Intermediate Learners - Needs, Problems and Solutions

This article, originally part of our Delta Module One course, focuses on teaching intermediate learners and asks:

a) What are the needs and problems faced by intermediate learners?

b) How can these needs be met / the problems overcome?

Section a


1) Problem/Need: Lack of the necessary language to express what they want to say or need to understand in the texts they meet. At intermediate level (especially at B1 level) there will still be a lot of more complex structures which have not been taught, such as the “third conditional”, while learners, particularly those following courses primarily aimed at covering the grammatical system of English, may find that they still lack sufficient vocabulary to read authentic texts easily in English, or to express what they want to say, thus affecting their fluency.


2) Problem: Accuracy -  Mistakes may be starting to fossilise. Eg At intermediate level (B1/B2), learners have certainly met and understand  the 3rd person singular “s” of the present simple but in spontaneous production may still omit it. There is therefore a need for a focus on accuracy when the mistakes are made in order to prevent them from becoming habitual and fossilising.


3) Problem: There may be a gap between receptive and productive competence. This may result in a lack of complexity in productive activities. Eg Ls at intermediate level  may have met idiomatic expressions like “to pour with rain”, but continue to say eg “it rained a lot all weekend”. They therefore need to be encouraged, and given the opportunity to upgrade their productive use of the language.


4) Problem The downplaying of a functional approach to language common in current coursebooks, and the dominance of written text and spoken activities based on discussion of topics means that their language use outside the classroom may not sound fully natural because of a lack of knowledge of lexical chunks and conversational routines. – which may also cause comprehension problems – eg the use in a restaurant setting of  “Sorry the XXX is off today”, “Let me get this” etc. This is particularly important at intermediate level where ls need and expect to be able to start using language effectively in a wide range of situations. It is particularly important where Ls are going to be using language to talk to native speakers rather than as a lingua franca.


5) Problem: Motivation – At intermediate level Ls may feel that they have already been studying for a long time but are getting nowhere. The problems mentioned above may make them feel they have hit the “plateau stage” where they are no longer improving but just making the same mistakes and meeting the same blocks in comprehension again and again. This may be intensified by the fact that, at this level, they are liable to need to deal with authentic materials. Listening materials will contain features of connected speech which make even “simple” language incomprehensible for them, while both written and spoken texts may contain a large amount of non-transparent idiomatic language, as well as eg constructions and lexis they have not yet studied.



Section b


6) Solution:  Most intermediate level coursebooks now use a text-based approach (it is rare to find a unit without at least one and often more than one long reading texts). This can help solve the problem of extending lexical range (Problem 1)  but only of the items are “noticed” (Schmidt, 2010) by adding a language focus stage to the comprehension work, where the meaning of the items (either individual words or chunks) is clarified (including work on denotation, connotation, style, pronunciation, if the item is a chunk whether it is fixed or semi-fixed etc). This may involve the development of dictionary skills which will increase learner autonomy and enable them to go on expanding their vocabulary with lexis met outside the classroom when the T. is not available to explain.


7) SolutionHowever, if language is to be transferred from receptive competence  to productive use (Problem 3) it also needs to be practiced and recycled. Stevick (1976) refers to the need for massed practice (ie using the word several times after first encountering it) and then distributed practice (meeting it again at regular intervals throughout the course). This is particularly important at intermediate level where the amount of lexis which may be encountered in each lesson increases dramatically. The texts where the language was originally met can be used again for this purpose, adapted to form other tasks such as  running dictation (or dictogloss); gapped passages where the gaps are the focus items; sentences with the words in jumbled order; etc. Learners can also be encouraged to use active learning strategies such as creating vocabulary quizzes and games on sites such as Quizlet, and sharing them with other class members. In addition, Nation and Wang (1999) have emphasised the value of extensive reading (using graded readers at lower levels to ensure comprehensible input) to ensure that language items which have already been met are constantly re-encountered.


8) Solution: Scaffolding of spoken activities can help improve fluency (Problem 1). Before the activity the T. needs to reactivate any language which s/he knows will be essential. This may be done by eg brainstorming lexis connected to the topic to be discussed; listening to a recording of proficient speakers having the same conversation; giving learners time to plan what they want to say and giving them the chance to ask for any language they know will block them; etc. This means the learners have the necessary language at the forefront of their minds while doing the activity, which at intermediate level may not otherwise be true,  and fluency will be improved.


