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.
However, there are a number of things you can do to manage your classroom to teach students of different levels in an effective way. Keep on reading for all sorts of tips and tricks for teaching varying 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 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.
It 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 to different ability levels within the same language class is certainly possible but just with a few modifications and things to think about.
Why Do Different Levels of ESL Learners 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
- Level of students is not known prior to the class because of 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 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 Learners: 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.
What about Groups in Multilevel ESL Classes? 2 Options
In a big, mixed-level language class, there are two schools of thought for 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 same with the 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 partner 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 making 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.
What about ESL Activities for Teaching Students with Different Levels?
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 what takes the weaker students 15 minutes to do.
How Many Levels of ESL are There?
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 in low-beginner and low-intermediate into the mix.
More Help with Multi-Level English Classes
Do you want to find out more about teaching multilevel classes in ESL? Check out this video below for more information and practical tips:
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
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!
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. Teaching multilevel classes in ESL really is possible with these helpful tips!
Learn More About Facilitating Multi-Level Classes
Check out this short video for more ideas about teaching to different ability levels within the same classroom:
Did you Like these Tips for Teaching Students with Different Levels?
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Have your Say about Teaching Mixed Level English Classes
How to teach students with different levels? How do you handle ESL or EFL classes of varying levels? Or any general tips for how to manage a 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 2021-02-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API