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Is there a cure? David Baker looks at the challenges of teaching general English
to adults at an advanced level.

A dvanced general English classes
are often daunting for teachers.
In this article I begin by looking at
discussions of advanced learners, the
distinction between C1 and C2 is blurred,
and all advanced-level learners tend to be
might point to the need for a separate
category to reflect the time and effort
needed to progress from CEFR B2 to C1;
the difficulty of defining who ‘general lumped together. There are times when and possibly it might also suggest a more
advanced’ learners are. I then go on to they are lumped together in classes as fundamental and widespread confusion
discuss four broad teaching strategies well, which presents us with an additional about what it is to be an advanced
aimed at helping to ensure that their challenge. Perhaps this blurring of C1 and learner and language user.
needs are met. C2 happens because, for most teaching
institutions, advanced-level learners still As teachers of advanced classes, we can’t
Many teaching institutions offer an represent a minority of the total number find easy solutions to these problems of
‘Advanced General English’ course. The of learners, albeit a growing one. defining what ‘advanced’ means, but we
prospect of teaching these classes is should at least have some awareness of
often extremely daunting for teachers, For most of us, C2-level learners the potential range of levels that might be
sometimes to the extent of inspiring are definitely ‘a minority within present among the learners and classes
real fear. There are a number of reasons a minority’. Their needs and that we are working with.
for this ‘General Advancedophobia’, expectations – at least insofar as
but underpinning them all is the sheer they are defined within the CEFR
difficulty of determining these learners’ – are closely tied in with ‘native-
Defining ‘general’
motivation for studying and their actual speaker norms’ and assume a range For some advanced-level learners,
needs and then applying this knowledge of competencies that would, in studying the language can often be
to what and how we teach them. reality, be impossible for many native an ‘end in itself’, where using and
speakers. The validity of these native- improving their English is for them a
speaker norms, and the practicability special interest or hobby in its own right.
Defining ‘advanced’ of ever achieving them, are both
A discussion of this topic needs to start highly controversial, and would really However, in many cases, students who
by acknowledging the difficulty of need a completely separate article are attending a ‘general English’ course
defining the term ‘advanced’. to do justice to them. In the case either have work-related objectives or
of C1-level learners, their goals are, are preparing for exams in their national
One starting point is the Common relatively speaking, more achievable, education system and/or for international
European Framework of Reference although still far from straightforward. English exams. It is simply the case that
(CEFR), which defines three broad in their ‘general English’ classes, work
levels of language competence, There is an even more serious issue at or exam preparation is not the sole or
of which the highest level, Level C the lower end of the ‘advanced’ scale. primary objective. However, we will
(‘proficient users’) might be taken to A number of taught courses – and normally want to make sure that our
correspond to the advanced learners some published materials – use the general English lessons don’t overlap with
discussed in this article. However, there label ‘advanced’, where the content or encroach upon what students are doing
are several complications. is actually below that of the C1-level elsewhere in their specialised classes.
descriptors in the CEFR. There are
The CEFR subdivides its C level in two several possible reasons for this. Partly One way of addressing this is to try to
and makes a key differentiation between it reflects an attempt on the part of the define the different contexts in which
C1 (‘Effective Operational Proficiency’) course providers to match the aspirations our learners are using – or wish to
and C2 (‘Mastery’). All too often in of learners and their teachers; partly, it use – the language they are studying.

