Multilevel classes

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!


8 responses to “Multilevel classes

  1. Michelle,
    I just want to thank you for such a wonderful response/post. A lot to digest here! I’ll write back in detail response when my little guy goes to bed. There is another aspect of my mixlevel which could be in my advantage is that we are going to be a one-on-one school this fall. I’m thinking to prerecord few activities as comprehension check for them to listening to, maybe I could use that time to teach something different to a different level in the beginning. After a semester, I think I could start to introduce new phrases to them together and create a story together. For the 1s, I could give them the reading in pinyin, for the 2s, they will be reading in hanzi. I’ll be back to talk more. I just want to thank you first! What you wrote is unbelievable!


    • I love your reading differentiation idea! That’s fabulous. What is a one-on-one school?

      I’m so glad it is helpful. Are you going to be at one of the state-side conferences (iFLT or NTPRS) this summer again? We should all find one another and talk. Well, I guess we do that anyway.


  2. I’m just giving a short answer here: “one-on-one” is a laptop school. Our freshmen and sophomore are required to have a BYOD (bring your own device). Now, I’m going to reread your post and write back.
    By the way, I won’t attend neither of the conferences this year. I have scheduling conflicts.


  3. Back again, here is what happend at school: this year my Chinese I enrollment tripled. I had 25% of the new freshmen signed up for my class, and plus lots sophomores and juniors. Therefore, I will have two really large classes which would not fit into my current classroom. They also can’t find one additional large classroom to put me in. So, I would be teaching one section in a history room and one section in a French room. Using TPRS, we have so many “wall posts”, it wouldn’t be ideal to take over the history room and the French room. So I thought about it, if they could break Chinese I into three sections, combine one section with my current Chinese I class, it might work. The reason I want to combine them together is that my current Chinese I group probably is one of the lowest academic groups according to a senior English teacher. Overall, they probably “learned” only half the topics I could normally do in a typical year, how much “acquired” it would be a good question. Trying to have most of them to “acquire” a concept really slows us down because in general they lack motivation and intellectual curiosity. I have to create so many similar stories to re-introduce “old phrases” over and over. If someone expressed an interest of learning something new, the rest class would yell and shut the person down. (Now, I wish I had intervented that negative behavior much earlier. I didn’t realize it until it became a culture.) I have 2 exceptions from that group. One has planed to get tutored in the summer to jump over to Chinese III. One is going to attend a two-weeks language camp in the summer, then she will decide what to do.

    Okay, back to multilevel teaching:
    This past year, one thing I really regretted for not doing much was “sing”. So, I’ve been thinking to use “songs” as my bell ringers. Then use differentiation strategies to teach them. I probably have a lot of lesson plans laying ahead of me. For example: I could start a listening practice with my 2s while I introduce something new to my 1s. Then, give 1s a break, have them all take out their BYODs, to practice what they have just learned. If I introduced “Good, very good, extremely good vs. not good, not very good, extremely not good”, I could use photobooth to record myself for them to gesture along, or close their eyes to listen to, etc. Then I could use this time to introduce something to 2s.
    In summary, step 1: bell ringer – song
    Step 2: differentiation instruction (I really need to go to a conference on this)
    Step 3: all together brain break – TPR
    Step 4: back to differentiation (I’ll start with 2s and then leave them with reading and writing.)
    Step 5: ???
    Hopefully, soon, I would be able to start storytelling with all of them together.
    My fear is that my 2s might poison my 1s, then I would really have a difficult time to go on. I want to do some “firm practice” as you suggested in the beginning, I think I need to build a good classroom culture first before I do anything else.
    So much to learn!
    By the way, you are going to Russia, right? Have a wonderful trip!



    • Haiyun,
      Wow. Obviously you are doing a great job, or the group wouldn’t have tripled! Congratulations!

      I have a low academic group in Russian 1 too this year. I would also be concerned about the “poison” aspect, and I can suggest one other thing for that: make them be the ones in front. You could tell them they can lean their heads back toward the level 2 kids to get a whispered translation if they need it (and then make sure that you practice that right away, and a lot). It might be a great support for the first couple of weeks, ’till they’re on the right path, but it will also show some extra respect for the first kids’ knowledge.

      Another thing: you don’t have to worry too much about differentiation with TPRS. Just ask different questions. The first years can translate for meaning…and the second years can do grammar changes or whole sentences or tricky constructions. Read on Susan Gross’ site about contrastive grammar. (Or maybe you had that last year.) You’ll show and review what they know, and then show the new change with the meaning. Then in a story, you go back and forth, asking the new ones the standard construction and the level twos the new meaning. Eventually, you can say, “What would it mean if I did X” (when you change it to the new grammar), and later, “How would you say Y?” when there are kids ready to apply the new grammar to a familiar construction. It’s like doing a structured perspective change.

      Generally, I would try really hard not to plan for double-level lessons, because it will make you crazy. Just expect different things out of the same material. (Sounds simple, isn’t when you’re under way!) But you can use those computers for little drills and songs and writing, when you need a break.


      • Thank you for your advice again! More I think about it, more scared I feel! My school is not at the position to hire a part-time person yet. In fact, they just down-sized 18 senior faculty and staff members. I’ll be teaching 6 classes a day including this multi-level class. Room is long and narrow, students will have to sit facing each other. I need to get better asking different questions. I organized a workshop with Susie in August, I’ll have to make sure that she trains me on that part. Thank you and thank you!


  4. Don’t be scared, especially if the level 2 class was a bit slower academically. Repetition will be really good for them, as it is for everyone, and obviously word about you has spread that you are a fine teacher, or kids wouldn’t all be signing up for your class. It’s absolutely perfect that Susie is coming. Ask her to do contrastive grammar, to remind you of all the ways that TPRS differentiates, and to emphasize discipline. She is the one who says “Discipline before instruction.” (You could really do just Ben’s “Circling with Balls” to get everyone acquainted at the beginning of the year, and that could take you for a month or more.) Don’t worry! Luckily you have chosen a method that can handle mixed classes and you have the best guru in the world coming to give you a shot at the beginning of the school year!! You are going to be great.


  5. Oh, Michelle, you have no idea how big of a help you have been in my teaching career as well. So many people to name, Laurie has become another dear friend who I look up to as well. Reading your blog keeps me going, especially when I’m feeling low. You are so productive and also so down to the earth. Enjoy your trip and I still would love to Skype! Maybe after you get back, it would be better!


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