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Hello there,

I received a question today asking for help with frustrated intermediate English learners who feel stuck on a plateau, and their jobs are on the line if they don’t improve.  Here’s the full question and my advice:

“I bought your book “ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults” about a year ago, and I just wanted to say how much I love it. I have found it very useful. Both my students and I really appreciate it.  But I only have the students for 2 hours a week and they are trying desperately to get to an advanced level.  For some of them, their jobs are on the line.  I feel a bit of pressure to make sure they improve.

I know that it is not fully my responsibility, but I do want to help them as much as I can. Some of them feel like they are stuck at their level, and that they will never improve. The mistakes they make are usually minor (not producing the final “s”, or incorrectly producing the final “ed”, etc.), but they know that these mistakes are important to master. They are also trying to really master all of the verb tenses, but they are finding it quite overwhelming.

They asked me if I have any advice for them on how to improve. The truth is, I don’t really know what to tell them…can you give me some advice?”

It sounds as though your students are looking for a magic pill to float up to an advanced level.  There’s no single magic pill but there are daily vitamins that can improve your health and that’s how to look at language acquisition and mastery – a daily process.

Here are actions I recommend in order of priority:

1. Read in English. Read whatever they can, be it novels, a magazine, the newspaper, it doesn’t matter. Whatever subject they like they should read about it in English. Constant reading in English helps all aspects of language sink in and is particularly useful for grammar, and those verb tenses they are struggling with.  There is no need to look up words that students don’t know, the key thing is to understand the overall meaning and absorb the syntax, grammar and expressions.  Reading well-written English leads to mastery.

2. Keep a notebook and learn ten new words a day, these words can be verb tenses and short phrases, not just vocabulary words. On day one learn ten new words. The words are written in English on the left and the native language on the right. Cover the English side and say the words down the list. Keep doing it until the list of ten is known perfectly without looking once for a reminder.  Know how to say the words and how to spell them.

The next day the student learns ten more words and revises the ten from the day before. Keep going all week and on the 7th day the student learns ten new words, ten from the day before and revises ten from the week before. And then at one month the student looks at 40 words, ten new, ten from the day before, ten from the week before and ten from the month before.

That works!

Basically there is no way around it, the more effort students put in the more they will get out of those two hours in English class.

3. Watch any TV or movies in English.

4. Favour listening to music in English and learn all the lyrics.

And in the English classes I would focus on speaking as much as you can because the students can read and write in their own time and for homework, but  often the only place they can speak English is in your class.

Let me know your thoughts and add any of your own ideas!

All the best

Shelly Ann Vernon

PS The book referred to at the top of the post is this one: http://www.teachingenglishgames.com/esl-for-adults  It’s on Amazon as a paperback too.