Experiences of an English Language Teacher

“Getting off the Intermediate Plateau”: ELT Chat Summary

Picture tweeted by @AlexandraKouk
ELT Chat Summary: Part 1
A few weeks ago, 22 May 2013, ELT Chat discussed the topic about all things related to teaching the Intermediate learner.  However, this day was special as both the 1pm and 9pm (GMT) focused solely on the issue of an Intermediate Plateau.  It was the first time that I had discovered an ELT Chat discussion on Twitter focus on a particular topic for the whole day.  This blog post will summarise the two discussions which occurred during this day and provides some practical advice for teachers facing Intermediate learners who reach that lack of motivation, conviction and interest in their language learning.
@Marisa_C started the discussion off by welcoming everyone to the “#ELTChat on intermediate learners stuck on the famous plateau” .  However, what could be defined as an Intermediate Learner and how do they get stuck, feeling like they just aren’t making any progress?  Most people decided to answer this question by sharing their ideas about the length of period a student may study for until the ‘famous plateau’ emerges.  Some suggestions included:

“I’ve had students in Korea that would love to be intermediate plateau or not after 15 years of study” – @michaelegriffin

“For me, my sts reached that intermediate plateau after about 3 years of English (about 320 hours)” – @OUPELTGlobal

“In Greece they may have studied for anything between 4-6 yrs – not good huh? but kids” – @Marisa_C

It was clear that the majority of learners, who had been studying English for any great length of period, would ultimately face a ‘plateau’ of some sorts.  Some tweets suggested that this was a natural part of learning, while others viewed a ‘plateau’ not dependent upon the length a learner had studied English:

“Perhaps what defines the plateau feeling can’t be measured in language skills proficiency or years but in lack of progress” – @AlexandraKouk

“Right or wrong, I’ve always thought of the plateau as sts needing to USE the English they’ve learned and not being able to” – @OUPELTGlobal

“the sense that you’ve ‘done it all’ is what can be so frustrating – maybe it’s about starting to see patterns and make connections” – @KatySDavies

It was very clear that there was some connection that the feeling of a ‘plateau’ or being ‘stuck-in-a-rut’ was natural and was related to the feeling of ‘lacking any progress’, ‘not applying knowledge’ or ‘completing everything in class but unable to communicate outside the class’.  Therefore, what is the best way of dealing with the possibility of an intermediate plateau?  There were a number of suggestions:

“They need to improve independent learning skills and not only English lang skills.” – @andrea_rivett

“Interdisciplinary as a key to get off the plateau? Must use the language to learn some other subject.” – @touqo

“but sometimes Ss are mistaken about the cause of some of their issues and also a big part of the job is managing expectations” – @KatySDavies

“students need to see practical relevance of language to their lives in order to progress – if not, they stay in the same place” – @pjgallantry

“Needs to be more focus not just on using authentic materials but how language is used authentically” – @KatySDavies

From some of the tweets during the discussion that much of the way to deal with a plateau is to develop independent learning skills, using and monitoring language in ‘real-life’ circumstances, developing a focus away from the ‘grammar delivery’ of coursebooks and bringing in the ‘real-world’, as well as an element of authenticity, into the classroom.  There was a focus on Task-Based Learning (TBL) for the curbing of possible plateaus and as @AlexandraKouk mentioned, “using more TBL or project work may help ss realise how much they can do with the lang they’ve got”.  An interesting observation was made by @pjgallantry in reference to extensive reading: “from my experience, students who do more reading on their free time seem to make far greater strides”.
There was growing emphasis on the use of ‘learner diaries’, which could also include the use of portfolios, to develop and raise student awareness of language learning and the noting of learning from their day-to-day activities.  It is self-evident, these days in the classroom, that there is greater effort for those learners, at an intermediate level of English (or any other level to be honest), which are expected to have developed more autonomous learning skills.  Yet, many teachers expect most of their learners to be able to acquire the functions of autonomous learning in a more automatic fashion.  At our language school, there is a specific day of the week where adult learners focus on particular study skills: using a dictionary, noticing more authentic material (photos, pamphlets, etc) to bring into class, how to note down newly acquired vocabulary, etc.  This is really aimed for learners at any level and to encourage more autonomous learning and developing language development portfolios which can be reviewed or amended whenever necessary as well as focus on learner training.  These study skills activities were further considered important during the ELT Chat discussion with many contributors detailing examples of suitable study skill focus:

“A typical trait of good lang learners is that they like to use diagrams etc to organise their learning” – @Marisa_C

“developing skills like guessing the meaning of words from context important to give them confidence to read more alone” – @KatySDavies

Nearer the end of the first ELT Chat discussion of the day, some points were raised that learners had to notice their progress and a good indication included:
  • a student wiki page;
  • developing student portfolios (online or offline);
  • moving away from the coursebook towards more reactionary teaching with the focus on the learners (I think Dogme was mentioned once during the discussion); and
  • negotiating around the syllabus and content (getting the learners more involved in the) with the coursebook.