24 n Volume 23 n Issue 4

be impossible to satisfy everyone. keeping a personal diary. For etc. What we can to identify. and engages problems and so. the more advanced they are. (we can always take notes domain with general advanced start to tackle longer texts. texts that we teachers So. has emerged over time and has The content of all our advanced-level been consolidated through several As far as what kind of texts to choose courses and syllabuses will typically generations of published teaching is concerned. we should challenge.) occupational. at advanced level we social media. Why is this? with. general English classes on track. it is the educational domain that will The more advanced our learners are. points 2. On the other hand. the less likely it is that other we should also be encouraging capable of performing a wide range of people in the class will share them or learners at advanced level to bring transactions and interactions in everyday be interested in them. it is a good idea to introduce registers and writing styles applies. watch leaves the personal and public domains. greater the amount of detail they will that are unusual or unpredictable – in want to use to talk about their personal other words. that have the capacity to surprise us already have the level of English needed unfortunately the reverse is also true. then to function in the public domain “as The more specialised and detailed an very often they will have the same a member of the general public. so there has to be a degree of predominate for most of the time. (e. watching films and TV programmes in longer input texts (reading. Facilitating more varied might this mean in practice? of interest in common. I would argue that could try to turn this challenge into use class speaking activities as an the most the most important of the an opportunity. audio English. centred on home life So far. a range of social contexts.g. of course. the genuinely engaging and interesting. This is an excellent way of with family and friends. in the case of an level learners. But we need to be opportunity for listening practice. music. I have focused mainly on 25 . it will English for Academic Purposes class. for ‘general English’ classes. four domains for the general advanced realistic. and that means trying as best learner is the personal domain. or challenge us in whatever way. sport. When or listen to ourselves. And the problem of finding greatly depend on our personal the relative priority that each one is appropriate. or to create. Introducing longer. be pedagogically or culturally teenagers. and to life. following the news and current and video) than they have been As far as class discussion is affairs. n Volume 23 n Issue 4 www. TEACHING ADULTS The CEFR does this by describing four frequently used list of core topics all the texts we work with in an ‘domains’ of language use: educational. This and return to real points of concern learners. Of course we in their own texts as well. workable topics is even assessment as teachers of what will given should depend on the learners’ greater when it comes to advanced. As mentioned earlier. that interests and to interact with other might actually choose to read. public and personal. richer input: their writing skills. we those learners who wish to develop might want to extend this definition to 1. this does not mean that inappropriate – or simply tiresome. And. occupational domain. comprehension and unfamiliar a stimulating discussion topic that If – as I suggested above – we decide vocabulary in the way that is typical they neglect attention to form and to focus mainly on the personal when intermediate-level learners accuracy. then this poses an immediate work with longer texts will help later). the more specialised the topics and compromise. and spontaneous output: At advanced level. then the same include such activities as reading – and With advanced level learners. suggestions for keeping advanced ability to express themselves across pursuing a special interest or hobby. obviously this will spread across all four domains. interest the classes we are working needs. and taking part in informal possible at advanced level because should be less anxious than we might conversations and discussions with learners should no longer be be with lower-level students about family and friends (and with colleagues slowed down by the problems with their getting so ‘carried away’ by in a social environment). possibility of exploring different fully understanding – books and articles. for the remainder of reinforcing learners’ sensitivity to in individual practices such as reading this article. If we find texts Advanced learners should usually we are working with a whole class. using English to interact on used to previously.modernenglishteacher. Identifying topics that advanced learners to deepen their be aware that creating controversy will interest a class is more difficult knowledge of how different kinds of for controversy’s sake can often for adults than it is for children or text are structured and organised. genre and on whatever topic) that are primarily but not exclusively) on the Also. where an unofficial but (Of course.” For advanced-level learners. but materials. the environment) Advanced class should be long. A good starting point while a business English or English for personal interests that they wish to is to provide input texts (of whatever specific purposes class will focus (again discuss in English are likely to be. people who share those interests. Because of this. For example. or of individual learner’s personal interests effect on our learners. some organisation” and so should be are. we can introduce Focusing on the personal domain: The different levels of formality into personal domain is defined within the Four strategies for class discussion ranging from CEFR as where the learner “lives as a general advanced classes free conversation to structured private individual. This becomes concerned. as well as their for pleasure. I’d like to make four positive register and tone.

