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Imagine there’s no levels…

September 1, 2013

About 10 years ago, my good friend and former colleague Ken MacDougall caused much consternation in the staffroom by saying that, instead of testing and placing students according to their level of English, we should just let them choose their own level. We assumed he was joking, even though he said it with a straight face (Ken does that sometimes) and, though there were some tentative attempts to ask him what on earth he was talking about, he didn’t elaborate (Ken likes to be mysterious) and the conversation moved on.

Over the years I’ve been reminded many times of Ken’s idea, usually when placing students into levels or dealing with students who disagree with the level they have been placed into. More recently though, I’ve started to wonder if he might have had a point.

As things stand at the moment, most language courses follow a linear model of learning. Students start at whatever level they test in at, and they do unit 1 of a book, followed by unit 2 of a book, and so on. When they finish the book they move to the next book and do the same thing again. The expectation here is that by “doing” each book they are moving upwards, from one level to another. The whole system is based on the notion that students need to learn one thing before they can be deemed ready to learn something else.

Image

http://kettlebellkurt.wordpress.com/2010/03/

In most cases, the order in which language is presented is based on linguistic complexity. Most coursebooks organize language in this way – even ones that claim not to. If you check what language is being taught in each unit, they almost always start with the present simple, then the present continuous, then past simple etc.

However, learning doesn’t work like this. Language doesn’t work like this. Language isn’t learnt like this!

First, let’s look at the order in which we tend to teach language. It’s pretty well-established that students don’t learn language according to linguistic complexity, despite the fact that we teach it this way. The past perfect continuous may appear more complex than the third person –s, but studies show that third person –s is one of the last things that students manage to acquire. Just because it is easy to do, third person –s is pretty useless; English uses pronouns to signify the subject of a sentence. Consequently, students find it difficult to acquire.

There have been attempts in ELT to re-categorise the order in which language is taught, such as the Cobuild English course, which tried to present language in order of frequency of use. It wasn’t very successful, largely because the whole concept was new and it freaked people out. But another problem with the Cobuild English course was that it took one linear model of learning and replaced it with another. And this brings me to my next point; that any linear approach to teaching language doesn’t tie in with the way we actually acquire it.

The brain itself is a complex network of neurons. Rather than processing information in a linear fashion, it takes in whatever information it receives and makes connections and deductions, forming a network of interconnected concepts and ideas. Once these connections are established, repeated exposure and/or practice help to strengthen these connections. It’s true that certain skills can be mastered one after another, but the order in which these skills are mastered is, to a large extent, arbitrary, and will be different for everyone depending on their environment and their learning priorities.

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http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/proteins.html

In addition to this, language itself is not linear. It involves the complex inter-relationship of grammar, vocabulary, sounds and written text. We also need to consider the impact of socio-cultural and contextual factors; who’s speaking, who are they speaking to, what is the desired impact/force of what is being said, etc. It’s very hard to break language down into a logical order. This can only really be done with grammar and, as I’ve pointed out, this logical order doesn’t tie in with the order of acquisition.

I understand that a linear approach to language teaching fits within the constructs of our current model of education. And I also realise that people have been successfully learning English through this model for years. What I’m suggesting, though, is that learning is taking place despite the model, not because of it. The order of teaching doesn’t match the order of learning.

It’s not just me saying this – the linear model has been criticized for being stuck in the Victorian era, when it was all about factory production lines. Individuality and creativity have been stifled by this system, and many people feel this model is no longer relevant in modern society. The big thing these days is the Internet, and the forming of global communication networks. This is an era of innovation and creativity. An approach to education that acknowledges this would tie in a lot more with how our brains function, as our brains are also about forming networks. Each person’s brain contains a different network, based on individual experiences, needs and motivations. The current model doesn’t really address this as students in the same class are expected to start with the same existing knowledge, learn the same things at the same speed, and finish with the same level of knowledge. Do we really think that this is possible in practice?

Let’s imagine a teenage student in South Korea, who has never been abroad and whose only existing need to use English is to understand Youtube clips and play online computer games. Now let’s compare him to a Polish woman in the UK, who has children in the local primary school who speak English fluently, and who cleans offices despite having a degree in Economics from her own country. They are both currently studying Module 6 of Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate. Why is it assumed (first of all) that both of these students already know all the language that exists in Cutting Edge Elementary and Modules 1-5 of Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate? If it’s because they have already studied these materials, why is it assumed that this was the most appropriate study programme for both students? And secondly, how could the same programme possibly be most appropriate for both of them at the same time?