By this time, the ELT Chat had finished.  Many contributors had a break from the discussion, later to return and contribute towards the evening discussion

ELT Chat Summary: Part 2
The second part of the ELT Chat on plateaus started promptly at 21:00 (GMT) with a definition of a ‘plateau’ as being “working hard but not getting anywhere” (@Marisa_C) while another suggested there was more to this than previously explained such as “the feeling that you’re not getting anywhere. It may not be true, but it feels like it” (@theteacherjames).  @sandymillindid mention that some of the learners that she encounters don’t seem to get out of this plateau and the exposure to language in the UK “hasn’t helped some of them leave the plateau! … fear of natives?”.  There were some other examples about what could cause plateaus with learners from various contributors which included:

“Maybe the problem then is how stds are measuring their progress?” – @mattellman

“Being stuck in the same level for ages can make SS really lose motivation, despite their progress” – @sandymillin

“As they progress, it becomes much harder for them to notice real improvements.” – @theteacherjames

With the three above tweets, each contributor suggested that there needs to be some evidence of ‘progress’.  Yet, determining progress and getting learners more aware of progress was mentioned in the earlier discussion. @leoselivan mentioned that progress should not be just ‘vertical’ (from Intermediate to Upper Intermediate) but should also be more ‘horizontal’.  For example, recycling and reviewing language and areas of study as well as visualising learner aims and objectives for their future.  There was also mention of the Common European Framework (known as the CEF or CEFR) in determining levels and progress with the ‘can-do’ statements.  However, with the CEF/CEFR, the distinction between B1 (Intermediate) and B2 (Upper Intermediate) levels can be regarded as “an impossible gap to bridge” (@leoselivan).  I suppose an intermediate level could be “such a broad term that students get lost there and some start to give up” and getting learners “involved in the aims of the course … could motivate them” (@MichaelaCarey).  Naturally, there is the paradigm between following a framework as endorsed by the British Council compared to reactive, reflective and independent methods of teaching which could be more beneficial for learners.
Nearer the ‘30 minute-mark’ of the discussion, contributors started sharing important ideas which could move learners beyond the intermediate plateau.  Although mentioned briefly during the earlier ELT Chat discussion, some new ideas cropped up:

“Fellow students are an important factor in motivation, not just the teacher.  Students need good classmates to help them progress” – @mattellman

“Use their [student’s] own writing activities [at the beginning] … and them ask them to improve it at the end [of the course].  Compare the difference” – @theteacherjames

It is evident that there appears to be a distinction between authentic interaction and the distant placed from the classroom.  @sandymillin mentioned that her learners feel unmotivated when they are interacting with ‘real people in the street’ and are unable understand due to their accent.  So the question remains, is there a greater divide between the CEF/CEFR on their ‘can-do’ statements and language skills (pronunciation, listening, etc)?  Despite the improvements of syllabus design with the CEF/CEFR, there is still a widening bridge between language production and language skills.  Much of what determines the ‘intermediate plateau’ is determined from language production and perhaps as educators, we should start to consider the use of supplementing coursebooks with study skills, language skills, or learner training through the use of appropriate methodology and approaches in language teaching.
Various links were recommended during the day of the ELT Chat discussion and these included the following:


  1. Jack

    Going from A1 to B1 can be done quite quickly under the correct circumstances, even without immersion. Going from B1 to C2 takes much longer under those same circumstances.

    The intermediate plateau is perceived to be there because a student expects that doing the same things to get to that level are needed to reach an advanced level. But all of the basic grammar and simple vocabulary suddenly becomes much more nuanced, flexible, and complex.

    Thinking that you are half-way to fluency (as described by the CEFR) when you are at a B1 level is misleading.

  2. totally agree iam currently A2 in spanish and battling B1 and even that level is doing it to me now iam almost half way in B1 which took forever to reach and now iam learning even slower i guess what really has helped me to keep going is enjoying the learning experience loving the language lessons and setting goals. 2014 will be my 3rd year of study i hope some day to be at intermediate level

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