When I began my first position teaching English as a Second Language, I hadn’t anticipated some of the challenges I would face teaching a multi-level class. Though I was working for a community college, I was teaching community ESL classes off-campus at nearby elementary schools, which were open to students with any level of English proficiency. Students from a wide range of educational backgrounds and literacy levels were depending on me to teach them the language skills they needed to build a successful life in the US and I was only equipped with a beginning level textbook to do this.
If you are new to teaching multi-level ESL classes, you may be feeling overwhelmed, as I was, but teaching these types of classes doesn’t have to be especially difficult. Essentially learning on the job, I began to develop lesson plans and teaching strategies that kept my students engaged and coming to class and was soon able to create a positive learning environment for my students without pouring several hours into planning each week.
Challenges of Multi-Level Classrooms
In a community-based ESL program, not only can teachers have students with varying levels of English proficiency, but they will likely have students with different levels of literacy in their first language and a wide range of experience with formal education. Many of my students had only completed the equivalent of elementary school in their home countries, while some had completed high school or even college. So, while some students struggled to learn the English alphabet in the beginning, others seemed to be nearly fluent. However, many of my students fell somewhere in the middle.
Figuring out how to plan for such a diverse classroom can be daunting. When I first started I had almost no experience in lesson planning and felt as if I was planning multiple lessons for each class. In this kind of classroom, it can be a struggle to give each level the attention they need. When this happens, students may lose interest if they feel that the material is either too challenging or not challenging enough, which can lead to problems with student retention. All of this can quickly lead to burnout for teachers as well.
Advantages of Multi-Level Classrooms
As challenging as teaching to a multi-level classroom can be, it does provide a unique opportunity for students to learn from one another. In my classrooms, the higher level students often took it upon themselves to explain a grammar concept or act as a kind of translator for lower level students. Not only was this helpful on a practical level, but it also boosted the more advanced students’ confidence in their understanding of English.
Many community ESL classes have open-entry enrollment, where students can register at any time throughout the semester. Some of my more advanced students helped out when new students joined the class later in the semester. They assisted with registration paperwork and getting new students up to speed so that my lesson wasn’t held up every time a new student walked in, which happened frequently. Again, the advanced students were able to apply their English skills and the entire class – myself included – benefited from their help.
If you are teaching a multi-level ESL class, you need to plan lessons that keep students of every level engaged. Otherwise, you risk having students lose motivation if they feel the material is either too easy or too difficult. However, this doesn’t mean teaching three different lessons in each class. While flexibility is key to success, you will find that it is quite possible to create a structured classroom that runs smoothly from one activity to the next.
1. Teach to the middle then assign leveled activities.
In multi-level ESL classes, it can be helpful to begin the class with everyone together, later breaking off into leveled activities. Melinda Roberts, a national teacher trainer for Pearson Education, states that “beginning the lesson with the whole class together provides a foundation for the leveled tasks that will follow” (Roberts 2007). In my classes, we typically began with the grammar and vocabulary focus for the day. With everyone together, it was important to vary the complexity of my language as I checked in with different students around the room to make sure they understood what we were working on.
After presenting the basic grammar and vocabulary for the lesson, it’s time for leveled activities. This doesn’t have to be complicated. As a teacher, you need to observe your students to see who is finishing assignments and activities quickly and with ease and who is struggling to keep up. During writing assignments, for example, if I realized a student was struggling to keep up, I might encourage them to practice writing the vocabulary words rather than actually working on the grammar assignment. Many of these activities require little additional planning, but it was important for me to have a few options in mind that I could choose from in the moment.
2. Encourage group work.
Group work can provide a great opportunity for students of different levels to learn from each other (Treko 2013). Once I had gotten to know my students and had an idea of their English skills, it was often helpful to break off into leveled groups for some assignments. Each group was then able to work toward different goals, whether it was a reading activity, book work, or speaking practice. To encourage a sense of community in the classroom, we would reunite as a class to present each group’s work whenever it was practical and seemed like it would benefit others in the class.
Sometimes, rather than grouping students by their skill level, it can also be helpful for teachers to mix levels within a group. The smaller group setting may encourage students who are normally reserved to be more involved in the activity and ask for help from their higher-level classmates if needed. This sort of grouping lends itself well to games as well as writing and performing dialogues, giving each student a chance to use their English skills to reach a common goal and learn from their classmates in the process.
3. Use self-assessment tools.
In college, when I was the one studying another language, my Japanese instructor provided us with what she called a “can-do” checklist. It was a list of statements intended to track our progress, focusing on different ways we could apply our language skills. For example, the list might have included, “I can talk about the weather,” or “I can ask for directions.” Using this idea, I created my own can-do checklist for my ESL students. Not only does this tool give teachers an idea of their students’ abilities, but it can be encouraging to students to see some of the practical ways they can use their English skills. I would work on this list with my students early in the semester, checking in with them from time to time to see their progress.
4. Teach around themes.
Rather than planning entire lessons based around a grammar concept, in multi-level classes, it can be helpful to teach around themes. This way, students from each proficiency level will be learning how to speak about a given topic, even if it is to varying degrees. For example, if a class is focused on jobs and careers, beginning students will learn some essential vocabulary and grammar related to the topic, while more advanced students may practice talking about their skills or answering interview questions. Again, this is practical for the teacher and for creating a sense of community in the class.
5. Include the four language skills in each class.
Every ESL instructor should already know to work on each of the four language skills in every class and this is especially important in the multi-level class. This includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Each student has strengths and weaknesses, regardless of their proficiency level and covering all four language skills ensures that everyone is challenged and everyone has their moment to shine (or at least get by).
Have you taught a multi-level English class before? What kind of strategies did you use to keep students of all levels engaged? Let us know in the comments below!
- Roberts, M. (2007). Teaching in the multilevel classroom. New York: Pearson Education. Retrieved July 12, 2016.
- Treko, N. (2013). The big challenge: Teaching large multi-level classes. Academic journal of interdisciplinary studies, 2(4), 243.