Moving beyond the plateau: from lower-intermediate to upper-intermediate

Jack Richards

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Interchange, now in its fourth edition, we’re delighted to announce a new series of blog posts by Interchange author and world-renowned linguist Jack C. Richards. Over the next twelve months, Jack will be exploring a range of topics here at Cambridge Conversations, all of them elucidated by of one of the most successful, innovative minds in the history of English language teaching.

Today’s post, the first in the series, outlines the five most difficult challenges faced by teachers as they help students transition from intermediate to advanced language learning. In the coming weeks we will consider how teachers can address each of these challenges, before moving on to topics such as effective lesson creation, and competence and performance in language teaching.

As they move from basic to intermediate to advanced levels in language proficiency, many second-language learners will confirm that language learning does not always follow a smooth progression. There are times when progress seems to be marked and noticeable, as for example with many basic-level language learners. After their first 200 or so hours of instruction, they begin to break through the threshold of learning to become real users of the language, even if at a fairly simple level. Those who have experienced the transition to this level of learning recall the feelings of satisfaction and achievement that came as they found themselves actually capable of real communication in English.

However, once learners have arrived at an intermediate level of language learning, progress does not always appear to be so marked, and making the transition from intermediate to the upper-intermediate/advanced level sometimes proves frustrating. Some may feel they have arrived at a plateau and making further progress seems elusive, despite the amount of time and effort they devote to it.

Inevitably, learners who have reached the upper-intermediate level will have somewhat different language use profiles and learning needs, but the following problems are often encountered:

1. There is a gap between receptive and productive competence. Learners may have made considerable progress in listening comprehension and reading, but still feel inadequate when it comes to speaking skills.

2. Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity. Learners may make primary use of lower-level grammar, as well as vocabulary and communication strategies to express their meaning and may not have acquired more sophisticated language patterns and usage characteristics of more advanced second-language users.

3. Learners have a limited vocabulary range. Vocabulary development has not progressed sufficiently. Learners tend to overuse lower-level vocabulary and fail to acquire more advanced vocabulary and usage.

4. Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech. Learners’ English may be fluent and grammatical but sounds too formal or too bookish.

5. There are persistent, fossilized language errors. Errors that are typical of lower-level learners reappear in certain circumstances despite the amount of time and effort devoted to correcting them.

So, how we do resolve these five problems? Jack will be back tomorrow, offering advice on tackling the first of these issues: the gap between receptive and productive competence.

Excerpted and edited from Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning by Jack C. Richards
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