If you’ve been teaching English for at least a week, you may have noticed this common problem: students with different levels are in the same classroom. It has the potential to be very frustrating for both the students and the teacher. Is it possible to teach mixed level or multilevel ESL classes?
The answer is yes. However, there are a number of things you do to manage your classroom with different levels of ESL students in an effective way. Keep on reading for all sorts of tips and tricks for teaching mixed levels of ESL learners at the same time.
Mixed Level ESL Classes: Very Common Around the World
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 in private institutes for years), mixed in with a few students who struggle to say their name and how old they are.
How are you? may bring about two very different answers:
- Nervous giggles
- “Oh, I’m good…it took me way longer to get to school than normal because of traffic, so I was a bit scared I was going to be late to class, but thankfully I made it in time. How are you, teacher?”
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.
Multilevel ESL classes can be frustrating for the teacher and the students as well! Even choosing a textbook in this instance can be quite challenging. However, don’t give up! Teaching different levels of ESL students within the same language class is certainly possible, but just with a few modifications and things to think about.
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- Bolen, Jackie (Author)
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Why Do Different Levels of ESL Students End up in the Same Class?
There are a number of reasons why students with very different English levels may end up in the same class. They include:
- Lack of administrative resources
- Lack of foresight when designing programs
- Varying levels of “getting it,”, particularly with beginners
- The level of students is not known prior to the class because of a lack of placement tests
- Students or parents of students overestimating abilities
Teaching Mixed Level ESL Classes: What to Do
It’s not easy teaching multi-level ESL classes. I struggle with it, even after years of teaching in Korean universities. Here are the two most common problems with students with different levels in the same classroom.
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.
Different levels of ESL Students: 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 in multiple ways. Perhaps these students are weaker because nobody has taught them in a way that they understand.
- 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
- Play a game or do an activity to reinforce it
- Assign some homework
- Give personal attention if possible
- Offer some office hours for additional help should students choose to take advantage of it
Mixed-level language classes do require some thought about what method or approach to use. Something like TTT (test teach test) can prove disastrous, and task-based learning can be challenging as well, depending on the task chosen. Something like PPP (presentation practice production) will likely be the best option here. Learn more about that here:
How to Group Students in a Mixed Level ESL Class
In a big, mixed-level language class, there are two schools of thought on how to make groups.
The first option is to put students of similar abilities together. The weaker students can work at a level where they’re at, and the same with higher-level students. If I’m doing something like a technology conversation lesson, this is the option I’d definitely choose.
The second option is to put the weaker students with stronger ones. This way, the better students can help out the weaker ones. This is a key classroom management strategy for teaching to different ability levels.
What’s best? A mix of option 1 and option 2.
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 partners for the first class. The best students often select each other, while the weaker ones will go together. This avoids the problem of me having to choose who the best and worst students are and makes this a public thing!
Then for the second class of that week, 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. My goal is that each student will end up working with each other student in the class at some point in time.
Need more ideas for teaching? Check this out: Tips for new English teachers.
ESL Activities for Different Levels of ESL Students in a Mixed Level Class
Should you design different activities to account for varying levels in your classes? This would be ideal, but you may 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…
Or, you may also consider having some early-finisher worksheets on hand for those better students who finish in 2 minutes which takes the weaker students 15 minutes to do.
Different Levels of ESL Students
The question about how many levels of ESL there are is a bit of a trick question. It really depends on the teaching context and institution that you’re teaching in. Another way to separate levels of ESL learners is with proficiency tests and bands or scores achieved on those.
To further complicate matters, some students may be quite proficient at writing but not in speaking, or great at reading but quite weak at listening.
That said, many schools divide ESL learners into the following five levels:
If you want to have more levels, add low-beginner and low-intermediate into the mix.
How to Grade Multilevel ESL Classes with Sample Rubric
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.
Grading Higher-Level Students
What’s your plan for after graduation? Might become:
- What’s your plan for tonight?
- Do you have a plan 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!
Grading 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 a 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. Teaching multilevel classes in ESL is really possible with these helpful tips!
Did you Like these Tips for Teaching Different Levels of ESL Students?
- Bolen, Jackie (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 120 Pages - 02/24/2020 (Publication Date) - Independently published...
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FAQ About Teaching Multi-level ESL Classes
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and the answers to help you teach a mixed-level English class.
How do you deal with mixed level classes?
When you teach a class with different levels of ESL students, you want to identify the different levels of students, group students in a way that aligns with your class activity, and use a grading rubric for multilevel.
How do you teach students at different levels?
You want to identify the different levels of your students and their individual needs. Especially for beginner-level ESL students, you will have to start by teaching the basic concepts. Furthermore, use a grading rubric that is applicable for your multilevel ESL class students.
What are the different levels of ESL students?
You can divide ESL learners into the following five levels: beginner, high-beginner, intermediate, high-intermediate, and advanced.
Teaching Mixed Level English Classes: Join the Conversation
What’s the best way of teaching multilevel ESL classes? How do you handle ESL or EFL classes of different levels? Or any general tips for how to manage an ESL classroom? Leave a comment below and let us know your tips and tricks. We’d love to hear from you.
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Last update on 2022-10-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API