class input and output. publishing and educational consultant. And apart compete for our attention. But as teachers. least select the sets of vocabulary have a considerable amount of ibid. kinds of work. We might well come to grief have a lot more in common with when we discover that our us. it is often possible and when they arise in class than we to predict a lot of the grammar or might be with lower-level students. but we can feel much advanced-level learners is that it should more comfortable about sharing emerge naturally as possible from the the responsibility with them. we should classes. the idea of them to do their own research and and reference. As well as online reference. grammar still has its place. 21-40. register. it is very References hard to decide which grammar 1. In the case they should help to keep ‘General more productive and interactive of advanced students. even David Baker worked as an in-company language trainer and university teacher texts we are working with and from our to the point of acknowledging in Paris before returning to the UK to students’ output. business English and ESP grammar and vocabulary explanation bring back their findings to the materials. Such learners advanced-level learners know will be highly motivated to pinpoint as much as. Developing learner independence: learn independently. their harder than lexis. a certain amount of preparation. In order to allow language internet itself is a huge learning appropriateness) should receive points to emerge spontaneously from resource. they will entirelyproperappropriategood 3. Part of our role as teachers is been working as a freelance language important for lower-level learners. The language barriers to more attention than formal grammar. He worked for the ELT division planning of grammar and vocabulary occur. For the past eight years he has deriving from a real-life context is also class. 45-46 we choose to focus on the basis intellectual curiosity in general. they should be seeing these not as a temptation for us to assume that annoying obstacles to immediate meeting the needs of advanced-level The solution lies partly in comprehension. Managing work on lexis and students. there vocabulary points that our learners will where we are often under pressure to is now a wide range of learning find difficult. materials writer. if not more than. of course. This doesn’t mean that One obvious point about the grammar we abandon our responsibilities and vocabulary we cover with as teachers. for general advanced advanced students there is a much learners and teachers.TEACHING ADULTS 3. but at least that would be better spent on motivation and curiosity. learners and to help them to level lexical and grammatical topics 4. when we’re working with advanced reference sources (and away from 26 article/collocation-advanced-levels-1-not- underlying topic). a learner for Languages: Learning. where a bewilderingly in some detail. where we can at will be highly motivated. we can be much more bad ones).com n Volume 23 n Issue 4 . As mentioned above. to seek their own answers. At for our advanced learners: when especially if we are working with the same time. simply because of teaching advanced general 1. It is using up classroom time a lot of them lack the necessary English classes disappear. But to point our students towards good trainer. we start with Advancedophobia’ at bay. we must acknowledge they do find something in English students who need to write in English that we can’t possibly prepare that is unfamiliar or that they or express themselves in formal everything in a text or discussion that don’t immediately understand. their questions as and when they Linguistics. and general reality.modernenglishteacher. us things they don’t understand about formal grammar! and find answers to their own questions. specialising in publishing grammar teaching. teaching. lexis (and particularly issues stronger chance of its becoming a not lose sight of the fact that the of collocation. particular. This is much harder at cover a pre-set series of teaching points resources available online to advanced level. we need to do using the internet are much lower Of course. language levels. there is might come up in class. but Implementing these four strategies won’t not a good idea: it often doesn’t work in practice with make all the formidable challenges lower-level learners. By definition.teachingenglish. but rather as students equals tackling a series of encouraging our advanced students opportunities for further learning. and will Cambridge University Press (2001). This does not mean when we can’t immediately answer complete a master’s degree in Applied that we should abandon any pre. situations. We can also encourage of Oxford University Press for fourteen years. (even genuinely advanced level. We often pay lip-service to learner from growing number of online independence. In other words. but in the case of resources aimed specifically at In general. two great advantages: 2. in order to reach a Common European Framework of Reference points need covering. by explaining why they grammar appropriately: At lower relaxed about dealing with points as are good or bad. assessment. help us to teach advanced large number of potential higher. 2. ever-more-complex grammar topics. And. For ideas on teaching collocation see that they are tied in with an and curiosity about language in http://www. This is a There are several reasons why this is good thing at all language levels.