Tag Archives: Reflection

Language Hacking: Breaking out of the Intermediate Plateau



There comes a time in the life cycle of every language learning experience where the student is hit by a brick wall. I have experienced this myself while learning, or trying to learn Irish, French, German, Spanish, Latin and Italian. I have seen other learners go through it as both a teacher and a friend. The usual course of events is this: the learner starts out by picking up a great deal of high frequency vocabulary, which gives them an extremely profitable return on their investment. These high frequency words are often heard and seen in reading and listening input and quickly become acquired, making the learner feel like rapid progress is being made. This happy state of affairs remains as the learner progresses through A1 and A2 levels on the CEFR and continues into intermediate stages. With each hour spent acquiring, vocabulary texts become progressively more penetrable, thus positively re-enforcing learner behaviour.

This encouraging state of affairs continues unabated right up until the quagmire that is the B1-B2 crossover point. Think of it as a dark foreboding forest where only the most valiant warriors emerge. The honeymoon phase is over. This phase creates the false impression that languages are easy to learn. Well, they are at first, that is until the learner runs out of high frequency vocabulary to learn. Then, the tables are turned, high frequency vocabulary runs out and learners became faced with the bleak prospect of learning a word which they mightn’t come across again for weeks if not months. This can happen even in a situation where the quantity of input is extremely high, such as can be found in a full immersion environment. This land of no return is well know by language learners and it’s the last stop on the line for many of them. The trains stops and they get off far out in the suburbs.

Polyglots can also experience this stage, having said that it is more rare once you’ve mastered your first second language. I will attempt to address why this is the case later.

Firstly, I want to point out that this stage, sometimes termed the intermediate plateau, is not necessarily a bad thing. This level of proficiency serves many learners well. Let’s imagine a Korean business woman in the IT industry on a trip to her company’s supplier in Vietnam, who happen to make parts for her company’s mobile phones, to oversee new standards of production. Her hosts are equally proficient in the language, and together the happy group negotiate meaning during the visit. Error counts are high- but who cares? There is no teacher around to write down their mistakes and communication, while imperfect, is mostly successful. It’s all about getting the message across and if she doesn’t happen to know how to use the present perfect tense very well-well who cares? If she doesn’t happen to have the word for a particular noun- let’s say ‘a blanket’ in the hotel that she’s staying in- well, she can just show the receptionist a picture on her mobile phone. She could go on holidays the following year to France and have a very similar experience. In short, meaning is negotiated, thrashed out if you like, between two or more willing parties.

The majority of English as a second language speakers around the world are on the plateau and are happy there. They learned the language to get by, not to understand the intricacies of assonance in Grey’s Elegy, nor watch The Godfather Trilogy without subtitles and certainly not to give a talk at a TEDX conference or publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Their ambitions are much more modest and mediocre works just fine for them in their world thank you very much.

Sounds great, right? And remember practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? So these intermediate plateau learners (IPLs) will inevitably get better as they continue dealing with the language, right? No, that’s where we are sometimes mistaken. This isn’t my line but I wish it was, practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice does. If you want to progress to C1 and C2 and beyond, your learning behaviours need to change.

Before I discuss practising more perfectly, I want to quickly explore the other factor which creates the illusion that languages are easy to learn at lower levels. This is the unequal way we have divided up language learning courses into a series of levels. Be it the CEFR, IELTS bands or the old beginner to proficiency system, schools, course books and teachers do not make it clear to students that the time it takes to get from A1 to A2 is not the same as the time it takes to get from C1 to C2, not by a long shot. Think of A1-A2 as the Apollo mission to the moon and C1 to C2 as getting to Mars (and setting up a colony there). Similarly, getting from band 5 to 6 in IELTS can be done in 3 months while getting from 8 to 9 may take 3 years or 30.

