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Teaching disparate levels of language learners in one classroom

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In all parts of the world, teachers rejoice at teaching English to many different types of people, of various cultures and ethnicities.

Posted by Sulaiman Jenkins

Besides the beauty of cultural exchange, teachers find it very rewarding to help learners acquire the linguistic skills they need to realize whatever personal or academic goals they have set for themselves. For most institutions of learning (e.g., universities, language centers, business training institutes), language learning is neatly organized and centralized around particular programs and curricula, which are further scaffolded into different levels which students must progress through. Some institutions have programs with levels numbered 1 – 6, for instance, while others may adopt a “beginner – intermediate – advanced” model. Whatever the paradigm and no matter how well they may try to neatly place everyone in his/her appropriate level, sometimes that just is not the case. In one class, a teacher may find (hopefully not often!) a very disparate level of learning capabilities. How exactly does one find this out? What is the proper course of action thereafter to ensure that everyone meets the course objectives? That no one is left behind? That everyone is motivated? Hopefully some insight will be provided to these very important questions with this month’s blog post on teaching English in mixed level classrooms.

Why Are My Classes Mixed Levels in the First Place?

On the first day of classes, it may seem that everyone is on the same linguistic page because of course they should be! That’s how the administrators (are supposed to at least) set up the classes, and every student is supposed to be in his/her proper section and level - but this is all ideal. Correct placement does not always happen due to a myriad of issues. Sometimes students may be stronger at certain abilities than others, giving off a false sense of proficiency but not showcasing the full repertoire at the time of testing. For example, a student may be placed in a particular level based on an interview, and for students who are stronger in speaking and listening skills, they would ace the interview and thus be placed at a higher level. However, if the same student were to be tested for his/her literacy skills (i.e. reading and writing), they might fare lower than their communicative ability would lend one to believe. The opposite is certainly the case as well, where students are not the best communicators but are very literate and competent in reading, writing, and grammar. Whatever the case may be, due to proficiency test design or administrative oversight, sometimes students are misplaced. There is also the circumstance in which there are logistical impediments to being able to accommodate every student being placed in his/her appropriate level. A particular program may only have a certain number of teachers and classrooms allocated and thus cannot accommodate correctly placing everyone. These are primarily all administrative concerns, but it does affect the teacher’s class.

One of the initial things I always do on the first day of class is ask students to tell me a little bit about themselves. I usually do this as a written practice exercise to gauge students’ productive written ability. I also often follow this up with another ice-breaking/introductory exercise in which students are asked to verbally share something about themselves, why they’re taking the course, or what they’d like to achieve learning the English language. As they are speaking, I’m also taking notes. By the end of the first week of classes, I can accurately ascertain what the general level of the class is overall and what students’ individual capacities are. This, I would consider, is extremely important to do early on because 1) it determines how you can pace yourself in accordance with the course syllabus, 2) you can determine who the weaker students are and develop intervention strategies from the onset, and 3) you can design your lessons and teaching strategies based on how mixed the levels are in your class(es).

Intervention and Motivational Strategies

As I mentioned, it is critical to identify the students who will need the most help early on, and this is for two primary reasons: 1) to arrange for extra support early and often and 2) to think about ways to keep them motivated throughout the course. As teachers, we should never let any student fall through the cracks; regardless if the student is correctly placed in my class or not, so long as he/she has been placed under my supervision, it is my responsibility as an educator to help him/her reach the objectives of the course as best as I can. Thus for weaker students, I tend to implement a number of strategies to help them, and in my experience these strategies have gone a long way in making sure students can, at least at a basic level, keep up with the others and more importantly stay motivated throughout the course. The strategies I implement for weaker students are as follows:

1) Pair them up with stronger students during pair/group work

2) Give them extra practice assignments outside of class (if they ask)

3) Encourage them to participate by giving them “very manageable” questions to answer confidently

4) If they struggle to answer, encourage other students to help them out

5) Try to seat them closer to the front of the room

These strategies promote congeniality in the class, help foster a safe learning environment in which no student feels embarrassed to be incorrect, improve students’ language abilities and/or comprehension of important language concepts, and most importantly show that you care about them. A student who is a bit weaker is already apprehensive about his/her language level; going out of your way to provide support and encouragement will make the challenge of learning in a mixed level environment easier to navigate and ultimately more enjoyable.