It can be challenging to manage multiple language levels together. Perhaps
you tutor a husband and wife with differing levels, or maybe you have a whole
classroom full of students diverse not only in English ability but also in
culture, age, and literacy skills. If you are dealing with tension between
learners due to cultural differences, try to find and emphasize any common
ground between them. Where age gaps exist, usually the younger learners will
make faster progress than the older ones. To preserve respect for your older
students, give them a chance to answer first, or assign them helping tasks such
as handing out and collecting papers or taking attendance. If some of your
learners are literate in their native language and others aren't, often due to
varying levels of prior formal education, the literate students will almost
always make faster progress than the non-literate ones because they can process
visual as well as aural cues and can take notes to study later. Therefore even
if your learners begin with similar oral abilities, they will soon become
multilevel as the learning gap widens. It can be effective to use peer tutoring
pairing a literate student with a non-literate one as long as the 'tutor-tutee'
roles are occasionally interchanged. The non-literate student should be given
the chance to take the 'tutor' role with another non-literate student of lower
ability or even with a literate student in a non-text-dependent activity.
In a multilevel class, it's a good idea to focus on topics rather than
specific language skills, and focus on doing rather than studying. Work on
specific skills as issues arise. Find long-term, hands-on projects in which all
levels can participate such as a quilt, garden, collage, video, or dramatic
production. Creating a survey that says "I want to learn English for..." with
several options to check off and space for comments may help you discover common
needs and interests in the group which you can use as a foundation for your
Multilevel classes frequently begin and end with whole-group activities to
foster a sense of unity among the students. It's possible to teach the entire
class session as a whole group, but many teachers choose to break into pair or
group work for all or part of the main class time. Groups are often formed with
similar ability levels so that students within a group can work on the same
activity at about the same pace; such groups don't need to be the same size.
Grouping mixed ability levels allows students to help one another as the whole
class does the same activity. You can have all groups working on activities
concurrently, or you may want to rotate between 2-3 groups, teaching a lesson to one
while others work on a self-guided task. The latter method requires greater
preparation but is better able to meet level-specific needs. Here are some ideas for pair and
Similar-Ability Pairs Such pairs should do tasks where each role is interchangeable
and the same difficulty. Examples: information gaps, dialogs, role plays,
and two-way interviews.
Mixed-Ability Pairs Such pairs need unequal tasks. Examples: a story dictated by one and
transcribed by the other, an interview in which one asks and one answers,
and role plays with one larger role.
Similar-Ability Groups Groups can be different sizes. Consider gender,
culture, and age issues when grouping. Such groups can work on tasks where
everyone can contribute equally. Examples: problem solving, sequencing, and process writing.
Mixed-Ability Groups Such groups need activities that don't require equal language abilities
for participation. Examples: board games,
making lists, and arts or crafts.
Individuals Selected individuals much higher or much lower than the rest of the
class may be given independent tasks to work on.
When working with the whole class at once, there are several strategies you
can use to keep higher level students challenged while not neglecting
beginners. If you give time for a task and you know advanced students will
complete it quickly, give them extra activities like a writing assignment or worksheet
to do while waiting for the rest of the class to finish. You can ask advanced
students to explain new vocabulary words (preferably in English), take notes
on the board while you teach, or model a dialog with you. When holding class
discussions or checking comprehension of the lesson, ask beginners simple
questions with one correct answer, saving open-ended and opinion questions for
higher level students. In choosing whole-group activities, minimize reliance
on texts, especially if your class includes non-literate students. Warm-ups,
cassette or video clips, brainstorming, songs, and field trips are some
activities well suited to multilevel participation. Try to ensure that your
lessons will stimulate various learning styles as well.
After you have taught the class for a while, you may find yourself struggling
with problematic issues. Don't hesitate to go to your program leaders for
support and advice. Additionally, you can ask for student feedback on their
class experience, and discuss any individual concerns directly with the
respective students. The following are some common concerns in multilevel
If Advanced Students Dominate This may happen in mixed-level groups. If it becomes problematic, end
the group work and facilitate the activity yourself using the board so all
students can see and participate. Make a note to try an alternate grouping
strategy next time. If this is happening during whole-class activities, you
may need to take a more active role in quieting dominant students and
calling on beginners.
If Advanced Students Seem Bored or Beginners Seem Lost It seems obvious to challenge advanced students more and help beginners
feel included, but this is easier said than done. It will probably help to
speak individually with each of the students you're concerned about and ask
for their suggestions.
If Students Use Their Native Language This is usually not a major concern in a multilevel class. You can allow
some native language helping as long as the lower students are making
progress and not having everything interpreted. However, if you feel that
the native language use is hindering English learning, set ground rules for
the entire class regarding when and why and how much native language can be
If Classes are Too Big or Too Diverse Discuss options with program
leaders like bringing in volunteer assistants or splitting classes. Although
such solutions may seem unlikely, it doesn't hurt to ask.
If You Get Burned Out It's impossible to cater
to all the needs of every student, especially beyond the classroom. If you
are drained by students relying heavily on you for assistance in other areas
of their lives, you can make appropriate referrals and guide students toward
being more independent. If your burnout stems from complex lesson planning,
take a break for a potluck or other fun, non-lesson class session.