The Common Sense Approach—Advanced EFL
by Steve Schackne
We have two advanced EFL courses at my school—one carries the designation [Advanced] the other [Fluency]. In reality, one is advanced and the other is, well, more advanced. Neither course has a text, and they tend to be rotated between teachers in the Humanities Faculty and the English Language Center. I have often seen teachers at other schools turn these courses into “special topics”; that is, instead of skills courses, they become literature courses or sociolinguistic courses. What is it about advanced EFL courses that make them difficult to develop, define, and teach?
Well, for one thing, these students already know so much; that’s why they are advanced. There is an abundance of language that can be addressed with our beginning and intermediate students—they have gaps in grammar organization, pronunciation, and usage. However, advanced students have often mastered much of what is traditionally taught in EFL courses, so that at advanced level many students see no point in continuing their EFL studies, and opt for mainstream courses. Contrary to common perceptions which often see these students as “easy to teach because of their good English,” advanced students can actually be more difficult. They are often highly motivated, demanding, and in need of challenge; furthermore, they have a hard time perceiving progress. Consequently, advanced EFL courses often concentrate on polishing their English, or as Harmer says, “learning better how to use what they already know.”
If we take Harmer’s words at face value, then an advanced course would place a greater emphasis on practice rather than on introducing new language. Most teachers would probably agree that practice at the advanced stage should be free or communicative rather than controlled. Deciding on communicative practice, a teacher can logically move to the next step and create practice activities that embody challenge, spontaneity, and genuine communicative purpose; in other words, communicative practice which is not artificial, “real communicative practice.”
A Theoretical Foundation
In previous articles I have argued that students should have control over subject areas they want to explore in developing their L2, and that as they progress through their L2 learning they should reduce formal classroom contact with their language teachers and start engaging in real life issues as a platform to polish their language. Students who have control over their content, who can bring their own life concerns to the course will more likely have a real communicative purpose. Any issue a student brings to a teacher which requires the student to use the L2 to educate, inform, amuse, entertain, or persuade can be deemed “real communicative practice.”
A Proposed Guideline
First, let students brainstorm topics they wish to develop. In intermediate classes, students can choose topics, then let the teacher develop exercises and activities around those topics. At the advanced level, I prefer to have the students develop broad topics, then narrow them; in other words, pair topics and spin-off projects.
[News]—Develop your own news broadcast for presentation
[Literature]—Write a short story with your classmates as the audience
[Stock Market]—Conduct due diligence on a stock and present your report to the class
[Education]—Develop a blueprint for education reform
[Language]—Develop a two-year intensive course in English
[Technology]—Produce a podcast
[Current Events]—Write an op/ed piece for a newspaper and then let the class debate it
[Drama]—Write and perform a one-act play
[Current Events]—Conduct a survey or poll on a relevant issue
These exercises are the types of activities native speakers engage in, so they can double as both language practice exercises and real-world practicums.
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