 1 and ask them to speculate about reasons for the trends seen in the data). Make sure the tasks are relevant and realistic (e.g. writing personal statements for applying to university, using examples written by applicants to top UK institutions as a model).
Tolerance of ambiguity is supposed to be one of the traits that correlates with language aptitude. Use this in your teaching – don’t be afraid to allow two possible correct answers to a question that is supposed to have only one, as long as each answer can be logically justified. Try not to give black and white answers to “Can I say …” questions – explore the different options and which ones sound better or worse, more or less natural, more or less formal. Avoid the true-false or multiple choice comprehension questions that are used in exams, in favour of open-ended subjective questions, which have much more mileage in terms of discussion and making students think deeply.
Likewise, don’t be afraid of your own ignorance – choose texts on topics which are unfamiliar to you, and explain to your students that you are going to learn about them together. Don’t be afraid to admit the limits of your own knowledge – in the end, they will respect you more for it.