Ah, the dreaded mixed level class.
What can an ESL teacher do with a room full of students who are just starting their language studies sitting next to others who could probably teach the class for you? You do your best. Luckily, the best you can do with a mixed level class can be pretty awesome. That is if you choose the right activities and use the best strategies in class. Here are some ideas for teachers of mixed level classes of for involving and engaging all your students.
Shake It Up: 3 Solutions to the Mixed Level Class Dilemma
Group Role Plays
Group role plays, sometimes called strategic interaction, are an effective way to get all of the students in your mixed level class using language at their level and still participating in the same activity. To conduct a group role play, divide your class into two groups (or one group for each role in the role play). Each group receives information about their role in the activity. This won’t work with just any role play, however. It is important that each role have information that the other person does not have, and that each person in the role play has a different goal. For example, if I were writing a role play between a father and a son, it might be something like this.
Father: You just lost your job. You have not told your wife or your son. You are selling your antique car to make some money and hide the secret from your family a little longer. You have a buyer coming to look at the car this weekend, and you hope you can convince him that your car is worth the money you are asking for it. You want your son to help you clean the car in detail, but you don’t want him to know why.
Son: Your father has been really down lately. You want to cheer him up by getting his antique car repainted. You have saved money for almost a year to pay for it, and you are finally ready. You have to get your father to lend you his car for the weekend so you can get the work done and surprise him.
Once you give the roles to your students, have each group talk about what they might say in the role play, the points they will bring up, and how they will accomplish their goal. Then have each team select one person to play that role in front of the class. The two representatives then start the role play. What makes this activity different than a traditional role play is that the speaker can consult his group at any time during the activity for suggestions on what to say. In this way, shier students do not have to talk in front of the class, but they can still participate while more advanced students play the roles in front of the class.
To Group or Not To Group
Sometimes a decision as simple as to put your class in groups or not is enough to modify your class activity for different level students. If you are assigning a grammar task, try putting lower level students into groups while upper level students work on their own. That’s not the only grouping strategy you should use in class, however. Sometimes, group students by level. That is, keep all the lower level students grouped with each other and the upper level students grouped with each other. This will force lower level students to speak up when they might tend to shy away in a mixed level group. However, sometimes pairing a lower level student with a higher level student is the best decision you can make. When we speak, we naturally modify our language to be more like that of the person we are talking to. (This is why you might get a hint of a southern accent when you are on vacation in Georgia, for example.) If you pair a lower level student with a higher level student, the lower level student will naturally elevate the quality of her language to match the higher level student’s. the higher level student doesn’t walk away with nothing from the activity either. When we teach something, we learn it better and remember it more easily. When your higher level student explains grammatical concepts or vocabulary to his partner, he will be learning himself, too, and will retain the information from the activity more easily.
Another exercise that works well when lower level and higher level students are paired together is peer editing. In a peer editing situation, one student writes a selection of whatever length is appropriate to their level. Then another student reads what the first person wrote and gives feedback on the writing. This can work well with higher and lower level students paired together when you give each student a different goal for the feedback. Lower level students may make more mistakes in their written grammar and sentence structure than the higher level students do. When a higher level student gives feedback on the writing of a lower level student, then, he or she can comment freely on grammar and proper language usage. But just because the lower level student hasn’t covered the higher level grammar doesn’t mean they will have nothing to say to their partner about his writing. Have the lower level students comment on the content of the paper – the other student’s ideas and examples, what he or she uses as support for his or her assertions. This kind of feedback is just as valuable as that on grammar and something lower level students should be able to do.
Let’s be real for a minute. Teaching a mixed level class is not easy. The good news is, however, that it is not impossible. In fact, with the right activities and strategies for class time, some mixed level classes will be the best you have ever taught. Try these activities or others that experienced teachers have tried, and know that whatever you are doing, your students are more likely than not learning and becoming better speakers of English no matter what level they are at.
What are your favorite activities for a mixed level class?
What has worked for you?