It’s great when your students can maintain a conversation and talk about the same topic for hours but what do you think your students need when their level is so high?

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Why is teaching high level ESL students challenging even for experienced teachers?

The first challenge comes from the fact that teachers forget to re-evaluate their students’ needs every so often. When you have been teaching a class for a long time, your students might get tired of the same daily routine and feel that they are not being challenged enough. A great solution for this is to organize a test or some sort of assessment and conduct a needs analysis right after that assessment or during the next class. This can give your students a bit of perspective on where they are at the moment and what areas they still need to work on.

Another issue is that upper- intermediate books don’t often provide challenging grammar material anymore. The students have seen it numerous times and whenever you start your lesson with present perfect, they just roll their eyes. That’s the reason why a lot of teachers try to compensate that lack of challenge with difficult vocabulary and expressions, such as idioms, collocations, and phrasal verbs.  Unfortunately, learning vocabulary is a lifelong process, so our students don’t get as much satisfaction from learning 7-10 new words or expressions every single class. It is very important to find that balance where the students always feel that they are learning the newest tricks that are going to improve their level instantly and that they are given a chance to express themselves by practising those new tricks.

I have three suggestions to diversify your classes and help your students gain that feeling of achievement.

Introduce phonetics

First of all, try introducing phonetics. Higher levels have enough vocabulary and grammar to express themselves freely but what they usually lack is pronunciation. Sometimes introducing some challenging sounds and discussing what parts of your mouth you have to use to form them can contribute to general understanding of differences between English and Spanish. Also, things like intonation and sentence stress can help your students sound more natural. They can even give it a go with trying out that famous British sarcasm.

Use authentic materials

Secondly, authentic materials can make a huge difference. How do you think your students feel about textbooks? Sometimes bringing a real newspaper to class and letting the students research a certain piece of news can help you to spice up your class a little bit. Another way to make your class fun and learn some vocabulary is music. Ask your students what music they like, sometimes they can remember vocabulary better when they associate it with a tune of their favorite song. 

Another great source of authentic materials is videos. You can use popular TV series, TED talks and youtube videos. The students can watch those at home and then prepare short presentations about what they watched and learnt. When it comes to watching TV series in English, students are usually hesitant about starting to watch them, because they don´t feel confident that they are going to understand them. By organizing a lesson on their favourite series, you can help your students gain confidence, because they will already know the main story line before starting to watch it.

Going back to the fact that your students want an opportunity to express themselves, I found printing out controversial topics and organizing a speed debate is very useful for your students’ confidence. I also suggest writing down all the mistakes they make during the debate and then eliciting corrections from the students.

You can also ask your students to come up with materials for the lesson themselves.  That will also help you to make your lessons more authentic. When the students are researching a certain topic or looking for pictures to make associations with vocabulary, they are the ones in charge.

Challenging grammar

The third suggestion is about grammar. It is very easy to run out of relevant grammar topics when you are following books of the same level. They will usually have the same exact grammar points. One of my favorite tricks is taking some grammar from Cambridge exam books, like CAE or CPE. They contain a lot of material on exceptions, advanced grammar and punctuation. Another great quality of those books is that there is usually a good teacher resource pack that comes along with the book, where you will find a detailed explanation on when to use those new constructions.

Overall, high levels can be some of the easiest and the most difficult to work with. By providing enough challenge in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, we can make sure that they are being challenged enough and that their experience is gratifying.

TtMadrid has lots of blogs that can give you plenty of ideas and materials for your ESL Classes!