How to deal with plateaux at upper-intermediate

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How to deal with plateaux at upper-intermediate

Unread postby Iceking » 22 Sep 2011, 15:19

We - "we", being my colleagues and I - have been dealing with this problem in our institute for years. Actually they have had this problem for years, for I'm a newbie! Anyway, I believe a lot of other teaching institutes have faced this problem too.
It goes like this:
In our English Language Learning institute the levels are Starter, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate. The problem is when our students get to the end of Intermediate and especially in Upper-Intermediate levels, their progress rate decreases dramatically. This matter is particularly evident in our girls classes (our institute holds separate classes for adults - girls and boys). When speaking, they make a lot of grammatical mistakes and though they try so hard, they show very little or no progress. Now, I'm familiar with the concept of "plateaus" in learning languages, but can we put this problem down as a result of these plateaus. If yes, how come we don't have the same problem with our boy classes?
I had an "Upper-Intermediate 2" class with 9 adult students (all girls) and it's just finished. I don't really know what to do with them. Should I just fail all of them? Should I send them for placement interview (which I'm sure will result in them ending up in Pre-Intermediate levels again)? Is it even OK to do so, knowing some of them might give up learning English? Or should I let them go up hoping they might get better? You see, they learned the things they were taught this term, they made some progress, but the way they are right now is nowhere near the level they are studying!

PS: I assume it was implied that we have already examined other factors involved. The teachers are experienced and knowledgeable, the materials used are up to date and fun, the quality of classes, as far as the teachers can have a hand in it, is high enough, the students are satisfied and happy with what they learn (at least they say so in anonymous surveys), etc.

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Re: I need advice for upper-intermediate students

Unread postby Lucy » 24 Sep 2011, 19:15

Dear Iceking,

Wow, you’re really concerned about your students’ progress ; that is lovely to see. You and your colleagues have obviously given a lot of thought to how to help them progress. You are absolutely right about plateaux: that’s very evident at upper intermediate level. Students are still making progress but it is very slow and not always evident.

I’ll try to answer your questions here:

You ask whether you should fail all the girls in your class. It’s difficult for me to say because you need to take the whole test into account. You say that they are not successful in speaking but what about other skills and language areas? In my opinion, there is no point in letting a student pass and progress to the next level when they are already struggling at the lower level. Of course, you need to take school policy into account but I think that they will really struggle at advanced level if they are not succeeding at upper-intermediate.

I also wonder why they are studying at upper-intermediate if you think their real level is pre-intermediate. Have teachers in the past been too lenient and allowed students to progress through the levels even when they weren’t ready? This sort of problem is better when it is nipped in the bud. It is easier to get a student to repeat at a lower level than to wait until they get to upper-int and ask them to return to pre-int. By repeating lower levels at the appropriate time, students will have a more solid foundation in the language and will be able to build on that as they progress through the levels.

Finally, there is another aspect that you could consider. It seems that there is a general belief and expectation in the school that female students will fail, or at least, do less well than male students. If a teacher goes into the classroom with this expectation, the way (s)he speaks to girls will be different to how boys are addressed. The way students are treated and spoken to impacts on their success. Educational psychologists have studied this phenomenon and it really happens. It may be that without realizing it, teachers are speaking differently to the girls and treating them differently and this has an effect on how students respond. To see whether this is the case, teachers could observe each other’s classes; they could record their classes and analyse the meta-language used in exchanges between teacher and students; or they could quite simply observe and note down how they speak to female and male students. This aspect is often overlooked and when it is addressed, it can have a real impact on students’ progress.

All the best,


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