Our eight-week summer school is now in full swing and I can almost guarantee that at some point in the next day or two, at least one student will come to me and ask to move because they feel they should be in a higher level. Often, these requests are in such painfully slow and stilted English that I’m astounded they’re even in the level they’ve been placed in, let alone that they have the cojones to believe they should be a level higher. The number of students we place at Intermediate or Upper-Intermediate who then come and inform us that they last course they did was Advanced or – my recent favourite – that they have ‘always’ been Upper-Intermediate is staggering – and it does beg the question as to how this state of affairs could’ve ever possibly come to pass. Obviously, insisting that students stay at the level we feel they actually belong in is a tough choice to make: there’s the ever-present risk that students will take offence at this and simply take their business elsewhere, and as we all know, students can always find a place that will put them into whatever level they demand, so long as they first pay and then moan long and hard enough. There’s also, of course, always the risk – and the fear – that students may still not actually end up getting enough of what they need from the classes to ensure that they really do learn new things and thus get some sense of making progress.
For many students in many institutions, level is often a matter of time spent in classrooms, pure and simple. Students pay to do an eighty-hour course, say, and they then ‘complete’ it and thus move up to the next ‘level’. Following this trajectory, students who’d not stand a hope of passing FCE wind up being labelled Advanced. The flip-side of this is the (often fairly well-off and often fairly pushy) shall we say ‘strongly motivated’ student, who essentially blags their way into a higher level through persistent and relentless whining and moaning and threats. One of the perennial ironies involved in interactions with these students is that whilst they are always keen to point out the students in their current class who seem weaker to them than they believe themselves to be, when the fact that they may well become just like these students – at the lower end of the class spectrum if they were to be moved – is pointed out, they counter by saying that THEY would relish this and would rise to challenge, soaking up knowledge from those around so quickly they’d soon surpass them! Ultimately, we do no-one any favours by moving students up either simply because they demand it or because they’ve been around a fair old while. The students who get moved learn less than they would in a class pitched at their level; the quite possibly stronger – but shyer / nicer / less assertive – students in the group they get moved from lose out as their talents go unrewarded and unrecognised AND the students in the class above have the level of their class skewed downwards by a newcomer, and often a newcomer with a chippy attitude and a lack of desire to do the grunt work and put the hours in before getting the prize! In the same way, we also do not really solve the problem of level by taking a class who’ve been tested and placed at, say, Intermediate, and then re-designating them as Upper-Intermediate simply because they claim to be finding things too easy. Follow this logic and after another term a class that’d realistically be Upper-Int at best, and still a fair way off FCE, are suddenly being given Advanced books and struggling to cope! To my mind, Advanced means post-FCE and unless you’ve take the exam and passed – which means you’ve already acquired a good grasp of both the meanings and common usages of some 2500+ words – then you’re still essentially Upper-Intermediate.
However, of course, both coursebooks and teaching play into this perennial problem. All too often, coursebooks simply don’t have enough new language in them – they’re lexically light. And where they do have vocabulary, it’s usually presented predominantly as single words, with the main focus being on meaning and little if any attention being paid to usage / collocation and so on. The vast majority of coursebooks simply do not seem to really treat lexis as the core stumbling block to proficiency or as the main way in which students – particularly those at Intermediate level and above, who’ve already studied structural grammar in pure mechanical form-manipulation ways for many years dating right back to high school – develop linguistically and are able to measure their own progress. Even where lexis is made difficult, it’s often by sheer dint of being obscure and unusual, rather than by being an expansion upon the dominant single-word paradigm. The core driver of syllabus, and thus the main way in which generation after generation of teacher is conditioned to think about level, remains grammar, and the higher up coursebooks go, the more likely they are to try to make grammar difficult, even when – or perhaps ESPECIALLY WHEN – it really needn’t be.
Much teaching then exacerbates this by simply being procedural: speaking tasks are set up, students are listened to and are then asked to repeat to the group what they’ve said to each other already in pairs, whilst the teacher nods, smiles and does little else; exercises are set up and run through and answers are elicited without meanings really being nailed or usage really being explored; and level is all too often thought of in terms of grammar, simply because “they’re still making loads of mistakes” – and thus pages of Murphy’s ENGLISH GRAMMAR IN USE are photocopied and given as homework, thus reinforcing students’ sense of frustration at simply retreading old ground for little clear communicative end result.
