Teaching Advanced ESL Students at Language ETC

Last week’s post explored the joys and pitfalls of teaching Basic students, who speak almost no English. How is the teaching experience different when students are relatively proficient? I asked three veteran teachers of LETC’s Advanced classes to share their thoughts. Dee Cohn and Lucy Hamachek have taught at LETC since 2003, and Chris Frangione since 2004; all have taught mainly or only Advanced classes and enjoy teaching our highest level.

What kinds of backgrounds do the Advanced students have? How much English do they know?

Lucy: Students in Advanced tend to come from a wider range of countries than those in Basic. We have had many Asian students and some Europeans, including a number of Russians. We have South Americans as well as Central Americans, and students from African countries as well. Several years ago, when the Chinese were building their new embassy in Washington, they sent all the construction crews, from architects to managers to construction workers, from China to DC. For a couple of semesters we had a number of these men in our Advanced classes.

Dee: Advanced students come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Some never completed high school, while others have graduate degrees. We have students who work in child care and construction, where they rarely use English on the job. But we also get students with professional jobs, including some embassy staff, who use English frequently. Many got a head start on learning English in their own countries, though some learned from scratch in the US. Their written and spoken English ranges from good-enough-to-be-understood to reasonably polished. There’s a larger range in written work than in spoken English.

Lucy: Because the students don’t share a common language, there tends to be less classroom chatter in languages other than English. In the Basic and other lower-level classes, at least when I taught them, a great majority of the students spoke Spanish. They often lapsed into it, and ended up excluding the few students who didn’t speak Spanish.

What kinds of classroom activities and materials work well with Advanced students?

Chris: We find that the students love to debate. They get really heated in these debates, even when we randomly assign them to sides so that they may be arguing a side with which they don’t agree. I often find that they know US politics and current events better than I do.

Dee: You can’t give them simple rote work because it would be beneath their level of skill. Our current class really enjoys group or pair work, where they do an exercise as a team and present results to the rest of the students.

Lucy: Many of our Advanced students are well educated in their own languages and have had a traditional educational experience with a strong emphasis on grammar. They may have done substantial grammar work in English classes in their own country. As a result, they expect this in their study of English here. As teachers, we often have to refresh our own understanding of English grammar and bring richer explanations and exercises to our classes than those provided by the textbooks.

Advanced students receive their certificates at the Fall 2011 graduation. On the right are Dee Cohn (in red) and Lucy Hamachek (in violet), with two of their co-teachers.

Do you use the Ventures series?

Lucy: No, not in Advanced. Right now we’re using World English by Heinle. The teachers and LETC staff are always searching for the perfect book with the proper blend of reading, listening, and grammar. Often the books shine in one area but are somewhat weak in others. We supplement the book with exercises we take off the Internet, articles we find in newspapers, activities we hear about from other teachers. For example, one of my friends sent me a round-robin quiz. You answer a variety of questions (name an animal, a place, etc.) using words that start with the same letter as your last name. The class had fun doing this and one of the great things that happened was that one student, whose English wasn’t quite as good as the others, was able to help many of his classmates complete their charts. His mind was very quick in juggling the options. I can see him as a quiz show star.

What are some of the particular challenges of teaching Advanced students?

Chris: One challenge is that a lot of the students repeat. No higher level exists at Language ETC, so in order to continue learning English, they repeat Advanced. This means we have to constantly use a new book, create new lessons, come up with new activities. A great activity or article that worked well the first time can’t be reused because so many of the students repeat. We find that we always need to have a few extra activities in our back pocket for every class in case one bombs!

Dee: Some of the Advanced students are so accomplished that it can be tempting to let them answer all the questions and carry the class. You have to remember the quiet ones in the back of the room.

What are some of the rewards of teaching Advanced students?

Dee: The wonderful thing about Advanced students is that they can carry on a real conversation. Of course, there’s always more to learn. As a teacher, you may correct a verb tense here and there, or suggest a better way to phrase something, but they know enough to have a real back-and-forth dialogue among themselves or with their teachers.

Chris: The rewards are amazing. Because a lot of the students repeat, you become friends. I’ve had a few students for more than three years straight, and as you can imagine, you become very close to these repeat students. My wife and I even visited the family of one longtime student when we were in Algeria. We delivered the goodies my student sent to her family.

Lucy: The wide variety of nationalities enriches the class discussions. Sometimes I feel we’re the ones learning about life from them. For example, a few years ago the textbook had a reading on regular armies, how they function differently from guerrilla armies, and the role women play in each. Almost every student in our class either had personal experience with the consequences of guerrilla warfare or could describe how this had played out in their own country.

Chris: I get inspired. The fact that they work all day and then come to class every night is impressive. They always thank me because I volunteer, but in reality, they are the ones who should be thanked. I’ve even been inspired by the class to learn a new language . . . though I am definitely not as dedicated to the cause as they are!

Dee Cohn and Lucy Hamachek chat with some of their students at graduation. Once students reach Advanced level, they can carry on a conversation fairly easily.

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1 Response to Teaching Advanced ESL Students at Language ETC

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