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Upper Intermediate ESL Teaching Tips

written by: Jessica Ocheltree • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 8/2/2012

This article will give you some tips for writing ESL speaking lesson plans. Upper intermediate students have mastered most of the basic grammar and with a fair amount of vocabulary. They can communicate well, so it's harder to pinpoint where they need to improve. These tips will help.

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    What Is ab Upper Intermediate ESL Student?

    The first question we need to ask ourselves is what are the characteristics of upper intermediate students. Every school, textbook series and test has its own exact definitions and each student is different, but generally speaking, upper intermediate students have the following characteristics:

    • Grammar: Upper intermediate students have a solid grasp of basic present, future, past and perfect tenses. They should be able to use modals and conditional mood correctly. They may still struggle with more complex tense structures such as past perfect, but they at least understand what they mean. They are also likely to struggle with the subjunctive mood, particularly if their native language doesn't have an analogous mood.
    • Vocabulary: Upper intermediate students are usually past the point where they are often stumped for words. However, their vocabulary is limited to basic terms and they will have trouble distinguishing the nuances between synonyms.
    • Other characteristics: Accent is usually becoming less pronounced by this point. Students will have overcome the shyness and hesitancy that marks many beginners. They will be comfortable initiating conversations and asking questions.
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    Introducing Discussion Exercises

    One excellent way to improve your students' speaking and conversation skills is to introduce discussion exercises into your lesson plans. Be careful, though. At this level, students still need to study and practice grammar, so discussion shouldn't be the entire focus of your lesson.

    Try a strategy that starts will grammar instruction and moves to discussion as the class progresses. The discussion section should include questions that will most likely elicit the target grammar.

    For example, you could begin the lesson by introducing the past conditional. Observe students while they are doing drills and structured practice. If it seems like they have the structure and meaning down, then you can introduce a discussion question to see if they can apply the grammar in conversation. In this case, a question like "What is your biggest regret?" should get students to use phrases like "If I hadn't..., I would have..."

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    Getting Ready for Advanced Lessons

    Sharpening their discussion skills will help prepare students for advanced classes, but they also need some help realizing where their own weaknesses are. As a teacher, you need to get a little stricter about correction at this point and to push students out of their comfort zones.

    Concerning correction, it is especially important to look for places where students consistently make mistakes with lower level grammar. If a student often uses the wrong irregular past tense verbs, point it out to them and suggest they review that section of their textbook or provide them with some materials.

    Getting your students out of their comfort zone is one of the hardest things for ESL teachers to do, since students haven't made a mistake, per se. One thing you can do is to ask them to rephrase what they said using a particular grammar point. You can also brainstorm ideas as a class. For example, if a student says a movie was "good," ask the class to come up with words to replace the word "good." You can use it as an opportunity to talk about the differences in nuance. The key is to get students thinking about their language and how small changes can influence understanding and broaden expression.