To consider this in more detail, let’s turn to the book we’re experimenting with on our summer school this year, the new Richmond course THE BIG PICTURE. I had to cover an Upper-Intermediate class this week and was given a couple of pages entitled A CAREER IN MEDICINE to teach. Whilst quickly sifting through the double-page spread I was about to go and teach and noting down language I wanted to pick up on and exploit, I had a sudden flashback through time to myself as a far younger teacher and suddenly realised how far I’d come and how much the earlier version of myself would’ve contributed to exactly the kind of issues surrounding level I’ve outlined above.
The spread begins with some speaking. Students are told to work in groups and to discuss these questions:
1 Look at the images. What aspects of medicine does each one show?
2 Are any of your classmates doctors, or training top be doctors? If yes, what’s his / her specialisation?
3 What skills do you need to be a doctor?
Above are four images – these, I suppose, are the ‘big pictures’ the book’s title alludes to – an open Internet page with the words Trusted advice emblazoned across it, a paediatrics nurse holding a stethoscope on a young boy’s chest, some young doctors in some kind of training situation and some kind of traditional healer
In my earlier incarnation, I would simply have told the students to work in pairs or groups and discuss these questions, and then fretted slightly about the fact that students weren’t saying much about them, probably not realising that there is actually very little say about such questions, and instead taking this as a sign of their poor speaking. I may have managed to monitor, and maybe during this time I might perhaps have even explained some of the potentially new vocab such as aspect and specialisation, though perhaps not necessarily with reference to medicine. I may even have also corrected on the spot a few basic surface errors, usually of a simple grammatical type. There then would have been a whole class round-up where either individual students or the whole group would’ve been asked for ideas (which in this case, at least with the first question above, basically means ‘the correct answers’ actually) and I’d then have said “OK, yes,people look at the Internet for trusted advice, and some doctors have a specialisation. They work with children. They usually have training, yes, and this one shows some kind of traditional doctor or something. Good.” Ten or fifteen minutes could easily have passed already – without any real teaching taking place yet.
Next came a listening. The first task asked students to listen to an interview with Laura, a Mexican doctor, as she talks about her medical career. Students had to number the four ‘big pictures’ according to the order she talked about them. I’d play the CD – or cassette as it would’ve been back then – and put students in pairs to compare before eliciting the (fairly basic!) answers: “Yes, first was about her training, then yes she talked about traditional healers. She said when she worked in a village, there was one there, didn’t she. Then it was about her specialisation – working with kids. Then finally she talked about people looking for advice online. Great. Well done.”
The next task tells students to listen again and tick the topics she mentioned: her home life and family, her medical training and specialisation, the role of traditional healers in the community, the most common illnesses that she treats, changes in the information patients can access nowadays – and her favourite and least favourite aspects of being a doctor. Again, I’d have played the tape, put students in pairs and then elicited the answers. More often than not, this would have been in a fairly cursory manner: “Right, so did she talk about her home life or family? No, that’s right. Not really. What about her medical training? yes, there was quite a bit about that, wasn’t there?” By this point, I might have been feeling that because students had got all the answers so far, they were finding the material ‘easy’ and that as a result, I’d best rush on to something ‘more difficult’ (a concept I’ll return to in a while). Finally, there’s a THIRD task – students have to read six sentences and say if they’re true or false, and correct false sentences. I’d often play the tape a third time, more out of ignorance than any particular intentions . . . perhaps hoping it might help them to finally ‘get’ everything, or at worst just hoping it’d fill the time up a bit and help students develop their listening ‘skills’. I’d run through the answers again, with little or nothing being made to stick: “So Number 1? Yes, it’s true. She said she was good at science at school, didn’t she? And 2? It’s false. She did a four-year degree, a year of social service, a year of residency AND THEN another four years on paediatrics.”
This would all take maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes of precious class time . . . and by the end of this section, STILL no real teaching would have taken place
Next up came a vocabulary exercise.Ah ha, you’re thinking. Even a novice must have have to teach something here.
Well, yes and no, in truth, if my earlier self is anything to go by.
The exercise started as follows:
1 a Look at transcript 2.2 on page 162. Which of these words can you find?
