For online English teacher, handling mid-level/advanced English learners.

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Taze, Online English teacher at Acadsoc, specialised in Business English.

Taze, Online English teacher at Acadsoc, specialised in Business English.

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We all know how difficult and challenging learning a new language is. If you consider yourself as an intermediate or advanced English learner, you deserve a pat on the back. It must’ve taken a lot of perseverance, discipline, and focus for you to be where you are right now. Congratulations!

That’s what I tell my students every time if they have proven themselves a mid/high English based on my class.


But sometimes, people who’ve reached this stage in their learning feel like they’re not learning more. It’s when they think they’re in a bottleneck.

Proficiency in the language means that a student is able to hone their strengths and improve on weaknesses in speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

So how you, as an online English teacher can continue to improve their English performance and make them feel progress every day?

You may also read these two articles that I strongly recommend and they may help you better understand my opinions:

How to teach cross-cultural classes?

Chinese education culture

Things to know ahead:

When a student, especially a Chinese student has hit intermediate level or above, roughly B2-C2 in CEFR system (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), 6-9 in IELTS test and above 80 in TOEFL test, he/she should have captured most of the English grammar.  What stops him/her from going further can be lack of fluency, thinking in Chinese, misuse of words/expressions, too simple/complex sentence structure… And some students might be really good at English speaking, especially those who lived abroad or studied abroad before but have terrible writing skills, which I call the imbalance in 4 directions (speaking, listening, reading and writing).

to figure out the problem first and then apply a problem-oriented strategyThe core is, to figure out the problem first and then apply a problem-oriented strategy. General ESL guidelines and materials we used every day have a very limited effect on these students. As far as I know, most ESL material makers designed English learning in a very clear timeline from day 1 to day 365, from the beginning level to highest level. However, for Online English learning, there is no guarantee that a student will stick to the same teacher and same material from the first day. They may choose another company, another textbook, stop their English learning for some reason… at any time in their English learning experience.

My solution and suggestion will be: diversified your strategy for different problems and situations.

I call it the easiest case to handle compared with all the other problems in mid/high-level students.

If you hear an NBA player broke his/her leg, what will be your suggestions for his/her recovery? Keep playing? Rest in a bed? Take more pain-killers?…No.

Our goal is to make sure his broken leg will have a full recovery. That’s why one needs to organically combine rehabilitation with proper rest to re-capture what was lost before.

We shall learn from professional doctors, in this case, letting our students recall first what has left in his/her mind. If your student is not sure, create a small test, 2-3 questions to estimate how much English remains in his/her brain.

For this kind of student, the golden rule is, always, the first class is a class for review and recall only, not to introduce new skills or knowledge. Remember, you shall be a partner, or more likely a mentor, to help your student discover what he/she has captured.  All following classes after that should begin with review and recap as well before introducing new English knowledge and skills.

One of my students, Peter, who wants to learn business English for a new job. He did not use his English for 5-6 years after graduation and fully devotes himself to his current job. In the first trial class, I was surprised, Peter had a pretty good English foundation. And later, by chatting with him, I knew that his English score back in the school was always the top 5 in his class and he once considered about studying abroad after graduating from high school.

To further evaluate his strength and weaknesses in ESL, I gave him a test paper designed by myself with 5 brief questions on it. After seeing his work, I had my diagnosis: Peter lost some of his English speakings and listening ability, while his writing and reading skills maintained as if he were in the university. In the first class, I tried to recap more writing and reading skills with him because those were his blessings. Not a surprise, he still kept in mind many test-preparation skills he learned in school, like locating keywords/key sentences, quick reading, writing in a given structure/template, etc. I tried my best to make him feel confident about ESL learning: ‘Wow! I already know so much about English’.

Moving forward, I told him we would learn Business English writing from our second class, followed by Business English reading in the next phase at the end of our first class. I can still remember the determination and energy he showed to move forward out of his comfort zone. In our second class, I applied such class structure: First, discuss something Peter already captured in the last class and then move on to something similar but he did not know. And circulate this process once and once again till our tenth class, the end of BEC writing training phase.

Finally, he didn’t disappoint me. Though he hesitated to write any single word without a template in the first class, he could finish an official Business Email in the last class without my assistance. When we were chatting after class, Peter told me, ‘Thank you, Teacher Taze. You made me feel that my English ability is still useful. ‘

It is more than just a teaching method, but a psychological method as well, to keep your student’s confidence and faith by introducing new knowledge from an already captured one.

Actually, this situation mostly happens with mid-level students, particularly those who just promoted from a lower level.

It is a good thing that someone being modest and keeps questioning about his/her skills. However, it always has a negative effect stopping them to tear off the tag ‘low English level student’. Encouragement is necessary, with no doubt, but how? I discussed with many other English teachers and peers for the answer, and gradually, after hearing other’s word, reviewing my experience in learning English, I figure out my own way to solve it.

Another student of mine called Susan, a really shy but clever girl. She chose marketing as her major in university and wants to apply for an MBA degree abroad in the future, maybe in the US or UK. Our first class was full of dramatical moments like I was the judge of a talent show talking to the performer. When I said something or interrupted her speaking, she remained silent and had no courage to ‘look at’ me through the webcam. Every time, after finishing a sentence, she will look down somewhere with a terrified look, seemingly waiting for my ‘judgement’ or ‘score’.

Her English level, for as much as I knew from the first 15 minutes of the class, was actually in mid-level. Hence, I decided to raise her up in the last 10 minutes of our class, to set a good relationship for the following classes later. I tried to type Chinese words and letters as many as I can (I only know very little about Chinese), even the holiday greetings that I heard from my online English teachers’ group. I made very foolish mistakes and I saw a smile on her face, for the first time in the class.

I did that for a reason, not just joking and make the atmosphere more lively. I let the student play the role as teacher and I would play the role as a student. ‘Susan, please, try to correct my mistakes in Chinese using English!’ I told Susan and encouraged her several times. Initially, she only dared to speak in a very low voice and a short sentence, and I tried my best to follow her instructions. After several rounds of trying, finally, I correctly pronounced and understood a Chinese sentence.  What Susan might not notice was that I kept myself highly engaged in my process of learning. I kept asking, following and imitating. I would not stop and wait for a judgement. And meanwhile, her volume was getting higher and more confident when teaching me.

After I correctly spoke out the sentence and fully comprehended what it meant, I told Susan, ‘Look, you can help a native speaker learn Chinese by using English, why you keep thinking your English is not good enough? If I am the boss of a Mandarin training facility, I will hire you for sure!’

Of course, I cannot wipe out her fear and self-doubt about online English learning in just 25 minutes, but I kept using the same strategy for our classes later. I will be her teacher for 15 minutes and she will be my teacher for the other 10 minutes. As I expected, in the last class we met, I can surely tell that she is not only a real mid-level English learner but a high-level Chinese teacher too. And I told her, there are no set criteria for judging English level, at least not for me. All I insist, and I believe all online English teachers shall hold, is that one’s English level only depends on how well he/she can use your English in real life and business. Scores, to be honest, are just reference to help teachers make their judgement in the quickest way.

‘You know what, Susan… If I am the boss of a Mandarin training school in the US, I will hire you for sure! Not matter your English level is at low/mid/high level, at least it is enough for my business!’


Please follow me at Acadsoc official blog. I will share more interesting cases and teaching experience later with you. Thank you for reading my stories, I really appreciate it!


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