Ok so language acquisition is more rapid at the beginning but once progress slows down, how can we make the time we devote to learning a language more worthwhile?
It’s not a revelation, or at least it doesn’t seem so at first, but it is. I mentioned polyglots before. They go through the intermediate plateau in their first second language as all other learners but they manage to find their way out of the forest. They master their L2. L3 is a much easier experience. The brain has been rewired to become highly attuned to acquiring. The difference between L2 and L3 for the typical polyglot is like the difference between getting a taxi from the airport to your hotel or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that’s late and trying to understand the bus maps that are in a foreign language. For the polyglot, it becomes an enjoyable experience to go from elementary to proficiency in your L3. L4 is almost done on autopilot and it gets even easier from there. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that learning a language, even your fourth is easy. On the contrary, it still takes a huge investment of time. However, what reduces is the frustration of performing learning behaviours that give little return on investment. Enjoyment increases. The pleasure of improving is felt much more often, at all proficiency levels, and there is very little of the frustration.

What do polyglots do then that’s different? Well, for one they tend to be extremely disciplined. Just like physical exercise, a little bit on a regular basis goes a long way. They stay relaxed and do not stress to much about their level or undergo anxiety during production. They’re constantly trying out what they know and taking feedback on board, always  trying to do better next time. However, they can be happy to remain silent and simply soak up what’s going on around them. They look at grammar only on a need to know basic and don’t make the mistake of trying to learn the third conditional before they’ve even noticed it during input. They have modest goals, at least at first. These might be to have a enough Italian to order food in a restaurant or hold a conversation about football in German. They find input that’s comprehensible. And of course they keep motivated, which brings me to the key ingredient: avoiding boredom.

Boredom is the mortal enemy of acquisition. Polyglots have developed techniques for avoiding this boredom and its associated frustration on the intermediate plateau. One of the ways of achieving this is to change the learning source frequently. For example, if you’ve been doing French on Duolingo for a few months and have made a lot of progress but are getting a bit fed up with the routine of it all? Say you’ve read all the graded readers in your local library, you’ve got all of Axelle Red’s CDs and you’re sick of trying to read Camus’ L’étranger. Well, try another source- read BBC Afrique, watch TV5 and France 24 and listen to Europe 1. Download some podcasts. Find a TV programme from the Francophone world that you like, for example ‘Un Village Français’, have a look on YouTube for an interesting French language blogger- why not one from Cameroon? Find a language swap in your town. Find 10 of them. In short, change the channel and when you get bored: change again, stay on the same language but change the channel. Find a new French class, watch a documentary in French about a topic that you’re familiar with. Listen or watch to whatever you like so long as it’s in French and so long as you find it interesting. Watch things that you enjoy multiple times. That’ll make it more comprehensible with each listen. Acquisition is INEVITABLE once you stay relaxed, avoid boredom and keep that input comprehensible. Oh an get copious amounts of it: between 2 and 4 hours every day. C’est facile, non?

Lesson plans – a waste of time?

I realise I haven’t written anything for this blog for quite some time, so I’m really glad that a recent conversation on Twitter about observations and lesson plans with @ashowski and @getgreatenglish, who following our chat wrote a post too, motivated me to write a new post. The conversation was prompted by a blog post by @ashowski which you can read here. In a nutshell, Anthony argues that from the point of view of the observer a thorough lesson plan is essential as comparing it with the decisions made by the teacher during the lesson can “reveal the most interesting features of the teacher’s pedagogic abilities”. Without this it would be impossible “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”. What?!

You know a great planner when you read their lesson plan, but you know a great teacher when you see them. While the lesson plan might reveal some interesting things about the decisions taken by the teacher, I don’t think it is necessary “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”, because the only thing it does determine is the extent of teachers planning abilities. And is just one of many skills of effective English teachers. What I definitely object to, though, are the incredibly detailed lesson plans we are obliged to write for formal observations.

