This is how advanced grammar changes language skills
While it’s clear that language becomes more nuanced and complex as higher levels, it’s not always clear exactly how this is happening. As an instructor who teaches high level grammar, I’ve had plenty of time to notice the differences in action – and show students what is happening to their English as it advanced.
So what’s happening as students progress? Let’s look at how we talk about news or share information. We can do this simply or with more complexity, depending on how well we dominate the language. At lower levels, we tend to do a lot of reporting. We share what we did and where we did it. However, at higher levels, it’s not so important what we did, rather how we did it. In other words, more sophistication combines reporting with sensory expression. Let’s run through a scenario along with a couple of example sentences that you might hear across a range of levels.
“I watched the news yesterday. I have a television in my living-room.”
At this level, students are concerned with basic communication and focus greatly on mastering vocabulary words and memorizing expressions. They will spend a lot of time practicing past tense, as seen in the form “watched”, the verb “have” and its possessive function, the preposition “in”, and the target language “living-room”. Teaching A2/B1 students this sentence and all its nuances can be rather ambitious. They will need repetition and a lot of practice.
“Yesterday I watched the news with my family. The newscaster was talking about Brexit and market volatility. I hope to study finance one day.”
At this level, students have almost mastered the past tense and can now focus on placing the adverb “yesterday” at the beginning, instead of at the end like in the first example. By doing so, the student recognizes that the new placement of the adverb refocuses the emphasis of the sentence. Also at this level, the student focuses on higher level, contextual target language words like “newscaster”, “Brexit”, and “volatility”. Additionally, the student also uses the subjunctive “I hope”, instead of “I wish”, making the correct distinction between the likely and unlikely future outcome.
Level C2 (proficient)
“Yesterday, while curled up on the couch after dinner, I watched the news with my family. Margaret Gaskell, a chief financial analyst, was being interviewed on the subject of Brexit and market volatility …”
The student uses a subordinate clause beginning with “while” to demonstrate that two actions were taking place at once. The student watched the news and was “curled up” on the couch. A C2 student focuses on using this specific phrasal verb. The student also uses an appositive to provide additional information about Margaret Gaskell. The student’s use of the name could tell the reader that this student has high listening comprehension skills. The student also remembered the name and the job title of the interviewee, and the term “chief financial analyst” also demonstrates the student’s awareness of collocations for the words “financial” and “analyst”. The student writes using the passive voice to indicate emphasis of the action “being interviewed” and again uses the vocabulary, or target language, “Brexit” and “volatility”.
Tips for guiding advanced students
In my personal experience, as a teacher of various grammar elective classes which include advanced grammar (levels C1/C2), the students believe that they know every rule ever written. Notably, they speak with few errors, recognize formal and informal expressions, and are confident speakers and writers. However, one area that frustrates them are grammar points with seemingly no explanations. It can be the bane of any student to be told by teachers, “there isn’t any explanation for this,” and “this is just the way it is.”
There are occasions in which this is an acceptable answer. However, it can be said with more sophistication and tact. Try: “this expression is fixed (it is a fixed expression), therefore it’s excluded from conventional grammar rules,” or “that’s a good question, let’s see if we can’t find the answer on the Internet later.” (The latter response is a good deflection strategy, since most students are probably not interested in researching the answer later. However, if they are, everyone can learn something new. As the teacher, if you don’t know the answer and are able to commit to researching and reporting on it later, your students will trust you even more as an instructor worth recommending.)
In defense of style
When students get frustrated with complex rules that appear in advanced grammar books, remind them that they are learning style. The use of style is something only few master, and even fewer are capable of recognizing. On social media, style seems to have been given up due to character limitations and shortened attention spans. Non-native speaker students should be reminded that they are a part of a small number of people that are privileged enough to develop their language ability to such an advanced level, and it should be incumbent on them to exercise their minds in the use of style.
If you’d like to read more on methodology or pedagogy, I suggest consulting these books:
Oxford Collocations Dictionary For Students (Oxford University Press)
Learning Teaching by Jim Scriviner (MacMillan)
How to Teach English by Jeremy Harmer (Longman)
A-Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury (MacMillan)