One challenge facing instructors in second language programs today is providing a course that will be challenging and rigorous enough to ensure that students are prepared quickly and appropriately for their content classes at English-speaking universities. Perhaps students will only have one session in an EAP course to work on improving reading and writing to keep up with content for their degrees. Or maybe students need to take two or three classes to achieve an appropriate level of English language mastery to even be admitted into a university. Regardless, the role of the English language teacher in this environment is critical to a learner’s success in a degree program. The most effective teachers will be prepared to provide content that is appropriate and authentic to get learners on the college track and prepare them to meet and exceed expectations in their content programs.
Teachers can only provide such content when there is a clear understanding of what learners need to learn at this level. Students at this level often demonstrate a high degree of oral proficiency and can maintain and extend discourse with native speakers fairly fluently, so teachers often feel that they are already advanced enough to succeed in an L1 setting.
Despite this high degree of proficiency in speaking, these students struggle with reading and writing, especially lengthy, textbook chapter-length readings and writing assignments beyond the five-paragraph essay. The challenges may look similar enough to what teachers already recognize as problems for L2 learners; in other words, it is tempting to say the learners are all high-intermediate or even advanced and design a program accordingly. To do this, though, ignores the difference in proficiency between learners at these more advanced levels and fails to take students to the level they need to successfully survive in an L1 setting where they interact with L1 speakers rather than as part of a classroom where everyone is an L2 learner. In order to develop the ideal program, it helps to first define the differences between our highly skilled learners.
What’s the Difference?
For the sake of clarity, to begin defining an intermediate learner we can use the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), which includes six levels of foreign language proficiency: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. The A levels are “basic” users; the B levels are “independent” learners; and the C levels are “proficient” users. A list of descriptors can be found on page 5 of Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment.
Students wanting or needing to transition into a full-fledged, English-only university setting are likely more advanced than teachers are prepared to teach. The CEFR describes high-intermediate learners as being in the B2 range. The CEFR (2001) provides the following characteristics:
“Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her ﬁeld of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of ﬂuency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.” (CEFR, 2001)
This definition is a great starting point to describe our more advanced students. What does this mean in the classroom when working with an advanced learner? We might look for some of the following characteristics:
B2 (high-intermediate) students can…
A learner at this level is clearly already quite advanced in his/her use of language. Yet, this learner is not the most advanced learner we may work with, and despite having made it through several years of English language study, he/she might not be prepared for university success. Again, to clarify with the CEFR, advanced learners or those at the level known as C1:
“Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself ﬂuently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language ﬂexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.” (CEFR, 2001)
The distinction between this definition and that of the B2 learners is subtle, but the following characteristics help to clarify the more complex needs of the C1 learner.
C1 (Advanced) students can…
When a teacher examines these two different learners side by side, it is possible to see the types of skills they will need to address to pave the road toward achieving greater success in their future learning. To teach students at these levels, teachers are tasked with providing appropriate material that will focus on developing the skills learners at this level need to master. Additionally, it becomes important for teachers to move away from the over-structured, highly-scaffolded materials students have already mastered in order to allow students to reach a newer, higher level at which they can produce creative and spontaneous language that engages their skills and allows them to become active participants in both academic and professional settings.
Working with B2 Students:
Speaking and Listening
You can see from the CEFR guidelines that B2 students are already beyond the level of students that teachers have become accustomed to. In the B2 classroom, teachers may still pre-teach some content or teach to reinforce language that is not used consistently before moving into practice work. The key difference in successfully teaching listening and speaking in a B2 classroom is creating tasks and activities that are completely free of teacher control and that stretch learners to use language in unfamiliar situations.
In a B1 classroom, learners might work with language and then complete a role play, whereas students in the B2 classroom can construct an entire role play with little assistance from the teacher. What the B2 learners need now is autonomy with the language they are being asked to produce.