Even within the same context, there are students whose prior learning experiences and future needs are very diverse. In my college, we have students like the Polish woman above, but we also have young Pakistani men who want to progress onto business courses, Somali refugees who had little or no formal education as children and want to become nurses, Chinese teenagers who were sent here by their parents and don’t particularly want to learn anything, Spanish graduates who need English to improve their employability back in Spain, and many more. They are all studying in the same class because they are all “at the same level”. But what does that mean? If learning is not linear, is the whole thing purely arbitrary? Is a level just a label? If we just placed our students randomly and exposed them to whatever language that was being taught on that course, would it be much different?

Let’s go back to Ken’s idea of letting students choose their own level. What would probably happen is that students would choose to be in the same class as their friends, with likeminded students, with students who may have had similar learning backgrounds and probably have similar goals and motivations. If this happened, it would allow the teacher to design a course that focused on common (context-based) learning needs, leading towards goals that all the students were intrinsically focused on. There would be a more holistic approach to language itself, which is more in tune with current theories of language acquisition. Grammar, lexis and pronunciation would be taught as required by the learners, not as dictated by the coursebook or teacher. A range of pre-existing language knowledge would mean students could learn a lot from each other, so peer-teaching and –learning would feature highly on such a course. Does this sound so terrible? I actually think it sounds pretty good.

Ken MacDougall, ladies and gentlemen – you may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one.

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24 Comments
  1. Hi Steve, this is an interesting post, and you raise some thought-provoking ideas. I teach at a school where we do use a linear model, which, as you have pointed out, is the same as almost all language schools. I don’t really like it when students focus on levels. I teach in South Korea, and levels seem to be very important to students. Like you, I have had students who felt that they should be in a different level, even though the school where I work doesn’t use labels like Intermediate etc.

    The thing I do like about the levels at my school is that they try to use the CEFR for languages and focus more on the competencies that the students require to communicate in English. However that is still a linear model, and while we say that we don’t focus on grammar, there is still a lot of grammar, which as you quite rightly point out increases in complexity as the levels get higher.

    The idea of allowing students to choose their levels does seem desirable. I certainly like to give my students the opportunity to make decisions within the classroom, for example by choosing which activities to do, who will take what role etc. as I think this helps to promote learner autonomy. By allowing students to choose their level would surely fit in with this.

    I wonder how feasible the model you are proposing would be. You say that given the choice, students would probably choose to join classes with like-minded students, but this could end up with many small clusters of students wanting to study together, and therefore put the school in the situation of not being able to accommodate all of the students with the available teaching staff and resources.

    In somewhat of a defence of the linear model, it does help students to view their progress. I have found this to be quite an important motivating factor for my students. By adopting a non-linear model, what other ways could we help students view their progress? I find that this is a common concern for my learners, and where I can see their progress in their improved language ability, they often can’t – they often need some aid. It reminds me of when I was young. We had a puppy who every day got a little bit bigger, I never noticed how big he got until I went away for the weekend. After just 3 days away, when I saw the puppy again, he had grown incredibly. Of course, students cannot take a break from themselves, and therefore they often only compare themselves in the short-term, and can’t see their overall progress. I often talk about this with my students, but they always tell me that they like to see their progress somehow. This is something I have been working on, and I often try to do activities with my students to see their progress without focussing on just levelling-up.

    How feasible do you think a non-linear model would be? Do you think it is something that schools/teachers could manage to accommodate all learners?

    Thanks for the thought provoking article.

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for sharing your views. I agree that the linear model seems to be attractive to students, who like to see that they are making progress. Moving “upwards” from one level to the next is a clear indication of this. However, if we start from the premise that learning is non-linear, it all becomes a bit of a sham.
      Your school’s focus on competencies could perhaps be developed further. Students could maybe start by joining a class that focuses on a certain group of competencies, or skills, or “Can-do” statements. Once they have (or feel they have) reached a sufficient level of competency in those areas, they could choose to move to a different group.
      I think the important thing to make students aware of is that any move from one class to another would not be a move upwards, but more sideways. Some students might find this a difficult concept to get their heads round to begin with, but hey, if we all did it they would be used to it.

