A different way of looking at levels of learning

Graham Burton

In this article Graham Burton discusses levels of learning, and how the different meanings of one word can be split over learning levels.

Most EFL teachers have an instinctive understanding of level, based on their classroom experience. We’d probably all agree that the present continuous should be taught quite early on, while modal perfect structures like could have or might have should probably come a bit later. Equally, most of us would agree that a word like fun is probably suitable for teaching at low levels, whereas a word like abruptly can probably wait till a bit later. And now, thanks to resources like the English Grammar Profile (EGP) and the English Vocabulary Profile (EVP), we have evidence based on real learner usage. For example, the EVP tells us that students start using fun at A1 level, whereas they don’t typically start using the word abruptly till they’re at C2.

Use of a single word or phrase

Obviously this is very useful information in itself, but it doesn’t really give us the whole picture. One of the most interesting and practical applications of both the EGP and the EVP is that they can show us how learners’ use of a single word or phrase, or of a single grammatical structure, can actually develop as they go up the levels. Search for the word tell on EVP – as you’d expect, there are different senses (i.e. meanings) and uses given. But the interesting thing is that the different senses are mastered at different levels. Learners at A1 can use tell to mean ‘speak’ at A1, but it’s not until they get to B2 that they can use it to mean ‘know or recognise from what you hear, see, etc.’ So, it’s too simplistic to try and link many words to one particular level, as the evidence from the EVP tells us that the level learners typically teach them at depends on the particular sense you’re interest in.

This kind of information can be invaluable for teachers, as it helps us to prioritise and use classroom time effectively. We can see which senses are likely to be new to a group of learners at a particular level, so we don’t waste time on the ones they already know, or ones that are likely to be beyond their level. For example, try looking up the word get on EVP – one of those words most learners never seem to master. You’ll see the list of uses and senses goes onto three pages. We could do a lesson on get and practice a handful of these, but we could never hope to cover the whole lot. So how can we choose what to practice? Here the level labels help – we can pick out the uses and senses of get around the level we’re teaching at and just concentrate on them. We can leave those that are labelled as being at higher levels until the learners are more advanced, and we can be confident that those labelled as being at much lower levels can be dealt with very quickly, or not at all.

Cambridge English Empower example

Materials writers can also make similar use of the EVP. In Cambridge English Empower, the EVP was invaluable for creating many of the Wordpower sections. Have a look at the EVP entry for just in the image below, and the Wordpower section on the same word from Cambridge English Empower B1 Student’s Book. You can see how we used the EVP to choose which uses and senses we should prioritise for learners using the B1 book. We revised the meanings of ‘recently’ and ‘almost now’, and also presented and practised those labelled as B1. This gave us enough to work with for this Wordpower section, without having to look at any of the B2 uses. Thanks to the EVP, we knew that we were targeting only the uses of just that learners wanting to achieve B1 level should be focussing on. It’s great for writers – and also teachers and learners – to know that we’re creating materials that are really picking out the language that learners need at their level.























Are there any senses of words that you’ve always taught or seen taught at different levels? Can you see the advantages of breaking down different senses to different levels? Let us know in the comments below.

Read Graham’s last article What is Grammar?

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