Teaching higher levels (Upper-Intermediate +)

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Have you ever taught Upper-Intermediate or Advanced students? If so, you probably know that it can be a super-demanding task! For the last few years, I’ve been focusing especially on teaching higher levels of English to ESL & EFL students all over the world, and I’m happy to share a few tips.

Dealing with high expectations

Teaching higher levels involves working with students who already know English quite well, and they often have various goals for their language skills. Make sure to identify those right away! I’ve made this mistake before: I was unaware that students of higher levels do have many more expectations from the teacher and the lessons. After all, they’ve already spent years studying and improving their language and they usually know a lot already!

Make sure to find out exactly what your students expect from the classes with you, try not to promise them a huge improvement within a few months (this is only possible at the earlier levels).

Try a more involved approach: instead of just giving a topic or following a textbook, gather suggestions from your students directly (you’ll usually be surprised that they can even design a rough curriculum for you!).  You can prepare a list of various ESL topics and aspects you plan to cover in a course or within a certain time. Discuss these topics during one of your 1st classes together and get valuable feedback from your student(s).

Always prepare for your lessons well! I recommend using a teacher’s guide and going through the unit on your own. This will ensure that you know exactly what to do next and have no awkward pauses during your class. Another great tip is to always have an extra activity or a worksheet at hand. Quite often do higher-level students blast through the material in no time, leaving the teacher creating some activities on the go. Unless you are an extremely experienced teacher with a bunch of ideas at hand, I suggest you have extra worksheets: open questions, discussional quotes or statements, pictures to describe work super-well!

Choosing the right ESL materials

This one is tough: should you follow a certain textbook? If so, which one? How can you use authentic sources properly? Which exercises work best and which ones don’t? The questions go on and on…

Firstly, there is nothing wrong with using a great textbook (no matter how some “experts” try to convince you so!). The modern ones are specially designed to be a challenge to most students, even the wittiest.

Check out my list of TOP 5 ESL study books.

Now, when it comes to authentic sources, you have to choose carefully. You might easily pick something too easy and your students will rush through your prepared 1-hour lesson in 15 minutes. An overly difficult content will require much pre-teaching (especially vocabulary) and may be incomprehensible in the end. My advice would be to choose the most reliable sources: TED Talks, BBC News or something similar.

Another great tip that works wonders is asking students themselves to find authentic content. They will most likely find the right content for their interests and language level. And it’s a great home task too 😊

Classroom confidence

Many new ESL teachers may feel huge stress with higher-level groups or individuals. What if I don’t know the meaning of some word and my student asks me about it? What if I make a mistake in my speech and students notice it? What if someone knows more than I do about the lesson topic?

Of course, these situations are quite possible and are rather uncomfortable. But that’s part of the game! Remember, an ESL teacher is not Google – sometimes we don’t know something, and that’s OK. Stay calm and cool and simply confess that you’ve forgotten the meaning of a word (or didn’t know in the 1st place). The same thing when you make an accidental mistake – allow your students to correct you at times, or even ask them if they noticed your mistake or not. I know it feels awkward and embarrassing, but trust me, at higher levels, students are more demanding, but also more forgiving. I’ve searched for unknown vocabulary together with my students occasionally, and it’s a great exercise for them in fact! It also makes them more confident: by your example, they learn that one does not have to know it all to be a great English user.

Dealing with specific requests

At higher levels, there is a great chance that a student or a group will ask for more than just General English. Some may need English for working in an international company, and thus Business English may be a request. Others might work in a particular industry (such as IT) and ask you to teach English connected to it. Tests, such as IELTS or TOEFL are also quite a common goal for ESL students of higher levels. Check out our post about teaching IELTS Speaking!

In general, I recommend an open dialogue with the student(s). If you haven’t worked with medical English, it’s best to tell the truth right away, rather than agreeing to a curriculum you are not familiar with. Simply say that you’re happy to improve their English and perhaps include more related topics, but you’re not an expert in the field and therefore cannot give them a scientific lecture. I’ve never met an ESL teacher who can teach technical English well, prepare for IELTS professionally and be an expert in legal English at the same time.

We all find our niches of interests and focus on them: I, for instance, have been focusing on preparing my students for exams as of late, and I do not have any experience with medical English or aviation English.

Teaching higher levels can be a challenge, but an exciting one for sure!

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