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Upgrade your students

Category: Methodology

I was just finishing a class with a student who once had an ultra high level, in fact very nearly bilingual, but who's been away from English for a while due to work commitments. Though she's still very fluent, she's understandably lost some vocabulary; in fact she was saying she's forgotten a lot of phrasal verbs.

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William Christison
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So we were winding up the class and arranging the next one when I saw her searching for words for a second and then say, “If there's a problem, send me an email.” That sentence is perfectly correct, yet she could have said, “If anything comes up, just let me know”, which would have been more in line with a super advanced student.

It may sound like I'm harping on language points when what she said was communicatively competent; yet it wasn't 100% natural. And when the students have their sights set high, you need to help them upgrade their language. Actually we should always do that no matter what their level, though it is true that we sometimes end up spending so much time correcting that there's little left over for upgrading; however, the two can be combined.

For example if a student's written, “Yesterday I receive an email from a friend”, you could correct it by just adding -d to 'receive', but the sentence still isn't natural in spoken English, so instead of 'correcting it' you could upgrade it by crossing out the 'receive' and writing 'got'. That way you're not reinforcing unnatural language. Spaniards tend to use the Latin word instead of the Anglosaxon, which is OK if their goal is just to be understood. However, they need to know that a native will most likely say, 'I got an email', so upgrading helps their comprehension.

I jot down spoken upgrades if possible, which is what I did in the above situation. By the way, this student was spot on in her appraisal of her own language deficiencies. She's lost a lot of phrasal verbs, and I might add other idiomatic expressions and set phrases as well.

In any case, students' written work is fertile ground for upgrades. In fact I recently got some writing from some (post-FC) advanced students, in which I (and the coursebook we're using) encouraged them to use descriptive language. The danger of this, of course, is that they get it wrong, but at least they're trying to incorporate new expressions into their working language. Here's an excerpt from one of my students, in which I asked them to write an email with an anecdote.

“We started our journey early in the morning. At half of the trip we had stopped at a petrol station to refuel. When we tried to start the car again, the engine won't start. It looked like a battery problem, so we pushed the car and with some help the car was launched. It seemed that everything worked fine, so we continued our journey.”

Well, this student could definitely use some feedback. We could, in fact, just about rewrite the whole thing, which leads to the question of how long we should spend doing all this. In general I try to give detailed feedback but without spending ages on it.

In any case, the first sentence, “We started our journey early in the morning”, is correct, but it would have been more impressive if it had been, “We set off early in the morning”. This actually is a very important upgrade: students need to be reminded to use phrasal verbs, collocations, and idioms; yet they often shy away from them. It's harder to get your head around them and mistakes are more likely, yet you won't learn as much if you always play it safe.

The next sentence, “At half of the trip we had stopped at a petrol station to refuel”, needs correcting, which in itself can be tricky. In this case, I combined correction with upgrading and suggested, “We were half way there when we stopped to refuel“. In the third sentence, “When we tried to start the car again, the engine won't start”, there's an easy correction, one not requiring much thought: 'won't' is changed to 'wouldn't'.

Then he says, “the car was launched”. In class we were looking at descriptive language, but obviously here he's got it wrong: a car can't be launched (as far as I know). But like I say, at least he's trying. An obvious correction, though not too imaginative, is 'the car started'. With more imagination we could suggest 'the car came to life', or 'thankfully the car started'.

By the way, students need to be reminded to use adverbs like 'thankfully'. In fact just today in an advanced class I heard a student say, “We must use this in a good way”, which I upgraded to, “We must use this properly / correctly”.

In the last sentence, “It seemed that everything worked fine, so we continued our journey”, I'd suggest, “It seemed that everything was working fine, so we carried on driving”. I'd say the past continuous is more natural here; and 'carry on driving' is just a suggestion, an alternative using a phrasal verb and avoiding the Latin word 'continue'.

This sort of upgrade is especially important for those students who have their sights set on exams like First Certificate or CAE, and need to produce at least somewhat sophisticated language. Here's another excerpt from my students' writing.


How is going? I have been very busy since we arrived back from Rome, that's why I couldn't write you before. It has been a very nice holiday and we have had fun.”

It's amazing how mixed even advanced students' writing can be: there can be something quite impressive right next to a basic mistake. So we correct the writing: 'How's it going', and 'since we got back from Rome'. This student also needs reminding that you use the past simple for finished actions, like when you're telling about your holiday in Rome.

So the corrected last sentence is, 'It was a nice holiday and we had fun'. Perfect. No mistakes. But an elementary student could have written it. How about, 'an enjoyable / unforgettable / memorable holiday'. Certain words are often upgradable, such as 'good, bad, very, nice, a lot of, big, small'.

Here's an excerpt from an essay on Spanish television. “TV provides you with a lot of services such as being updated with the latest news”. No mistakes, but 'a lot of services' can be upgraded to 'a wide range of services', and the whole last part to 'breaking news'. So where the student used six words I use two: a good upgrade! The improved sentence is, 'TV provides you with a wide range of services such as breaking news.”

Another student wrote, “To sum up, although Spanish TV is very varied and if you want you can use it well, there are so many stupid channels which are not good at all for the society.” This sentence could be upgraded to, 'To sum up, although Spanish TV is very varied, if you want to you can watch it selectively and avoid the numerous low quality programs which are harmful to society.'

A good awareness-raising activity is to write a sample sentence on the white board from the students' writing, like the one above, and ask the students to upgrade it. Then you listen to their ideas and share your own.
I have to admit that giving students detailed feedback is demanding and timeconsuming. When I have a pile of writing to mark, I try not to spend more than 10 to 15 minutes marking, correcting, and upgrading each one, which means fast work; and it can take even longer, especially if the handwriting is hard to read, or you just have to spend time trying to figure out what they mean.

By the way, I hear there's a new gizmo for computers called Screencast-o-matic, where instead of laboriously giving written feedback, you highlight different parts of the writing on the screen while giving feedback orally. Your voice is recorded and you basically end up with a video of you highlighting parts of the writing and making comments orally. You post the video somewhere like YouTube, the students watch it and get their feedback along with extra listening comprehension practice. This definitely sounds like something worth looking into.



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