Preparing Intermediate and Advanced Learners for EAP Studies: More than a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

robyn_brinks_ps (1)Robyn Brinks Lockwood, with Sara Davila


One challenge facing instructors in second language programs today is providing a course that will be challenging and rigorous enough to ensure that students are prepared quickly and appropriately for their content classes at English-speaking universities. Perhaps students will only have one session in an EAP course to work on improving reading and writing to keep up with content for their degrees. Or maybe students need to take two or three classes to achieve an appropriate level of English language mastery to even be admitted into a university. Regardless, the role of the English language teacher in this environment is critical to a learner’s success in a degree program. The most effective teachers will be prepared to provide content that is appropriate and authentic to get learners on the college track and prepare them to meet and exceed expectations in their content programs.

Teachers can only provide such content when there is a clear understanding of what learners need to learn at this level. Students at this level often demonstrate a high degree of oral proficiency and can maintain and extend discourse with native speakers fairly fluently, so teachers often feel that they are already advanced enough to succeed in an L1 setting.

Despite this high degree of proficiency in speaking, these students struggle with reading and writing, especially lengthy, textbook chapter-length readings and writing assignments beyond the five-paragraph essay. The challenges may look similar enough to what teachers already recognize as problems for L2 learners; in other words, it is tempting to say the learners are all high-intermediate or even advanced and design a program accordingly. To do this, though, ignores the difference in proficiency between learners at these more advanced levels and fails to take students to the level they need to successfully survive in an L1 setting where they interact with L1 speakers rather than as part of a classroom where everyone is an L2 learner. In order to develop the ideal program, it helps to first define the differences between our highly skilled learners. Continue reading

Is Your Content Challenging Your Learners?

Sara DavilaSara Davila

Learning Without Progress

I worked overseas for a number of years in a variety of settings, spending the longest time in Korea with students at almost every point on their language learning journey from kindergarten to university. One thing that was always fascinating to me was how much time learners devoted to language study versus what little progress they would make over the years. When I asked my A2-level university class how many years they had spent studying English, a majority of students reported that they spent roughly 10 years learning English, many in private schools or with private tutors. It was an alarming amount of study devoted to learning a language with little progress made. At the time I found myself asking why and dug in a bit more to understand the problem. Countless hours of research, interviews, and analysis of course materials later, I came to the conclusion that my students were never challenged beyond what they could do. Once they had achieved a certain ability, much like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, every English class was a constant repetition of information my students had already learned. With this in mind, it becomes even more important for teachers to have a sense of their learners’ level of ability so that they can provide content that will appropriately challenge learners in the classroom.

Content Creation and Challenge

In my last blog I spent a lot of time talking about communicating students’ ability to perform in English. To recap, using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), we can give a quick, easy-to-understand, description of learner performance using a validated, publicly available scale. When talking to colleagues and peers in the field I no longer say my students are “low-intermediate.” I say they are “B1.” For those in the know, this provides a great deal more information about what a teacher can expect students to be able to do in the classroom. The Global Scale of English (GSE) allows me to get even more specific about the skills and abilities of my students by providing a data-driven teacher-calibrated bank of descriptors in three distinct categories: General Adult English, Academic English, and Professional (Business) English. Continue reading

Communicating Performance:
What does “intermediate” mean to you?

Sara Davila Sara Davila

A few years ago, one of my colleagues asked to come observe one of my sophomore conversation classes. I’d been talking in the break room about work I was doing to incorporate more collaborative task-based activities with a truncated, or completely eliminated, presentation. Basically, the students walked in, got into their learning teams, took the activity package for the day and got to work. This intrigued many and encouraged a few requests for observation. After colleagues watched the class, I got nothing but praise but also heard the following: “I could never do this with my students. You’re working with intermediate learners.” This was actually really interesting to me at the time, as I had just started using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to better evaluate my students. I clarified, that my students were at best A2 learners working toward A2+, not quite intermediate, but more high-beginner. This lead into an entirely different discussion about how we talk about students’ level of ability and the words we use to communicate proficiency.

One of the greatest challenges in language teaching continues to be communicating student performance. Given that the name of the language teaching game is communication, this is perhaps the biggest irony. While the underlining pedagogy of language teaching has changed radically in the last 30 years, many teachers still describe their students in terms of “beginner” “intermediate” or “advanced.” These general catchall terms only occasionally function as indicators of performance, largely due to interpretation. One teacher’s “beginner” is another’s “intermediate”. In the U.S. especially, the challenge of communicating student ability is hindered by a lack of universal reporting systems between EAPs, IEPs, colleges, and universities. It’s a challenge for everyone involved with language acquisition: teachers, students, and administrators. Where should a student go to receive instruction that will be optimal for their language needs?

The few measures we have that would communicate what a student can do with language aren’t perfect.  Far too often I meet a teacher who was faced with a classroom of students who all had exceptional scores on language tests, but were completely incapable of authentic communication in a classroom environment.  A test alone is simply not enough to indicate ability to perform. On top of that, tests fail to help us roadmap for a student’s strengths and weakness, which can be used to create a learning journey supportive of a learner’s needs.

It was this very challenge that lead to research conducted by the Council of Europe, which was used to create one of the first universal measures for communicating learner performance in language proficiency (though not strictly performance in English language proficiency. That tool is called the Common European Framework of Reference, or the CEFR (Council of Europe, 2001). For anyone that interacts with language, this is a truly amazing resource. Continue reading