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Beyond the Plateau: Empowering Language Learners to Achieve Advanced English

How many times have we encountered students who feel stuck in their English learning progress, despite relentless efforts? Or perhaps, you may have encountered this plateau effect in your personal pursuits, say, a fitness goal that seems to stagnate despite continuous efforts. This phenomenon is particularly common in language learning, often leaving learners feeling trapped in their journey to advanced proficiency.

In this article, we’ll delve into three primary challenges responsible for this stagnation and equip you with practical strategies to help your students overcome these obstacles.

Challenge #1: Bridging Receptive and Productive Competence

Understanding language (receptive competence) and using it (productive competence) often don’t go hand in hand for learners. A common scenario is a student who understands far more than they can actively communicate, creating an imbalance that hampers their progress. To bridge this gap, two pedagogical concepts, “noticing” (Schmidt, 1990) and “focused output” (Swain, 2000), come to our rescue.

Noticing tasks are designed to help students become more conscious of specific language patterns and structures, improving their acquisition process. They boost students’ attention towards language use, aid in recognizing grammatical rules and vocabulary in context, and support the development of their language proficiency. Thornbury (1997) asserts, quite emphatically, that “One of the teacher’s key roles is to facilitate the process of noticing.”

But how do we help students notice language?

A variety of tasks exist for this purpose. One approach could involve using sentence tasks post-listening exercises, which spotlight the target language. Alternatively, analyzing transcripts could serve to identify unfamiliar structures or vocabulary items. At the heart of these techniques is the aim to transition from mere language exposure to active language intake. This transition is facilitated through active involvement with the language, thus equipping students to comprehend and employ these language elements in their communication more effectively.

In parallel with noticing, we should design experiences that prompt students to actively use the target language. Gap-fill tasks, role-playing activities, and summarizing exercises are practical ways to encourage the application of newly acquired language in different contexts, enhancing their speaking abilities and overall language proficiency.

Challenge #2: Achieving a Balance Between Fluency and Complexity

An imbalance between fluency and complexity is the second major challenge. A student might smoothly express themselves in English with considerable fluency but lack complexity, primarily using simple sentences and basic vocabulary.

Complexity in language learning involves using advanced vocabulary, varied sentence structures, and the ability to convey more nuanced ideas. As Richards (2008: 8) puts it, “In order for learners’ language to complexify, new linguistic forms have to be acquired and added to their productive linguistic repertoire.”

So, how can we help students to complexify their language use?

By observing more proficient English users performing the same tasks, students can identify areas of improvement. This comparative approach can reveal gaps in their grammar, sentence structure, or vocabulary. Another effective method is repeating the same activity with some elements modified, challenging students while reinforcing their understanding.

Teachers can provide students with necessary resources, such as vocabulary and language forms, to bridge their knowledge gaps. Also, allowing students to plan their language use before performing a speaking task can greatly enhance the sophistication and coherence of their language output. This intentional approach towards planning can considerably develop their comprehensive spoken language proficiency.

Challenge #3: Broadening Vocabulary Range

The third challenge lies in learners’ limited vocabulary range, often leading to a ‘lexical acquisition plateau’ (Julian, 2000). When students reach a level of proficiency sufficient for basic communication, they might stop expanding their vocabulary, limiting their ability to express complex ideas or engage fully with advanced texts or conversations.

However, as Woolard (2000) aptly stated, “Learning more vocabulary is not just learning new words, it is often learning familiar words in new combinations.” This underscores the fact that vocabulary knowledge extends beyond simply knowing a set of words; it’s about understanding their connotations, their usage in diverse contexts, and their interrelationships with other words. Therefore, it is essential that learners break away from this plateau and continuously expand their vocabulary repertoire in order to deepen their language proficiency.

O’Keeffe’s (2007) proposition estimates that a receptive vocabulary range of 5,000 to 6,000 words signifies a student’s transition to the top of the intermediate level. The challenge here, however, isn’t only in the sheer volume of words but also in comprehending the nuances of each.

Overcoming this challenge requires a strong emphasis on learner autonomy, particularly in the context of vocabulary acquisition. As indicated by Baker (2014), the phrase ‘learner independence’ is often overused without proper implementation. But this concept can be feasibly put into action with more advanced students who have achieved a certain level of proficiency.

The solution lies in a dual strategy. Firstly, it’s vital to motivate these students to seek their own answers. Introduce self-directed learning strategies such as the use of e-readers with built-in dictionaries and vocabulary apps. These tools enable students to actively engage with the language, absorb new words, and understand their contextual usage. The aim here is not just to expand their vocabulary repertoire but also to boost their understanding of the language’s depth and nuances.

Secondly, we should provide learners with frequent and varied opportunities to use newly learned words. Classroom activities like group discussions, role-plays, and article writing can encourage students to incorporate new vocabulary, thus reinforcing its usage and ensuring its retention.

Moreover, exploiting technological advancements like online language learning tools can provide students with additional opportunities to enrich their vocabulary. These resources can offer a wealth of interactive, engaging, and personalized learning experiences that can significantly enhance vocabulary acquisition and retention.

In conclusion, surmounting the plateau of intermediate English learning and reaching for advanced proficiency requires targeted strategies to overcome the challenges of bridging receptive and productive competence, balancing fluency and complexity, and expanding vocabulary range. By understanding these challenges and implementing these practical strategies, we can empower our students to leap over these hurdles and continue their journey towards advanced proficiency.

About author

Sergio Pantoja is a CELT-P, CELT-S, and Delta Module 1 tutor based in Brazil. Being in the ELT field since 2002, he has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, speaking and writing examiner. He holds, among others, a degree in Languages, a postgraduate degree in English Language Teaching and Translation, a TESOL Certificate from the University of Oregon, USA, the C2 Proficiency certificate (CPE), and the Delta. His Delta Module 3 Specialism focused on LDT (Language Development for Teachers). Sérgio is the author of two books: Word Formation: 100 Word Formation Exercises + Vocabulary Tips - Level C2 and Strange but True - 10 Incredible News Stories: Reading and Vocabulary Practice for High-Intermediate and Advanced Students.
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