Loose cannons and tough cookies: Teaching Advanced Students


Many years ago, I was asked to teach an Advanced student one-to-one. He was a Spanish politician. He’d been moved out of the Advanced class because it was too easy for him. Within a minute of meeting him, I realized his English was as good as mine. Horror of horrors, he already knew the Third Conditional. What could I teach such a rare creature? In a blind panic, I asked him why he was at a language school. It turned out he didn’t want to be taught. He just wanted fluency practice. He proceeded to talk non-stop for several weeks, and, like most politicians, he didn’t want any correction. In the end, I loved teaching him. He had hilarious anecdotes and all I needed to do was listen.

Teaching Advanced classes isn’t usually like this. It’s a challenge. Here’s what I recommend for teachers of super-motivated, super-sophisticated Advanced students.

Profile the Learners

Find out what motivates them to keep improving and where they are on their learning journey. The term “Advanced” contains the widest spectrum of all the levels: it can be anything from post-First Certificate (B2) to post-Proficiency (C2+). Although Advanced students should be fluent and fairly accurate, their ability may be unevenly spread across the four skills. Some are good speakers and poor writers; others great readers and average listeners, etc.

Go Easy on the Grammar

If they’ve been studying formally for a long time, Advanced students will have seen certain items of grammar six times or more. They can probably quote you the rules of the Present Perfect in their sleep. Teaching more and more obscure grammatical items (e.g., cleft sentences and inversion) may not be that useful for them. Instead …

Focus on Vocabulary

Don’t focus on obscure “hundred-dollar” words. Low frequency vocabulary items are low frequency for a reason – people don’t use them much. Advanced students often need to learn more collocations and combinations with common words. A good example is phrasal verbs. These rarely contain difficult words, but they often have multiple meanings. Pick up, for example, has about 20 meanings: we can pick up bad habits, signals, diseases, people, pizzas, and suspected criminals.

Highlight Idiomatic Language

If the students’ first language has Latin roots, they probably don’t have many problems with formal English. The latter uses cognates from Latin languages. But many Advanced students need help with colloquial or idiomatic language. The meanings of idioms, proverbs, and prepositional phrases are frequently un-guessable. In fact, English is full of odd combinations of simple words: a loose cannon, a couch potato, a wet blanket, a tough cookie.

Go Beyond the Syllabus with Authentic Materials

When possible, use authentic materials as a source of language, and “mine” the texts. Text-mining involves analyzing written and recorded material for useful language – an essential skill for teachers and Advanced learners. Often, this language includes little phrases and chunks that don’t appear in any syllabus. Just listening to my colleagues for two minutes, I heard: “you’ve got to be kidding me,” “nice try,” “I have mixed emotions about it,” “well-deserved.” I’d bet my house these aren’t taught in any coursebooks on my shelf.

Don’t Let the Students Play it Safe

Advanced students have advanced avoidance strategies. If they’re not confident about using new vocabulary, they find ways to avoid it: circumlocution, paraphrasing, changing the subject. And so they stay firmly on their plateau. Through vocabulary games and speaking activities, encourage students to experiment and take risks with language.

Point out Fossilized Errors (but don’t keep insisting on the correct form)

Most Advanced students, completely oblivious, have been making the same errors for years. Maybe the errors were never picked up (that phrasal verb again!) or the student never learned the standard form. Fossilized errors are a natural part of interlanguage and often occur because of L1 interference. Point out the error a few times; try writing the incorrect and correct forms on the board for the students to analyze; and get students to transcribe short recordings of themselves, focusing on accuracy. And then leave it. If it’s a fossil by the time the student gets to Advanced, like most fossils it’s usually set in stone.

Personalize Homework

Advanced students are often very specific about the tasks they need to achieve in English. Tailor the homework to their individual needs. They may have to write academic essays or give presentations or discuss world politics with their in-laws. Whatever their task, our job is to facilitate it.

Critical and Creative

Use critical thinking and creative activities. When using texts, dig deeper, looking at tone (irony, humor). Get students to question author intention (persuasion, entertainment). Ask them to probe critical features of writing (bias, omissions). When planning tasks, get students to brainstorm ideas and invest time and thought. If your instructions include verbs like make, create, build, illustrate, devise, and come up with, you’re asking for creativity. Such approaches can push Advanced learners to the limits of their language use and beyond.

And finally …

You may not find a genial chatterbox like my Spanish politician in your class, but Advanced students tend to be self-starters: motivated, organized and curious. If you can find ways to harness their curiosity, teaching them can bring terrific rewards.

2 Comments on “Loose cannons and tough cookies: Teaching Advanced Students”

  1. Patricia Link says:

    What a genius you are! Your explanations are so clear. It would be great to be in Glasgow but It’s a pity I’m from Uruguay so it will be imposible to meet you this time. If you are coming to South América I would be more than pleased to attend your conference.
    Best wishes

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