  2. I did my DTEFLA in 1993, and I remember our tutor Roger Hunt telling us about a language school that did just that (more or less)– asked students to group themselves according to their own perception of their relative levels. On enrollment day (as I recall) the 100-200 students would mingle in the courtyard and eventually put together their own groups, using I guess (hey, it was over 20 years ago) their own criteria– probably not only level but personality, learning style, etc. I’ve long favored grouping students only broadly by linear level and then more specifically by learning style, but that’s probably because I myself learn best from co-learners who learn like me, regardless of their level… and that in itself is a learning style, my learning style, that is not shared by all, so perhaps best not imposed. In the end I have a go-for-it attitude and would love to see (and be involved in) an experiment along these lines. Let’s not debate the coursebook question though.

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for joining in on this. I realise that the idea is not new – and somehow I’m not surprised that Roger Hunt thought it was a good idea. I’m not sure if learning styles would be the best way to group students either though. A variety of learner types in a class can be really useful for challenging students and exposing them to different strategies. I was thinking more about students with similar goals wanting to work together. That might help to focus and motivate. What do you think?

      • I haven’t experienced or observed a body of general English students who individually have a clear enough idea of their goals, or at least specific enough goals, to create groups on that basis. But that’s just my experience, in part stems from the contexts I’ve worked in, and doesn’t mean it’s not possible– Obviously you’ve seen otherwise. As I sort of implied, I’m probably biased by the sort of learner I am anyway, and the fact that I (feel I) learn most efficiently when combined with those who have similar styles/preferences. Even moreso though from my point of view as a teacher, I’ve always found it easier to manage groups where preferences are similar– There’s more continuity in the degree of acceptance/resistance to a given approach or activity. You’re right though, exposing Ss to a range of strategies/attitudes can be a good thing.

  3. Like St Augustine, I can resist everything but temptation, so here I am. Ken is most certainly not the only dreamer and I have long doubted the wisdom of levels. Like so many things in education, levels seem to exist primarily for the convenience of the teachers. Levels allow teachers to cling hopefully to the myth that teaching leads to learning and that the best approach to teaching is to cling to the materials. The reality (and at this juncture, feel free to add in a Simpsons type disclaimer) is that what probably works best is to take a professional and analytical look at your students and tailor-make something that addresses their requirements. All of which might be a lot to ask from someone who is probably underpaid and overworked.

    When I look at levels, I see a marketing ploy from the publishers who have been able to take what is essentially a three stage process (not good enough, good enough, better than good enough) and turn it into a seven stage money making machine (beginner, elementary, pre intermediate, intermediate, upper intermediate, pre-advanced -FFS-, Advanced). Students seem to love it, but are oblivious -it seems to me- to the damage it does to their language learning. But perhaps because most students are also fairly ambivalent ABOUT language learning, it really is more about creating a illusion of progress than creating progress itself? perhaps when I was learning to drive, I would have been happier to feel that I was making progress through the different levels of driving. We’ll never know because it never happened, but I feel fairly confident in surmising that if this was the norm, driving instructors could hold on to their students for even longer and would make a lot more money out of them.

    Pedagogical lay, I find the concept of levels to be a very difficult one to defend. Where is the evidence that a) levels exist; b) that grouping students by level is possible; c) that grouping students by level is beneficial? It may exist, but I haven’t seen it yet.

    Common sense suggests to me that creating understanding gaps and working to overcome them is probably beneficial. Understanding gaps are likely to arise more frequently in classes where there are tolerable differences in language proficiency. And “tolerable” is a key concept here and means “tolerable to the students”. If a student is agreeable to the idea that they can learn in the community they finds themself in, then levels become redundant. For this to become a known fact requires some meticulously designed experimentation though!

    I would say, however, that it probably requires much more than a wiping out of levels. In order to work, a body of teachers who are committed to language education is required. They need to be able to win over a lot of sheeple -both students and colleagues- who prefer things to be done the way that they have always been done. It follows, necessarily IMHO, that the terms and conditions need to be right to attract such a body of teachers. Tis doesn’t mean that they need to be paid six figure sums, just that the teaching load and other terms and conditions of employment need to be pitched at retention rather than survival.