First, they do not reflect how we plan on a day-to-day basis. Let’s be honest, any good teacher will prepare and plan for their classes in one way or  the other, but when was the last time you wrote a CELTA/DELTA like lesson plan? Probably for your last observation, and only because you were obliged to. On a day-to-day basis we might write down the main aims on post-it notes, draw a flow-chart with main stages on a piece of paper, or make notes in the teacher’s or student’s book (for an overview of various approaches to planning read this post by Adam Simpson) . Personally, I will often visualise the different stages, interaction patterns, lesson aims and go over the various options I could use in the class without writing too much down. The best decisions often come to me on the spot. They depend on students, on their mood, on what happens in the class, and on countless other unpredictable factors.

6-11. The butterfly effect

Which brings me to my second objection: you can’t plan for the unpredictable. And what happens in class is to a lesser or greater extent unpredictable. While thinking about the lesson, its aims, possible interaction patterns, predicting setbacks and devising solutions to them are all part and parcel of preparing for a successful lesson, I can’t see how writing them down in the form of an ever more complex and detailed lesson plan will help you effectively respond to what happens in the classroom. As Steve Brown wrote here, “Teaching is not about managing the delivery of a lesson plan”. Unfortunately, though, both teacher training courses, as well as in-house observations place great importance on thorough lesson planning.

Because, as we’re told, there’s a direct correlation between a good lesson plan and a lesson success. Really? When preparing for my last observation I spent several hours writing the plan and preparing materials. According to the feedback I received, the lesson went well, but I didn’t feel the hours of prep paid off. I didn’t feel it was a particularly outstanding lesson. And I’m pretty sure I would have taught a similarly effective lesson with 10% of the time put into planning. And would have been much less stressed about having to stick to the lesson stages. So might have responded to students’ immediate queries and needs better too.

So why are we told by trainers and observers to prepare detailed lesson plans? Perhaps because “they [the lesson plans] provide comfort to the novice and to the person required to certify the novice’s ability” (the Secret DoS in this post). Perhaps because “it is part of what most teachers are expected (and paid) to do” (ibid). Perhaps because the observers/trainees actually believe that how the plan looks reflects in a way how the lesson is going to pan out. It shows that the trainee is diligent and has carefully thought about the lesson. This belief, though, is underpinned by “the misconception that [through planning] teachers can control what students learn” (Steve Brown in this post).


But the paramount importance that is placed on producing neat, organised, detailed and long lesson plans is misguided, because it doesn’t really prepare the trainee for the daily teaching and planning routine. It teaches us a skill that we never use. It dupes trainees into thinking that they can anticipate every problem that might come up in the lesson. It also seems to suggest that only by following a pre-planned sequence of activities can we teach a successful lesson. And it takes teacher’s attention away from what really matters: the students and what is happening at a given moment in class.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel that planning IS important. It is essential. But not in the form of hours spent stressing over a detailed CELTA-like lesson plan, which most likely will end up accumulating layers of dust somewhere on a forgotten shelf in the DoS office. Such planning leads to little meaningful PD.

Stack of Paper 050

It is stressful, time-consuming and not environmentally friendly. It also emphasises the lesson plan as a measure of teacher’s abilities. Yet, we all agree that successful teaching is much more than a well-written lesson plan. So what I would like to see is s shift towards that “much more”, towards the actual teaching. I would like to see the observer and teacher discuss teacher’s PD needs and focus the observation aims accordingly. I would like the observer to see the real, everyday teacher, not the artificial machine conditioned by the one-off 10 page lesson plan.

This, however, would require a change in what the observations are used for, which at the moment is quality control and assessment. There’s little pre and post-observation reflection, let alone a meaningful and personalised PD action plan whose aims would stem from the observation. Surely, though, this is how observations should be used. For example:

  1. Pre-observation meeting where teacher and observer discuss teachers strengths, weaknesses and PD needs
  2. Observation
  3. Post-observation meeting where teacher and observer reflect on the lesson and agree on PD goals
  4. Teacher develops an action plan with the help of the observer and agree on the time frame, goals, action research tools, etc.
  5. Teacher carries out the action plan with support from the observer
  6. Observer and teacher meet to discuss the results of the action plan (possibly preceeded by an observation)
  7. Teacher continues working on all (or some of) the same developmental goals OR go back to point 1 to start a new cycle

So, no, I don’t think that a lesson plan reveals pedagogical abilities, nor that it determines the extent of teacher’s abilities. What it does do is reveal a profound detachment from how real planning is done. It overemphasizes a skill that we never use on a daily basis; a skill whose correlation with a successful lesson is yet to be proven. Long lesson plans are a fruitless, artificial, stressful and time-consuming exercise which rarely result in meaningful PD.

