Tips for getting past challenges when “hitting a plateau”


Hey guys! My name is Deniz and I’ve been teaching at Langports Sydney for just over a year now. Today, I want to talk about one of the biggest challenges faced by many of our intermediate students. It is called ‘hitting a plateau’.

Let me define plateau /ˈplatəʊ/ through an example

Students in classroom learning English - challenges

I was 14 years old when my parents bought me my first computer. Back then, the internet was a very new concept and most schools didn’t even offer computer classes. While I was feeling ecstatic, it didn’t take me long to realise that I was the slowest typist in the world. It would take me a minute to type only 20 words, which was extremely frustrating! This eventually changed when I joined an online chat group and through regular practising, I made a quick stride in my typing speed. Within 3-4 months, I was able to type 80-90 words per minute and felt very proud of my fast-moving fingers! This was almost 2 decades ago and even though I have been a regular computer user since, the speed of my typing hasn’t improved at all. This is because I hit the plateau!

Student talking in English - challenges

People often think that the longer you do something, the better you will get at it. My experience in keyboard typing proves otherwise. Now, you may ask how this is related to your English learning experience.

Consider this:

When you first started learning English, you made a very quick progression from barely being able to order a cup of latte to making a complex sentence using various tenses. You enjoyed the class activities and did your homework every day. Your vocabulary developed rapidly and you started feeling more confident about speaking.  Then, something happened. You weren’t making progress anymore. Suddenly, learning English became an extremely boring task. Does this sound familiar?

I often notice that our formerly attentive and engaged students gradually lose enthusiasm and their attendance drops after spending some time at an intermediate level. They don’t want to come to class or do their homework anymore. This often happens due to them feeling that they have reached a level where they can understand English without making much conscious effort. They believe that their English is ‘good enough’ to order coffee or chat with their  classmates at lunchtime. This is when they hit the ‘intermediate plateau’.

Students English conversation over coffee - challenges

Most people will tell you that all you need is to know 3,000 English words to be able to understand 95% of the everyday texts. But is this good enough? An average native speaker is capable of using up to 30,000 words. That’s 10 times higher than what an intermediate student can!  How about being able to use the past perfect tense instead of over-relying on the good old past simple when talking about your weekend?

This all requires further practice

So, don’t ever think that you have reached your destination because this will stagnate your learning curve. If you’re a gym goer, you’ll know that you need to change your routine every few weeks in order to build muscle. Learning a new language works the same way!

Now, what can be done when you hit a plateau? The most important thing is to realise that you have run into a plateau and want to move past it. Identify what areas you need to improve the most and how. Is it listening or vocabulary? Perhaps, you need to work on your pronunciation. This is where the Monday interview with your USE teacher plays a crucial role.

Focus on one area at a time and set achievable goals with your teacher. For example, if you need to improve your vocabulary, write on a piece of paper what area of vocabulary you will work on, when, where, how and for how long. I did this activity with my students and one of them wrote:

I will learn 10 phrasal verbs, 3 times a week for the next 4 weeks. I will study on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3-3:30 pm.  

Did goal setting work for this student? It did, because she knew exactly what she had to work on and how. After 4 weeks, she felt more confident with her vocabulary and decided to focus on her pronunciation instead.

Students talking and laughing while learning English - challengesSo, at the end of the day, it is the teacher’s job to lead but it should be the student who takes the responsibility for their learning. Don’t get stuck in an intermediate plateau, force yourself out of your comfort zone. Watch that Netflix show without subtitles, have a discussion on a confronting topic and read texts that challenge you.

Soon, you will take flight.


Deniz Agraz – Teacher at Langports Sydney School


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