    Where I work, we have been aided in the quest to vanquish the Level Myth by our bottom-line focused marketing department. They have decreed that it is more important to offer students start dates whenever they want them and we have to deliver this goal while venerating the other fundamental construct of teaching efficiency. So, we are only allowed to open the right number of classes to match the number of students, regardless of however many levels these students might cover. If we have eight students, we have one class. Three of these students may be “elementary”, two may be “intermediate” and three may be “advanced”. But they’re still going into one class. Te law of teaching efficiency is given primacy. Experience to date shows that students struggle to abandon the expectation that levels are honoured. Personally, however, I suspect that this difficulty emanates from the teachers who yearn for the security that the level myth offers them.

    • Wow, not sure where to start here, other than to say it’s good to hear from you again.
      You can certainly argue that the whole level thing is a marketing ploy on the part of materials writers, but I think it goes a lot deeper than that. There’s a reason why both students and teachers love the level system so much. We’ve had nearly 200 years of being told that a linear model is the way we all learn. It may well be a myth, but it will probably take some time to dispel it. It seems to be taking a frustratingly long time though, and maybe this is where your marketing ploy conspiracy theory comes in (my post on The Great Coursebook Swindle referred to this as well). This is maybe the biggest problem; that what we really need is a massive shift in the way education is perceived by the general public. Having said that, there are increasingly loud calls for just that (viz. Ken Robinson) and public opinion is gradually starting to see a need to ensure we have an educational approach that is appropriate for the digital age.
      With this in mind, thank you for questioning whether
      “a) levels exist; b) that grouping students by level is possible; c) that grouping students by level is beneficial”
      We operate within a system that blindly holds all of that to be true, and yet what is it based on? Far more sensible to get together a bunch of students who can work well together.
      Welcome back, Secret DoS.

  4. What a great post! It confirms something I have been feeling (but not fully admitting) for quite a long time already. As an ADOS, quite often I have to interview our new students and put them into groups according to their level. This usually makes me feel very uneasy, because I can never be sure how I can put this man, that young girl and this guy into one group, when their life experience is so different (one is a linguistic university gradute, other learnt English with games and songs, the third just happened to have lived in the UK for a year…), but I have to, because this is a formal system accepted in my school.
    This “level thing” has many times evaporated in my own classes where I have already worked for a long time: one of my students, who is formally pre-int, has become upper-int in speaking, but still is around intermediate in grammar…
    so who knows, it might be a bit fairer to judge about the levels in context of different skills…and still., it’s always very hard to standartise something as individual as lanuage…

    • “it’s always very hard to standartise something as individual as language…”
      Yes it is. And of course everyone learns at different speeds, so everything changes after a few lessons anyway. Having done a lot of placement testing over the years I know what you mean about it making you feel uneasy. In my college we often get students with very jagged profiles – some are very strong in speaking but have limited writing skills, others lack oral fluency but can organise their writing really effectively. They may have the same overall “level”, but depending on the task we are doing the class is often very differentiated anyway. The whole level thing can seem like a bit of a pretence, to some extent.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Ken MacDougall permalink

    Thank you, Steve, for the very flattering description. As I was explaining to you the other day, there are some ‘rules’ that I would put in place in such a system. Not all of these are meant seriously, but your readers can have some fun deciding which are and which aren’t

    – There would have to be limits on class sizes
    – After a stated time limit (one month?) there would be Big Brother style ‘evictions’. Evicted students would have to try to find a class that would accept them.
    – The teacher does not attempt to differentiate learning. That’s up to the students.
    – Coursebook or not? I don’t think it matters, but there should be some sort of agreed aim (exam, production of a play etc.)
    – Anybody using Comic Sans will be ejected from the class/institution immediately.
    – Students would also be able to vote the teacher out.

    What this has really got me thinking about is that in teacher training we often ask candidates about the qualities of a good teacher or a good student, but I’m not sure we ever ask about the qualities of a good classmate/colleague.

    Have I told you about my ideas for an olfactory syllabus?

    • I’m definitely going with an agreed common aim. Evictions could be great fun. Inevitably though, you’d end up with a class full of rejects from other classes. Not sure I’d fancy teaching them.

  6. Neil McMillan permalink

    Can I just point out a slight flaw with this? Having students choose their own level implies the continued existence of levels, i.e. the very linear system you are looking to do away with. Without a whole new system of class categorisation, students will (and do) fall into the very same trap that teachers and institutions do. I.e. “I’ve done B2 now, so I expect to go into C1!! C1 is higher!!”, etc etc…. we forget how institutionalised many language learners are. Often at least as much as teachers are.

