The Plateau Stage - and how to get over it

The ELT Glossary already has a brief entry on the plateau stage  - a stage which often occurs at intermediate level and refers to a period during which the learner "stops learning".  However,  here we focus on it in more depth and look at...                                                          

a) What are the characteristics of the plateau stage?

b) How can learners be helped with each of these?

a)   What are the characteristics of the Plateau Stage

Richards (2008) suggests various characteristic problems occurring at the plateau stage as Ls move from low to high intermediate. These include: 

1.    Input may result in an increase in receptive competence, but new language is not transferred to productive use.

2.      a) Ls may either still lack fluency and feel insecure when asked to speak or b) may continue to use the language they are more familiar with so that although fluency may be adequate, there is no increase in productive range or complexity.
3.      Accuracy problems may occur in productive activities, with some basic errors starting to fossilise.
4.      Productive language use may be adequate in terms of accuracy but still does not sound natural – for example, it may be overformal, with learners (especially those from Romance languages) using Latinate verbs inappropriately for the register – eg. “I received a message from David”  rather than “I got a message…”  .
5.      To this I would add that any of these problems may result in learners becoming frustrated and demotivated – they will already have been studying for some time but both a) feel they are no longer making progress. Eg a high B1 level learner I taught, who constantly left off the plural “s”. When an error like “I took my two dog to the park” was pointed out, she was obviously able to self-correct but would become visibly upset, saying eg “Why do I keep doing this? Of course I know it.”
b)   Strategies to help with these problems
Problem 1

6.      The T. needs to ensure that new language is “noticed” (Schmidt, 2010) – ie processed consciously, and not just understood receptively and then forgotten, which is common at the plateau stage. It needs to be made salient. Strategies for doing this may range from highlighting it in texts,  to using guided discovery activities rather than “telling” Ls rules, to using personalisation activities which allow the Ls to relate the language to their own experiences, opinions, needs etc. All of these increase cognitive depth of processing and therefore the likelihood of retention and transference to productive use.
7.      “Noticing” and salience may also be promoted by ensuring that, when new language is introduced it is not “buried” in a mass of other language so that confusion arises. Thornbury (2011)  argues for the use of short texts which can be used to ensure full comprehension and intensive study rather than the long and complex texts often found in current coursebooks.
8.      “Noticing” through saliency and deep cognitive processing should be only the first step however. After the language focus stage, learners need both “massed” and “distributed” practice (Stevick, 1976) if the language is to be retained and transferred to productive use. “Massed” practice means giving the Ls the chance to use the language several times in the lesson where it first occurs. “Distributed” practice means ensuring it is constantly recycled and consolidated – in homework and in future lessons. This frequency of exposure contributes to further “noticing” and retention.
Problems 2-5

The follow up stage to discussion activities can be used to attack these problems. It should contain:

9.      Continual focus on inaccuracy, both of errors with recently learnt language and of low-level mistakes, to stop them fossilising. The principle that “mistakes are a natural part of language learning” (a belief underlying and promoted by the Communicative Approach) may well be true – but this doesn’t mean they will necessarily disappear if ignored. (Problem 3). Focusing on them and using Demand High techniques to practice them helps consolidate the correct forms
10.   Upgrading of correct but lower level language. Eg if a learner says “I was late because there was a lot of traffic” the teacher can use this as an affordance to introduce the lexical chunk “stuck in a traffic jam”. (Problem 2b). The same can be done for any language which is comprehensible but sounds unnatural.  (Problem 4)
11.  The chance for Ls to ask about any language they know they had problems with which may have been missed by the T as s/he was monitoring a different pair/group at the time. (Problem 2a)
12.  Focus on and praise for recently learnt language that individual Ls do transfer to productive use. Eg if in a later lesson one of the learners does use the chunk “stuck in a traffic jam” the T. can board it as  “I was late because I was s…… in a t…… j….”, elicit the missing words from the other learners and praise the learner who used it. This not only helps to provide distributed practice and frequency of exposure (see point 8) but also gives the learner who used the phrase the sense that they are, in fact, learning and progressing. (Problem 5).

     Problem 2

13.  Task repetition can be used to increase fluency and/or allow learners to practice language that has been corrected or upgraded in the follow up stage. They change partners (to add variety)  and repeat the task, concentrating on using the language that was corrected or upgraded. Tasks which can be used in this way range from roleplays to anecdote telling activities to discussions on specific topics. 

References and Further Reading

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

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

Yi, F. (2007) Yi, F. Plateau of EFL Learning: A Psycholinguistic and Pedagogical Study.

Richards, J.C, (2008)  Moving Beyond the Plateau, CUP

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


You may have noticed that I omitted Richards' point about inadequate lexical knowledge. This is because I see this as a “normal” learning need for the level rather than a specific characteristic of the plateau stage