Progressive Rock

When I first started teaching in the private sector I remember, on a virtually termly basis having conversations with learners insistent that despite all evidence to the contrary, “I advance class soon?” Sometimes “I IELTS 7?” and occasionally “Please, I FCE.” These were, of course, learners paying for their course, which added a certain frisson to proceedings – students felt that, seeing as they were paying goodness knows how much money, they were entitled to gain the qualification they wanted.

This was one of the reasons I took the plunge ESOL wards when I returned to the UK from New Zealand (the others were generally pragmatic, like there being jobs, and therefore money). I was getting heartily sick of explaining in English accessible to an elementary learner that they simply would not do it in the time frame, no matter how much money they or their sponsors threw at it.

A qualification is where the amorphous, hard to measure element of education intersects with the unpleasant reality of economic life. You take your achievement, whatever the subject, and you funnel it into one piece of paper which you can hand out to other people as a status symbol. Very few people are in the position of gathering a qualification just for fun (Although lots of people would like to learn for fun, of course). That is the point of a qualification, to recognise your achievement.

When I first moved into ESOL, achievement of qualifications was important, but not the be all and end all. Not least because at the time, 3 years into skills for life, nobody had really got the exams sorted, so apart from the obvious exams like Cambridge main suite, there were no real qualifications for learners. Certainly Cambridge took their time, quite rightly trialling and carefully working out the qualifications. I spent some time in 2005 being an examiner for Trinity, although I only really did it about twice, and these felt a little cobbled together at the time.

Anyway, the thing is, the learners at the time were not into qualifications, and for many learners the whole business of levels was not really an issue. They came, they learned, they went home. Regardless of what the chancellor may be implying at the moment, ESOL learners have always wanted to learn English, as often as not, just because they recognise that they need it, not because they want to get a qualification. But over time, the exams themselves became an important marker of progress for learners. There is nothing at all wrong with this; what is wring with having recognition of your achievement? I’m not criticising this at all.

One of the challenges thrown up by the increasing focus on qualifications is that the focus can shift for learners from not what they are learning and what they have learned, but on the achievement of the qualification in an of itself. This is particularly true at the upper end where learners have the language skills necessary to negotiate, and the qualifications begin to have higher stakes, especially in terms of employment and further qualification. At this level (level 1 & 2) many learners are also encountering the intermediate plateau, meaning that the speedy progress they enjoyed at the low levels is beginning to level off and they struggle to move forward to achieve the full qualification. This is quite a dangerous mixture: the feeling of frustration combined with higher stakes qualifications means that learners may start to feel demoralised. In some cases this may even become annoyance, because they feel that their teacher is not giving them the opportunity to have a go at the exam at the next level, or push them up an extra level, even if they think they might fail.

This, of course, is the other end of the situation. It’s increasingly hard, as success rate benchmarks increase, there is pressure on teachers to ensure that as many learners as possible pass their exams. Now, no teacher or institution would ever enter learners a level below their needs, or at least no institution I have ever worked for, but we do enter learners cautiously at a level we are confident they will be able to pass by the end of the course. Again, there’s nothing at all wrong here: why put a learner through a qualification they have a high risk of failing? How does that help the learner? But that can be quite hard to explain to some learners, especially where they are willing to take the risk for the possible gain of a level 1 or level 2 qualification. Pushing “get lucky” students through also has dangers, where learners who actually need a further year at, say, entry 2 end up doing an entry 3 speaking and listening qualification when their English is still barely past Entry 2. It’s a tough conversation to have with a learner, but sometimes it doesn’t take just one year to move up a level, or two years.

Even in more codified, less responsive contexts like international ELT this delay in progression is a known phenomenon. I once knew a Japanese lady who worked hard, attended well, participated in class, had no known learning difficulties, but simply progressed very very slowly. It’s not a very popular thing to say in an age aspiring to equality, but in the same way I have struggled and wonder if I will ever learn how to cut a straight line across a piece of wood, some learners simply do not have the knack for languages. Some learners, of course, have a particular talent, and the vast majority of learners do learn at a reasonable pace (intermediate plateau notwithstanding) but in an ESOL provision of hundreds of learners, some of them are going to struggle. And it’s not necessarily a sign of a learning difficulty, it’s just an issue of (measurable) aptitude.

So, in practical terms, as I have to do today, when faced with a learner desperate to move up but who you know needs to consolidate their language at their current level, what do you do? My answer is evidence, usually. Use a practice paper for the next level, give them a test for their current level and talk through the mistakes and the problems they have. It is likely to be demoralising for some learners, especially if you are implying that they go onto a third year of their current level. Talk to them about what they do outside class (not a lot, I suspect) and see if they can improve that. And of course, there is the carrot, the hoary “if your new teacher thinks you are ready, perhaps you can take the exam early” softener. But I am always honest (ish), and talk to students about how their language learning works (the input hypothesis is always a good one to talk about, if you can), what they have achieved, and what they can do to get past where they are stuck. Remind them that they will be able to walk into the exam, after a bad night’s sleep, a bad day at work and a grumpy, noisy family morning and still pass the exam with ease.

But it’s hard, sometimes, this progression stuff, and some learners will always find it hard not to move up to the next level. All we can do is explain, help and support.



  1. Hi Sam
    You’re absolutely right in what you say – the trouble we have in our FE institution is that we can’t fund learners to do the same qualification more than once and we are under pressure to ensure that our success rates are good. It often happens that learners have done E3 quals (but barely passed) are not ready for Level 1 (there’s quite a jump between these two levels especially and as you rightly say, at this point, learners often plateau). If we don’t feel confident that they can pass in a year, we can’t enrol then on L1 quals, so they are stuck. I’d be interested to know what your college does in this situation. Best, Jo

  2. Hi Sam and Jo,
    We have similar problems in Scotland, with students managing to scrape through qualifications at one level but not necessarily ready to move up to the next. This affects the students’ ability to get funding as they can’t get access to a bursary if they are repeating a level. I suppose the government would say that this is an extra motivation for students to be successful and to make the most of the opportunity that funding gives them. But as you say, Sam, some people just aren’t very quick language learners. the current system allows people who are good at learning English to continue to learn, and people who aren’t very good are not allowed to continue studying, which means they will never get good at English and will therefore only be able to make a limited contribution to society. That doesn’t seem quite right to me…

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