Teaching English to Multi-Level Classes

What is a Multi-level ESL Class?

Multi-level classrooms are as varied as the students in them. Most often, they include students who communicate in English at a variety of different levels. They may also be considered multi-level because they include students with different types of learning backgrounds, such as those who have learned orally and those who have learned mainly from a textbook. Students may also have different levels of literacy in their own native language. A classroom that contains some students who are familiar with the Roman alphabet and some students who are not may also be considered multi-level. Finally, the term multi-level can be used to refer to a group of students working together who range greatly in age.

Advantages and Challenges of Teaching Multi-level Classes

When faced with the challenge of a multi-level classroom many teachers do not know where to start. They fear that the preparation will take much longer, and that the students will be more demanding. Schools that have multi-level classes often have limited budgets, and teachers may fear that they will not be paid for what they are worth. However, it is only by looking at the advantages of the multi-level classroom and employing strategies to overcome the challenges, that teachers can achieve success.

Advantages of Multi-level classrooms

  • Students are able to learn at their own pace
  • Students learn to work well in a group
  • Students become independent learners
  • Students develop strong relationships with their peers
  • Students become partners in learning

Challenges of Multi-level classrooms

  • Finding appropriate teaching resources and material
  • Organizing appropriate groupings within the class
  • Building an effective self-access centre in the classroom
  • Determining the individual needs of each student
  • Ensuring that all students are challenged and interested
  • Enforcing English only policies when teacher is occupied and students are working in small groups or pairs

Determining the Needs of Your Students

One of the first things you should do when assigned to a multi-level classroom is determine the needs of the individual members. If possible, this should be done before the first class.

There are a variety of ways to conduct needs assessment, depending on the size of the class, and your access to an office and a computer. Many schools use a standardized test for new students. While this may help teachers determine the language level of the students in the multi-level class, standardized tests cannot determine the personal needs of the individual students. For small classes it is useful to invite students into the office for a quick chat to determine what your students' objectives are (ex. improving writing skills, learning conversational English, understanding of rules and grammar). Students may not know the answer to this, so it is a good idea to create a list that they can pick from. You may give the option of picking a primary and a secondary reason. Here are some examples that could be placed in a list for students to choose from:

  • To improve my speaking skills
  • To get into college
  • To use for travelling
  • To become a future teacher
  • To learn the rules of grammar
  • To please my parents
  • Other__________

You should also use this time to explain to your student that there will be other students with different levels of English in the class and that you will be using partnering and grouping exercises and activities in order to meet the needs of everyone. If you don't have access to an office or classroom or you have a large class, you may want to e-mail the question to your students, or have short telephone conversations with them. When none of these options are possible, you can always set aside your first class as an intake day. If possible, stagger the start times of your students by five minutes so that you can speak to each one individually. Brainstorming in a group may also work if you have a small enough class. In a circle on the board place the words, "I need English to/for..." and ask students to volunteer their answers.

Make sure to record the needs and level of each of your students in a simple way. Keep a chart for yourself, and alter it as your students' needs change. Make a conscious effort to monitor the needs of your individual students regularly. You may find that some students feel uncomfortable acting as a peer tutor, while others feel that they are focusing too much on a skill that they will never use in the real world.

student from level special needs
Julio Mexico City Low-intermediate Will be working with tourists in his job as a golf instructor. Wants to learn conversational English. Doesn't require writing skills.
Naoko Japan Advanced Wants to teach English to school aged children for a living. Has studied in English in Japan for 10 years. Wants to work with native English teacher. Poor pronunciation. (Eager to help as peer tutor.)

Glossary of Terms

cross-ability learners: Pairs or groups of students working together with varying degrees of ability or competence. More advanced learners can gain confidence and improve competence by helping and teaching lower level peers.

groupings: Different ways of putting students together (based on things such as cross-ability, like-ability, special needs, compatibility).

like-ability learners: Pairs or groups of students working together who share similar levels of ability or competence.

multi-level class: Group of students who learn and study together in one room, despite having varying levels of abilities and/or literacy backgrounds.

self access materials: Learning resources (ex. listening exercises, readers) that include instructions and answers, and are available for a student to use independently. Students in multi-level classrooms often finish small group or individual assignments and activities at different times, so it is important to have self-access materials available at all times to keep students engaged in learning.

small group activity: An exercise or game in which a small group of students can participate in and learn from. Groups can be composed in many different ways (common interest, common levels, varying levels) and changed often.

whole group activity: An exercise or game in which all students can participate in and learn from, regardless of their competence level and language ability.

