Thursday, December 15, 2022
Even a few years ago, the idea of students gaining a C2 qualification before the age of 18 would have seemed farfetched to many, or at least something which could only be achieved by those who had been educated in a bilingual setting. However, and as we have been speaking about this month, there has been a change in the student profile at higher levels and we are seeing a surge in the number of younger students studying more advanced English.
In the past, C2 classes were full of adults who had achieved a good enough level in their teenage years but wanted to really push their language later on, whether for pleasure or for professional purposes. The norm is no longer for students ‘just’ to achieve a B2 level before advancing to higher education institutions, in fact the majority are expected to reach C1 (Cambridge Advanced) by the age of 18. This change can be put down to a number of factors, including the availability of private English classes, the increase in the number of schools offering some subjects in English and the advent of streaming services such as Netflix which allow students to watch non-dubbed films and series.
As teachers, we have had the pleasure of seeing some of our students reach C2 at the age of 16, and we started to wonder what it was that really made the difference at this level. After interviewing them, we have put together our main conclusions on how we, as teachers, can spot these students and help them achieve their English learning goals.
Students at this level are usually very motivated individuals and, although it sounds obvious, really do like learning English. You cannot get this far without enjoying what you are learning and for many of the younger students, English is something that they enjoy having contact with, even outside of class. When asked what they liked about studying at this level, one joked that ‘people say, “Oh she’s smart, she has the Proficiency” and it makes me feel so good.’ As well as being motivated by the obvious bragging rights that come with having such a high level, they also mention that they enjoy the fact that they now feel much more ‘in touch’ with how people speak English on a daily basis. For instance, every time they learn something new in class which they subsequently hear in an authentic situation outside of class, it makes them feel great. In essence, the more you improve the more motivation you have to learn and understand even more.
As well as the motivation for the language itself, there’s also the joy that comes with ‘getting the full set’ of Cambridge exams and knowing that you have reached the highest qualification you can get in terms of demonstrating your English language knowledge. Just as you would enjoy reaching the highest level of your favourite videogame or finishing every episode of your favourite Netflix series.
In the words of one of our students ‘it’s not as hard as it seems, people think it’s extremely hard but it’s not that bad.’ Of course, we’re not going to deny that anything about C2 is easy for anyone, let alone someone who hasn’t even started university yet, but it’s much more accessible than many would give it credit for.
For our girls, there was much more of a jump from the First (B2) to the Advanced (C1) than there was from Advanced to Proficiency (C2). Perhaps this is true in terms of grammar and general language skills, however C2 is definitely a big step up regarding the vocabulary and expressions you have to know. The students admitted that when you study C2, you come across so many words you have never seen or heard before and this is something that can make it tricky, especially for a younger learner. Some of the more formal vocabulary and set phrases are ones that these students haven’t even encountered in their L1, so we have to teach them essentially from scratch, without the knowledge of the mother tongue to support understanding.
As well as the more formal vocabulary and set phrases, you also find a substantial amount of colloquial language at this level, which can prove challenging for younger students. Because of this, and as mentioned above, most of the younger learners who reach this level have plenty of contact with the language in its authentic form outside of the classroom. A lot of the more idiomatic language at this level is something which students may recognise from TV series or even books they have read, and this inevitably supports and accelerates the learning process.
The exam itself, C2 Proficiency, is not that different in terms of its format from the other exams in Cambridge’s upper main suite (UMS) of exams. As one student stated, ‘The First and Advanced helped me in terms of how to do a test. If I hadn’t done them, I would feel very overwhelmed at this level.’ They also mentioned that the tricky part of doing any exam, especially at this level, is ‘fitting all of my knowledge into the exam box’ and knowing what is expected of you and how to complete the exam tasks correctly.
Not only do students who successfully reach this level at a young age know the true value of diligently completing homework, but also ensuring you surround yourself with English on a regular basis. Getting to and passing this level is going to involve so much more than just completing the coursebook material and doing the activities your teacher sets for you to do at home.
Our students commented on the fact that their ‘contact with the language is constant’ and that most of them ‘exclusively read and watch TV in English’. When asked if they review what they have learnt in class, they told us that they’d very rarely look over their notes at home, stating that ‘watching TV and reading means you can practise but not really study’. This active consumption of English outside of the classroom seems to be the winning formula for any student at this level, but especially for those younger students who progress quickly in their learning of English.
For younger students, it’s hard to help them see how this high-level qualification will be bring them countless benefits in the future. For many, just getting through the last few years of school is hard enough, without adding the extra stress of studying English up to C2. Most students know that they need to get C1 to access a lot of higher education institutions and for future employment opportunities, however they don’t necessarily see the value in reaching C2.
One of our students commented on the fact that ‘people around me sometimes say “I don’t want to become a teacher; I don’t need Proficiency.” But you don’t lose anything by having the Proficiency.’ This is definitely a true observation of the vast majority of those who study English at some point in their lives. It is also true that we need to make younger students (and their parents, perhaps) aware of the fact that it is much more difficult to get back into the swing of studying English at a high level later on in life, especially if there has been a long learning gap.
It seems to be that the most effective ways of helping our students reach C2 is by helping them see that the hard work that they put in is something that will pay off in the long run and that C2 is nothing to be scared of. Whilst a C1 qualification is definitely noting to be scoffed at, being able to demonstrate a C2 level of English at a young age is something that not many of their peers will be able to do.
So, after having said all of the above, how can we actually identify these students in our classes? We think it comes down to us teachers not being afraid to push our students and actively encourage the more able ones to aim high. Many teachers shy away from pushing students who are doing well, and can tend to focus more on those who are struggling in class. It will always be the case that more able students often cause fewer classroom management issues and don’t necessarily get the attention that they should in the classroom. However, this can end up being detrimental to those students, who may well end up feeling bored and frustrated at lower levels as they know they can do so much more.
Through a formal continuous assessment programme, as well as analysing classroom performance, we can identify students who are working above the expected level for their age. In doing so, we can make informed judgements on whether that student should progress through the levels one by one, or perhaps skip one. The only way that students are going to be able to achieve C2 before finishing school is by identifying these students at lower levels and moving them up according to their attainment as opposed to keeping them with those of the same age. The most convenient levels to skip are the ‘plus’ levels in which the student has proven to be very strong at the previous level. For example, moving a student straight from an A2 group to a B1, rather than getting them to do A2+.
Sometimes, it boils down to us knowing what to look out for in our students and having the faith in them to suggest that they move through the levels more quickly. However, we have seen that it is worth the gamble (if you can even call it that) and the results can be truly amazing. Sending one of your students off to university with a C2 under their belt is something very special and one which will undoubtedly contribute positively to their future.
We’d like to end on the words of our students ‘it’s hard work, but it pays off’ and I think this is true for both teachers and students of C2. If we take the risk, it can provide students with opportunities that they would never have imagined and a qualification that really sets them apart from the rest.