Another term and I find myself back entrenched in the intermediate catch-22: it can be great fun and extremely satisfying teaching students who have an impressive level of English proficiency and are truly able to express themselves in meaningful ways, yet at the same time it can be dispiriting trying your best to help students who are stuck on the great language plateau, finding progress painfully slow. Sometimes this is my favourite level to teach, at other times it can be infuriating, leaving you questioning your abilities as a teacher.
It can be argued that the majority of English students around the world are intermediate, or at least will be. The reasons for this are manifold, but one is glaringly obvious: many people simply choose to study English to this level of competency and not beyond – for business, school, travel, entertainment, among many other reasons. Indeed, most of us teachers have probably never felt the need to go further than this in our second languages, even though language instruction is our profession. For others of course, this is the middle – intermediary if you will – phase between the beginning study and the arrival at something approaching English fluency. At this level, students are able to express themselves quite well verbally and they are usually able to converse in simple sentences about somewhat complex topics. Students are generally keen to receive both vocabulary and grammar correction.
Now for the tricky part: this level is often characterized by students who display spoken and written error patterns ingrained from their experiences at the elementary level. Errors with verb tenses, article usage, pronunciation, and word order are widespread and the need for them to be corrected at this level is a teacher’s greatest intermediate challenge and yet is paramount for students to be able to move on without language baggage.
Challenges faced by many intermediate students
Reaching the intermediate level in a second language is an incredible achievement, one that we should constantly remind our students of. However, because students may be at this level for quite a while, it’s often not as easy for them to see their own daily / weekly / monthly development as it was when they were elementary English learners. At the lower levels, development is typically much more tangible. While intermediate students clearly have a reasonable ability to express themselves, we may find that they sometimes use their improving communication skills to express their irritability. In my experience, intermediate students who plan to persist with their studies frequently have moods that run the full gamut of emotions from happiness and pride through to frustration and self-doubt. You’ll often find intermediate students compared to marathon runners in the middle leg of a race; they often find it difficult to see the finish line. The fact that their greater competency allows them to see where they are can be something of a burden, as it allows them to comprehend just how much more they need to learn in order to be fluent in English.
Students sometimes feel growing pains as they are expected to produce more English. In fact, we can compare the growing pains of intermediate students to those of teenagers, in much the same way that elementary students’ communication competencies can be likened to that of children’s. This is an immense additional benefit for students at intermediate when compared to those at elementary, because adult learners at elementary level who, in contrast to their sophisticated L1 linguistic abilities, suddenly find they are only able to communicate as effectively as a young child in their second language, can find the feeling uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Reaching the intermediate level can therefore be an empowering accomplishment for learners. The comparison to teenagehood can be taken even further. Like teenagers, intermediates also have a good idea of what they want, but they aren’t quite there yet; they are still somewhat undeveloped in their ability to communicate sophisticated ideas and emotions and sometimes they want to be ‘babied’ again, with a lot of support from us.
Teaching the intermediate class
Teaching students at the intermediate level can equate to fostering a philosophy of discipline. Students who can already operate well in English really need to be reminded to practice on a daily basis, while keeping their eye on their ultimate goal of English fluency. Nevertheless, I’ve always found intermediate students to be a lot of fun to teach. They have sufficient language competencies to allow their personality and, in particular, their sense of humour to really shine in their speaking and writing. Teachers may capitalize on the intermediate students’ eagerness to communicate by setting up exercises that are fun while at the same time require that little bit more from them (exercises like role plays and debates can work well at this level).
I feel that the major aspiration of an intermediate teacher should be to endeavor to break down the fossilized error patterns that generally ought to be understood by students at this level. I think we all know that some students may become ‘linguistically lethargic’ at this level. Because they are able to quite effectively communicate the essence of their ideas, they’ll sometimes not bother to correct simple subject-verb agreement, article, pronunciation or word order mistakes even though they’re at least partially aware of them. If such bad habits aren’t overcome at the intermediate level, these students might have a difficult time moving beyond this stage. This is where we come in. Feedback is absolutely key to accomplishing this pattern-breaking. As their teacher, we may need to be dynamic in pointing students’ errors out to them while at the same time being sensitive to the delicate ego of the intermediate student.
Writing students’ mistakes word for word and discussing these errors individually with each student is one effective way of bringing the students’ attention to their repeated mistakes. Having said that, we also need to develop techniques that allow them to recognize their mistakes for themselves, so they don’t feel that they’re constantly being criticized by the teacher. Exercises in the intermediate classroom need to be fun, challenging, and boost the students’ self-confidence. Students need to see what their hard work is doing for them in order to inspire them to continue to work at their English.
Well, these were just a few thoughts cobbled together on a relaxing Sunday afternoon in front of the telly. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter in the comments section below.