Our attitude to lesson plans is full of hypocrisy too. On the one hand, as teachers we produce long lesson plan each time we’re observed, because we are required to by the observer, even though we doubt whether they help us develop professionally, or deliver a more effective lesson. On the other hand, as observers, we expect adherence to one and only true attitude to planning, even though we know that it’s neither the only one, nor the best, nor the most practical or realistic one.

While the ability to plan is important and needs to be cultivated, we mustn’t forget about the countless other skills which a successful teacher needs. And to help the teacher develop them, we don’t need to see an agonizingly long lesson plan every time we observe a class.

Further reading:

The TEFL blame game continued

Last week I came across two posts which tried to pinpoint who is to blame for the working conditions English language teachers in TEFL/TESOL industry have to deal with. There are no doubt many things that are profoundly wrong with our industry. For example, low pay (apart from certain countries in Asia and the Middle East), sham contracts or discrimination NNESTs face. There are also the profit-oriented language schools, which are neither interested in their students’ progress, nor in the quality of their teachers. Finally, our industry is probably the only one I know of that only requires a 4-week teaching course to become a certified and qualified English professional (mind you, in many cases this isn’t necessary either – having been born in an English-speaking country will be enough).

So, who is to blame for the state TEFL/TESOL is in?

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/2QwtYd
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/2QwtYd

David Petrie in this post points the finger at ‘the market demand’. And so do many others in our profession, to be fair. Since I set up TEFL Equity Advocates to fight for equal employment rights for non-Native English Speaker Teachers (NNESTs), I’ve been told over and over again that the ones that I have to convince are the students. Or their parents. For it is the market that drives the supply.

I completely object to this line of thinking for several reasons. Firstly, it assumes that the market demand is omnipotent and can never be influenced by the supply or any outside factors. Clearly, though, there are examples of how an innovative and cutting edge product, or powerful advertising can shape what the market demands.

It also suggests that since nothing can be done, we should kick back and let the market rule our lives (and working conditions) – a very complacent and lazy ideology, to say the least. Again, it offers no solutions and relegates us to the roles of automata. A rather depressing thought.

Finally, this line of thought also doesn’t address the problem of the origin of the current market demand. Surely, students didn’t just wake up one day to say: From now on, we shall only be taught by Native English Speaker Teachers (NESTs); after which they went to the nearest school to demand exactly that. While I agree that students can and should be allowed to make free choices regarding their education, it is preposterous to assume that the industry and the supply has had nothing to do with shaping students’ preferences.

All in all, while the market is indeed a powerful force that can to a great extent shape any industry, it is not the whole story. There are laws which can be put in place to curb it. The industry can influence what the market wants and educate the customer. So, I definitely don’t think that to blame the market demand is the answer.

The other post on the TEFL blame game I read last week was written by Alex Case. He certainly comes up with a much more comprehensive list of those who should be to blame for the state of ELT which starts with governments, teaching associations, TEFL course providers, and finishes with students. I do agree with the accusations he makes in the post, however, in my opinion there’s a very important point missing from the list, which I think should have actually made it to the very top.

So who is to blame?

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/qbD2H7
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/qbD2H7

WE all are.

Of course, the teaching associations could do much more to support better working conditions. So could the governments. TEFL course providers could and should probably raise the standards, while language schools could stop employing teachers whose only ‘qualification’ is being a native speaker.

However, when was the last time you – yes, I mean YOU – have done anything to try to change your ELT lot? By the way, ranting in the pub after work doesn’t count.