1 paediatrician paramedic
2 patient surgeon
3 nurse midwife
4 ward operating theatre
5 bandage plaster
6 self-diagnosis self-medication
Once students had looked at the transcript of the listening and found the relevant words and I’d performed the fairly banal task of saying “OK, yes, good, the word paediatrician is in there, and so is paramedic. Well done. Good,” I would then have moved on to the next task – Work in pairs. Explain the difference between the pairs of words in 1A. Use a dictionary to help you – and would’ve let students spend a few minutes looking up words in dictionaries (an action I used to believe somehow fostered learner autonomy or developed self-sufficiency of some similar nonsense!) before then getting students to compare ideas in pairs. Eventually, I would’ve elicited basic ideas from the class, and in a bid to be what I understood ‘student-centered’ to mean at this time, I may well have asked students to explain any words folk seemed unsure of. Usually what would then happen is the more confident and vocal students (in many instances, this often meant European or Latin American students) would give vague, rambling, semi-unintelligible responses, which I’d often feel uncertain about ‘correcting’ and so would end up validating by saying “Yes, OK. That’s right. So did we all get that?” to which the other students, who maybe hadn’t understood the rambling explanations, or who had been unable to hear them (and who had, by this point, already looked the words up anyway), would simply nod, either feeling that they were being kept back by the slow verbose students and wondering why they couldn’t be pushed forward and given more challenging input a bit more or else feeling intimidated by these students ‘fluency’ and thus more insecure about their own (often more accurate) output. At best, I might’ve managed to add a layer of basic semantic gloss and would’ve said, for instance, “Yes, OK, so a paediatrician is a kids’ doctor and a paramedic is maybe a doctor for emergencies. As you said, maybe with ambulances. And a patient? Yes, it’s the person in the hospital, the sick person, the ill one. And the surgeon? yes, the special doctor for operations.” On it would go, with little more being added to the students’ knowledge of the words and with no discernible improvement to their communicative abilities resulting. Another fifteen or minutes would’ve drifted by, never to be recaptured, with still no real attempt to force language to stick!
Next comes a short bit of speaking, where students were asked to discuss whether or not they were a good patient – and why; which they’d prefer to be – a midwife or surgeon – and what the pros and cons of self-diagnosis and self-medication are. Usually with these sections, students would’ve ended up chatting quite happily for a good few minutes, comparing ideas and experiences, while I would listen in, smile, chat a bit and then stopp by asking each pair what they’d been saying to each other. This may well have gone on for several more minutes, with – predictably – the chattier, more confident (some might even say ‘cockier’) European / Latin American students doing most of the talking – and making plenty of mistakes in the process, none of which would’ve got picked up on as my focus at this juncture would’ve been very much just on the message, or the ‘whole person’ if you prefer!! Consequently, these students would’ve got yet another chance to gabble on – and to end up with an inflated sense of own their own capabilities as a result!
Finally, there was a grammar section. As with so many books, I find it hard to look at the randomly selected single words and the subsequent grammar focus and see how they in any way add up to a coherent whole, or how they help students become better able to either discuss or – God forbid – pursue a career in medicine, but perhaps that’s a rant for another day. The grammar that has been selected to (rather randomly!) emerge from the listening mentioned earlier is be used to / get used to / used to do. Now personally, the very fact the book tries to cover all these in one go is reason enough to never use it again. To my mind, get used / be used to is far more lexical chunk than generative grammar, and why on earth books feel the need to confuse students by throwing these forms in alongside used to + verb, which has a completely different form and function is beyond me. Except, of course, I know that really it’s done because this is the way books – and thus teachers – tend to perceive level. Let’s make grammar harder for students than it ought to be, make them feel they still have issues with it and then supplement the hell out of them with further controlled / semi-controlled practice activities. Anyway, first students got this exercise:
1A Work in pairs. Read sentences a-d. Underline all the examples of used to.
a I used to work as an assistant to a paramedic.
b I wasn’t used to living in such a small community.
c In the beginning it was frustrating, but now I’m getting used to it.
d Doctors are more used to dealing with this situation these days.
B Answer the questions about the sentences in 1A
1 Which sentences talk about a) the present? b) the past?
2 Which sentences talk about a) a past habit, state or situation? b) a situation that is becoming normal? c) a situation that was strange or unfamiliar in the past?
In the past, these kinds of sections usually went one of two ways. Often, I’d simply elicit answers and dash through the exercise at breakneck speed: “Right, so in the first one. Right. Used to work. The second? wasn’t used to living. Good . . . and which ones are about the present? Good, c and d . . . and what about a situation that was strange or unfamiliar in the past? great, b. Well done.” However, if students started to seem perplexed, as well they might with exercises like this which seem designed to make simple things more difficult than they need to be, then I’d panic and launch into that great pitfall of the young and inexperienced teacher: the full-blown grammar lecture. I’d regurgitate everything about the structures I’d managed to memorize from the back of the book, write up countless (often fairly mad and unrealistic) examples and then, as eyes were well and truly glazing over, maybe finally move on to the controlled form-focused practice that followed. Students are asked to complete a grammar reference section that starts like this:
A Used to
We use used to + the …………… to talk about situations, habits or repeated actions in the past. often they are things which we no longer do.
