Teaching Multi-Level Classes

Most teachers would way that they teach multi-level classes and that their students differ in their literacy skills. Every class is multi-level to some degree. The greatest challenge for teachers tends to be large classes where the skill variance is great, and especially where there is a mix of students who are literate in their native languages and those who are not (usually in ESL classes, but also in ABE classes where L1-literate ESL students are mixed in with ABE students who are struggling with literacy).

EFF can ease these challenges because it allows teachers to pay attention to what students have in common (purpose, goal, life experience) as much as what they don’t (skill levels). There is a focus on learning as a community, and in drawing on all the knowledge (subject as well as skill) that students bring with them. The student with the most limited math knowledge in the group may bring excellent bartering (interpersonal) skills to a group that want to wants to budget for and buy inexpensive used furniture.

Finally, it is helpful to discuss the multi-level nature of the class openly with the group, involving them in strategizing how to best include and challenge everyone. This conveys the message that everyone brings strengths and limitations, and that such variety is, itself, a strength (and the norm).

One way to build on this diversity is to pursue a common project that allows each student to participate in a way that helps her focus on her individual skill needs. This example from the Canton City Schools Even Start Program is a good illustration.

A group of students was concerned that, as parents, they were not effectively teaching and supporting their children’s use of math. Through looking at the Family Member Role Map, they decided to support their children’s formal education by hosting a family math night at the local elementary school. Working as a team, the participants developed a budget for the event and wrote a proposal to the school principal. When the proposal was accepted, they researched teaching strategies for parents to use to teach math to children and designed and planned appropriate activities to explain these. They arranged logistics for the math night, planned refreshments, door prizes, and entertainment, and identified and collected the materials they needed. To advertise the event, they used computer word processing and desktop publishing to write, format, and publish flyers, which they distributed.

Prior to the event, the team developed specific criteria they would use to evaluate its success and determined how to collect the data. After hosting the family math night, they met to discuss the event and wrote up a report, including improvements they would have made. They also documented the skills they used from the EFF Standards, collected evidence of performance for their individual portfolios.

This project addressed the needs of a class with diverse skill needs by engaging each student in activities that related to their own learning goals. Students could participate at a variety of levels in writing activities (from simple flyer text to a narrative proposal), math activities (learning about the math taught at school, creating the budget for the event), planning (of the overall event or its component parts), etc. so that each student was appropriately challenged.

Other strategies for supporting a multi-level class include:

  1. Create task variations of lesser or greater difficulty. For example:
    • When listening to a recording, ask some students to listen for clearly stated information while others listen to draw inferences from the content.
    • Provide multiple versions of a text and guide students in selecting a level of difficulty they can read comfortably.
    • Have the group prepare questions of varying difficulty (or do this part yourself). Assign questions or allow students to select questions they can answer.

  2. Call attention to areas in which beginners might have the greater strength. For example:
    • Talk about a real-life topic that a beginner student knows a lot about; highlight their expertise.
    • Do activities that draw on strengths that beginners might have, such as memory games (concentration), pronunciation practice, artistic expression, etc.

  3. Support a variety of ways to participate, including quiet observation. Pair and small group work often allows less confident students to participate more comfortably. It also offers the opportunity for peer support and mentoring.

  4. Provide structures to support everyone’s participation. For example, if stronger students tend to dominate full-group discussions, then organize other discussion formats.
    • Give students roles within the discussion. Those who dominate could be the “observers” or “recorders.”
    • Make a rule that everyone must participate before anyone can make a second contribution to the discussion.

  5. Include individualized work (writing, journals) that students can do at their own levels.
    • Make sure that all students fully understand instructions and expectations.
    • Model what you want students to do; provide bilingual or graphic clues.
    • Have students do a practice run while you make sure they’re doing the assignment as directed.