Rethinking level descriptors
The traditional labels used in our industry ranging from Elementary to Advanced beg for a constant myriad of issues to arise for program coordinators, teachers and students. Whenever they come up during a session, it seems like the best solution would be to abandon these labels altogether, but doing so would raise different problems, solutions for which seem to be placing labels. It’s a cyclical conundrum which does not evidently have one nice, tidy fix. Hopefully through some dialogue, we can expose each other to a variety of ways we’ve dealt with the problems.
Issue #1 – “I want to change my class.”
It’s rare that students who aren’t in advanced levels actually accept that they can benefit from a lower level, especially if it collapses the shaky legs of decade+ previous study into a pile of grammatical rubble. There’s something about being labeled a low intermediate language learner, for example, that doesn’t sit well with the majority. As a program coordinator, on the first day of class I’m faced with an endless queue of students wishing to needlessly move up levels. As a teacher, facing even one or two students who feel they’ve been inaccurately placed into my class, however appropriate it is, can be a big affective barrier to break through.
Issue #2 – Descriptors don’t match up with other descriptors
Have you ever opened a book labeled intermediate and thought that whoever did so, based on the language used in activities or even instructions, was out of their mind? I have. Although there tends to be a generally accepted level of grammar, vocabulary and content that qualifies as low, intermediate and high, when it comes to finer tuned labels, like high beginner, upper intermediate and low advanced, lines become blurred between not only publishers, but even teachers and school benchmarks. It can be challenging for curriculum planners and teachers to reconcile these differences when they’re printed right on the book.
Issue #3 – No one fits a label perfectly
No matter how hard you try to place students into the correct level, no matter how foolproof your placement test is, no matter how successfully a learner masters the language prescribed for a level, language learning isn’t so perfectly compartmentalised. I’ve rarely come across a student whose reading, writing, speaking and listening proficiencies fold neatly into the low intermediate box. This causes the also artificial boundaries set by curricula to work for some in some areas and not others in others. Still, you have the label, it must mean something. But for which skill?
Issue #4 – Advanced is never really advanced
This is a two-fold problem to me. A) Students in this level are rarely advanced, at least if you compare the term to a relative scale of native-speaker like proficiency. This can give learners a false sense of arrogance (ok, confidence to speak at any level is a good thing, but we’ve all encountered students who feel they’re better than everyone else) and entitlement. When they go out into academic study after an “advanced” level class, eyes may be abruptly opened. B) Resources that claim to cover advanced grammar rarely do. Then again, do all teachers agree on what advanced grammar is? Perhaps not as it tends to fall under academic writing contexts rather than general ESL coursebooks.
Any advice or solutions you’ve found work?
What’s the solution? Abolish descriptors altogether? Unfortunately we need some common understanding to communicate. Make a secret, coded system of colours for your levels instead? Maybe students would figure out that red means low, blue means intermediate and purple means high anyways.
Have you had any success in handling the issues these descriptors raise? I’d love to know what works for you.