Some of the most difficult classes I have taught in my ESL career are those with students at multiple levels.
I have taught conversation classes, vocabulary classes, TOEFL prep classes, movie classes and several others that are made up of students from beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels and even beyond. I’m sure you have found like me that it can be tough to be in charge of one of these multi-level classes. When one part of your class can’t order a meal at a restaurant and another part of your class is taking community college classes in English, meeting everyone’s needs is tough. It’s not impossible, though, to have a good class when your students are all over the spectrum. Here are some tips to help you through.
Try These 6 Survival Tips for Multi-Level Classes
Multi-level classes are hard. Nobody wants to hear that, but the truth remains the same. Teachers have to think about all of the skill levels that are in their class. When you plan, you have to try to meet the needs and expectations of each skill level, but you should also remember that you cannot please all of the people all of the time. You cannot expect daily perfection from yourself in classrooms like these. Your students know it, and they will probably be understanding. Mine always were.
Keep It Level
Often, a mixed-level class has actually been advertised at a specific level. For example, your course catalog may have offered an intermediate vocabulary class, but you may have students enrolled who are actually beginning level. You might also have advanced students who have signed up for their own reasons. If this is the case, keep in mind when you plan that you are teaching an intermediate class. Because of this, your material and activities should generally aim for intermediate level. If your beginners are struggling, you can offer additional help or answer questions after class or during office hours. For your advanced students, offer additional challenges related to the curriculum. But any mandatory material and assessments should be at that intermediate level.
Take Time to Ask
When your students hit every point in the fluency spectrum, it is even more important for you, their teacher, to know what they expect and need from your class. Though you have a teaching plan in place, and you should, it will only help you and your students to talk about their expectations and determine their personal needs. The natural time to do this is at the start of your semester, but don’t limit your check in to the first week. As the semester rolls on, keep asking your students what they want through class discussion, one on one discussions with your students and assessment, then tailor your plans to meet these needs and desires when possible.
Mix It Up
Small group activities will be one of the most useful tools for your mixed level classroom. Sometimes, you will want to divide your class into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels, and you may even choose to assign different goals to each group. But levelled groups are not always the best move for your multi-level classroom. Consider mixing your student levels when assigning group work. The advanced students will challenge the beginning students to perform at a higher level, just by being in the same group. In addition, the advanced students may be able to help the beginners understand what confuses them, especially if their first languages are the same. And while it may be true that teachers make the worst students, those who teach learn the material better than those who don’t. So when your advanced students are assisting their classmates, they will be cementing the material in their own minds as well.
Focus on Communication
Every student will have different proficiency in grammar and vocabulary in your mixed level class, but they should all have one thing in common. They can communicate, to one degree or another, in English. In your mixed level class, focusing on communication is key. Communicative activities challenge students to use the language that they do know to get a message across to their listener. When a student lacks the grammar or vocabulary knowledge, she uses the language she does know in creative ways. By focusing on communicative activities in your mixed level class, each of your students uses what she knows to talk to her classmates. You may want to teach some grammatical structures or vocabulary as needed, but the primary focus of class activities should be communication.
Most important of all is being flexible. I love the proverb, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” When you are teaching a multi-level class, you have to expect each day to come with a degree of uncertainty. You may need to modify your lesson plan, change in class activities, or give an unexpected grammar lesson. The key is to be okay with a little planned chaos and help your students be okay with it, too. When you take an easygoing attitude, your students will catch on and will do the same. That way, you can all stay focused and flexible as each day presents its challenges.