Promoting Success of Multilevel ESL Classes:
What Teachers and Administrators Can Do
Julie Mathews-Aydinli and Regina Van Horne, Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA)
Audience for This Brief
This brief is written for the following audiences:
Because learners in all adult ESL classes have varying levels of competence in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, every class can be considered multilevel to some degree (Bell, 2004; Wrigley & Guth, 1992). For many programs, however, the term multilevel has come to define classes where learners from a wide range of levels, from beginning to advanced, are placed together in a single group. In some parts of the country, multilevel classes are the only option that programs have when offering ESL classes. Multilevel classes can present challenges to teachers, who must engage the interest of all the learners in their classes while helping them achieve their diverse educational goals. Multilevel classes can also present challenges for administrators, who must provide appropriate and adequate support for teachers. This brief provides background information on multilevel classes and offers suggestions for teachers on instruction in such classes and for administrators on ways to provide support for teachers in programs with multilevel classes.
Challenges of Multilevel Classes
Multilevel classes can provide opportunities for learners. Those with limited proficiency have an opportunity to interact with more proficient English speakers, and advanced learners benefit by using their English skills to help lower level students negotiate meaning. Students in multilevel classes can learn to work together across differences and develop learning communities in which members learn from one another’s strengths (Corley, 2005; Hofer & Larson, 1997; Jacobson, 2000; Wright, 1999).
At the same time, addressing the diverse needs of a multilevel class presents challenges for the teacher and requires (a) training, experience, and extra time for preparing lessons and materials; (b) teacher collaboration; and (c) program support. Lesson planning and classroom management, while time-consuming, are essential elements of a successful multilevel class. If the instructor plans activities
that meet only the needs of learners whose skills fall in the middle, those learners with lower skills may become frustrated, and those with more advanced skills may become bored (Boyd & Boyd, 1989; Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Multilevel lesson planning must include strategies for organizing group, pair, and individual work. Whether or not a class is multilevel, there are several factors that teachers need to take into consideration when grouping learners in pairs or small groups:
Instructional Strategies for Multilevel Classes
Teachers can do the following to promote success in their multilevel classes:
Another basis by which teachers may group students is their preferred ways of learning. Teachers can draw on multiple intelligence theory to understand the different ways their students learn and demonstrate proficiency, and group the students accordingly (Kallenbach & Viens, 2002; for an overview of multiple intelligence theory and how it can be applied to adult ESL classes, see Christison & Kennedy, 1999.)
Administrator Support for Programs with Multilevel Classes
Faced with the challenges of managing a multilevel class, teachers need support from program administrators in order to successfully serve the learners in their classes. The following recommendations can help administrators make informed decisions about how best to support the teachers in their programs. While it may not be possible to implement all of the recommendations, they can serve as guidelines for program improvement and for deciding whether to limit the size of a program.
1. Carefully consider program design options.
2. Consider staffing and assignments.
3. Communicate explicitly with students.
4. Provide professional development and other support for teachers.
Because of financial challenges, geographic context, or number of students, multilevel classes are necessary in some adult ESL programs. While such classes can enhance students’ English language learning experiences, teachers and administrators need to be aware of the special challenges they can pose. Teachers face challenges in class preparation and classroom management. Administrators must be prepared to take measures to address these challenges and support teachers with appropriate pay, time to
plan and collaborate with each other, and opportunities for professional development. Administrators can explore ways to provide additional resources for students, such as orientations and tutors or counselors who speak the students’ native languages. Combined with these measures, administrators can encourage the building of relationships among students based on extracurricular interests or workplace and family related needs. Finally, administrators need to ensure that teachers are knowledgeable about strategies that are effective in multilevel classes. If properly managed, the multilevel classroom can provide a positive learning experience for everyone.
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This document was produced by the Center of Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) at the Center for Applied Linguistics with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-04-CO-0031/0001. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.
Self-reflection or Discussion Questions submitted by Brad Hasskemp, ABE Learning Centers Manager
1. Talk about a multilevel class situation you have encountered. What were some of the positive learning strategies or activities that seemed most effective? What were some ineffective learning strategies or activities that were implemented? How does this correlate with the research article’s findings?
2. How do you define a “multilevel” class? Some ABE professionals would claim that all classes are essentially multilevel due to varying educational goals and differences in reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. What are your thoughts on these claims?
3. How have culture and age played a significant role in learning environments you have experienced?
4. The article lists several instructional strategies for multilevel classes. How could they be implemented with the use of volunteers and additional staff? How could they be implemented without any additional staff or volunteers? What additional resources would be needed?
5. When is it better to use heterogeneous groups? When is it better to use homogeneous groups?
6. Project-based learning and thematic instruction are promoted as promising practices with multilevel classes. Give examples of these strategies, how they could be best utilized, and their potential challenges.
7. Of all the suggestions made in the article for both instructors and administrators, what strategies does your class or program currently offer? Of the strategies currently not applied in your program or class, which ones are possible with the resources available? Which ideas are not feasible with your class or program? Why? How could these strategies be implemented with your program?