ESL classes have multilevel students to a degree, but in general the
students are close enough to each other that they can all benefit from
the same activity. When we refer to teaching an ESL multilevel class,
therefore, we are referring to a class where the students are so far
apart in language skills that a single game or activity cannot be given
to all students.
Obviously, this can be a planning nightmare and a lot of extra work for
the ESL teacher. The good news is though, that even extreme
differences in language levels can be successfully managed so that all
the students progress. There are ways to organize the classroom to
handle teaching multilevel ESL classes and strategies and activities
that work across various levels.
Multilevel Class Sizes
deciding on how a plan for organizing the class, it is important to
consider the number of students, and the range of levels. Small classes
of 3 – 9 students generally lend themselves to different approaches
than classes of 10, 15, or 20 students.
For a small class, you can often split your time and efforts
effectively between the individual students. Once you know your
students, it is easy to frame your discussions so that more difficult
questions are addressed to your more advanced students.
Drama is an ideal multilevel activity which lends itself well to small
groups. Here the lead roles can be given to the more advanced
students. Advanced students can be in charge of creating
scripts and giving out roles as well as acting to increase their
involvement and motivation.
Multilevel Activity 1 - Buddy Reading
larger classes there are other options, and these multilevel ESL
activities also work for the smaller groups too. For writing and
reading, students pair up for buddy reading, and peer editing. Buddy
reading involves one student reading and the "buddy" helping to make
sure that the reader is pronouncing the words correctly. The buddy also
asks questions after the reading to check comprehension.
You will need to model this for the group first, but with adults it is
often a very easy multilevel activity for them to pick up since it is
similar to studying together outside of class. Higher level students
are able to monitor lower level students, and interestingly, having
lower level students monitoring higher level students often works to
help the higher level students become more aware of fossilized errors
that they are making.
Multilevel Activity 2 - Peer Editing
peer editing allows students to look at each other's work and make
corrections and comments at their own levels. Pre-writing and rough
drafts can be done independently. Advanced ESL students can be
encouraged to write more and with greater grammatical complexity. Peer
editing is then done as a last step before writing the final draft.
Students can be encouraged to discuss content as well as grammar and
Games are, of course, the ultimate ESL multilevel activity. The beauty
of games is that they are generally excellent for encouraging
meaningful interaction between students even with very different levels
of English. By taking time to pre-teach any necessary
vocabulary and grammar, all students will be able to participate in the
games together. Examples of multilevel ESL games that work well are
Jigsaw Reading, Name the Thing, and How It's Made – these ESL games and
more are all in my book of games for teens and adults.
Multilevel Activity 3 - Jigsaw Reading
reading is quick to prepare. You simply select a reading, pre-teach the
vocabulary and grammar, preferably with games, and divide the reading
into parts. Each student reads their part of the article or story
silently to themselves. Advanced students should be given longer and
more challenging passages, and lower level students the short, simpler
parts. After reading, you can have the student either write a summary
of the article or story, or give it orally. Finally, working together,
the students try to reconstruct the article in the correct order, and
check it against the original article.
Multilevel Activity 4 - Name the Thing
the Thing requires picture cards. Have the students work in pairs, and
lay out for each pair a set of three or four pictures of similar, but
not identical items, such as four similar cars. One person holds a
matching picture of one of the items displayed on the table, and uses
this as a reference for answering questions asked by the other
students. These students ask questions to narrow down their choices and
pick the correct matching picture. The more advanced students
can do the questioning, as this is harder than coming up with
answers. A tip for this game is to first demonstrate it at
the front of the class and then ask students to each collect a set of
pictures for the game to play at the next lesson. The teacher
can then keep the best of those sets for future use.
these games are included in the English
Language Games Book for
teens and adults with
163 games and
Multilevel Activity 5 - How it's Made
It's Made simply requires directions on assembling something. It is
always fun to do peanut butter sandwiches or some other simple food,
and actually bring in the ingredients to practice with. Each student is
given one step in the process, and they must discuss their step with
the others and decide where they fit in. It can also be done
with blocks or a simple puzzle or model Lego. Give the more
advanced students more steps and/or more complex
instructions. The beginners have something simple, like
putting the wheels on the Lego car. You can actually
photocopy the instructions that come with the model – making them a bit
bigger, and cut them up, giving out a paragraph or two per
student. It's best to have one model to every three or four
students to allow for plenty of speaking practise.
How It's Made Variant: Another way to play this if you have no
instructions to hand is to simply have a rule where a student cannot
move any piece without saying something. If a student wants
to pick up a piece off the table and try it to see if it fits on the
model or in the puzzle, or stick it with another piece, he or she MUST
say something in English.
For example, using a puzzle with a picture that includes some red
flowers: advanced students give a running commentary of their actions,
"I'm just going to see if this small red piece fits on here... it looks
like it might be part of a flower. Oh no, it doesn't
fit". Whereas a beginner might say, "I think this is a
flower", or "it fits/it doesn't fit". Alternatively you can
have students practise and repeat any kind of sentence or grammar that
you are learning, and it does not have to be related to the theme of
the puzzle or model at all. So a beginner could say "I like
pears" and this will give them the right to try a piece on the model or
puzzle. If working with several groups they can race each
other to see who finishes first.
are two types of classroom organization that I have found especially
effective with large, multilevel classrooms of 10-20 students: the
"whole-group-to-leveled groups" approach, and the "small groups with
centers" model. Both have their strong points and there is nothing to
say that they can't be combined.
