Keys to Academic Success

When I first started teaching English, there were almost no published materials to teach from. I was teaching academically oriented students, and sadly, focusing a lot on grammar and sentence structure because that was the assigned textbook.

Today we are all fortunate to have a wealth of excellent materials to choose from; in fact, there are so many that you need to have clear criteria for selecting your course books.

From my experience teaching students who aspire to study in an academic setting and creating language learning materials, I believe there are three elements that we should be providing academic students.

1. Authentic content

First, our students deserve content that is authentic, relevant, and engaging. Research is clear that learners need to be motivated and interested if we expect them to interact with content and to learn. Real-world content like the photos, videos, explorers, infographics, and stories are the perfect vehicle for language learning and critical thinking. A well-chosen photo makes students curious and raises questions.

An image used in Pathways Second Edition

It allows students to see people, places, and events from all over the world. It naturally elicits questions about the meaning, intent, and emotion of the photo. Why did the photographer take the photo? What message was he/she trying to convey? And it makes students question their assumptions about a given culture, tradition, or belief.  In this way, it broadens students’ perspectives and encourages them to think critically about the world and their place in it. An example of authentic content in Pathways Second Edition are the infographics that help students develop visual literacy skills while also giving them something to talk and/or write about in English. Students who are going into academics and the work place need to learn how to interpret information that is graphically represented. They need to work with graphs, charts, diagrams, and infographics.

Pathways Second Edition “A Thirsty World” unit from Listening, Thinking and Critical Thinking, Level 2

The advantages of bringing real-world content into the class and making them part of your language lessons are numerous. They respect students’ intelligence and curiosity, they provide relevant information about the world, they raise interesting ideas, and they naturally promote discussion and critical thinking. Use real-world content as a springboard for questions that get students to think. In this way, learners process language more deeply, and it becomes more memorable. Always ask questions that encourage students to personalize so that language is internalized and is easier to retain.

2. Explicit instruction in language skills

Second, students need a solid set of language skills to succeed in academic lives. There are no surprises here. We all know what skills students need. They range from listening, speaking, pronunciation, note-taking, presentation, vocabulary and grammar to reading and writing.

In Pathways, we believe that it is important to explicitly teach language skills with concise explanations and examples. Students should be told why the skill is important and how it will help them in their college classes. Most importantly, tell them how to do the skill. It is not enough to say, “Listen for Purpose,” or “Infer.”  Give them a short explanation of how to do it with concrete examples. Additionally, present skills in meaningful contexts and always give students ample opportunities to apply the skills in a purposeful way.

In this example from Pathways Listening and Speaking Second Edition, students have been exploring the issue of global water shortage. After being taught how to give an opinion, they are asked to work in small groups and imagine that their family is experiencing a water shortage. Using the graphic, they are asked to decide how they will use their limited water supply. This activity allows them to use their opinion phrases (I think that…), but it brings other important 21st century skills to bear: collaborating, prioritizing, evaluating.

Pathways Listening and Speaking Second Edition Level 2

A second example comes from Pathways Reading and Writing Second Edition Level one.  In this sequence of activities, students preview the reading by predicting what they will read about, answer literal comprehension questions of understanding the purpose of each paragraph, and summarizing (very important reading skills). Then they are asked to think more deeply and apply what they have read to different situations and finally to infer what the author would say.

Pathways Reading and Writing Second Edition Level 1

3. Vocabulary

The last key element for success for any student is vocabulary. The average English-speaking university graduate knows and can use between 20,000 word families. A typical B1 language learner knows and can use about 2,000 words. This gap represents a serious disadvantage for the language learner. It is incumbent on us as educators to give our students as much help as we can to build their lexicon. One easy way is to focus students on the most frequent and useful words. In teaching vocabulary, always choose high frequency, high use, and academic words (a number of vocabulary lists are available to reference), present vocabulary in meaningful and real contexts (preferably high interest), and provide multiple encounters with each word in different kinds of activities.

In Pathways, vocabulary is carefully leveled using the CEFR framework. Students are introduced to words at level or slightly above so that by the end of a particular text, they are ready for the language challenge at the next level. The vocabulary is also useful to the speaking and writing tasks of the unit. And finally, the texts in Pathways include words from the Academic Word List. In this example, you see that the target vocabulary is presented in the form of a quiz on water. After doing the quiz, students check that they know the meanings of the words. Then they are asked to use the words to answer questions about their own lives and water usage. This last step of personalizing is critical to making stronger connections and facilitating retention. Vocabulary is also recycled within a unit and throughout the series.


Pathways Listening and Speaking Second Edition Level 2

Finally, here are some questions to remind you of the main points of this post:

  1. What is authentic content?
  2. How does authentic content naturally promote critical thinking?
  3. How can you make it easier for students to remember language skills?
  4. What kind of vocabulary should you teach?


Did you miss Laura’s recent webinar on Keys to Academic Success? You can still watch the webinar recording and download the slides here!


Nation, P. & Webb, S. (2011) Researching and Analyzing Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle Cengage Learning

Author: Laura Le Dréan

Laura Le Dréan is Executive Editor at National Geographic Learning, in charge of the academic and professional development lists. She has an M.A. in TESOL/TEFL from San Francisco State University. She has over 20 years of teaching experience in ESL/EFL programs in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. She has also done teacher training in the U.S., the Middle East and in Vietnam. She has been working in ELT publishing as an editor for the last 19 years creating learning materials for students and teachers.

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