Multi-level Classrooms: a challenge worth facing


As a teaching consultant in public and private schools, I often hear teachers complain about problems in multi-level classrooms.

With 30-40 students in class, they dream of smaller and leveled classes – something difficult to implement given the spacing logistics of breaking a group in three and having three teachers instead of just one for a class hour…

I remind them that math, geography, art and history teachers deal with the same problem. Yet, I’m not very convincing – these other teachers do not face the foreign language barrier….

This brings me to this months’ post. In trying to find better arguments, I found[1] who lists over 10 different links to articles on the topic. Any teacher will benefit from reading them!

In my opinion, multi-level-class problems have advantages. Yes, advantages! They challenge teachers to improve their teaching skills and students to be more cooperative. Students learn to work in groups, which leads them to develop closer relationships with their peers, who become partners in learning, and, eventually, independent.

To tackle the problems, I usually recommend: start with diagnostic testing. The test should contain items to assess if students have the expected skills necessary to learn the new concepts in the syllabus. Test results reveal learning gaps and students’ individual needs, which allow you to group students according to development level. Make a chart containing the student’s name, level and special needs. Use a pencil to erase easily as new information is necessary to follow students’ evolution.

Next, find the adequate teaching resources to ensure that all students are challenged and interested. Finally, set English-only rules for students working in pairs or small groups while you assist others with specific needs.

Find the type of grouping that works best for your teaching objectives. Choose to group students according to: 1. cross-ability, i.e., students with different levels of competence; 2. like-ability, i.e., when students share the same level of competence; 3. special needs or even 4. compatibility. Using various groupings will keep things interesting in class!

Begin with a warm-up activity for the whole group, followed by an activity in pairs (cross-ability) and another in small groups (like-ability), help students by going from group to group, and end with a whole-class activity or game.

Encourage students to volunteer as peer tutors; remind them that teaching is the best way to learn. Consider having a volunteer – university students, studying to become language teachers will happily volunteer to help experienced teachers and you can write them a reference letter in exchange.

In short, multi-level classes are not easy to teach, but are certainly an excellent opportunity to develop one’s teaching skills. This is a vast topic. I’ll be discussing the idea of preparing different level activities in a future post.

Enjoy your vacations!

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Laura Miccoli

Laura Miccoli is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and a researcher, consultant, and founder of Transforma Educacional – a social business to develop teachers professionally. She has authored “Ensino e Aprendizagem de Inglês: experiências, desafios e possibilidades” and “Aproximando Teoria e Prática para Professores de Línguas Estrangeiras”.

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