One thing that makes us happy as teachers is to see our students making progress. But progress can often be one of the hardest things to spot (some practical tips on this at the end of this article)! Day by day our students take tiny steps forward (and sometimes backward) but we often fail to see the bigger picture of how much progress they’re making.

I’ve been teaching secondary students in the Madrid area in Spain for around 32 years. For many of those years, the big picture felt, if anything, like we weren’t making any progress at all. And yet in recent years there suddenly seems to have been a real breakthrough. Evidence from  (Shepherd and Ainsworth, 2017, p44) confirms this breakthrough. 34% of 15-16-year-olds in the Madrid region have a B2 level or higher. 38.5% have B1 level. That makes 72.5% with B1 or above at age 16. Unthinkable 30, 20 or 15 years ago.

‘So, how did THAT happen????’ is a question many of us asked ourselves. Here’s a personal response to that question.

 Factors contributing to rising levels

According to the British Council document   (British Council, 2018, p42), Spanish students have the highest number of hours of tuition in Europe – 987 (compare Portugal 617 and Romania 520). All students begin English at the age of six but over the last ten years or so it has been very common for children to start English in kindergarten and pre-school. It might seem ridiculously obvious that the work done by kindergarten, pre-school and primary students and teachers is key to success at secondary. But it’s worth remembering that 20 years ago, or less, many secondary teachers in Spanish state schools tended to begin teaching their new students from scratch, as if those pre-secondary years of tuition had never existed.

In the Madrid area there has been a in operation since 2004-5 for primary, and since 2010-11 for secondary. 30% of lessons in primary are given in English. The lessons can be any subject except Spanish or maths. In secondary, the programme more or less follows the same principles and patterns. I think it’s fair to say that the programme is not without some controversy (is it better to teach more history in Spanish than to teach less in English, for example?). But, in terms of English, the combination of more hours of exposure and the CLIL elements clearly seems to have had a positive effect.

20 years ago, English was useful as an extra qualification to help you find a job. Today it’s essential, not just to find a job, but to succeed once you have it. With increasing competition to find work, English is clearly seen by students (and probably even more so by caregivers) as an essential element for future success, not just the nice add-on it used to be 20 years ago. There is a palpable need for English as students approach school-leaving age.

For me, possibly the most eye-opening finding of the British Council’s document English Impact were the statistics confirming English as the international language of entertainment. According to the statistics (British Council, p38), 43.9% of 15-16-year-olds in public-funded schools in the Madrid region are using English when they play computer games, 25.3% are using it on social networks and 22.9% are using it when they are online. So, apart from the 987 hours of tuition, just think of all those other hours students spend immersed in a world of English. Not because they are being forced to, but through choice.

Apart from quantity, in my experience the quality of teaching has certainly risen over the last 30 years. Exams such as the Cambridge TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test) have become well-established, for example. And as a coursebook writer, I would like to think (though there may be other opinions out there!) that, over the years, the quality of coursebooks and teaching materials, including digital resources, has been consistently improving. Plus the fact that, unlike 20 years ago, tons of resources in English are readily available online for teachers to use or adapt in the classroom.

Lastly, another possible factor contributing to rising levels here is the influence of external exams. In a competitive world, caregivers, students and schools are all keen to have external proof to demonstrate a high level of proficiency in English. As more and more students pass external exams, success breeds success and the psychological barriers (‘We Spaniards aren’t very good at languages’) have started to come down.

So, this is the situation in my context. I’d be very interested to know if you have similar experiences where you teach. Meanwhile, it’s always interesting to speculate about the future. So here are a few predictions of my own.

Possible impacts of rising levels

With CLIL teaching having such a powerful impact on primary and secondary students, we will need to ensure that we are providing challenging content, not just challenging grammar, vocabulary or skills practice. Increasingly, the emphasis will be more on teaching something useful via English rather than just teaching English per se. Life Skills would be a good example.

It seems to me that thinking skills will become central to secondary teaching. In high level external exams such as Cambridge Advanced and in school leaving / university entrance exams, the emphasis is not just on language but the maturity, sophistication and justification of ideas and personal points of view. As younger students achieve increasingly higher levels of English, it will become more and more important to help them with the ‘ideas’ side, not just the linguistic side.

One of the interesting things that appears in the English Impact research is the difference in level between the mastery of the four skills in the students evaluated, with listening scoring the highest (all those hours of entertainment in English?) and speaking the lowest (British Council, p49). Nowadays, on Cambridge Statements of Results the grades per skill are very much in evidence. As levels generally increase, it’s possible that there will be more pressure on us to make sure that our students excel equally in all four skills.

Similarly, we have been talking about levels rising in general, but as teachers, our task is to make sure ALL students excel. One of the hardest jobs for any teacher is mixed-ability groups. This is where I think online materials and the flipped classroom may come into their own. When using videos and personalised online teaching material for the different skills, we have more chance of meeting the needs of each individual student.

Postscript: Making progress visible  

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, it can be difficult for us, and particularly for our students, to spot progress. But being aware of progress is a really powerful motivational tool. Here are a few simple ideas that can help to do this. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments below:

  1. Spot the differences

Keep records of the students’ work the first time they do something. For example, record students the first time they do a ‘compare the photos’ speaking activity or keep a piece of writing such as their first informal email. Some weeks or months later, do the same (or a very similar) activity again. Afterwards, get them compare both pieces of work and see what they did better the second time.

  1. Can Do versus Couldn’t Do

At the end of a month, term and/or year, get students to make a list of the things that they have learnt and can do now in English that they couldn’t do before, things both big and small. They can make posters, slides or fill the board with their lists. Get them to think in terms of the four skills, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. But they can also add Life Skills, general knowledge and any other content they have learned through English. Remember to always emphasise the positive. The longest journey begins with one small step!

  1. Upgrading graded readers

Give the students a page or two from a graded reader of the level they had a year or two ago. Get them to analyse the tenses, lexis, length and complexity of sentences… Then ask them to rewrite a paragraph from the reader using the more complex grammar and vocabulary that they now know.


English Impact: An evaluation of English Language Capability. Shepherd and Ainsworth, published 2017 by the British Council Madrid, available as a free downloadable pdf:

 Twenty Twenty Five: The future demand for English in Europe: 2025 and beyond. British Council, March 2018: