Haiyun asked me to Skype on the topic of Mixed classes. I thought it could be a post rather than a comment, so that we could find it again.
I do teach multilevel classes, and I would be glad to Skype with you, but it might take until I am on the other side of a trip I’m about to leave on. Therefore I’m going to answer here with just a few of the main ideas that I have (that might be all there is to give you!).
For me, the level 1 + others is the hardest mix in multilevel classes, because you have kids who don’t know anything, and the kids who know a lot are a bit frustrated, or they are at least irritated because they want to be moving faster. But I continue to tell them that going slower is better for them, and I ask them to do the telling from perspective and get them to be the actors.
The first thing is to establish the classroom practices very firmly. I really like what someone here does…maybe it’s Jody?…and everyone in class gestures the same if someone doesn’t understand. It makes a class bond. I have to admit that I didn’t get it exactly right because I never insisted on it, but it was fun when it happened. Practice in the first days would clear up that problem. Blurting can become a problem because those year 2 kids want so much to show off. You have to give them other ways to do it that are appropriate for the class and that won’t intimidate the new kids. (I mean especially “blurting” in the target language. You would never think that would be a problem!) It’s important for the teacher to also review practices: go slower than you think you need to, point and pause at new structures, and keep good eye contact going with the new kids as well as the old kids. Discipline on both sides–teacher and students–is critical. Spend as long as you need practicing all the routines that make it possible for the group to acquire language and not be interrupted by behaviors, misunderstanding, or classroom transitions and drop-in interruptions. Structure in the classroom as far as policies will give you the freedom to teach so that students will acquire language. (Laurie has a great post on this topic.)
The second idea is to use TPR on five or so of your “old” verbs a day, and use that as the opening activity. Then you can do little mini stories with those words and have the whole class act them out. I do that anyway at the beginning of the year, but this time, you’re not going to use those “old” verbs too much in stories, because the new kids haven’t truly acquired them. Basically I tried to insert only one at a time into the stories for the new kids. It’s a challenge. The first two are “says” and “goes” for me. If you have been doing TPR, you have a gesture that they’ve been practicing, and that will help the new kids understand.
Third, start with structures that are new for the year 2 kids. This will help with the intimidation factor. (I actually went to the same list that the intermediate and advanced kids were using; my kids always share information, and I knew that they would talk about it.) Don’t mention this if you don’t have to; the year 1 kids will not know the difference, while the year 2 kids will figure it out and be mollified. Slowly, slowly add in the structures that you’d been doing before, but really limit the vocabulary. It’s hard, because you’ll want to move faster with the old kids. What you can do is ask them to work separately from the whole group; while you do a retell of the story with the year 1 group, you can ask kids in year 2 to add in details and expect them to use some of the “old” structures. You won’t be asking the year 1 kids for retells as soon.
What’s hardest for me in a mixed class is the reading puzzle. Obviously you can write up the new stories. With a non-Roman alphabet, there are kids who are way ahead of the new ones, but the year 2 kids aren’t really strong enough to be reading on their own. I did a variety of things in mixed pairs and groups to figure out who the best teachers were to get the alphabet going and later the mini class stories, and I used my native speaker to lead the strongest year 2 kids so that they could read ahead of us. It was a bit of a mess, because then I wanted us back together at the end of the year this year. Still, there was really only one student who didn’t really get it, and I think it was more because he skipped a lot of classes in the first month because the TPRS class demanded his attention “too much.”
That is all I really know about teaching multilevel classes that have a big level 1 component. Usually my other classes have just one or two level 1 kids, and I pair them up with a kind experienced student, telling them that they have to let us know every time they don’t understand, and that it will be really uncomfortable for the first month. Those kids are self-selected, and they want to learn faster, so they usually do. One of my first-year kids in the intermediate class this year got the highest score of all on the written final, and her oral presentation was among the best.
It’s not easy, and you can’t let your administration think it’s easy. If they can get you extra resources, like a native speaker, get them! Let them know that you are doing something that is unusual, and get all the appreciation out of them that you can, meanwhile knowing that even though it’s harder, every class has a range of abilities after the first week or two. Parents deal with multilevel language teaching all the time. They just vary their vocabulary and their question types. How many times does a mom hold out two outfits for a toddler and say, “Do you want the blue pants or the yellow pants?” The child points. Meanwhile, she’s calling to the older one and telling him to put on his red pants because they’re warmer and it’s cold outside. The little secret I don’t admit to my administration when I am taking on this admittedly difficult chore of mixed classes is that students will actually learn more by being in a mixed class, as long as I’m doing comprehensible, compelling, repetitive input.
Let me know if that gives you enough ideas to go on!