ESL teaching with elementary students
Me teaching elementary students in South Korea.

When I first started teaching, long ago, I was working with kindergarteners, teaching them the ABCs and the names of farm animals. Later, I worked with elementary school children and middle school kids. When I moved to China in 2010, I began teaching at university… but not a good one. This was for the students who’d failed their gaokao[1] but came from rich families and weren’t allowed to not go to university.

By the time I was working with really advanced students, I had more than a decade of teaching experience behind me, as well as a few certifications from different courses that I’d done. Yet it was still a challenge. I still felt nervous meeting with students whose English level was so high that they knew some things better than me!

Recently, I have been working with some incredibly talented students, training them for the IELTS exam. Their English is extraordinary. Many of them have lived in English-speaking countries for years and are married to native speakers. A few have even taken the same teaching courses that I have!

So… that all begs the question: How do you help very high level English students to improve their language skills?

Step #1: Find out what they want

The first thing you need to do – and this is true not just of advanced students – is to find out what your student wants. In other words, why are they enlisting your help in improving their English skills? There may be a variety of different reasons. Thankfully, at this level (think IELTS 7.0 or higher), they usually have quite specific goals and are able to articulate those clearly to you. This avoids some of the problems you encounter with students of much lower levels, where there may be some misunderstandings.

I find that my high level students fall into five categories (although of course there are others):

  1. They want to pass an exam like IELTS or OET
  2. They want to brush up on their skills before moving to a new country
  3. Something has recently shaken their confidence
  4. They need to prepare for an event such as a meeting or presentation
  5. They are bored and not feeling challenged in life

I suppose that the most common one is #1. This is also probably the easiest to deal with as a teacher. You can discuss their worries about the test, perhaps give them a mock exam, and then together work out a way of preparing them in order to achieve their desired score. #2 is much more vague, but you can prepare some lessons after finding out what exactly they want. An interesting problem is #3, and I see this quite frequently. A few weeks ago, I had two students who both had nearly native level English, but who had scored poorly in the IELTS exam. They were shocked, and wanted to know why they had done so badly. #4 is common in certain places, and you will mostly deal with this if you are known as a teacher of Business English. You often get people who need to give a presentation to a large group and simply want to boost their confidence prior to the event. #5 quite often applies to housewives who used to have careers where they used their language, but now they have a family and stay at home. They generally want someone to talk with, and to help them avoid losing their language skills, which they no longer get to use regularly.

Step #2 – Decide how to help your advanced students

Advanced students rarely choose to participate in large group lessons, and so you will almost certainly be dealing with a one-on-one lesson. It is important that you work together with the student to plan these, not just in terms of timing but also of content. These students will know what they want, and will probably have had many teachers before. Don’t be intimidated by this! Instead, use it to your advantage.

From the offset, ask your student what they want to learn, and give them suggestions of activities and lessons. Gently gather feedback from them. If there was something they didn’t find helpful, drop it from future lessons. The best thing about advanced students is that they will be able to tell you what is working and what isn’t, and so there is relatively little guesswork.

Once you have figured out what they want, you should work on preparing lessons and activities for them. At a very high level, it can be hard to do this because their vocabulary might be almost as good as yours! What I find, though, is that most really advanced students don’t want to do typical tasks. Instead, they want conversation and longer-form activities like writing essays or discussing a reading passage.

This brings us to the next step:

Step #3 – Giving feedback

Marking essays is really important.

What most advanced students crave (and need) is feedback. They already know the rules of grammar, long lists of vocabulary, and have probably done all the usual textbook activities. They’ve watched countless TV shows in English, have probably engaged in a million and one conversations, and are thoroughly bored with 99% of ESL teaching activities. So… what do they want now?

They want feedback, of course.

At this stage, a learner needs feedback more than anything else. When they know many thousands of words, and have learned all the rules of grammar, there isn’t much for your to really teach them. Instead, your job is often to read or listen and give appropriate feedback. This is what will help them more than anything else.

This morning, I was teaching a student from Canada whose English is extremely good. When we talk for 30 minutes, she will maybe make 5-6 errors in grammar, and perhaps 1 error in pronunciation. She almost never misunderstands what I say, and her vocabulary is basically as good as a native speaker!

So how do I help her?

As we are speaking, I constantly challenge her and encourage her to say more and more… and whenever she makes a mistake, I note it quietly and then soon I bring it up with her. I tell her something like:

  • A moment ago, you said “I am particularly fond about art.” What’s wrong with this statement?

She may correct herself, or I may have to correct her. In any case, she realizes that she’s made the mistake. If she is confused about it, I will explain why it was wrong and give her some examples of how to use it correctly.

I take this approach with many of my highest level students, and it helps them tremendously. They always tell me that they learn so much from these lessons, whereas with other teachers they get nothing but encouragement. Of course, encouragement is what you should give lower level students who badly need the confidence. However, at this level it is important to focus on errors more than morale boosts.

Difficulties with teaching advanced ESL students

I am making it sound very easy, but of course it isn’t. Being a teacher is rarely easy! However, once you gain the experience, things become pretty natural.

There are definitely some worries that we all have when teaching advanced ESL or IELTS students for the first time. I remember years ago getting a tough question about grammar in front of a room of 40 students. My best student unexpectedly asked me something that I hadn’t considered before the lesson. I must have handled it really badly because at the time I don’t think I really knew the answer very well, and even though I tried to explain it, I probably failed.

Brush up on your grammar with this book.

Around that time, I started to teach myself the rules of grammar. Believe it or not, as a child I was never taught them! I just gained a sort of knowledge of grammar through reading often and listening to people speaking. It was only about a decade ago that I decided to read some books and watch some YouTube videos to find out the names of the tenses and the reasons why exactly they are used.

You don’t need to be an expert on grammar to help your students (although it certainly helps). One major piece of advice that I will give you, though, is not to pretend that you know more than you do. If a student asks you a question that genuinely baffles you, tell them: “Wow, I’m really not sure about this. I’ll look it up and get back to you.” Then make sure that you figure out the answer, figure out how to explain it clearly, and then tell them what you found out. They will benefit much more than if you try to fool them with a hastily assembled guess, and they will respect you more for being honest.

As you can probably tell, a lot of these lessons come from experience. Learning grammar rules and how to explain them is something that happens slowly over time, as is the confidence required to answer difficult questions when they are suddenly put to you by someone smart enough to know if you are bluffing when you answer. The most important thing is to be confident that you know your own language, and to be determined to help your students as best you can.

[1] Gaokao is the name of the university entrance exam in China. It is impossible to overstate its importance in Chinese society, cultural, and education.