Dealing with Widely Varying Language Levels in Your Class Part 1

Teaching a whole language class as opposed to a private student or two is challenging enough as it is, even without your students’ language levels varying greatly. However, multi-level classrooms are more common than you might think. Even if you teach at a language school with students whose language levels have been thoroughly assessed, everyone learns at a different pace, meaning that you’ll still end up with differing language levels. The problem is multiplied severalfold if you work at a general school. Students will then come to you with varying levels of both language skills and motivation for improving them.

However, there are a few strategies you can adopt to make sure everyone leaves your class a bit smarter. And even if you’re so lucky as to teach a very homogenous class, you should still read this post, since it might give you a few ideas for engaging the whole group. You can read the second part of this blog post, in which we discuss some of the benefits of a multi-level class and dive a bit deeper into the concept of differentiated teaching.

The problems you’ll face

Teaching a class with different levels of understanding comes with quite obvious issues. First, most likely, you’ll be only one teacher trying to cater to students who will either find your lesson boring or too difficult to grasp. While this has obvious short-term consequences, the bigger issue is how this will affect your students over a longer period. Especially when dealing with younger learners, such classes can have a terrible impact on their willingness to learn the target language at all. As a teacher, whose goal is to ignite the passion for learning, that is a very daunting prospect.

It’s also important to keep in mind that your students may have different levels of expertise in the four language skills – so one might have excellent speaking skills and struggle with writing, while half of the class struggle to get a word out. And yet, you’re expected to engage all of your students.

Further, if you’re teaching a larger class, you’ll also probably face more discipline-related issues when the more advanced students get bored and disruptive. Again, this is more of a case with younger and teenaged learners, but you still don’t want students feeling unchallenged by what you’re trying to teach.

So, how to address the particular issues of teaching a multiple level class?

Turn students into teachers

One great way to both engage the faster students and help out the slower ones is to task the more advanced to instruct the lower-level students. This will help the more fluent learners revise and refresh their knowledge. As we all know, there’s no better way of learning than teaching yourself. And, at the same time, the slower students will get the support they need to succeed in the class. You can do this by assigning a “buddy” to each student who needs help or by making it into a group effort.

However, to successfully manage this, you should probably first consult the students themselves. Pairing reluctant people will probably end up creating more problems than it solves. So make sure everyone is open to the idea of working together.

Sit similar levels together

Another way to address the knowledge gap is to organise your class seating plan in a way where people with similar language levels are grouped together. While this would inhibit their ability to help each other out, you don’t have to run around the class helping out the ones falling behind and managing the students who finish early and get disruptive. Instead, you have a clear idea where to turn your attention and you can explain your lesson to the different groups according to their levels.

Create tiered assignments

While it’s inadvisable to create several lesson plans to cater to your multilevel classroom (the workload will quickly become unbearable), you can use levelled assignments to make sure everyone is learning.

One option is to create lessons around a single theme, having the below-level students complete easier tasks when the more advanced students plough forward with their more complicated assignments. The other option is to simply structure your lesson and exercises in a way that provides the students an option to choose their own level, completing either all or some of your set tasks.

Conclusion – Recruit students and level your tasks to manage a multi-level class

Engaging the whole group is a sure sign of an excellent language teacher. And while having students with various skill-levels in your class is a challenge, it’s definitely not an insurmountable one. You can use clever seating plans to make your life easier, either grouping together students with the same levels or recruiting the stronger ones to help the slower students. You should also create assignments that can easily be leveled to suit a particular student’s needs and language skills.

You can read a bit more about how to deal with widely varying language levels in your class in the second part of this blog post.