ERIC Identifier: ED383242
Publication Date: 1995-05-00
Author: Shank, Cathy C. - Terrill, Lynda R.
Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes. ERIC Digest.
In multilevel adult English as a second language (ESL) classes, teachers are
challenged to use a variety of materials, activities, and techniques to engage
the interest of the learners and assist them in their educational goals. This
digest recommends ways to choose and organize content for multilevel classes; it
explains grouping strategies; it discusses a self-access component, independent
work for individual learners; and it offers suggestions for managing the
THE MULTILEVEL CLASS
Teachers use the term MULTILEVEL to
identify any group of learners who differ from one another in one or more
significant ways. Arguably, every class is multilevel because learners begin
with varying degrees of competence and then progress at different rates in each
of the language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing (Bell &
Burnaby, 1984; Santopietro, 1991; Wrigley & Guth, 1992). However, in many
adult ESL classes, there are even more variables that affect the levels within
the class. Some programs (generally because of funding constraints, learner
scheduling difficulties, number of learners, and program logistics) place
learners of all levels, from beginning to advanced, in a single class. Often
such classes include speakers of many native languages, some that use the Roman
alphabet, some that do not. Learners may have varying degrees of literacy in
their first language as well as in English (Bell, 1991; Santopietro, 1991;
Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Other factors that add to diversity in the classroom
and to rate of progress in learning English are the type and amount of a
learner's previous education; the learning style preference; learner
expectations of appropriate classroom activities; and the culture, religion,
sex, and age of each learner (Guglielmino & Burrichter, 1987).
To ensure some success for all learners in
the multilevel classroom, teachers must determine what each learner needs and
wants to learn. This is accomplished through ongoing needs assessment that
includes both standardized tests and alternative assessment, one-on-one
interviews with learners, group discussions, and learner observation (Alexander,
1993; Holt, 1995; Isserlis, 1992; Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Throughout the
needs assessment process, it is important that adult learners are actively
involved in choosing the direction and content of their learning (Auerbach,
1992; Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Techniques for selecting the content or themes
of class activities might include whole or small group brainstorming and
prioritizing activities, and documentation and prioritization of individual
learner goals ("I need English for..."). (See Auerbach, 1992 for additional
suggestions on using learner themes.)
PLANNING FOR THE MULTILEVEL CLASS
Planning for multilevel
classes requires the ability to juggle many different elements as teachers must
provide activities that address the learning styles, skill levels, and specific
learning objectives of each individual (Bell & Burnaby, 1984; Wrigley &
Guth, 1992). Teachers can use a variety of techniques and grouping strategies
and a selection of self-access materials to help all learners be successful,
comfortable, and productive for at least a portion of each class time. The
planning is time-consuming and the classroom management is exhausting. However,
the alternative to this effort--planning and using activities that meet the
needs of only those learners whose skills fall somewhere in the middle--will
frustrate those with lower skills, and bore the more advanced learners (Boyd
& Boyd, 1989; Wrigley & Guth, 1992).
When planning and teaching the multilevel ESL class, as with any adult ESL
class, the teacher must remember that learner perceptions of what constitutes
sound language learning may not match those of the teacher. The teacher's
enthusiasm and goodwill can usually encourage learners who resist unfamiliar and
non-traditional classroom activities to participate fully in the class. However,
where there is a mismatch between learner and teacher perceptions of useful
activities, teachers should be prepared to include activities that meet learner
expectations (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). For example, a story developed from a
language experience approach (LEA) activity (Taylor, 1992) could be a source for
grammatical drills or for pronunciation exercises.
The use of grouping strategies can form
the basis for the multilevel class as teachers mix and match groups, pair
learners, and allow time for individual or solo activities during each class
period (Bell, 1991; Berry & Williams, 1992).
Certain factors should also be considered in setting up group and pair
activities, including differences in age, social background, country of origin,
and educational background, as well as English ability. Some learners might not
be comfortable in groups with other learners they consider to be more prominent
or of higher status. And some men may resist being in groups where women are the
leaders. Although the teacher can often encourage reluctant learners to try new
activities, sensitivity to potential difficulties arising from group and pair
work is necessary. Class discussions of cultural and personal differences in
learning styles and interaction patterns may help overcome initial resistance
(Wrigley & Guth, 1992).
1. WHOLE GROUP activities are appropriate initially for
beginning a new class and regularly for daily warm-up time. They can focus the
entire group on a theme that later involves various individual and small group
tasks. The whole group can participate in a class project to create a finished
product (such as a book, bulletin board, or video), where each learner completes
a part of the task based on individual abilities and interests (Bell, 1991).
Other initial whole group activities that lend themselves to follow-up
activities at various difficulty levels include reading comic strips or photo
stories; listening to audiotapes or viewing videotapes; taking field trips;
learning songs; and brainstorming on topics of interest.
SMALL GROUP work provides opportunities for learners to use their language
skills and is often less intimidating than whole group work. Small groups can be
set up according to interest or ability, and need not be equal in size or
permanent (Bell & Burnaby, 1984).
Heterogeneous groups are made up of learners who have disparate skills.
Cross-ability grouping allows stronger learners to help others and maximizes
complementary learner strengths (Bell, 1991). Activities suitable for
cross-ability groups are jigsaw activities; board games; and creating posters,
lists, art, and multimedia projects.
Homogeneous groups are made up of learners who have roughly equal skills (for
example, all are literate or are orally fluent). Activities often suitable for
like-ability groups are problem-solving, sequencing, and process writing.
PAIRS OF LEARNERS working together have the greatest opportunity to use
communicative skills. Like-ability pairs succeed when partners' roles are
interchangeable or equally difficult (Bell, 1991). Activities for homogeneous
pairs include information gap (where the assignment can only be completed
through sharing of the different information given each learner), dialogues,
role plays, and pair interviews.
Cross-ability pairs work best when partners are given different roles and
heavier demands are placed on the more proficient learner (Bell, 1991). Some
examples are LEA stories where one dictates and one transcribes, interviews
where one questions and one answers, and role plays where one learner has a
larger role than the other.
USING SELF-ACCESS MATERIALS
When learners are doing
independent or solo activities in the multilevel classroom, using self-access
materials can enable them to take responsibility for choosing work appropriate
to their individual levels and interests (Bell, 1991; Berry & Williams,
1992). A self-access component includes activities from all skill areas as well
as vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation exercises. With self-access materials,
each task is set up so that learners need minimal, if any, assistance from the
teacher to accomplish the activity. Directions are clear and answers (when
applicable) are provided on the back of the activity allowing learners to
informally evaluate their own work without teacher intervention (Bell, 1991).
When used regularly in the classroom, self-access time can foster a relaxed
environment where learners decide how and when to interact with one another,
with their teacher, and with English.
Teachers need not have their own rooms to set up self-access corners; a box
of materials can travel with the teacher to workplace sites, community centers,
or church basements. The following are some materials to include in the
self-access collection: art supplies such as scissors, markers, crayons, pens,
pencils, paints, paper in various sizes, types, and colors, glue, tape, stapler,
stencils, stamps, and magazines for collages, AND directions for projects (e.g.,
draw pictures of the native country, draw a calendar and put in holidays, draw
the U.S. map); crossword puzzles; articles and books for a range of reading
levels; partner dialogues, in envelopes, with directions; information gaps;
scrambled sentences; interview questions (with tape recorder and blank tape);
writing tasks for individuals, pairs, or groups; board games and puzzles; review
materials from topics, structures, and functions covered in class; contact
assignments such as drawing a map of the neighborhood or telephoning for
information; high interest videos and taped radio segments with teacher-made
activities; and computer software programs to choose from.
MANAGING THE MULTILEVEL CLASSROOM
Planning for the
multilevel class must also include strategies for managing the group, pair, and
individual activities. The teacher may work with one small group at a time while
the other learners or groups of learners are engaged in independent work (Berry & Williams, 1992). Some teachers manage the various groupings by enlisting a
volunteer to work with one group while the teacher works with others
(Santopietro, 1991). Learners can also act as peer tutors or peer group leaders
(Bell, 1991). Again--as was true with grouping and pairing strategies--in
choosing peer group tutors and leaders, teacher sensitivity to learner
expectations, to learning styles, and to personal and cultural issues is
Teaching multilevel adult ESL learners is a
challenge that requires great skill and sensitivity. Teachers whose planning
reflects knowledge of their learners' different language abilities, culture,
educational background, classroom expectations, and preferred learning styles
can help adults learning English as a second language to be partners in their
own education. Through use of versatile grouping strategies and self-access
materials, teachers can manage a multilevel adult ESL class where all learners
will experience success.
Alexander, D. (1993). The ESL classroom as
community: How self assessment can work. "Adventures in Assessment:
Learner-Centered Approaches to Assessment and Evaluation in Adult Literacy," 4,
Auerbach, E.R. (1992). "Making meaning, making change: Participatory
curriculum development for adult ESL literacy." Washington, DC and McHenry, IL:
Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems. Available from Delta Systems
Bell, J. (1991). "Teaching multilevel classes in ESL." San Diego, CA: Dominie
Bell, J. & Burnaby, B. (1984). "A handbook for ESL literacy." Toronto,
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Berry, E. & Williams, M.S. (1992). "Multilevel ESL curriculum guide."
Salem, OR: Oregon State Department of Education. (ED 351 889)
Boyd, J.R. & Boyd, M.A. (1989). "Input-output teacher's manual." Normal,
IL: Abaca Books.
Guglielmino, L.M. & Burrichter, A.W. (1987). "Adult ESL instruction: A
challenge and a pleasure: An orientation guide for adult ESL teachers."
Tallahassee, FL: Florida State Department of Education. (ED 288 074)
Holt, G.M. (1995). "Teaching low-level adult ESL learners." ERIC Digest.
Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
Isserlis, J. (1992). What you see: Ongoing assessment in the ESL/literacy
classroom. "Adventures in Assessment: Learner-Centered Approaches to Assessment
and Evaluation in Adult Literacy," 2, 41-48.
Santopietro, K. (1991). "Multi-level ESL classroom instruction module."
Denver, CO: Colorado Department of Education.
Shank, C. (1993). "Teaching in the multi-level adult ESL classroom: Module
for ESL teacher training." Arlington, VA: Arlington Education and Employment
Taylor, M. (1992). "The language experience approach and adult learners."
ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
(ED 350 887)
Wrigley, H.S. & Guth, G. (1992). "Bringing literacy to life: Issues and
options in adult ESL literacy." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International. (ED 348
896). Available from Dominie Press at 800-232-4570.
Citations with an ED number may be purchased from the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS) at 1-800-443-3742.