When Language Classes are Productive

Now that I no longer depend on teaching English as my main means of support, I have enough detachment and clarity to reflect on some of the main tenets of teaching and second language acquisition.

Language classes are useful and a reasonable investment when they serve three main goals: (i) going from A1 to A2, (ii) preventing skill atrophy for advanced students and (iii) developing specific skills. For those not familiar with the A1 to C2 leveling system, here’s the wikipedia article.

From Zero to Pre-Intermediate

In my experience, nearly anybody can learn a language to the A2 / B1 range. A good teacher and solid materials can make this a fun process. This can be equally rewarding for teachers and learners as someone progresses from knowing nothing in their target language to becoming fairly function within a few months.

Then it all grinds to a halt. Progress stops somewhere around the pre-intermediate to intermediate level regardless of how much effort the learner puts into their studies. For many people this is the logical place to stop actively studying English. At this level it’s possible to scan texts in English, travel and carry on simple conversations. If you don’t need anything beyond this level, there’s no much to be gained by studying further.

Use it or Lose it

Once someone has reached a more advanced level (C1 / C2) the focus of a class needs to shift towards maintenance. This is trickier than the typical ‘conversation club’. Topics need to provide some intellectual challenge and enough variety that students stay on top of their game. Students are so much studying English as using it to listen and read complex material and then speak and write about it.

I’m currently working on this with my advanced groups. The goal of these groups isn’t to work on specific lexis or structures. Instead we focus on general professional-level topics, and I give feedback as the need arises.

Specific Purposes

It’s worth hiring a tutor if you have a specific goal such as a certain IELTS score, a job interview or need to work on a specific skill. For instance, I hold a weekly class for the copywriters on my team where we go through issues specific to their writing. This is the type of class that most businesses need, although they seem to try to plug this hole by having endless intermediate level classes, grammar exercises and conversation clubs.

When Classes don’t Work

This system leaves a huge gap between pre-intermediate (A2-ish) and advanced (C1–C2) students. From my experience in Eastern Europe and East Asia, most of the money and energy spent on learning English are on classes in this intermediate range that provide an abysmal return on investment.

My next post is going to be about how to get out of this rut and go from pre-intermediate to advanced when learning a language.