Managing the Multilevel Classroom

By Cathy Sunshine

Does this sound familiar? You assign a written exercise in the Ventures textbook to your class of 10 students. Students A and B finish in 3 minutes flat. Students C through H need 5 to 10 minutes. And after 10 minutes, everyone is still waiting for students I and J, who are struggling even though you’ve been helping them. Meanwhile, students A and B have grown bored and are chatting in their home language—or they’ve gone ahead and done the next exercise in the book, which you had planned to introduce after the break.

In the average class, most students will be more or less on level, but several students will be noticeably above and several noticeably below the average level of the class. It always happens. So how can we possibly meet everyone’s needs?

In the average classroom, each student will be at a slightly different level. Give more advanced students extra challenges so they stay engaged.

During the first two weeks of the term, each teaching team should discuss whether any student in the class may need to move up or down a level. If so, one teacher should tactfully raise this possibility with the student. If the student agrees, help him or her fill out a change form (available in the volunteer lounge) and turn it in at the office.

Even if one or two students move, though, there will still be a spread of abilities in the class. Here are several strategies for coping.

  • Give extra challenges to the more proficient students. Whenever you assign an exercise to be done individually, be ready with additional work for those who finish first. Both Add Ventures worksheets and the Ventures Workbook are good for this, as they reinforce lessons in the Student’s Book. (See previous post on these two resources.) The fastest students will complete several worksheets or workbook pages in the time it takes the slowest students to do just the first exercise. The point is to keep everyone learning so that no one’s time is wasted.
  • Group students with similar proficiency levels (“same-ability grouping”). This works well for certain kinds of activities. If you’re forming conversation circles, for example, one group can converse at a slightly higher level and the other at a slightly lower level. This increases everyone’s comfort and helps ensure that less articulate students get a chance to talk.
  • Group students with different proficiency levels (“cross-ability grouping”). When you form teams for collaborative projects or competitive games, make sure each team has a mix of abilities so no team has an obvious advantage.
  • Ask an advanced student to sit beside and help a classmate. This peer-teaching relationship benefits both partners, provided the individuals get along well. It works best when the advanced student is significantly ahead of the class, so he or she has time to help someone else. Keep an eye on this partnership and continue it only if both parties are happy.
  • Encourage students who need help to take advantage of the free tutoring that LETC offers. Working with a tutor can help a struggling student keep up with the class.
  • Encourage all students to attend the free conversation classes that LETC offers. This can be particularly useful for students who are ahead and need extra challenges.

Students of different abilities can work together on collaborative projects.

There’s a ton of material online about teaching multilevel ESL classes. See, for example, “Teaching in the Multilevel Classroom,” by Melinda Roberts. A recommended book is Teaching Multilevel Classes in ESL by Jill Sinclair Bell.

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