Advancing the advanced by Diane Hall & Mark Foley

(This is an adaptation of a workshop given at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton, 2003)

1 Introduction
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 natural language.

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 problems
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' error
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 the errors.]

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.

To continue with the work on gradable and ungradable adjectives, it's best to use examples that students might easily come across in the real world:

Ungradable adjectives are not usually used in comparatives and superlatives and we do not use very to make them stronger:

x Entrance to the museum is very free.x
Entrance to the museum is absolutely free.
xThe Ming vases are more priceless than the Egyptian mummies.x
xThe Ming vases are more valuable than the Egyptian mummies.x

[from page 233, Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar]

It is also desirable to practise language as much as possible at discourse rather than sentence level. While sentence-level practice is useful at lower levels and when learning rules of formation, it is often less appropriate for advanced students. Typical examples of discourse-level practice are multiple-choice exercises but based on a text (example 1 below), and error correction in discourse (2):

... Muscarella's earlier claims have been (1) ... by some museum officials who are (2) ... opposed to his arguments. But Muscarella has (3) ... good scientific evidence for his claims, showing that over 40 per cent of the objects examined by the Oxford Thermoluminescence laboratory are fakes.

1 A discussed B rejected C criticised
2 A bitterly B highly C rather
3 A perfectly B absolutely C somewhat

[from page 237, Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar]

[Students have to find the unsuitable adjectives and substitute suitable ones.]

We've seen most of the sights in the city. Karen was absolutely pleased when we went to the 'Sagrada Familia' - she loves Gaudi's work. It's certainly a totally rare building. And Steve was very ecstatic about going to the Maritime Museum - he seems to find anything to do with boats utterly interesting. I can't understand it myself. I was absolutely annoyed when he suggested we stay there over lunchtime - especially as I was a bit famished at the time ...

[from page 239, Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar]

* Answers to these extracts are given at the end of the article.

4 General tips for awareness raising
It is important when presenting grammar to provide contextualised examples and information from the real world and actual environment, in order to illustrate real language use more effectively. When checking understanding, get students to go beyond the sentence level and put the target language into a wider context, e.g. not It couldn't have been my mother at the bus stop but The woman you saw at the bus stop yesterday couldn't have been my mother, because my mother always drives to the shops.

One of the reasons that we find some errors difficult to classify is that they are lexical rather than grammatical. Encourage students to recognise the links between lexis and grammar, and to see patterns, so when they learn new vocabulary they learn it in a grammatical context. We should encourage students to learn, for example, phrasal verbs with an object (put something down), verbs and adjectives with their dependent prepositions (complain about something), adjectives with their adverb collocates (deeply religious), or reporting verbs with their patterns (thank somebody for doing something).

To help students use language naturally and fluently, encourage them to see the structures that underlie everything they read and listen to. Make them aware of authentic reading texts as a source of grammar and have them analyse these in terms of grammar use as well as meaning. Cloze tests and tasks involving the reassembling of cut-up texts are useful in helping students understand the importance of discourse. When doing these sorts of task it is important to talk about the clues (e.g. collocates, linkers) that help us to fill the gaps or to put the text back together.

5 Conclusion
In this article, we have looked at reasons why it can be so difficult to teach grammar to a class of advanced students, with reference to the Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar. We have looked at a way of assessing students' weaknesses, by using diagnostic tests, and we have looked at how to analyse the kind of errors that advanced students make that are not easily recognisable. We have then looked at ways of helping students to 'see the bigger picture', i.e. to focus on larger chunks of text and not just on sentences. In all of this, with students at advanced level, the most important thing is to raise their awareness: their awareness of their own weaknesses, or how to tackle and improve those areas of weakness, and of how the English language works at text and discourse level, i.e. the level at which advanced students should be working.

* Answers to exercise extracts:
1 C
2 A
3 A

x absolutely pleased >> absolutely delighted
x totally rare >> totally unique
x very ecstatic >> very pleased/happy
x utterly interesting >> utterly fascinating
x absolutely annoyed >> absolutely furious
x a bit famished >> a bit hungry


Diane Hall has been involved in English language Teaching and Publishing for over 25 years. She taught for several years in the UK and Germany before moving into publishing and writing. She has written a number of books, notably the Longman Advanced Learners' Grammar and Distinction, a course for advanced learners (with Mark Foley), and Pacesetter, an upper secondary course, with Derek Strange. Diane has a teaching qualification in ELT and an MA in Second Language Learning and Teaching from the University of London.
Mark Foley has worked in English Language Teaching for over 23 years and has extensive experience in teaching (mostly in the UK and Spain), teacher training, examining and materials writing. He is the co-author of a number of publications, including the Longman ELT advanced titles Distinction and Advanced Learners' Grammar.

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