Syllabus writers - and teachers in general - commonly assume a ‘scaffolding approach’ to course design.

Put simply, this means that more challenging material follows on from slightly less challenging material. Elementary learners learn Elementary language items and Advanced learners learn Advanced language items, and we don’t teach Advanced language items to beginners.

There are good reasons for this:

  • We don’t want to discourage learners by presenting material that is too difficult
  • It is motivating for learners to experience a sense of continuity between stages
  • Teachers themselves feel more comfortable with a clearly defined, progressive course.

However, there are also disadvantages:

  • Real life doesn’t present language in bite-sized units of progressive difficulty
  • Some topics that are traditionally considered ‘advanced’, such as phrasal verbs and colloquial language, can actually be taught at much lower levels
  • If learners are able to acquire a limited amount of more advanced language early on-giving them a ‘taste of what’s to come’- this can be motivating, exciting and interesting.

Sometimes it can be a good idea to throw your learners ‘in at the deep end’ - presenting and practising language that would normally be considered too advanced for their level. In this article I will present some ideas on how you can break free of some of the limitations of ‘level’ in ways that will excite your students.

Phrasal verbs at Elementary level
Phrasal verbs, or ‘multi-word verbs’, confuse even advanced learners. This is because they have been conditioned to see a kind of one-to-one relationship between single word units and meaning. For example, ‘eat’, ‘run’ and ‘work’ all have clear, concrete meanings.

If you’re learning Chinese, you’re taught right from the beginning that words are built up of basic images. Change a part of that image and you change the meaning.

The problem with taking a scaffolding approach to vocabulary is that English really isn’t a string of single word units. It’s more like a collection of ‘chunks’. Phrasal verbs are just another type of chunk.

To introduce learners to this idea at higher levels is too late. It’s much better to introduce it early on.

Example: introducing some simple phrasal verbs at elementary level:

  • Take some simple verbs like ‘eat,’ ‘run’ and ‘work’ and write them on the board. Learners make sentences in groups with each verb and the teacher checks them.
  • Now present the phrasal verbs ‘eat out,’ ‘run out of’ and ‘work out’ through a context, e.g. a text on spare time activities:  ‘I eat out once a month. My favourite food is Thai food. I don’t eat out often because I’m a student and I don’t want to run out of money. I work out at the gym three times a week - usually I do aerobics.’
  • Have the students underline ‘eat,’ ‘run’ and ‘work’ in the text and ask them what they notice about these verbs in this text. They will probably notice that they are followed by ‘out’ / ‘out of’.
  • Now ask the students why they think this is. Perhaps they have some ideas; you can write these on the board.
  • Now have learners match the verbs with the following meanings: to do exercise/ to eat at a restaurant or café/ to have no more of something.
  • You can now explain the idea of a special group of English verbs that are made of several parts - i.e. phrasal verbs. By adding extra parts, the meaning changes, as in these examples.
  • Follow up with semi-controlled and freer practice activities as you would normally.

Authentic listening/reading at low levels
It’s perfectly possible to create stimulating lessons for low level learners with the sort of spoken and written texts you’d normally aim at advanced learners. The trick is to adapt the tasks to their level. The mantra to apply is, ‘The harder the text, the simpler the task’.

For example if you’re doing a newspaper reading comprehension task. At higher levels, you might start with a headline prediction activity, followed by some skim reading, comprehension questions and then some focus on vocabulary.

With lower levels, the density of unknown vocabulary will probably be too high to do this, so it’s better to apply a strong ‘top down’ approach combined with much simpler tasks.

Example: authentic reading at low levels

  • Take a series of headlines from the week’s world news and accompanying pictures. Separate the headlines from the articles. Try to select headlines with concrete themes (such as presidents visiting places) rather than abstract topics (such as interest rates). Post them on the board. Learners are likely to have some prior knowledge of the stories.
  • In groups, have the learners match the stories with the photos.
  • Check the results.
  • Ask learners to write down what additional details they already know about these stories.
  • Feedback to the class/ write this down on the board.
  • You can now give learners the full articles (a different text for each group) with some key words/phrases highlighted, related to the basics of the story. It’s important not to make these too complex.
  • You can now give learners an activity to deduce the meaning of each phrases from context. You could have them choose from several possible translations to ease the cognitive challenge, or have a simple matching activity, or have learners try to explain the meaning in their own words (this would need to be closely monitored).
  • Learners can now follow up by re-telling the story verbally, using some of the new vocabulary.

authentic listening at low levels
For this you will probably need to keep the task extremely simple.

  • Prepare by selecting a text with a relatively concrete theme, such as two friends discussing a football game
  • Pre-teach some vocabulary such as ‘amazing goal’, ‘bad tackle’, ‘foul’ and so on- some of which is used in the text, some of which is not.
  • Learners listen and tick off what they hear.
  • The vocabulary can be then recycled in a speaking task.

You might argue what the point of such a simple task would be. One possible answer is simply to present new vocabulary in a form that is much more challenging than what the learners would ordinarily be able to cope with by themselves. This can help to develop confidence.

Throwing them in at the shallow end
The flipside to all of this is that it is important for Advanced learners to practise or revise basics sometimes as well. I have come across advanced speakers who produce repeated errors with the past simple such as ‘I didn’t went,’ for example. Sometimes you need to go back and refresh basic topics.

Overall it’s important not to treat the concept of ‘level’ too rigidly. It’s perfectly possible, using the approach described above, to challenge your students with harder material early on.

Having said this, it’s important to remember that while throwing learners in at the deep end can provide learners with extra stimulation and a sense of ‘punching above their weight’, there should still be an overarching sense of gradual progression to your courses and selection of material.

Tom Hayton, Teacher, Business Trainer

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