    Meanwhile, any course which did not successfully put people at some point on the scale is going to seriously fail many of the students you mention – people who need to prove their English is at a certain level for visa, employment or educational requirements.

    In the school I teach at, one of the course has Ss choose their own level. They get to choose between A2, B1 or B2 … and most of them end up where we’d have put them anyway. All it saves is money on level testing …. the levels remain.

    Can I just add that Ken’s olfactory syllabus smells a bit fishy too …

    • Hi Neil,
      Always with an eye for detail, you’ve picked up on an important point here. In my (and Ken’s) defence though, I think I can explain.
      When Ken first made this suggestion I think he was envisaging self-regulation within the existing framework of levels. So a student with very limited competence could choose to join an advanced class if they wanted to, or a student with 6.5 in IELTS might want to do some revision in a pre-intermediate class. Once they had chosen their level, it would be up to them to sink or swim (is that right, Ken?) It sounds like your A2/B1/B2 courses are already operating along these lines.
      In this post I’ve hijacked his original idea and taken it to a new place, a place where levels don’t exist. A place where students are not categorised according to where they are now, but by where they want to be, how they hope to get there and who they’d like to get there with.
      You’re right that we are all institutionalised, but this is what I would like to end. In an age of networks and multi-faceted connectivity, our current approach to education is outdated. We need a seismic shift.
      It might take a while yet, but I think it’s starting. I don’t see a place in it for the olfactory syllabus either, mind you.

  7. Ken MacDougall permalink

    Turn your noses up at the olfactory syllabus if you like, but you heard it first from me.

    Would you end up with a class full of rejects or would those students modify their behaviour so that they wouldn’t keep getting evicted?

    I’m quite happy to toss out the idea of level, too and focus on shared goals. Not learning styles, though. They don’t exist.

  8. Gordon Wells permalink

    Way back in the mists when I did the Edinburgh Applied Linguistics MSc my language testing project was to design a “reading placement test” for Gaelic learners, based on a cloze-style gap-filling exercise at different “levels” of textual “complexity”. Later on I revisited it, comparing it wtih testees’ self-reports of proficiency only to find a strong correlation – which may well prove little more than that learners are as predisposed to accept/impose a “linear” model of acquisition as teachers and schools. Be that as it may, in your model of “level-free” learner group-forming I’m interested that you didn’t mention students’ L1 as a possible factor/determinant in choosing who to learn with. It might not suit all, by any means, but I can well imagine it appealing to some. Might that not clash with your uneasiness with “predomonolingual” classes? I guess the question of whether the dream becomes a nightmare would then turn on the view taken – by teacher and learners – on whether L1 is an obstacle to learning or an additional resource to support it…

    • Hi Gordon,
      Yes, it would be interesting to see whether students self-selected themselves according to L1. That would certainly result in groups that were homogenous in one respect. This in itself might make a group easier to teach in some ways, but of course it raises other problems too, as I’ve previously mentioned and as you’re no doubt already aware.
      I didn’t raise this issue here because I was keen to see how teachers working in a range of contexts might react to it – some teachers only work with monolingual groups, others for the most part with multilingual groups.
      The predomonolingual issue is one that can arise anywhere though; however students are grouped, there’s a chance that you end up with a large group from a single language background and a minority with a different L1. I don’t necessarily feel that we should avoid predomonolingual groups – I just feel that not much has been written about them, so there isn’t a lot of support available for teachers who need to foster a positive group dynamic in this kind of context.
      Maybe there has and I just haven’t found it – any ideas?

      • Gordon Wells permalink

        I’m afraid not, Steve. I came across the term for the first time while reading your blog… Use of L1 in multilingual ESOL classes in general is, of course, a very live issue in a UK context, but probably mostly in groups that are not freely self-selecting (at least not formally so). I was just wondering aloud how the dream you present might intersect with that…

  9. geoffjordan permalink

    Mario Rinvolucri held summer schools in the UK for those wanting to learn English. One of his many tricks was to welcome all the new students at a garden party and ask them after a while to go and stand near one of a number of “signs”: Elementary, Lower / Mid/ Upper Intermediate and Advanced. They went to the sign which they thought represented their level and talked in English to the others. As a result of their mini-interactions, they moved up and down the levels until they felt they were with those at “their” level. Then they further discussed what course they’d like to do.

