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Promoting the Success of Multilevel ESL Classes: What Teachers and Administrators Can Do
Julie Mathews-Aydinli and Regina Van Horne
(This brief is also available in pdf format.)
Adult education programs serve both learners who are native English speakers and those whose first, or native, language is not English. Native English speakers attend adult basic education (ABE) classes to learn the skills needed to earn high school equivalency certificates or to achieve other goals related to job, family, or further education. English language learners attend English as a second language (ESL) or ABE classes to improve their oral and written skills in English and to achieve goals similar to those of native English speakers.
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.
Context for Multilevel Classes
Despite the efforts of many programs to provide courses that meet the needs of all learners and to refine their student placement procedures, multilevel classes continue to play a role in the adult ESL educational system. Small, often rural, programs may find it necessary to place learners of different levels in a single class in order to serve small numbers of students. Adult refugee programs, often mandated to serve all refugees who sign up whether or not there is space in an appropriate class, may also need to place students in multilevel classes ( Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center, 2002) as may programs in which there is a large increase in student numbers over a short period of time.
Significant demographic shifts are creating a need for ESL classes in a growing number of states. According to data from the 2000 census, the decade between 1990 and 2000 saw a rapid arrival of immigrants to new states and communities. During this decade, the foreign-born population grew by 145% in the new-growth states, compared to only 57% nationwide. The largely labor-driven migration has brought immigrants into states that form a broad band across the middle of the country. Many of these states had not seen much immigration growth in over a century (Urban Institute, 2002). During the 1990s, the immigrant population more than doubled in 19 states, with the highest growth occurring in Arkansas, Georgia, Nevada, and North Carolina. Other states that have seen a rapid increase include Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Utah (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Until they grow to a size that can support a sequence of classes with students at similar levels, programs may need to form 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:
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.
Consider the financial limitations of the program, the number of learners the program serves, instructors’ levels of experience, and the program’s access to volunteers and tutors. These factors will help determine the need for multilevel classes and the program’s ability to serve learners well through multilevel classes. Conducting a needs assessment during registration provides valuable information. Some of this information can be used to determine, for example, whether classes that are mixed in terms of language level might be organized along the basis of shared topics of interest or themes.
2. Consider staffing and assignments.
Instructors: Multilevel classes need to be staffed by experienced teachers (Shank & Terrill, 1995) but benefit from the additional support of tutors and teacher aides.
Tutors/aides: Tutors can be helpful in working with small groups in a multilevel class. It is preferable, however, to have an experienced teacher work with very beginning-level students (Shank & Terrill, 1995).
Counselors: Programs should consider offering counseling services to help students understand and navigate the different education options available to them. Counselors can assist students in setting goals for their education and developing plans to achieve those goals. Ideally, multilingual counselors who reflect the various languages and cultures represented in the student body would be selected. Growing evidence of the value and need for such services is emerging from the ongoing Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning, which is investigating the literacy development and learning and life experiences of adults with limited education (S. Reder, personal communication, March 2006).
3. Communicate explicitly with students.
Recruitment: Before learners enroll in the program, explain the multilevel nature of the classes. This will help avoid problems later, such as frustration a student may experience when placed with students at a much lower English language proficiency level or embarrassment at being in a class with more advanced learners. Some students may choose not to enroll in a multilevel class. A study of adult Latina students in New York found that some students cited multilevel classes as a factor that deterred them from studying English (Buttaro, 2002). Being open with students about the nature of the classes and making clear to them the extra measures being taken to manage these classes can help students make informed decisions that will be in their best interest.
Intake: Provide as much multilingual support as possible during intake so that the program’s mission, services, and procedures are clear to all students. Use the students’ native languages to do a thorough needs assessment that gathers the information needed to make effective placement decisions.
Orientation: Provide a student orientation that includes discussion of learner purposes and goals and some practice in setting short- and long-term goals; interviews with current students, discussion of barriers to learner participation and ways to address those barriers; review of study skills, reflection on past learning experiences and discussion of how these classes will be the same or different; and consideration of the roles and responsibilities of adult learners (Yogman & Kaylani, 1996).
Counseling: Offer educational and career counseling in the students’ native languages. Provide frequent and systematic opportunities for learners to give their ideas about the program and its effectiveness in meeting their needs. Develop a good referral system so that students are aware of their options for English language courses (Balliro, 1997).
Instruction: Encourage teachers to talk with students directly about the multilevel nature of the class, acknowledging the context and inviting students to give ongoing feedback about their experiences in the class (Balliro, 1997).
4. Provide professional development and other support for teachers.
Administrators should familiarize themselves with the challenges of teaching multilevel classes so that they can offer appropriate support to teachers. Planning and teaching multilevel classes places a burden on the teacher, who must dedicate extra time to class preparation and extra effort to classroom management. For guidelines on developing lesson plans for adult ESL classes, see Practitioner Toolkit: Working With Adult English Language Learners ( cal-org.wdi.net/caela/tools/program_development/CombinedFilesl.pdf). Administrators can support teachers in a variety of ways:
Planning time: Provide additional paid time for teachers to plan lessons and develop materials. Provide opportunities for teachers to visit each other’s classes, to plan together, and to discuss teaching strategies.
Materials: Support teachers in developing a shared bank of materials with activities for different levels (Balliro, 1997; Wrigley, 2003). Encourage more use of student-generated and authentic materials and less reliance on textbooks written by level (Condelli et al., 2003; Jacobson, Degener, & Purcell-Gates, 2003; Wrigley, 2003).
Professional development opportunities: Provide professional development on instructional strategies for multilevel classes, such as those listed above.
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 at the Center for Applied Linguistics ( 4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) 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.