9) Solution: The follow-up stage to a spoken or written activity can help both with accuracy and complexity (Problems 2 and 3). The T. can list on the board a variety of things that s/he overheard while monitoring and the Ls can be invited to correct or upgrade them, possibly working first in pairs before a full class confirmation. Eg if an intermediate L has said “It rained a lot” the teacher can tick the sentence to show it was correct, but then ask the learners if they remember another expression : “It p……….. with r………..”  If, on the other hand, the expression has not yet been met, it can be fed in.  Demand High techniques (Underhill and Scrivener) can then be used to practice the language. Eg if a mistake has been made with the third person “s” it can be corrected, but learners can then be asked to “tell me something you know about your partner’s current life using one of these verbs – live, like, go, study, play, (etc). Ideally, learners should then have the chance to change partners and repeat the task, in order to “polish” their performance. This focus on “emergent language” (Thornbury) provides “pushed output”. In her “Output Hypothesis”, Swain posited that it is this sort of reformulation of a message to make it more communicatively effective which promotes acquisition.


10) Solution: Immediate Task repetition (Problems 1, 2 and 3). Once this feedback has been given, learners can then change partners and repeat the task, attempting to produce an upgraded version which is more fluent, more accurate and/or more complex (depending on their problems). Various writers have argued for the value of this type of task repetition. This can then be followed by further feedback and upgrading and possibly even another repetition of the task.


11) Solution: Task repetition at various points in the course can be used to ensure intermediate  learners are making progress, and to ensure that they recognise it (Problem 5) While, the repetition of a speaking task with a new partner can show them an immediate improvement from the first to the second attempt, using a task with no follow up at the beginning of the course, and then later in the course when various items necessary for its successful completion have been focused on can show them their overall progress. This might be eg  a speaking task which is recorded (only likely to be feasible with small groups); a reading or listening comprehension activity; a writing activity – or even a discrete item test. The initial use of the task can serve a diagnostic purpose for the teacher, while the second use serves as a progress test. Comparing performance between the first and second attempts will help motivate the Ls.


12) Solution: To help with the problem of lack of necessary language (Problem 1), Ls can be taught coping strategies such as circumlocution, so that if eg they need but don’t know the word “saddle”, they can say “It’s the thing which you put on a horse and which you sit on when you ride”, which at intermediate level should be feasible for them. Circumlocution can be taught and practised by eg the T. showing the learners a number of pictures of objects they won’ know the word for and describing one of them – the learners have to identify which it is. The structure used to describe it can then be analysed, and a couple more examples given. After this receptive phase, Ls can work in pairs to develop circumlocutions for the other objects.

13) Solution The situations where the Ls are liable to need to use English (eg in a restaurant, writing emails etc)  can be identified through a needs analysis and the T. can check to what extent and how effectively these are covered in the coursebook (Problem 4). By intermediate level it should be possible to deal with most situations, skills etc needed within the language  learners can cope with. If the situations etc are not included in the textbook, specific lessons need to be developed to focus on them. If they are, but insufficient attention is paid to formulaic chunks like those in point 5, these can be fed in as appropriate.


14) The demotivating effect of authentic texts on intermediate level learners (Problem 5) can be dealt with in two ways :

Solution 1: Thornbury suggests scrapping long texts and the “you don’t need to understand everything” approach (which Ls often find frustrating) and using only short texts which can be fully exploited so that Ls reach the point of “zero uncertainty” – ie they have a full understanding of the whole text.

Solution 2: Again, coping strategies can be taught such as inferring from context and co-text; recognising the difference between items that are essential or incidental to comprehension etc.


Nation, P.  and Wang, K. (1999) Graded Readers and Vocabulary

Scrivener. J. and Underhill, A. Demand High ELT

Schmidt, R. (2010) Attention, awareness, and individual differences in language  learning

Stevick, E.W. (1976) Memory, Meaning and Method, Newbury House

Thornbury, S. (2011) Z is for Zero Uncertainty

Related Reading from the Notebook

Using Different Dictation Techniques

The Plateau Stage - and how to get over it

Improving intermediate (CEFR B1) learners’ ability to tell anecdotes using a planning and rehearsal approach

Teaching Functionally to Develop Pragmatic Competence

Developing CIrcumlocution Strategies