The Common Sense Approach—Advanced EFL
by Steve Schackne


We have two advanced EFL courses at my school—one carries the designation [Advanced] the other [Fluency]. In reality, one is advanced and the other is, well, more advanced. Neither course has a text, and they tend to be rotated between teachers in the Humanities Faculty and the English Language Center. I have often seen teachers at other schools turn these courses into “special topics”; that is, instead of skills courses, they become literature courses or sociolinguistic courses. What is it about advanced EFL courses that make them difficult to develop, define, and teach?

Well, for one thing, these students already know so much; that’s why they are advanced. There is an abundance of language that can be addressed with our beginning and intermediate students—they have gaps in grammar organization, pronunciation, and usage. However, advanced students have often mastered much of what is traditionally taught in EFL courses, so that at advanced level many students see no point in continuing their EFL studies, and opt for mainstream courses. Contrary to common perceptions which often see these students as “easy to teach because of their good English,” advanced students can actually be more difficult. They are often highly motivated, demanding, and in need of challenge; furthermore, they have a hard time perceiving progress. Consequently, advanced EFL courses often concentrate on polishing their English, or as Harmer says, “learning better how to use what they already know.”

If we take Harmer’s words at face value, then an advanced course would place a greater emphasis on practice rather than on introducing new language. Most teachers would probably agree that practice at the advanced stage should be free or communicative rather than controlled. Deciding on communicative practice, a teacher can logically move to the next step and create practice activities that embody challenge, spontaneity, and genuine communicative purpose; in other words, communicative practice which is not artificial, “real communicative practice.”

A Theoretical Foundation

In previous articles I have argued that students should have control over subject areas they want to explore in developing their L2, and that as they progress through their L2 learning they should reduce formal classroom contact with their language teachers and start engaging in real life issues as a platform to polish their language. Students who have control over their content, who can bring their own life concerns to the course will more likely have a real communicative purpose. Any issue a student brings to a teacher which requires the student to use the L2 to educate, inform, amuse, entertain, or persuade can be deemed “real communicative practice.”


A Proposed Guideline

First, let students brainstorm topics they wish to develop. In intermediate classes, students can choose topics, then let the teacher develop exercises and activities around those topics. At the advanced level, I prefer to have the students develop broad topics, then narrow them; in other words, pair topics and spin-off projects.


[News]—Develop your own news broadcast for presentation

[Literature]—Write a short story with your classmates as the audience

[Stock Market]—Conduct due diligence on a stock and present your report to the class

[Education]—Develop a blueprint for education reform

[Language]—Develop a two-year intensive course in English

[Technology]—Produce a podcast

[Current Events]—Write an op/ed piece for a newspaper and then let the class debate it

[Drama]—Write and perform a one-act play

[Current Events]—Conduct a survey or poll on a relevant issue

These exercises are the types of activities native speakers engage in, so they can double as both language practice exercises and real-world practicums.

For students who are not comfortable voluntarily bringing their personal lives into a course, a more guided set of topics/projects can be proposed.


[Create A 5 Year Sustainable Development Plan For Sichuan Province]

--define “sustainable development”—

--enumerate the benefits to China—

--identify the problems and how to overcome them--

[Develop An Exit Strategy For Iraq]

--define “exit strategy”—

--develop a plan to remove foreign troops, while safeguarding Iraq’s security—

--describe the problems in developing such a plan--

[Develop A Plan For A Palestinian State Which Safeguards Israel’s Survival]

--inform your audience of the historical background of this controversy—

--describe (with visuals) the geographical problems associated with a solution--

[Develop A Permanent Solution For The “Taiwan Issue”]

--what does Taiwan want?—

--What does China want?—

--what compromise can you propose?--

[Develop A Plan To De-Nuclearize North Korea and Bring It Into the World Community]

--describe the problem from North Korea’s point of view—

--describe the problem from China’s point of view—

--describe the problem from America’s point of view—

--describe the problem from South Korea’s point of view—

--what has already been proposed in the 6-party talks?—

--what new proposal(s) would you make?--

[Develop An Initiative To Help New Orleans To Recover From Hurricane Katrina]

--why has this disaster caused so much destruction?—

--why could it have negative economic repercussions?—

--how could you safeguard the city in the future?--

[Develop A Reform Plan For The UN]

--why do most people feel the UN needs reform?—what are the problems?—

--what reforms would you suggest?—

--why is it hard to implement reforms?--

[Describe the State of the Chinese Health System and Prescribe a Plan For Improvement]

--what are the system’s strong points?—

--what are it’s weak points?—

--how would you strengthen it?—

[Macau is at a crossroads—it can turn into an Asian Las Vegas (good case scenario) or

it can turn into an Asian Atlantic City (bad case scenario)]

