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Upper-Intermediate English Students

Upper-intermediate learners have taken great strides in mastering English. Vocabulary and grammar from the beginning stages of learning hasn't yet become automatic, but they can talk about a variety of everyday topics with relative ease. In fact, when talking about the weather, hobbies, work, or subjects of personal interest, they sound much stronger ability-wise than in truth they are. Discussion on difficult, unfamiliar topics is achievable, too. So what differentiates an upper-intermediate ESL learner from someone a few rungs down on the skills' ladder? What makes him different from an advanced learner?

Upper-intermediate students understand far more than they can say. This may lead to frustration. They can explain around unknown words or phrases, but do so slowly, perhaps with frequent pauses. Their explanations sometimes also suffer from a lack of clarity, stemming from fluency problems or from a weakness with vocabulary. In the latter case, a less than clear understanding of prefixes, suffixes, noun forms, verb forms, etc. is the root of the problem.

Even more vexing, though, is the fact that their skills aren't yet up to the task of reading newspapers, magazines, and other sources covering current events--at least, not without a dictionary, time, and patience. Nuance is often lost, as well as other subtleties of language in these cases. In addition, even after careful study, upper-intermediate ESL learners may only understand the big picture plus a few details, as opposed to feeling comfortable with the article or topic to discuss it at length, or even quote from it. This may similarly lead to frustration, particularly in adult learners, who want to go beyond the surface details. So many textbooks don't successfully address the desire to study hot topics.

Conversation strategies have begun to find their way into conversations, as upper-intermediate learners become increasingly aware of intonation; rates of speech; polite versus formal English; English for general conversation, making requests, or complaining. Inconsistency is evident, and the student's first language still heavily influences his ability with effectively using these strategies. Narratives have gotten significantly longer because of phrases and conjunctions which link ideas together. Yet this skill remains mostly relegated to familiar or personal topics. There is a sense of creativity with the language, as students work towards incorporating previously learned structures with new ideas.

When it comes to writing, upper-intermediate learners can handle simple stories, ideas, and declarations. There will be a noted misuse of vocabulary, as they experiment with new or uncommon words, particularly because there is more time to think about each sentence than when speaking. Reading, as has been mentioned, allows students to understand the big picture, but a lengthy article from Time or Newsweek, for example, would be beyond their ability.

What final words can summarize upper-intermediate students?

1: Experimentation with language goes hand-in-hand with this level, as they possess the foundation and skills to move beyond everyday topics.

2: Mistakes are evident in even basic communicative tasks, but they don't usually hinder comprehension.

3: And perhaps the best measure is the following: Upper-intermediate students can be understood by native English speakers with little difficulty, although some repetition may be needed. What's more, even native speakers unfamiliar with the usual mistakes and idiosyncrasies connected with the ESL speaker's mother tongue can understand the conversation.

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