Motivational strategies for intermediate and upper-intermediate levels

“I know English already” and “Why do you use a dictionary, don’t you know English already?” Those are among my favourite phrases which I rather often hear from students and colleagues alike. I believe they explain the situation with intermediate and upper-intermediate levels quite well. Let us look at some common problems and some helpful motivational strategies.

• Intermediate and upper-intermediate level students can speak fluently; they are rather confident about their skills in reading, writing and listening. More importantly, they are not always aware of the fact that there is a higher level in existence. Thus they may have a feeling that they have already reached the ceiling so to speak.

• As usual, the students’ attitude may stem from that of their teacher. Many of us became ELTs when in fact the now universal system of Levels was not known. The international EL exams, First Certificate English and so on are a relatively new phenomenon in many countries. How may EL teachers even think of taking a Cambridge or Oxford Certificate exam to check their own level? It simply does not occur to most of them that they should take an examination!

• What does this phrase, “I know English already”, mean? I routinely suggest a few simple tests to any advanced audience, be it upper-intermediate level students or my colleagues at a teacher refresher/teacher training course. What’s “an engineer”? Why, everybody knows the answer! What is the meaning of the verb “to engineer”? Rather than consulting a dictionary students and adults alike try to produce a verb from the noun, and usually fail. One does not need any really complicated words or scientific terms to demonstrate the importance of checking one’s knowledge. My word of the day presently is “chemistry”. You would be surprised at what fantastic “meanings” may be infused into the common phrase, “there was instant chemistry between them”. Yet any dictionary, any online source would give you the correct answer – if only you thought of checking them for it!

• I accumulated a collection of examples in which the meaning of a noun differs greatly from that of the corresponding verb or adjective. A simple “Match up the meanings” exercise helps nudge the class or course into the desired direction. Take the familiar nouns like “date”, “data” and the verb “to date”; and see what happens. Why this word? Because, a) “data” and “date” are often confused by non-native speakers; b) the verb “to date” is probably not found in a textbook and thus all the expressions connected with either age or dating (someone) may be unfamiliar. I have yet to meet an audience which is not astonished by yet another example with the homonym, “She likes eating dates”.

• Keeping a stack of short paragraphs from literature is always helpful. Rather than suggesting that our students read a novel let us give them printouts of short passages from Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or in fact any modern author. One or two people in your audience may actually become interested enough to read the whole book!

• I give examples from my own experience. For instance I read the novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte when I was 16. I suppose at the time, by modern standards, I was close to an Upper-Intermediate level. Naturally this does not mean that I could understand the nineteenth century literature. Working daily with a dictionary, I wrote out all the unfamiliar words, together with their pronunciation and meaning in this particular sentence or context. Thus from page 1, I wrote down all the words but for the articles and prepositions. By page 10 it was becoming easier. By page 50 I discovered that I was actually reading, but I still continued writing out all the words which stopped my eye and my comprehension, including those which I knew I already wrote down a few times but could not remember yet. By the end of this five-hundred-page book I had several thick exercise books filled with over 2,500 words. My vocabulary had grown immensely.

• Reading is the first and foremost way of enlarging one’s vocabulary; reading a whole book diligently checking absolutely every unfamiliar word will definitely help our knowledge. However we cannot advise modern students to read a large book, we have to camouflage the advice. It is better to advise them that they visit their favourite site often, read a magazine or some news or an encyclopedia or a reference site.

• Modern statistics tell us that 85 % of students list communication with their peers as the main reason for their coming to school. Today the figure may be even higher. Everybody seems to be more or less attached to a gadget. Students click on various apps to find the information and to communicate instantly with their friends around the globe. Using the desire to connect and to find any data with one click is a good motivational factor too. • Talking to students of any age and level about their goals is a great help. When they can express themselves in English, you may devote some time to discussing their targets and yes, ask them why they think your subject is important for their future. “I wish to communicate with the world!” a very bright student told me. The trouble was, his former teacher never paid any attention to phonetics. He and many other young people in the class consequently had no idea what they said. In such cases, to stimulate their interest to sounds, I would write down a list on the blackboard and ask them which word they meant when they declared their aims. WHAT, WARD, WART, WORD, WORLD all sounded the same in their speech!

• I use computer and internet vocabulary a lot because this is close to the students’ interests and experience. I often work back to the beginnings. For instance all the young people know what “net” means; for them it is the internet and the provider’s net. Aha, but what is the meaning of the phrase “the old boys’ network”? Or “the old girls’ network”, also used today, in the era of equal opportunities. Sometimes a joke helps students see the familiar and for them common phrases in a new way and thus remember them better. “What’s up in your What’s app?” That one invariably produces laughter.

• One of the most difficult things we need to explain again and again is not any topic or any grammar construction. It is the fact that any language is a continuously evolving, living organism, and thus there is never an “I know it already” moment. Knowledge is infinite. Nobody can remember all the 450,000 entries in the huge Webster’s International Dictionary; nobody can memorize all the data we find on the web. What everybody and anybody can do is continue exploring and discovering.

 Nina MK, Ph.D.

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