Selecting Materials

Finding a core textbook for your class may help you if you have a number of students who are at a similar level of English. You may find that you need more than one level of the same textbook series. If you require more than two levels, however, using a core textbook may only make your life more complicated, and multi-level textbooks are difficult to come by. Another option is to use a theme based approach. Keeping all of your students working on activities and lessons based on the same theme is a great way of maintaining a class-like atmosphere in a multilevel classroom. Not only will this help your students feel like they all belong in the group, it will save you prep time and make you feel more organized. Follow up activities, such as games and discussions can then be based on the theme. English Club has collected a wide range of theme-based lessons to save time for teachers.

Suggested Activities

  • Whole group Warm-up: Starting your class with a whole-group warm-up is a great way to foster a sense of community in your multi-level class.
  • Information gap exercises: Works great for cross-ability and like-ability pairs.
  • Crossword puzzles: Works well for cross-ability pairs or small groups. Despite their English vocabulary levels, each student will bring a wide variety of knowledge to the group to help fill in the puzzle.
  • Self-Access Materials: Make sure everything is well labelled and organized. The materials should reflect the needs and interests of the students in your class. Self-Access materials can be intimidating for students if you just have a shelf full of textbooks. It is best to photocopy many copies of worksheets and exercises. If you have students who are preparing for something such as the TOEIC test, have a file marked TOEIC Practice sheets. If your students need to improve their listening skills, have an audio shelf with an easy-to-use CD/tape player and level appropriate resources (CD's and worksheets). Rather than having guided readers, it is better to have photocopies of stories or articles with corresponding tasks (such as writing activities) stapled right to the readings. Board games, such as Word Up (comes with question cards for 5 different levels), should be viewed as an essential tool in every multi-level classroom.
  • Folktales: It is easy to find different levels of common folk or fairytales. These work well in children's classes, and there are even some that are appropriate for adults. If you have difficulty finding a folktale that is a suitable level, you can always rewrite one yourself and use it again and again when you teach. A local children's librarian should be able to direct you to resources that you need. The follow up activities for folktales are unlimited, but include comprehension questions, group discussions, vocabulary activities, creative writing exercise, and role-playing, all of which can be done in various groupings.
  • Art and images: Visual stimuli can be a great teaching tool. Use paintings as the basis for class discussions, writing assignments, and vocabulary building. Students of all different levels can participate together by describing photographs. Encourage students to bring in their own pictures and art and find ways to build lessons around them. One great pair activity that acts as a listening and speaking activity is to put students in pairs and have one of them describe a picture while the other tries to draw it. This can also be done as a whole group. Your students can choose a photo and describe it to you or another student who will try to reproduce it on the board.
  • Computer lab assignments: If your school has a computer lab for students to use, or if you have a computer in your classroom, allow pairs to do online English lessons with EnglishClub's Learning Centre. Jot down the URL's of any lessons you think will be useful, or give your students free time to explore the site.

Teaching Method Strategies

Experiment with different types of groupings to find the ones that work best.
You may find that cross-ability pairs work best for certain types of activities, while like-ability small groups work better for others. If possible, use a wide variety of groupings to keep things interesting for your class.

Use a simple schedule that is similar each day.
Here is an example:

  1. Start with a warm-up that involves the whole group.
  2. Break part of the class off into one type of grouping (i.e. pairs) and work with part of the class on a lesson, grammar point, or activity.
  3. Break off the class into another type of grouping (i.e. small groups) and have the other students use self-access materials.
  4. Bring the class back together for a whole group activity/game.

Isolate students within the class who are interested in peer tutoring.
This doesn't have to be the student with the highest level of English. Your students who fall somewhere in the middle may in fact be the most valuable to you, as they strive to attain a level of competency comparable to the most advanced students. Remind your students that the best way to practice and improve a new language is to teach it to someone else.

Consider enlisting a volunteer.
Limited budgets or low enrolment are often the reasons behind multi-level classes. For this reason, it may be difficult to convince administrators or managers that you need a paid assistant. If you feel overwhelmed, consider hiring a volunteer. Finding someone who is interested in helping you with your preparation work and teaching may not be as difficult as you think. Most native English students who are going into the teaching profession will be more than willing to put in volunteer teaching hours in exchange for a reference. Once you have permission from your supervisor, you can post an ad at the local library or college, or at a teacher training centre. You may even want to suggest placing an ad on the website for the school you work at.

How EnglishClub Can Help

EnglishClub is a great place to start when looking for activities and exercises that will reduce your preparation time. The Teacher's Guide is filled with ideas and links to help save you time while planning interesting, fun, and worthwhile activities and lessons for your students. You will find many worksheets that can be used as self-access materials, and numerous activities that can be used when your multi-level group is learning together.

Here are some other useful links: