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Teaching different levels in ESL and TEFL: 5 soloutions

I had a bloody tricky job interview the other day where the LSO (language school owner) asked me the classic… “What would you do if you had an English class in which you had students with different levels?”

Different levels in one class can leave you not knowing which direction to go.

All of us have faced this dilemna in our classes and let’s face it: differing levels is a serious TEFL / ESL dilemna. Whatever activity or task you do the student or students with a different level are going to end up dissapointed, disilusioned and will end up either complaining or leaving the class.

5 soloutions to teaching different levels in an ESL Classroom

1) Look on it as an administrative problem and request it be fixed

There is a legendary story about Slacker’s response to the same question in an interview. Having no idea as to what he’d do – cos he’s a slacker – he argued, at great length and with considerable erudition, that as the goal of class assignment and level testing was to ensure students of the same level were put together in the same class, the occurrence of students with different levels in a class would be a case of incompetence and therefore his solution would be to locate the incompetent person or persons and take the issue up with them.

Needless to say, Slacker didn’t get the job, but he has a point. The first soloution should always be to rectify the situation at an administrative level.

Unfortunately, though, that’s not always possible so let’s move onto the next one.

2) Divide time between the levels and/or activities

Aportion a certain amount of time for level 1 and another amount of time for level 2. While level 1 are doing their activity have level 2 do some studying – or whatever they want to do – and vice versa. The logistics of the apportioning soloution depends on a critical variable: jus how far apart the levels are. This is important because dividing the class up into what is essentially two classes is not ideal. It’s divisive and makes the lower level concious of their inferiority.

Therefore, if the levels are not too far apart you only have to do this for a certain part of the class and everyone will feel satisfied there’s something in it for them. Clearly, however, if there is a wide disparity of level you’ll have to do it for longer.

Teachers who can solve this problem deserve some kind of medal.

Another apportioning soloution is to work on a simple rota system. You can choose wether or not to make the class aware of this or just do it without telling them (because remember – for some students their level is a sensitive issue and they don’t want to be seen as the class dunce/s). It’s quite simple: you do one class activity aimed at one level and everyone participates, then you do the next for the next level, and so on and so on. Hopefully you’ll be interspersing it with activities for all levels.

3) Recommend a study program outside of the class which allows them to catch up

Whenever I do supposedly beginner groups in community courses, there’s always two levels: those that have already studied and want to refresh their knowledge and those with absoloutely no knowledge. There is a great difference. Those who are refreshing are very impatient to move through each unit speedily and those who are starting off aren’t. One soloution I’ve come upon is to basically give the fresh starters (who are always in the minority) a little pack of handouts and tell them frankly that if they’re serious about wanting to learn they’re going to have to do these units at home. This allows them to a certain extent to catch up, or at least participate in the class activities effectively.

4) Try and choose cross-level activities

Tricky one this, and again it depends on just how different the levels are, but if one is upper intermediate and the other intermediate then with speaking activities everyone can certianly participate, just as much of the grammar would be as useful and relevant to both.

5) Be a bloody good teacher with loads of different resources, initiative and resolve

The problem of differeing levels is much more acute for the teacher with few resources. One coursebook for example. If you’re going to be an English teacher then don’t be like Slacker. Have conversation manuals, grammar drills, activities – all sorts of books and resources for different contexts and learner types. Then you’ll find a way. The great irony of being more organised is that you can be more slack – you’ve already done the hard work of compiling and gathering your resources so you can sit back and play it by ear.

Hope this helped you out. If it didn’t then please give us your own tips.


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