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Teaching the most able

I spent my career teaching students of above average aptitude in two grammar schools and one independent so I modestly put forward some thoughts on how to get the best out of the most able students. What I have learned comes from my own practice and from watching other teachers at work. Of course, some of the strategies I enumerate below will apply to a wide range of pupils. Where can you draw the line between AGT students and others?

Generally speaking "gifted and talented" linguists have certain characteristics. I would pick out:

1. Good powers of concentration
2. A desire to learn and work hard
3. An openness to language learning
4. An ability discriminate sounds and reproduce them quite accurately
5. An ability to see patterns in language
6. In many cases a strong sense of competitiveness
7. A desire to be accurate
8. Very good memory skills
9. High expectations of themselves
10. High expectations of their teacher

With these characteristics in mind I found that the following strategies worked well, produced motivated classes and good results.

1. Use lots of target language in a structured, graded fashion, resorting to English only for grammar explanation, class control issues, some cultural input and some explaining of activities.

2. Do quite a lot of teacher-led work, thus maximising high quality input at just the right pace.

3. Pitch the lesson at just the right level for the group, maybe, on average, above the middle.

4. Make sure the most brilliant are challenged with special attention, allowing them to give good examples and giving them oral and written tasks which allow them to extend e.g. extended oral answers and lots of creative composition work.

5. Having extra work always available for the fastest workers.

6. Telling them about how language learning works so that they buy into your approach.

7. Be very critical of average work when you know it could have been better. They will almost invariably show off what they can do next time.

8. Challenge their memories with tests and short term memory tasks such as oral gap fill based on a text you have been working on.

9. Let them know you are smart; they like smart teachers. They may want to show how good they can be.

10. Don't be afraid to do lots of practice examples e.g. grammar drills, but vary the challenge and give hardest examples to best students.

11. Use no-hands up from time to time to keep all students on their toes, but not all the time as you need to let the best show off a bit.

12. Don't play too many games or do gimmicky lessons or they will think they are wasting their time.

13. Do plenty of structured pair work as they will use the time well and gain confidence orally.

14. Do some traditional grammar-translation work. They are good at it and enjoy solving puzzles. Not too much, though, as it will limit target language input.

15. Use humour. They get it. But never, ever patronise.

16. Strongly encourage them to do a study trip or, better, an exchange. This will give a huge boost to progress and motivation.

17. Occasionally tell them how good they are to boost self-esteem and produce even better work. Not all able children have high self-esteem. 

18. Try to make sure they are in ability sets. Research suggests that, overall, streaming and setting does not improve achievement, but in languages my strong feeling is that it will benefit the most able.

19. Do not be a slave to the course. Choose activities you know will stimulate.

20. Use the assessment/exam regime to motivate. It seems like a cop-out, but able children are very motivated indeed by exam success and grades.


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"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

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"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

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