    • Oh dear, I’m not sure how Ken will feel about this originally being a Rinvolucri idea. Presumably this is the same scenario that Steve Oakes described above.
      I think though that this is a good example of a humanistic approach to a non-humanistic scenario ie placing students into groups – give the students the responsibility of “diagnosing” their own level rather than imposing a level on them. As Gordon mentioned above, students are usually pretty aware of their level.
      In this scenario there are still levels though – there is still a linear model being followed. Taking the linear approach out altogether is quite a different kettle of fish.

  10. An elegant debate you’ve fomented, Steve!

    IMHO there are lots of aspects of language learning that can be measured, and a student does tend to progress on all of them more-or-less concurrently, though not at the same speed. Yes, you can hold a ruler up to a network of knowledge, it’s just that you have a lot of choice of ruler and orientation. Therefore it seems to me that “levels” do exist, it’s just that each student has a multitude of different “levels”.

    Nevertheless, the majority of these hang together more than they diverge. I don’t think the concept of level is beyond the pail, just that it may not be the most important concern. Whether learning takes place may have more to do with what a student had for lunch, whether they want to impress the person they’re sitting next to, whether they have a positive affective response to the subject matter, and yes, perhaps even their olfactory response to the classroom environment.

    Two experiences in my lessons today that speak to your theme:

    1. My Head of Department asked to exchange three 13-year-old students from his “top set” with my “second set”, on the basis of Oxford Placement Test scores (which I backed up by considering their writing standard and asking my three nominees what they felt about the move – one answered she found my class rather easy, another said she wanted the challenge, and the third said her mother was disappointed that she wasn’t in the top set). Well, the three of them headed off to pastures “higher” and three “rejects” from the class above headed our way. Before they arrived I heard the boys whispering “Dennis is going to join our group!” and I gulped inwardly. When Dennis walked through the door he hailed the room with a cheery “Hello everybody!” that wouldn’t have sounded wrong coming from a particularly self-confident rock star. It took the class a minute to settle back down to their reading task. Well, I don’t know much about Dennis yet, but it seems fairly obvious that from now on he’s going to be either the co-leader or resident opposition of the class, and I hope it’s the former! I fully expect the character of my class to change completely with the addition of Dennis, and this has little to do with his level and everything to do with his character and the social roles and games he and the other students play.

    2. Teaching a supposedly low level of 11-year-old students using the excellent Where’s Wally books, the vocabulary item “canopies” came up. The students wanted to know the word. The time was right, the context and mood perfectly aligned to clarify the meaning and encourage recall. Of course I “taught” them the word, but as I did, I felt a strange twinge of concern: isn’t that a rather low-frequency word more suitable for an “advanced” class? Am I making best use of their time at this stage by focusing on that word? These are not bad questions to ask oneself, but on this occasion I felt perfectly justified in spending a moment of their time on a word that their peers in other classes probably won’t acquire for years. One day there will crop up a text that includes the word “canopy” and my students will glide over it with ease – indeed it will reinforce the meaning of other words around it – and they will be able to focus their scarce resources of attention on whatever it is in that text that they don’t know. Their peers will presumably know other words they don’t, and use those to work out “canopy” in their turn. My Where’s Wally lesson may have taught a rather random assortment of vocabulary that wouldn’t have a well-defined “surrender value” and might therefore be frowned upon in an adult General English or other course with more pressing objectives, however I’m delighted that my activity made a group of 11-year-olds want to know the word “canopy” so much that they asked me to teach it to them. Childhood is long, and what is in short supply isn’t time, it’s passion.

    • Hi Max,
      When you say “Therefore it seems to me that “levels” do exist, it’s just that each student has a multitude of different “levels”’, this is often referred to as jagged learner profiles. So in one class you may have a student who is very strong at oral communication but weaker in writing, and another student who can write very well but is really lacking in oral fluency. On balance the two may be placed at the same “level”, but if they are working together the whole notion that they are similar in terms of ability seems ludicrous.
      Thanks for sharing your anecdotes – both of them give a lot of food for thought. I’m sure you and Dennis will manage to work out a relationship that proves beneficial to the class as a whole. As for the other story, you created a context and taught the word when the students needed it and were (seemingly) ready to learn it. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Last year I found myself teaching the phrase “it’s a double-edged sword” to my intermediate class, just because it emerged from the classroom discussion. For the rest of the year one of the students managed to fit the phrase into every writing task I gave them. She always used it in a natural way though, so I could only be pleased.

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