If you want to motivate a student, don’t call them “Advanced”

I’ve worked in a bunch of TEFL schools in my time, and they all use more or less the same system of categorizing their students. Beginner – Elementary – Pre-intermediate – Intermediate – Upper Intermediate – Advanced. Students take an entrance test and get put in a class with students of the same level. As they improve, their teacher decides if they’re ready to move up, and when they leave, they get a certificate with their leaving level on it. Some students need to go home with a certain level on their certificate. Since this is pretty much up to their teacher’s discretion, they quite often stay behind after class to discuss needing to move up. This is known among TEFL teachers as the “please teacher I move up level now I know grammar” problem, and it’s one of the two things you can guarantee TEFL teachers will moan about. The other one is students who arrive more than ten minutes late. Really, it’s a pretty low stress job.

This system works well for differentiating the students. There’s a range of textbooks designed for each level and you can usually plan the same lesson for all the students in the class, with some minor tweaking for the stronger and less strong students. This is noticeably different from, say, secondary school, where classes are often mixed ability, and teachers have to differentiate a lot more. Teacher/writers like Phil Beadle (read “How to Teach” – he’s great) have noted that when you teach six mixed ability classes in one day, you are left with an almost impossible task of properly differentiating them. If you were to do it right, you’d need to plan a high / middle / low level sub-lesson for each actual lesson, just so that each student is challenged, but not challenged too much. Eighteen lessons, if my maths serves me right. Not going to happen. (Secondary school teaching is a high-stress job.)

Anyway. One way the TEFL system doesn’t work is that when you reach the top, you get less motivated. Students towards the lower end of the scale tend to be more motivated. Upper Intermediate has always been my favourite level to teach because they’ve still got this motivation, but they can speak English well enough to get my jokes. Advanced students should probably be training for an exam just to keep them going, but I can understand why they wouldn’t want to. By that level, a lot of the grammar is tedious and anally retentive. They can communicate fairly seamlessly, and since communication is pretty much why language exists in the first place, it’s hard to know why they’d want to become “perfect”. Curiosity about the language, maybe.

My experience at my new job has been different. Some of my students are getting ready to do a Masters, others to do a Bachelors, and others to start a pre-bachelors foundation course. It seems to make more sense to study a language in this context. For nothing else, it stops you feeling like you’ve reached the top.

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