Using the "Whole-group-to-leveled groups"
"whole-group-to-leveled-groups" approach is quite a mouthful, but is
fairly simple to implement. The idea is that you do a short
introductory activity with the entire class, and then break the
students up into leveled groups for student-to-student practice. This
works really well when the gap between students is at the upper end of
the scale, from intermediate to advanced, for example. It's also the
best choice if you don't have a lot of classroom resources. In this
case, you differentiate the levels by how you group the students, and
what practice activity you give them. Often, the activities are simply
variations on themes, with the lower level versions being more
scaffolded than the upper.
Multilevel Activity 6 - Using an Article
say you have a low intermediate group, an intermediate group and an
advanced group working on reading non-fiction articles. Non-fiction
often has fairly difficult academic vocabulary. For the whole group
part of the lesson, you would read an example article to the class,
demonstrating how to preview the article by looking at the title,
sub-titles, and illustrations; asking for predictions about the content
of the text; and going over key vocabulary.
After the article has been read together as a class, you could break
the students into their three leveled groups. Each group would get an
activity to assess their understanding of the article and these
activities would be level appropriate. The advanced group might be
asked to write about their opinion of the content or debate elements of
the article. The intermediate group might be asked to answer a multiple
choice quiz or answer simple content-based questions, while the low
intermediate group might be asked to do a fill in the blank exercise
based on sentences from the article with vocabulary they've just
learned. Each groups works on their own level using the same article.
for Multilevel Activity 6: To help preparation for the
teacher and increase the class involvement let the class do the prep
work: First read the article together as described above.
Next set homework for the most advanced students to prepare a multiple
choice questionnaire about the article. Let the intermediates
prepare a fill in the blanks. The beginners can have
vocabulary to learn. Students hand in their work for marking,
or do peer marking in class. Then in a future lesson the
multiple choice questions are given to the intermediates and the fill
in the blanks are given to the beginners. The teacher only
has to give one or two thought-provoking questions to the advanced
students to discuss or write about.
If there is time, the lesson can close with a whole group activity.
Games that allow for players to use language at their own comfort level
are great for this. With larger groups like this team games
and relay games are especially fun.
Teaching Multilevel Classes Using the Small Groups and Centers Model
"small groups and centers" model is based on the principles of Guided
Reading. The idea is to prepare a twenty – thirty minute lesson for
each level. While you are teaching one small group at a given level,
the other groups are doing independent work at centers. You have to
pre-stock the centers with appropriate activities, and plan multiple
lessons, but since the activities can often be more than once, and the
lessons are short, it is still a manageable choice for multilevel ESL
Let's say you are doing a unit on houses for a class with beginners,
intermediates, and upper intermediates or advanced. You can divide the
class time into three equal parts and have a group lesson table and two
activity centers. While one group is at the lesson table with the
teacher, the other two groups are each at a center. Two of the best
kinds of centers to have are a gaming center and a listening center.
The gaming center can be stocked with a variety of ESL board games,
role-plays, brain-teasers, and charades. Students will interact at
their own level within the structures of the game.
ESL Strategy games like Battleship, where players have to figure out
where the opponent has hidden his fleet and bomb it before his own is
bombed makes a great center game from my book of games. Pictionary,
where the players try to guess words from each other's drawings is
another old standby. Alternatively, you could have role-play cards for
students to choose from and act out, and even tape if you have the
equipment. You can then review the tapes as a class at the end of the
week, and hand out a best actor award!
The listening center, consisting of a CD or tape playing with multiple
headphone, allows students to listen and read along to stories or
non-fiction articles, and then complete a response activity – like a
journal entry answering a comprehension question, or drawing a picture
of a scene that they heard about in the story.
Within the above models for classroom organization there are some ESL
strategies that can be employed to help the work go more smoothly
whole-class ESL games to build classroom unity. This way students that
don't normally work in the same group can get to know each other and
benefit from each other's experiences.
lots of gestures to back up your spoken words so that lower level
students can follow as well as advanced students. For common classroom
instructions you should come up with consistent signs that are used all
the time and all the students have practiced.
teaching new words or tenses, don't just teach vocabulary, but also
teach the most common sentence structures these specialized words will
appear in. For example: "fall - fell - fallen – Yesterday I fell in a
hole". By teaching common sentence structures, all the students at each
level will be able to make sentences using the vocabulary and it will
encourage correct usage in context, rather than learning a list of
words in isolation.
have extra ESL activities for the "fast finishers" - those
advanced students that might be rushing a bit because they think it is
models and scaffolded ESL exercises for any writing practice, so that
lower levels aren't left floundering. For more advanced students,
simply do the same exercise with less structure given and more
independence in the writing.
remember that every ESL class needs multilevel activities to a degree.
If you happen to be one of those teachers that has an ESL class where
the gap is wider than average, don't panic! With a little forethought
and planning, you will be more than up to facing the
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shelley Vernon promotes learning through English language games and
activities. Go to: Digital
Book of 163 Games and Activities