On plateaus and coursebooks

One of the problems I’ve frequently addressed in my mind over the past few years are the coursebooks we use in our school. In the eight-year programme we offer (which the students can start attending at the age of 12), we work with two different sets of coursebooks consecutively. We start with level 2 of the first coursebook (elementary, A1-A2) and finish with level 5 (pre-intermediate, B1), which is the last level in the series. Then we switch to a different coursebook – more suitable for teenagers and more appropriate in terms of the goal we need to reach at the end of the programme, i.e. students being able to pass the final state exam. So, we switch to the pre-intermediate level (B1) and wind up with the other coursebook’s intermediate level (B2).

As you can see, in grade 5 of the programme, the students actually repeat the same level. In other words, while they’ve so far been going one level up each year, in grade 5, they stop and they are made to plateau for one year before we let them move a level up again. I’m not going to explain the reasoning behind this layout here and now because it’s not important for my case plus it would make the post too long.

Anyway, I realize that what I’ve said in the previous paragraph sounds a bit like the rules of a board game, which learning a foreign language is certainly not, and it definitely appears highly questionable, especially the use of ‘repeat’, ‘plateau’ and ‘let’.

In ELT terminology, the plateau stage often occurs at the intermediate level and refers to a period during which the learner “stops learning”.  Yi (2007) has described it as follows:

… as the learning process goes on, the learner finds it harder and harder to take in new language data. The teacher also finds that his input, no matter how much he or she tries to make it interesting, is no longer as easily taken in by the learners as it used to be. The students are more and more discouraged by the fact that their ambition of mastering English as a means of communication turns out to be a false assumption. They find that they know a lot about the English language, but they can hardly say they know English.

Although the process occurs naturally and automatically, and thus, it is an inevitable phase of learning, it has a rather negative connotation as well as detrimental effects, one of which is that this is the time when students’ motivation and the level of enthusiasm may drop dramatically.

Right, back to the coursebook issue. The problem I’m trying to address here is that while the final level of the first coursebook (B1) is quite dense content-wise (in terms of new grammar and vocabulary), the B1 level of the other coursebook may suddenly seem like a step back, especially to an ambitious student who wants to see a permanent rising trajectory of their L2 learning. So, while it would be quite natural and unsurprising for a student to plateau around grade 5 anyway, no matter the level of the coursebook, we practically intensify the effect by arranging for them to use a coursebook which actually makes it blatantly obvious that they are plateauing.

Now, I wonder whether it is totally bad or if, by any chance, there may be some positive side to it. What if we chose a higher level of the coursebook for the grade five students? Would it make a huge difference? Going back to the quote above, it probably wouldn’t because as we already know, when plateauing, the learner finds it harder and harder to take in new language data and the teacher also finds that his input, no matter how much he or she tries to make it interesting, is no longer as easily taken in by the learners as it used to be.

So, it’s probably not about the level of the coursebook anyway because repetition and recycling are not the enemies here. It’s about increasing students’ motivation and most of all, changing the optical illusion. In other words, it is the idea of the plateau ahead of you that is the problem. And since it’s not really possible to avoid or skip the arduous way through the plain, teachers should do their best to distract their students as much as possible. Let’s make the journey enjoyable. This stalling period may actually be the best opportunity to supplement the coursebook with interesting materials of your own choice and spice the lessons up with engaging tasks and projects you’ve always wanted to introduce but haven’t had time to. And if you are the type of teacher who would like to ditch the coursebook completely but can’t, you can finally enjoy yourself to the fullest. After all, you have plenty of time before you find yourself at the foot of another hill you’ll have to climb. Why not use it to your advantage?

References:

Yi, F. (2007) Yi, F. Plateau of EFL Learning: A Psycholinguistic and Pedagogical Study.

Richards, J.C, (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau, CUP

Collective feedback on written assignments

In this post I’d like to share one of my favourite ways of giving feedback on written assignments, which I’ve been practising for some time now and which has proved really useful and effective in my teaching context. I usually do this with intermediate classes but I believe it can work with lower levels too. This method is a classic one, nothing really revolutionary, plus no technology needs to be involved. However, I can’t think of any reason why it couldn’t become high-tech.

One of the questions that may pop up immediately is: How do you know that the method is effective? I can tell quite easily; students pay attention during the feedback presentation, and they constantly ask questions, make comments and ask for clarification. And although they are not able to avoid all the discussed errors in their next written assignment, I notice that they do eschew some. This, in my view, is hard evidence that the feedback hit the right note and that they have improved.

So what do I actually do? I teach classes of 10 up to 23 students.  When I correct and grade their written assignments, I always create a ‘collective feedback’ report in which I have collected the most frequent mistakes the students made. This means that a mistake is recorded only if it’s made by at least two students. I don’t pay attention to individual or rare errors because pointing to them when giving feedback to the whole class would not be too effective and it would also become time-consuming. Moreover, although I never mention the names of the students who made particular errors, if I picked a unique error, the author might easily recognise it and feel exposed and subsequently embarrassed. It’s just safer to refer to each error as something more people struggle with.

I should mention that one of the rare positives of teaching large classes is that the more numerous the class is, the more beneficial this type of feedback generally becomes, since in a class of 23 students, each student actually learns from 22 other people. This, quite obviously, wouldn’t be possible if you teach one to one.

An example of a collective feedback report, page 2
An example of a collective feedback report, page 1

Now, I should stress that it’s absolutely necessary to give this type of feedback before handing out the corrected assignments; otherwise it would be a complete waste of time. Each student would stare at his/her own essay without paying much attention to what I say about the other errors. So, the psychological effect of handing out the assignments after the feedback conclusions are out is clear – students listen carefully in an attempt to spot their own errors among the plethora of incorrect language items produced by their peers. This is desirable because even if Student A didn’t make the same mistake Student B made, this doesn’t mean that Student B’s error is not a potential area of difficulty for Student A. Also, during the feedback time, students are trying to figure out what mark they got by ticking off and counting the mistakes that are presumably theirs. This keeps them in suspense and when they finally get the assignments back, they are ready to accept the grade without feeling too disappointed. In other words, they get mentally prepared for the outcome, which may be less painful than if you just served an E straight away.

To sum up, I believe that this method is more cognitively challenging for your students than just giving out corrected essays with individual feedback reports on them. Also, it may be motivating for the weaker learners to see that they are not the only ones who make mistakes. There’s another advantage to this approach; this kind of feedback is a great tool for monitoring the class’s progress. You can always look back at the previous reports and see what some of the recurrent problems are. Having said that, it’s highly beneficial to store all the reports, either digitally or in a paper file, because then you can compare class A with class B, for example, and see what your next steps should be in case you want to help your students make progress or avoid failure.