This autonomy allows B2 students to be able to respond spontaneously without the processing time lower-level students need to translate and then speak. A good speaking activity might be an unstructured discussion on a topic students are not familiar with. For example, teach students the words and phrases typically used for agreeing and disagreeing, but then put them in groups and give them a problem to solve that requires the use of agreeing and disagreeing language and allows it to come out naturally as they solve the problem. Discussions can range from more conversational or “fun” topics (a fictional mystery that includes characters and clues and students piece together the facts to find the culprit) or more academic or “serious” topics (who should be the next president).
For the B2 student, the listening classroom has similar challenges. Again, teachers may still follow some standard pedagogical practices, such as introducing new words or having a pre-discussion about a topic. However, as with speaking, students need to be challenged to work with content that promotes fluency and autonomy while focusing on nuance that moves beyond just listening for the main idea or key details.
Students at this level are already quite accomplished with main ideas and details, especially having been trained by good ESL teachers and with much practice in well-developed ESL textbooks. What they still struggle with are the nuances, such as humor or sarcasm, that aren’t often included in scripted materials. Students become overwhelmed when they sit in their first lecture at an American university and realize that the formal lecture they thought they would hear includes digressions, asides, and jokes. Using lectures far longer for practice in the safety of the ESL classroom is the best thing teachers can do for students at this level. We need to push students to the next level by adding these nuances to the materials with which they practice. While a pre-recorded lecture may not prepare students for all the challenges of a live classroom lecture, it is a great jumping-off point.
In order to do this effectively, the lectures need to be consistent with academic standards and not edutainment-type lectures or the very popular 20-minute style of information soundbites that can be found on many streaming platforms. While entertaining and high-interest, most professors are not as dynamic, charismatic, or on topic when presenting content in the classroom. If teachers don’t have access to a video bank of lectures, consider resources like Khan Academy, where it is possible to find high-quality academic lectures that are relevant to a learner’s field of study.
After selecting content, have the learners go deeper than the basic surface information to use what they have learned and apply that information in real-life applications.
Reading and Writing
The challenges with reading and writing are much like listening and speaking. In reading, students are accomplished enough to read and answer main-idea and detail questions. Here they need much more work within the genres. They are not accustomed to extremely long textbook chapters, but they are also not prepared for the different types of reading they will have to do, including case studies, lab reports, or full-length research papers, or even short stories they will need to read in an English 101 class. As with listening, the use of multiple authentic sources can really help. In the listening example activity above, source materials suggested include popular magazines and newspaper content. This content is often accessible to a B2 learner and can provide a good bridge to the more challenging textbook content that students will face in class.
Not only might they struggle with the reading, they are also unprepared to write these types of materials. No longer will the five-paragraph essay help them succeed with every writing assignment. Assignments at this level might include reading sample case studies or lab reports rather than reading manufactured essays with the “hard words” glossed in the margin.
Students are evolving, and teachers will need to become more and more prepared for students of this level arriving in their classrooms. Sometimes students will have tried college courses and found themselves woefully unprepared, so they return to the ESL classroom for help. By providing our students with appropriate content and challenges, we can help students make progress more quickly to achieve success when facing academic challenges.
To further clarify, here are two examples of B2-appropriate classroom lessons. The first focuses primarily on speaking and listening in interaction. The second activity presented is a four-skills, FLIPPed classroom activity that will truly challenge learners to go beyond the borders of the traditional ESL model.
In the next article, we will look more specifically at working with the C1 learner, as our C1 learners have unique challenges. By defining and separating the needs of these learners with precision, hopefully it is clear that the needs of high-intermediate and advanced students are quite different.
Robyn Brinks Lockwood teaches courses in English listening, speaking, and writing for international graduate students. She is also the coordinator of the American Language and Culture undergraduate summer program. She is an active member of the international TESOL organization, serves as Chair of the Book Publications Committee, and is a past chair of the Materials Writers Interest Section. She is a frequent presenter at TESOL regional and international conferences. Robyn has edited and written numerous textbooks for writing, speaking, and listening English courses and TOEFL® preparation as well as ancillary materials to support teachers.