Teaching mixed proficiency levels

What are the problems and challenges in teaching multilevel classes?

Here are some strategies to foster language learning and maintain learner motivation in heterogeneous classrooms

“We do not teach a group, but thirty separate people. Because of this, the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural and it is the idea of teaching a unitary lesson that seems odd”

(Rinvolucri, 1986)

     Apart from language proficiency, language learners may vary in their characteristics in terms of level, age, aptitude, learning styles, cultural background, mother tongue or their previous educational experience. This, combined with the amount of students per classroom can be very challenging for teachers, as they have to cater for each learner’s specific needs, deal with discipline issues, make sure that the lesson is running smoothly and that all students are on task and involved in the learning process. Teaching multilevel classes offers many challenges as teachers need to modify their teaching techniques and offer a variety of tasks/texts to the students to satisfy their different learning styles and needs. They may also have to deal with group conflicts and the students’ irregular attendance and adapt their methodology or the syllabus to foster learning and maintain learner motivation.

Below you can find some tips on effectively dealing with mixed proficiency classes

  • Encouraging collaboration (assigning students to groups: putting stronger/weaker learners together in groups)

Encouraging S-S interaction

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.

    We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.

Grouping the students in different ways according to their level, interests, goals, etc.

Focusing on collaboration rather than competition

    Real-life simulations, games and quizzes will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills. By working in pairs or groups in order to write a role play or a story for example, our students will combine their imagination and their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. It is important to focus on this positive aspect of student collaboration and to clarify that competitiveness is not the goal of these interactive tasks but creative and constructive learning.

Allowing thinking time

        Keeping the right balance between giving them enough time to process and absorb the information regarding the task, but at the same time having our learners learn to obey and stick to certain time limits is important. Again this will depend on the purpose of the interactive activity and what we want to achieve. We must make sure our students have enough time to listen, think, collaborate with one another, process their answer and speak. Thinking time and monitoring are important as we need to check that our learners are ‘on task’, that they have fully grasped the purpose of the activity and are not switching to their L1 during group work.

  • Task/topic authenticity

As Penny Ur (1996) points out, ‘purposeful and original activities’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. For Harmer (1982:166) students must have a desire to communicate and there must be some communicative purpose to their interactions in the language classroom. In order to boost the learning process, it is therefore essential to provide our learners with meaningful, authentic topics and tasks that will encourage interaction and communication in the TL.

  • The role of the teacher

Different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our ss have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson. Teachers must be an influential raw model to their learners and to try and instill to them the passion in learning a foreign language. We have to prove to them that English is useful, easy and fun. By rewarding their efforts and praising them, we automatically give a confidence boost to our learners. This feeling of achievement brings a deep sense of pleasure to the ss and fuels the learning process. Their intrinsic motivation will be increased and they will be more willing to participate in the lesson, not because they have to but because they want to.

Using differentiated tasks- Designing activities so that everyone can contribute

A lesson that is relevant and meaningful to our learners will most definitely help increase their willingness to participate. Promoting learner creativity will also kill boredom and boost their motivation. We must give them the opportunity to share their interests, their ideas, whatever excites them with the rest of the class. We should let them use their imagination to come up with stories, role plays, games, quizzes. This way they get the chance to learn the foreign language and construct knowledge in a context that is meaningful to them.

    Comprehensibility in the tasks is equally important to meaningfulness. We must make sure that we encourage their creativity through authentic and interesting activities but also that our learners have received clear and explicit instructions. We must also regularly check for understanding and encourage clarifying questions from the part of the ss.

Below you can find a list of communicative tasks for EFL classrooms that can be used and adapted to our students’ specific level and needs

  • Catering for the different learning styles

Grading the texts/tasks

    In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. We also need to provide them with a variety of different tasks that will satisfy our learners’ needs (ex. role plays and simulations for the kinesthetic ones, paragraph sequencing for the visual types etc.). We need to make sure that the task is adapted to our learners’ level and that our students have received all the necessary input (lexis/grammar) they need in order to complete the activity and to effortlessly express themselves in the L2.

    It is important to remember though that participation during the lesson is beneficial as long as it is not stressful. Some students may not be willing to interact with others. We must therefore carefully examine and monitor our learners and adjust our teaching in order to satisfy their learning styles and needs. We need to be able to direct our teaching towards their strengths and offer as much personal focus and guidance as possible.

  • Learner autonomygoal setting

    In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (listening strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.

  • Learner involvement- Making conscious decisions about the lesson

    Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. By letting our students have their say and choose the topics they want to focus on, we instantly give them a more active role, we make them co-designers of the lesson. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners feel they are in control of the lesson flow and become more engaged in the language tasks.

    Reflecting on the lesson is also beneficial. We must show to them that their opinion matters by giving them the opportunity to comment on what they liked from the lesson, what troubles them or any changes they would make.

  • Focus on intrinsic motivation: praise and encouragement

The importance of positive feedback

    In many cases our learners will rarely find the opportunity to practise the TL outside the language classroom. It is therefore essential to encourage them to interact in the foreign language as much as possible. We need to make it clear to our students that errors are part of the learning process and that the goal of the communicative activities is to express themselves freely and creatively in the L2 without the fear of making errors. We must give them the freedom to cooperate with other learners and to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately) in the TL. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active. As Harmer (2001) points out, the students’ attention during these tasks needs to be focused on the content of what they are saying rather than the form.

    For  a communicative activity to be successful, we must encourage a friendly, relaxed learning environment. If there is a a trusting and supportive rapport amongst the learners and between the learners and the teacher, then there is a much better chance for useful interaction to take place. Positive feedback plays a very important role here. By praising their efforts (instead of only making corrections) we keep their motivation levels up and encourage them to express themselves more freely in the TL. Praise and focusing on the positive aspects of our students’ TL output will motivate them to want to talk/write more in the L2. Our students’ self-confidence and self-esteem will increase and the fear of making errors will slowly go away.

References

Bygate, M. (1987). Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harmer, J. (1982). What is communicative? ELT Journal, Volume 36, Issue 3, April 1982, Pages 164–168, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/36.3.164

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

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