Large Mixed-Level Classes

Tiernan L. Tensai

Large Mixed-Level Classes

Dear TLT, I’m teaching English at a university, to a big class of 1st year students. I’m having a real hard time because the levels are so mixed up. Some students are not too bad and seem keen on learning to speak, but others are really really low and can barely say their name! It’s so frustrating! If I focus the lesson on the lower-level learners, the higher level ones get bored. If I do the opposite, the lower level ones can’t keep up and quickly lose interest. I’m at my wit’s end! What can I do to improve the situation? - Torn in Toyama

Dear Torn,

Thanks for your message. You’ve identified a key topic that is pertinent to all teachers in all disciplines—how to manage classes with wide gaps of ability between learners. Of course in one sense, all classes are mixed level to a degree, but it’s when the difference gets too much that we start to struggle. While a complete overview of this topic is beyond the scope of this column, we hope our advice can get you thinking constructively about your situation and point you in some promising directions.

One productive thing to do, if possible, is to give some sort of test at the beginning of the course in order to suss out everyone’s level. This can help you quickly identify the range of abilities you are dealing with and enable you to plan accordingly. However, while getting to know what your students can do early on in the course is a good thing, we suggest you resist the urge to group students of similar ability all of the time. Once in a while is fine, but if you go too far with this, you run the risk of creating a class with classes, one where the low-level students exist in a sort of ability ghetto. On the other hand, if you always pair higher level students with lower ones, then that can create its own problems. In the end, it’s much healthier if students are constantly changing partners and working with everyone, irrespective of ability. Having a system for changing partners and pairs is something worth developing.

In general, one principle to keep in mind is to make activities “open-ended,” meaning that you should have a minimum goal for everyone to reach, but one that higher-level students can tweak in order to do more. In one simple example, say you’re having students match vocab (like job titles, for instance) with definitions. When the high-level students inevitably complete the task first, ask them to think of two or three more related vocab words on their own (e.g., more job titles) and write their own definitions. They can stay busy and impress themselves while the lower-level students are finishing up the main task. It’s not always easy for a teacher to think of how to do this with every activity, but with practice it gets easier.

A similar idea is to frame activities in a way that encourages students to strive to a higher level. For example, if you want your students to give longer answers, put up various possibilities and let students choose:Question: So, (NAME), where are you from?

Answer options:

  • Tokyo.
  • I’m from Tokyo.
  • I’m from Tokyo, from a neighborhood called Adachi-ku.
  • I’m from Tokyo, from a neighborhood called Adachi-ku. It’s near the center of the city.
  • I’m from Tokyo, from a neighborhood called Adachi-ku. It’s near the center of the city. Now I live in Yokohama.

Having such a range will allow your students to feel okay with whatever they can manage while simultaneously getting the point that longer and more detailed replies tend to be better, more communicative ones.

Timed conversations are also a good thing to do in speaking classes. Have you tried this approach? The basic idea is to have students speak only in English on a particular topic for a short period of time, say two or three minutes. Students with higher ability levels can usually easily accomplish this, so encourage them to go beyond the basic target language. If they are paired with lower level partners, they can benefit from being in a kind of mentoring role. This arrangement can also work well when doing project work, as the lower level students get the benefit of hearing explanations from their peers. However, as we mentioned, take care not to push your higher level students too much into this kind of role; they might get bored or tired from having to do it too much.

In terms of specific class activities, there are really too many to mention. We suggest consulting with Google-san and tracking down some articles and videos on the topic. There are many to choose from. However, one thing we would like to encourage is the use of poetry, especially haiku. In this issue of TLT, in the Teaching Assistance column, Ben Taylor suggests writing “the shortest poem in the world.” This activity can be introduced easily to low-level learners, but keeps on challenging high-powered students. In addition to introducing syllable counting and getting students to read short lines, haiku can give any English teacher a powerful new tool for teaching English. Inserting a quick haiku in any English activity with the day’s lesson (be it about food, sports, or world heritage sites) can quickly allow a big class to be adapted for a wide range of ability levels. Basic students can count syllables and play with punctuation, mid-level students can focus on meaning and metaphor, and the top students can write poems with a greater awareness of the world. The creativity involved in writing haiku poems allows everyone to keep their heads up and feel good about what they do. Again, doing a quick search on “EFL haiku” or something similar will bring up a wide range of useful how-to info.

Learning how to best manage mixed-level classes is a huge part of teaching in any subject. It’s a challenge we as teachers must face if we want to truly develop our craft and improve our ability to serve our students. We hope this short column has gotten you thinking productively about it. There are a lot of things you can do, both at the level of general class management principles and specific language learning activities. By facing up to the problem and bringing your attention and creativity to it, you are bound to grow and develop your ability and confidence for dealing with this challenging situation. Embrace the challenge and let it lead you to new ways of doing things.