Advancing the advanced
Diane Hall & Mark Foley
(This is an adaptation of a workshop
given at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton, 2003)
Teaching advanced students in any environment can be one of
the most rewarding experiences in language teaching, presenting
as it does endless opportunities for real language analysis,
using real materials and having in-depth discussions. However,
it can equally be the most frustrating experience. Teachers
new to advanced-level classes often erroneously think that
their students will no longer have problems with grammar,
but this is not the case. In any advanced class there are
as many language problems as there are students, and often
a lot more, so how do we counter these and 'advance the advanced'?
In this article, we are going to discuss the problems we have
encountered as teachers of advanced classes, and the way that
we feel it is best to approach teaching grammar to advanced-level
students. In it we draw on materials that we prepared and
which are published in the Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar.
2 Why advanced students experience
problems with grammar
Many advanced classes have the problem of mixed levels, especially
if the students come from different schools or backgrounds.
Students are unlikely to have all mastered the same aspects
of the language: students will vary in their knowledge of
the language and will have different strengths and weaknesses.
In addition, some advanced students may suffer from a lack
of motivation as they feel they already know most of the language
and are bored by having to go over the same things again.
With advanced students there is often a disparity
between what they understand and their ability to produce
language. The move to more objective, computer-marked testing
systems emphasises understanding more than production, and
also trains students in certain exercise techniques, e.g.
use of elimination. Another issue is the apparent disparity
between the fact that we expect students to produce coherent
continuous text (written or spoken) but we tend to teach by
focusing on single-sentence, single-structure exercises. Students
need to work with language in context in order to produce
One of the problems with correcting students'
work at advanced level is that the grammar appears to be perfectly
correct at the level of individual items but it doesn't seem
to work with the rest of the text. A key issue is often the
choice of structure and whether it is appropriate to the narrative,
in terms of time/tense, formality and discourse relations.
Students may produce language which appears correct on the
surface, but we know it isn't natural English. This is one
of the most awkward things to deal with as we first have to
understand what the problem is, which can be more difficult
than correcting it!
3 Finding and dealing with specific
To see more clearly what we mean, have a look at this short
section from an advanced student's writing. Can you identify
four errors in the English?
When I entered to my room, I discovered
that it was absolutely dirty. I complained and the maid came,
but she didn't clean it properly up. Also removed by her but
not returned were the towels and I had to go to reception
later to ...
The errors here are as follows:
1 entered to: incorrect use of a dependent
preposition with a verb that does not require one - a 'lexical/grammar'
2 absolutely dirty: incorrect use of an ungradable
modifier with a gradable adjective
3 didn't clean it properly up: incorrect
position of adverb in a phrasal verb
4 Also removed by her but not returned were the towels:
a number of problems and typical of the kind of 'layered'
error that an advanced student might produce, such as incorrect
use of a fronted adverbial phrase (removed by her)
with inversion (were the towels). This is
only incorrect in terms of discourse, i.e. lack of cohesion
with the previous sentence, disobeying the information principle
of putting known information at the beginning of a sentence.
There is also incorrect use of an emphatic form (inversion)
in a non-emphatic context and incorrect use of the linker
also. The use of the passive is also inappropriate
in this context.
The first step in dealing with errors of the
advanced student is to be able to identify them, as is illustrated
above. We now want to look at a particular way of identifying
problems that students have and ways of dealing with them.
You can't help until you know what the specific
problem is. This can be different for each student, especially
in mixed-level classes, and trying to identify your students'
problems through their written work can be extremely time-consuming
and arduous. Our solution is to use diagnostic testing. The
use of diagnostic tests can identify specific problems once
you have identified the general area, e.g. conditionals. Diagnostic
tests also objectively demonstrate to students who feel that
they 'know everything' that they do indeed have gaps in their
understanding. The section below shows the kind of test that
can be used to look at gradable and ungradable adjectives:
[Students tick the correct sentences and correct
1 Casualties during the Crimean War were very enormous.
2 Steve's new girlfriend is very attractive.
3 Clients are advised that Miami tends to be more boiling
than Los Angeles during the winter months.
4 Milan Cathedral is slightly huge.
[from page 32, Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar]
Obviously the text would contain more
items than this - ideally 20 or more. Students check their
answers (or the teacher goes through them) and in this way
the teacher can build up a picture of problems that the majority
of students have in the class, or students themselves can
keep notes of the problems they have. In the Longman Advanced
Learners' Grammar, each item in the test is cross-referred
to the particular section in the Reference part of the book
that deals with that language area. The teacher can either
go through the relevant parts of the reference with all the
students (then have them do the relevant exercises) or have
individual students read the sections that they need and then
do the exercises individually.
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