I’m convinced that each of us is partly responsible for what ELT industry is like, or for not having done anything to change it. Teaching associations could indeed do much more. However, they are only the sum of their members, even if slightly greater than its parts. For example, IATEFL has never wanted to be involved in what it considered ‘polictics’, and might never change this stance unless there is a constant and mounting pressure from its members – and the outside ELT community – to act.

Language schools could also pay us decent wages and start valuing teachers based on how well they teach, not where they were born. However, it is futile to expect that they will do so out of good will or pity for our lot. They might, on the other hand, change their minds if we organised ourselves and stood up to them. Of course, nobody wants to lose their job, but then we shouldn’t complain that some employers use this fear against us.

Students and their parents could also realise that whether one is an English native speaker or not has nothing to do with how good a teacher you can be. This is like expecting a patient to get better by themselves while the doctor looks the other way. Students come to us because they don’t know how to learn a language and because they believe we can help them. As educators – if we ever want the ELT community to become a more equal one – we do have a moral responsibility to educate our clients out of prejudices about learning English they might have.

So – to paraphrase David Petrie’s conclusion to his post – if you really want someone to blame for the state of ELT, blame yourself.

And once you get over it, if you’re still bothered by working conditions in ELT, do something to bring about positive change.

Looking back – 2014 in review

It’s been a great blogging year. When I started a year ago on blogger, I never imagined that this blog would become so popular. And this would have never happened without YOU. So I would like to thank everyone for reading, commenting and following this blog. I hope to see you all here in 2015.

Happy New Year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 130,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 6 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Timelines in EFL – some tips

As you might have read in this post, two weeks ago I gave my first ever webinar. It was on different ways of concept checking. While preparing for it, I drew quite a few timelines and realised that I’d almost forgotten how to do this properly. Below is the first timeline that I drew.

Ive been living in Holland black

It’s fairly typical. We’ve all seen similar ones, and probably been guilty of drawing  a few too.

It’s also really boring! While it clarifies the target language, it makes you yawn right away.

So how can we improve it?

Tip #1 – add colours

Ive been living in Holland colours

Tip #2 – add symbols and use them consistently

I was watching football when

The symbols I usually use:

  • box to denote longer actions
  • ‘X’ to denote points in time
  • ‘—–‘ to denote actions that might continue in the future (see picture 1)
  • ‘?’ to denote we’re not sure when exactly an action happened (e.g. I’ve been to Spain 3 times)

Tip #3 – add pictures

I was watching football_pictures

If you’re as bad at drawing as I am, then the pictures will make your students laugh. And when you’re doing grammar, a bit of comic relief is just what the doctor ordered. You can also get the students to draw the pictures for you.

Tip #4 – add arrows

Ill buy pizza for lunch

Arrows are good for showing relationships between different events or points in time. For example, with this use of ‘will’ it is important for students to realise that the decision was made now (in contrast to ‘going to’, which if used for future intentions, suggests that the decision was made in the past).

Let’s practise:

Now it’s time to put it all into practice. Try drawing timelines for these two sentences:

  1. At 8pm on Monday I’ll be playing football .
  2. He realised he’d been drinking since Friday.

You can see my suggested timelines by clicking on the links below:

  1. Suggested answer – future continuous.
  2. Suggested answer – past perfect continuous.

Final suggestions:

  • use real-life examples AND
  • make the sentences meaningful and the language probable
  • OR use examples that might be amusing
  • get the students to draw timelines and put them up in the classroom as posters
  • draw blank timelines and get students to guess which action is which (this is what I would have done for the timeline in photo under Tip 2)
  • ask students for feedback to improve the quality of your timelines

If you have any comments or suggestions, please comment below. I’d love to hear from you whether you found these tips useful, and how you tend to use and draw timelines in the class.

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You might also like:

  1. Do you understand? – 7 ways of concept checking
  2. Checking understanding – practice
  3. Clarifying meaning
  4. Recycling vocabulary