--why is Las Vegas considered a good case scenario?—

--why is Atlantic City considered a bad case scenario?—

--do you think Macau will become Las Vegas or Atlantic City?--

A 16-week semester involves three to five projects, with durations of three to six weeks each. Projects are divided into three separate sections—research, conference, presentation. These are group projects with, ideally, three students per group. Three seems to be an optimal number, as two creates a difficult workload for the students, and four allows an opportunity for weaker students to over-rely on stronger students. Research involves the teacher meeting the groups, questioning them about their information sources and data collection methods, and guiding them to appropriate resources, if necessary. This stage often revolves around clarifying the organizational structure of the project. Is it going to be descriptive? If so, where will the data be collected? The internet? Print media? Interviews? Is it going to be quantitative? If so, how will the data be collected? Interviews? Polls? Surveys and questionnaires? Do the students know where to collect the data and do they know how to develop and administer a questionnaire. Can they justify their choice of a project; that is, do they know why it would be interesting and/or informative for their audience, and do they know what questions they want to answer for their audience?

The conference section has the teacher meeting the groups and analyzing (perhaps challenging) their findings, and shoring up any factual or logical errors. Are their sources legitimate; that is, are they objective or do they present a pronounced point of view? Are their findings tinged with any bias-- do the students assume a particular outcome which would lead them to interpret data in a prejudicial manner? Is the “factual” material, indeed, factual? For example, is global warming a current climactic condition or is it a possible future consequence of greenhouse gas buildup?

Class presentation is when students not only introduce their work to classmates, but also field questions that may be raised by the presentation.

Although there appears to be quite a bit of teacher-student contact, it is actually a small part of the course, as students are doing a bulk of their work outside of class, and the teacher is basically operating as a resource/tutor.

The projects vary, some (e.g., writing and performing a one-act play) emphasize creativity, while others (e.g., writing an op/ed piece and letting students debate it) emphasize critical thinking skills, but they all involve the three-section format which I label research, conference, presentation, but could easily be labeled thinking, monitoring and revising, communicating, the three processes activated in almost all language events.


Students at the advanced level often don’t relate well to traditional language instruction. They are fully capable of seeking out texts for self-remediation, especially in discrete areas such as grammar and vocabulary. Rather, they need to practice their acquired language in contexts which are interesting and meaningful to them. Furthermore, this practice should involve both creative processing and logical thinking, which are cognitive dynamics that are almost always found at higher language levels. By fulfilling these two requirements, students will get useful language practice in real-world settings and situations.

Appendix I (Three Examples)

Topic Area: Drama/Literature

Project : Write a one-act play and perform it

Research : Students brainstormed storylines and examined them for

interest and dramatic adaptability.

Conference : Teacher and students went over dialog options,

looking at appropriacy, idiom, dialect. Script cues and body language

were also discussed. Teacher made suggestions; students made some

revisions based on suggestions.

Presentation : Play performance


Topic Area: Journalism, Forensics

Project : Write an opinion/editorial article and then let another group debate it

Research : Students brainstormed contemporary issues suitable for editorial treatment. Students read sample op/ed pieces from journals and newspapers. Students reviewed a tutorial on organizational guidelines for argumentation and debate.

Conference : Teacher made editorial suggestions, especially in the areas of usage and logic.

Presentation : Submission and reading of op/ed*

*The subsequent debate could either be considered presentation or an extra, project-related task.


Topic Area : Politics, Public Opinion

Project : Conduct a survey/poll on the upcoming election; present your results

to the class both orally and graphically, and draw conclusions from the results.

Research : Students brainstormed what information they wanted to glean from the survey. Students reviewed two tutorials on designing a questionnaire, one from Georgia Tech University, USA, one from the University of Leeds, UK. Students were directed to a graph generating tool offered by the National Center for Education Statistics, USA.

Conference : Teacher looked at questionnaire, made suggestions to reduce question bias and redundancy. Teacher asked the students to clarify the relationship between individual questions and election information they were seeking. Teacher and students discussed different graph options that could be used to represent survey results.

Presentation : Students presented the results of their survey, drew conclusions based on those results (level of voter turnout, victorious slate of candidates) and supplemented their presentation with bar graphs and pie charts.


Harmer, Jeremy . The Practice of English Language Teaching , Longman, 1991-2000.

Schackne, Steve . “The Common Sense Approach: How One Teacher Organized A Speaking Course For 200 Chinese Graduate Students,” in DevelopingTeachers.Com, 2005.

Schackne, Steve . The Common Sense Approach: Liberate Your ESL Students, Lead Them Out of the Classroom, TEFLAsia Magazine , January, 2006.


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning.
He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau. His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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