Multi Level ESL Classes | Teaching ESL Abroad

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How to deal with multi-level ESL classes

Do you teach classes with a huge skill level gap? For example, some students are almost fluent while others have a very difficult time reading basic words?

This is often the case when teaching in South Korea, and it can certainly be a big challenge. Keep on reading for some top tips for how to deal with this problem.

Multi Level ESL Classes are a Big Problem!

One of the negatives of teaching at a university in Korea is that students are often grouped according to what major they take and not what their level of English is. This results in classes having one or two students who are semi-fluent (having studied overseas perhaps, or at hagwons for years) mixed in with a few students who struggle to say their name and how old they are. You know, basic grammar and vocabulary.

The instructor is then supposed to make one class fit all. It’s not easy to do, and you’ll often find that the top students are bored, while the weaker students are completely lost.

How to Deal with Multi Ability ESL Classes?

It’s not easy to deal with an ESL class with a wide range of abilities. I struggle with it, even after years of teaching in Korean universities. Thankfully, I now teach only English majors so that all my students have at least a basic level of English ability.

However, what I normally do is teach to the middle 70% of the class. I know that the top 15% will be bored with what I’m teaching, but it’s hard to really help them in a mixed-level class. If the student has studied overseas and is way above the class level, I’ll often excuse them from actually attending and just make them do the homework and tests, if the situation is really extreme such as having attended an American middle and high school.

I know that the bottom 15% of the class will not really be able to follow what I’m doing or participate in a meaningful way, kind of no matter what I do. These are usually the students who have given up on English years ago. I usually leave these students to do their own thing as long as they don’t disrupt the class.

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Strategies for teaching multi-level ESL classes

What about Grades for Multi-Level ESL Classes?

These mixed-level classes make testing a challenge. For example, on a midterm exam a few years back I did a speaking test where I gave the students some sample questions that I would be asking. I asked some questions straight off the study sheet word for word but changed some questions slightly for the mid-higher level students.

For example: What’s your plan for after graduation? —> What’s your plan for tonight? What’s your plan for after English class? —> Or, what’s your plan for winter vacation?

For the top students, the test is almost edging into the ridiculous. It really is way too easy. But for the lower-level students? Instead of asking some questions that have been changed slightly, I would ask the ones that came straight from the book, or study paper. That way, if they really did study they would for sure be able to give at least some answer. Kind of unfair I guess, but there really was almost no other way and a memorized answer is better than just silence.

More details about testing speaking here:

ESL Speaking Tests: A Few Options

Learn More about Teaching Mixed Level ESL/EFL Classes

What are your Strategies for a Mixed Ability ESL Class?

Need some speaking activities for your conversation classes? Of course you do, who doesn’t, right?

This will be your go-to book for years to come: 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities: For Teenagers and Adults. You can get the book in both digital and print formats, so check it out today.

Lesson planning made easy! Since I always like to help you, the reader, by making your life as easy as possible.

Also be sure to give this article a share on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. It’ll help other teachers struggling with this issue find this useful teaching resource.


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