Larry Ferlazzo: Instructional strategies for multi-level classes of English language learners

Many schools, especially those with small English Language Learner populations, do not create separate classes for Beginners and Intermediates.

Many schools, especially those with small English Language Learner populations, do not create separate classes for Beginners and Intermediates. What are a few instructional strategies that we can use in such an environment that provides an effective learning environment for our students and that doesn't drive the teacher insane at the same time?

Here are a few:

  • Using the "same" text that has been modified for different English levels: There are a surprisingly large number of free web resources that provide different versions of the same article that have their complexity designed up or down. There are even tools that will automatically do it for text of your choosing! You can find a list of these sites at The Best Places To Get The “Same” Text Written For Different “Levels.” Students can then be given the same assignments -- for example, to take turns reading it aloud with a similar ability partner and apply reading strategies like visualizing (drawing a picture of what the text makes them see in their mind) or making a connection to another text or previous experience.
  • Implementing a "jigsaw" activity: In a "jigsaw," students are given sections of the same longer text or, in a version more appropriate for a multi-level class, a modified section of the same text (see previous paragraph) or an entirely different text on the same subject (for example, similar-ability groups are given sections of the biography of a famous person at their group's appropriate level of text complexity). Then, each similar-ability group reads the text and prepares a poster and short oral presentation to the entire class on what they learned. Not only does it provide opportunities for reading, writing, speaking and listening, it also takes advantage of what research has shown -- that students learn more when they know they will have to teach the topic to others.
  • Providing simple writing assignments based on visual prompts: I've begun placing simple "comic strips" of six-or-eight panels on the overhead and then ask students to write down the story they believe it tells. Students can write it at whatever English ability level they are at the present time, and Intermediates can sit next to Beginners to provide assistance. There are plenty of these kinds of picture stories available -- I first used stories from the book Chalk Talks and then invited students to create their own. The image illustrating this post is one student example and they now provide a limitless supply of creative storyboards that students can use for writing and oral discussion.
  • Using technology for differentiation: A visit to the computer lab or, if you're lucky enough to have laptops or tablets for all your students, provides a great place for a multi-level class. The Best Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced English Language Learner Sites list provides an extensive collection of sites students can use to learn about any topic that is being studied by the entire class (or not).
  • Utilizing mixed-ability partner groups: This could be a game, a time when Intermediate students "teach" a prepared lesson to Beginner groups, a Picture Dictation exercise (again where the Intermediate student might be more of the teacher), or the other Information Gap activities (see The Best Online Resources For “Information Gap” Activities) where one student needs to get information from the other student through questioning him/her. In such a "Gap" exercise, each partner's sheet could have the necessary information, but it could be made more difficult to find in the Intermediate student's paper.
  • Providing similar materials with different complexity levels for what students have to do with them: These could include:
    − Dialogue or Role Play, where Beginners would be assigned to practice it as written or with small changes, and Intermediates would have to use it as a model to develop their own.
    − Cloze (Fill-in-the-gap) of a short passage, where Beginners would have the correct words shown at the bottom of the page and Intermediates would not. The teacher could be more strategic about using clozes that are models for academic writing Intermediates are doing.
    − Song, where Beginners would again have a cloze with the correct words shown at the bottom and Intermediates would not have those clues.

These strategies are just the "tip of the iceberg" for ideas on teaching a multi-level class. For more suggestions, check out The Best Resources On Teaching Multilevel ESL/EFL Classes

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.  He has written six books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a monthly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.
Portions of this post were adapted from the book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, co-written by Katie Hull Sypnieski and Larry.

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