+ I ……………. to live in Paris.
- I didn’t use to speak French.
? Did you ……….. to eat out a lot?
Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.
I’d run through these, eliciting answers and perhaps extending yet further the explanations given, before moving on to a form-focused exercise, where students had to complete sentences with the correct used to expression and the verbs in brackets. Here’s a taster of what the book provides:
1 I’m still not ……………. to …………….. spicy food.
2 I’m ……………. to ……………… my shoes off in people’s houses, but I still forget sometimes.
3 When I first arrived I ………….. to …………….. friends so late at night, but now it seems normal.
I’d let students try on their own, get them to compare in pairs and then elicit the answers, generally knowing that from someone in the class I’d get the answers I expected. Then finally came the free practice section, where students had to write true sentences for each of the following situations:
1 something you used to believe as a child.
2 something you’re getting used to, but it;’s still difficult.
3 something you’ll never get used to.
4 something you weren’t used to at one time, but now it’s fine.
5 something you’ve slowly got used to over the years.
Perhaps I may have given students a few minutes to write, during which time I’d have gone round and maybe corrected a few surface errors. They would then have been out into pairs or groups to talk, and I suspect the talking wouldn’t have gone that far beyond students basically reading out what they’d written. I’d maybe have rounded up by getting students to repeat to the whole class what they’d written again, and the aforementioned schism between chatty and quieter students would’ve been made that little bit bigger again.
By now, I could easily have been a good hour and a half into the class and you’d hard-pushed to say what exactly I had taught or what new language students would leave the class having understood and having been shown how to use. Being able to clearly state in what ways their level had been upped or their communicative competence had been developed would’ve been nigh-on impossible. Of course, some learning would’ve occurred indirectly in such classes: students may have looked up the odd new word, and may even have got examples of usage in their dictionaries; I may have managed to gloss and expand upon one or two of the explanations offered by students . . . but essentially material would’ve been moved through without anything much being made to stick.
Having watched students successfully race through the material I’d been assigned for the day, I would then panic that they were finding it too easy and head straight for the Pandora’s Box entitled SUPPLEMENT. The main way I used to think about this was in terms of activities, things to do that might ‘get students talking’ and generate some discussion. If they could also be made to ensure some kind of revision of the grammar I believed students still hadn’t ‘got’ yet. Cue any amount of (frequently fairly demented) fun and games. Two particular sources of inspiration at this time were Friederike Klippel’s Keep Talking and Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities. My poor students would be forced in teams to discuss the relative merits of Paris versus pizza, say, whilst I’d jump on errors with comparatives, or they’d do a balloon debate about what to take to a desert island or they’d walk around asking Haven’t I seen you before somewhere? in an attempt to both work out where the imaginary character they were playing might supposedly have met all other imaginary characters and also to use the present perfect simple six hundred and thirty-two times in twelve minutes. When I wasn’t going for the speaking supplement pills, I’d reach either for the heavy-handed grammar punishment photocopies from, yes, you guessed it. Hello Raymond. Or else I’d overload them with what I believed to be ‘high level’ vocabulary at the time: endless idioms and colloquialisms. The end result? My so-called Upper-Intermediate students who still answered Have you ever been to London before? by saying Yes, I have ever been in Cambridge two years before and who, when asked what their hometown was like would reply that yes, they did actually like, thank you very much for asking, these poor kids would be deluded into believing that if only they could get to grips with what a palaver actually was, when they might want to tell someone they were over the moon and how to use Cockney rhyming slang then they’d somehow be at a ‘higher level’.
Sadly, I fear that this earlier version of myself, rather than being simply a sad and sorry reflection on my own early struggles as I stumbled blindly towards something resembling real teaching is actually in many many ways absolutely emblematic of much post-CELTA teaching both in the UK and elsewhere. It’s not generally an unpleasant experience to be in these classes: fun may be had, information about the world gleaned, laughter heard, friendships made even . . . but we’re deluding ourselves if we believe that a hundred hours of this takes students to a higher level.
For THAT to occur, something far more rigorous has to be going on . . . and that’s what I’ll blog about in the next part of this mini-series later on in the week.
Now, though, I have to go to talk to another student who’s come up during their break time to inform me they should be in Advanced.