Friday, October 25, 2013

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part I: The Gap Between Production and Reception

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I was recently reading the magazine, “Runner’s World,” and I came across an article called “Reboot, Refresh” about plateauing. The article basically points out that “every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off.” Apparently this plateauing is inevitable, and it is easy (at least for a slowpoke like me) to understand how a straight, climbing trajectory of improvement would be physically impossible.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the plateaus that frustrate runners’ dreams of personal bests and the plateaus that we notice in our students’ English development. Just as “[o]ver the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys – and flat lines in between,” I have noticed my students’ English skills grow, recede and stagnate. In my experience, this leveling off seems to happen when students are trying to move from Intermediate level to Advanced. Many of them simply give up, deciding that their language skills are sufficient for their purposes. But, some struggle on, and eventually they become advanced and then proficient users of English. So, what made the difference for those students? How do some students make it through plateaus and what can I do to help?

With those questions in mind, I did what we all do these days; I Googled “ESL plateau.” Luckily, greater minds than mine have focused on this phenomenon. Jack Richards has even written a short book on the topic, “Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning.” Richards helpfully breaks plateauing down into 5 common problems and suggests steps teachers can take. Although I found the entire book useful, I wanted to summarize his suggestions for those who don’t have time to read it for themselves.

The Gap between Reception and Production

Richards points out that “[l]earners may have made considerable progress in listening comprehension and reading, but still feel inadequate when it comes to speaking skills. As a French learner, I feel their pain. I can often understand, at least, the gist of what I hear and read, but I am very nervous about speaking, knowing that my grammar will inevitably be wrong and my vocabulary will be imprecise. Richards suggests that a combination of “noticing” and “focused output” can be useful to help students overcome this problem associated with plateauing. First, he recommends that teachers provide students with activities that prompt them to “notice” target structures, as this is the basis for language development. For instance, after doing a listening comprehension activity, have students return to the text for a more focused look at the language used.

Try this for 30 Days!

Helen Solorzano explained how to do this in her part of the panel discussion, “Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension,” at TESOL this past year in Dallas, Texas. She suggested using a video clip from Ted Talks to encourage students to focus on what is said, how it is said and what is not said. She used a great clip where Matt Cutts, a Google bigwig, talks about trying something new for 30 days. It’s interesting, accessible for upper intermediate students, and very inspirational. First, to help students understand what is being said, she suggests identifying vocabulary and language students may find difficult by running the transcript through, as well as pulling out idiomatic and other interesting language for student attention. As students listen to the speaker and read the transcript, the teacher points out these words and phrases and discusses the meanings. For instance, in the Ted Talk, Cutts says he was “stuck in a rut”. Certainly, though not essential to understanding the gist of the listening, this phrase presents a perfect opportunity for closer scrutiny.

Second, Solorzano argues that teachers need to spend time in the lesson addressing how things are said. In other words, we need to emphasize the importance of discourse markers (reformulations and hedges, for example), stance markers (phrases that show certainty, likelihood, and attitude) and interesting pronunciation patterns in the organization of a text. For instance, Cutts contrasts how time generally tends to “fly by forgotten,” when he was doing a 30 day challenge, the time was “much … more … memorable.” In other words, he pauses slightly between each word. Those pauses didn’t happen by accident. He wasn’t trying to figure out what to say next. They are there for a reason, and Solorzano would have us challenge the students to guess what message those pauses might be sending.

Third, she contends that students need to think about what is not being said. Specifically, it is helpful to discuss cultural references that may not be immediately clear to them. Other useful focal points also include pictures, gestures and other inferences. Again, they may not be necessary for overall comprehension, but to help students “notice” language, these kinds of discussions can be useful. For example, in Cutts’ talk, he refers to meeting John Hodgman at a party. I had no idea who that was until Solorzano told us he was the guy who used to play the PC in those Mac vs PC commercials a few years ago. It turns out he is a prolific writer. Anyway, even though knowing who John Hodgman is won’t immediately catapult Upper Intermediate students into becoming Advanced English users, this kind of systematic “noticing” of language will.

Focus on Output

Richards also argues that teachers need to offer opportunities for “focused output.” The way I understand it, this is a bit different from the communicative output that has become popular in language classrooms around the world years ago. Rather than just encouraging students to talk without a care for accuracy, “focused output” is supposed to enhance fluency by providing practice activities that stimulate automaticity. In other words, Advanced language users don’t think about what they want to say word by word, they think in chunks of speech. Students who have the chance to “practice” the same chunks over and over are more likely to remember them and use them automatically.

One way of providing this practice is in conversation circles. One of my former co-workers from Howard Community College used to do this activity with her students. When she first described it, I thought, “How dull.” But, now I soon learned that this kind of repetition was far from that for her students. For homework the night before, the students prepared notes about a topic. The teacher then had half the class make a circle and then the other half made a bigger circle around the inner circle so each person in the inner circle had a partner in the outer circle. They then talked about their topic for 3 minutes. After the 3 minute time period was up, the outer circle shifted to the left and each person came face to face with a new partner with whom they spoke about their topic for 2 minutes. Then, the outer circle shifted again, and the speakers had 1 minute to speak about their topic. The idea is that the students speak again and again on the same topic, giving them much needed access to automaticity.

Georgis, A. (2013) Reboot, refresh, Runner’s World, June 2013.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Solorzano, H. (2013) Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension, paper presented at TESOL 2013, Dallas Texas.


Comment from Eddie Thomas
November 4, 2013 at 4:15 am

Hi! Your observations are also true with my students. They find speaking as the most difficult.Probably because they don’t have much exposure with speaking English. They are very good in grammar but struggle in speaking.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 4, 2013 at 4:33 am

Thanks for your comment! I hope some of these suggestions help.

Comment from Dominique
November 11, 2013 at 8:37 am

Dear Tamara,
Thanks for your post. I like the idea of the conversation circles. I think it could also be used with lower levels. In which form and at what moment do you recommend error correction?

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 12, 2013 at 7:18 am

I usually circulate and use recasts to correct student errors on the spot. Another option is the writing the errors on the board to deal with after the activity. This is described in an earlier blog I wrote at

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