Wednesday, 17 September 2014 10:11

Intermediate Plateau

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So often I see students who once were sprinting through the levels becoming becalmed at Intermediate to the extent that it seems they have lost the motivation to continue. I’ve been thinking about this and do not profess to have the answers, but here are some thoughts I’ve been having. Looking forward to sharing ideas with you.

Firstly a quick definition. Richards (2008) in his ‘Moving Beyond Plateau’ short book identifies the following, as features of students stuck in the intermediate plateau:

1.  There is a gap between receptive and productive competence.

2.  Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity.

3.  Learners have a limited vocabulary range.

4.  Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech.

5. There are persistent, fossilized language errors.

Course books are a mainstay for most schools. Students have been through the drill and know what’s coming next; probably they feel as uninspired as me when they look at what’s coming up. So rather than a text on house styles in different countries, I supplement and have students comparing house designs from noted Australian builders, creating their own, and doing presentations fast, fast fast! The point is the order of language presentation, set up a task get the students working on it, assuming they have had some exposure to the target language and then deal with needs as they arise – let the task demand the language. This may help to address issues of productive competence by teasing out the areas of need. This puts the teacher in a more dynamic role in which they act as a resource or at times a diagnostician of needs.

At the other end of the scale, I wonder if I have become too enamoured of the top down approach to receptive listening skills lessons. Do students benefit from tasks, which focus on inferring meaning as much as they do on actually hearing specific words and identifying them to complete a text – a bottom up approach? If the students identify specific language, is this a concrete challenge that they can recognise and apply themselves too? By recreating the task I can help students to notice chunks of language that are actually useful. If I then do a speaking exercise in which they replicate and then produce the language themselves, then I am aiding the students’ ability to develop their productive language.

Doing more with texts can also help to get a deeper response from students and aid their memory. Some of my colleagues have been using dictogloss a lot and this activity forces students to notice chunks of language and create meaning around them. In listening to the text being read, working first individually and then in a group, students are forced to draw on their existing resources and extend themselves when they have a gap in their knowledge.

So far I have been leading the horse to water. But what of the student what will it take for them to drink deeply of my thoughtful suggestions?! Use the technology, I say. Have students use a device and record themselves speaking, let them critically assess their use of language in a speaking exercise. Let them give a one-minute talk on a topic and assess their use of language. Make the students get a decent dictionary app on their phones and get them to use Notes or the like to record new vocabulary.

Students have done so well to reach an intermediate level, but if your students are anything like ours most of them are bound for university at some stage and they need a bit of a push to expand their vocabulary and productive language. What do you do to push your students/ Love to hear from you?


Antony Atkinson
Academic Manager Teacher Training


Richards, Jack. C 2008 Moving Beyond the Plateau- From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning Cambridge University Press


Read 260698 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 September 2014 10:20


  • Comment Link Marco Wednesday, 15 February 2017 05:44 posted by Marco

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  • Comment Link Antony Atkinson Wednesday, 03 December 2014 07:39 posted by Antony Atkinson

    Xav you have a great perspective to view learning English. I agree that consciously working on errors can help and this puts the teacher in the role of diagnostician and supporter. One question isn't "creating natural situations" a contradiction in terms? How does that sit with Dogme? Haha!

    Rebecca, excellent point regarding the teaching plateau. How can teachers stay excited and ambitious to develop? This is not a clock in clock off job!

  • Comment Link xav Tuesday, 02 December 2014 15:41 posted by xav

    Antony, I'm happy you have raised this topic as I have always been interested in this issue myself.

    Having learnt English as a second language, I have experienced this too.

    Regarding feature 1: I don't recognize this as much with Western learners but very much with Asian learners. I guess this is largely due to the fact that in many cultures making mistakes and losing face is an issue.

    Regarding feature 2 and 3: I feel these two are connected and something I have experienced as a learner myself. Working with lexical grids, looking more at vocabulary and synonyms in context is beneficial here. Using lexical grids is very useful here. For me, and many others, learning vocabulary lists has been extremely useful too, why has this gone out of fashion?

    Regarding 4: The key here I feel is creating natural situations students are familiar with and interested in so that there is more of a need to use natural language. Role-plays and excursions are good ways of dealing with this.

    Regarding 5: Students need to take responsibility for this as well as teachers. Students need to become aware of frequent fossilized errors by analyzing their own writing and by being given personalized feedback. Teachers than should provide practice and reference materials to the student so that they then can work on it in their own time and go over any questions they might have with their teacher.

    I have seen some other interesting ideas on this blog of dealing with the Intermediate Plateau and look forward to seeing more!

  • Comment Link Rebecca Monday, 01 December 2014 20:39 posted by Rebecca

    Hi Everyone,
    This was an interesting read, and the first thing I want to say is that I do not think this "condition" is limited to only intermediate students. I have definitely had students at advanced levels who have shown the symptoms that Richards and Atkinson mention.
    Secondly, I also find that dictogloss works well in both intermediate and advanced classes. Stronger students can help the weaker ones while consolidating their own understanding of the language. Noticing patterns in a language you are learning is essential, and I am positive that anyone who has learnt a second, third, or even fourth language will agree.
    Another thing that came to mind while reading the original blog and the comments that followed was something that recently came up in the staff room. Upon talking about the Intermediate Plateau, some of the teachers joked that there appears to be a similar plateau for teachers as well. It seems that many teachers reach a point in their career where they begin to feel comfortable with grammar, vocabulary, and other language points that are covered at the intermediate level. Unfortunately, the longer they remain there, the harder it seems for them to feel confident enough to teach higher levels. I found this conversation quite interesting, as it pointed out that we, as teachers, have something in common with our students: sometimes we need a gentle push and some assurance.

  • Comment Link Antony Atkinson Monday, 24 November 2014 17:00 posted by Antony Atkinson

    Bruce I think you have identified a great way ahead. For too long, we have farmed out the meeting of needs to coursebooks and more coursebooks. We tend then to view students in very homogeneous terms and don't identify needs and points for development. Radically, what you are proposing is to actually play what's in front of you and teach to that reality. You might be onto something.

  • Comment Link Antony Atkinson Thursday, 06 November 2014 15:22 posted by Antony Atkinson

    I suppose it might be a case of students facing new measurements for what is deemed to be acceptable language. formal studies may be a somewhat more abstract idea than the plain functionality of getting what you want by use of simple language. how can we help to make academic language come alive - or set the fire?

  • Comment Link Lisa Barbagiovanni Thursday, 06 November 2014 14:59 posted by Lisa Barbagiovanni

    Hi Antony, I agree about the dilemma between bottom up /down approach. Do we just create fluent users - i.e get by in the real world? This type of teaching is great for those who will use English in their daily lives, but it doesn't work for students who are going onto more formal studies. They need to have a sound grasp of English syntax, which is the main area where students struggle. I see many students achieving the IELTS 5.5/6.0. That seems easy enough to get, but they have no control over language at all!! Why is that?


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