Teaching Mixed Level ESL Classes | How to Teach English

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Mixed Level ESL Classes are a Big Problem!

One of the negatives of teaching at a university in Korea is that students are often grouped according to what major they take. Their level of English isn’t taken into account at all.

This results in classes having one or two students who are semi-fluent (having studied overseas perhaps, or private institutes for years), mixed in with a few students who struggle to say their name and how old they are.

The instructor is then supposed to make one class fit all. This not only happens in Korea, but in all countries around the world due to administrative constraints.

It can be frustrating for the teacher, and the students as well! Even choosing a textbook in this instance can be quite challenging.

Teaching Mixed Level ESL Classes: What to Do

It’s not easy teaching multi-level classes. I struggle with it, even after years of teaching in Korean universities.

Bored at the Top

What I usually do is teach to the middle 80% of the class. The top 10% will likely be bored with what I’m teaching because it’s too easy. But it’s hard to help them in a mixed-level class without actually setting up completely different things for them to do on their own outside of class.

If the student has studied overseas and is way above the class level, I’ll often excuse them from actually attending and just make them do the homework and tests. However, this is reserved for if the situation is really extreme such as having attended an American middle and high school.

Struggling at the Bottom

I know that the bottom 10% of the class will often not be able to follow what I’m doing or participate in a useful way, no matter what I do. These are usually the students who have given up on English years ago and I often leave these students to do their own thing as long as they don’t disrupt the class.

Not that this is a good thing, of course. I’m kind and try my best to help these students. I often recommend that they come to my office during office hours for help with homework, projects, or when studying for a test. Most don’t really take me up on my offer, but I guess I feel like I’ve tried my best!

Teach Concepts in Multiple Ways for Beginners

One way that you can help the weaker students is to teach the same thing multiple ways. Perhaps these students are weaker because nobody has taught them in a way that they understand?

You can…

  • Talk about the concept
  • Write it down on the board
  • Draw a timeline (useful for verb tenses)
  • Give students a handout
  • Have them watch a quick video explaining it

What about Groups?

In a big, mixed-level language class, there are two schools of thought for how to make groups.

The first is to put students of similar abilities together. The second is to put the weaker students with the stronger ones. What’s best? Both.

I like to have a mix in my classes. For example, if I teach the same class twice a week, I’ll let students choose their partner for the first class. The best students often select each other, while the weaker ones will go together.

Then for the second class, I put students into random pairs or groups. The result is students will end up with some weaker, and some stronger students throughout the course.

What about Activities?

Should you design different activities to account for varying levels in your classes? This would be ideal, but you also have limited time (I’m sure!). What teacher doesn’t?

The way around this is to design the same basic activities for your classes that everyone can do, with some add-ons. Then, when you’re explaining what to do, tell students about the basic thing that everyone is expected to do.

After that, if students have time, they can do one (or all) of the add-ons. For example, it might be something like:

  • Write a paragraph about…
  • Find 10 mistakes in this paragraph
  • Write 3 sentences using this specific vocabulary word
  • Think of 5 follow-up questions in response to…

More Help with Multi-Level English Classes

What about Grading Mixed Level ESL Classes?

These multi-level classes make testing a challenge. For example, on a midterm exam a few years back I did a speaking test where I gave the students some sample questions that I would be asking. I asked some questions straight off the study sheet word for word but changed some questions slightly for the mid-higher level students.

For Higher-Level Students

An Example:

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What’s your plan for after graduation? Might become:

  • What’s your plan for tonight?
  • Do you have a plna for after English class today?
  • What’s your plan for winter vacation?

Then I’d ask a follow-up question or two.

For the top students, the test is almost edging into the ridiculous because it’s so easy. They can not only answer that basic question, but talk for 2-3 minutes on the topic without stopping!

For Lower-Level Students

But for the lower-level students? Instead of asking some questions that have been changed slightly, I would ask ones that came straight from the study sheet. That way, if they really did study they would for sure be able to give at least some answer. Kind of unfair I guess, but there really was almost no other way and a memorized answer is better than just silence.

Of course, I’d grade accordingly. If a higher-level student gives a far more detailed answer that has a minor grammatical error, I wouldn’t penalize them. Or, if a lower-level student gives an extremely simple, but perfect answer, they wouldn’t get full points.

Check out this ESL Speaking Grading Rubric for help with evaluation.

Learn More About Facilitating Multi-Level Classes

Check out this short video for more ideas about how to make it work:

Speaking activities for your conversation classes

This will be your go-to book for years to come: 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities: For Teenagers and Adults. I’m always doing my best to help make your ESL teaching life easier, my readers!

Have your Say about Teaching Mixed Level English Classes

How do you handle ESL or EFL classes of varying levels? Leave a comment below and let us know your tips and tricks.

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