Split-level classes

A colleague had a question over on the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Facebook page. He is suddenly teaching multiple levels and wants advice.

Usually what I say about multiple levels is to pretend they’re all your own children and move on. Anyone with more than one child has catered to different levels of language, fluency, and proficiency for hours at a time. And our kids are so fascinating that just talking to them about themselves and the things going on in their lives, meanwhile sharing your favorite songs and weird news and heartwarming videos is easy to do in the target language.

But that’s a little glib, because there are typically more kids in class than in your family, so I started thinking about what I would say if I were to give a workshop on the topic. It turns out that Chris Stoltz is completely on target, not to mention complete and succinct, but I have a few more ideas to share. It sort of overlaps with both what my brilliant colleagues Chris and Gerry Wass have suggested, and it’s not too coherent yet. But for all that, here are the first few points.

Tips for teaching multiple levels

  1. Dealing with advanced topics

Pick a topic/story that the advanced students need to study for IB / AP topics. Example: migration.

Read several articles with an eye to the high-frequency structures in that topic and use a limited number of them as target structures in a story with the whole class, without bringing in other new vocabulary. Write and read the story, TPRS-style. This should be an enjoyable process. Repeat until the advanced students can comprehend necessary new structures, and give them a first text. If it’s now easy for them to read in a small group with support (90% comprehensible or higher), let them read it during FVR SSR or while other students are doing ten-minute story presentations or something similar. This is a good time for a native speaker to come to class, but often in mixed classes some students will rise to the top in helping with readings.

If the text is still challenging, but could be managed with an Embedded Reading, the teacher can create it, or the students can assist: they highlight everything that the entire group understands easily, give it back to the teacher, who will then adjust. (This practice requires trust and faith in the teacher that she isn’t going to show disappointment if students don’t “get” it.) If the teacher overestimated student comprehension, she will go back to the high-frequency structure work with the whole class. If the students are comprehending most, they can now create Embedded Readings, cutting out the details, all the way down to the main ideas.

If the teacher is going to create the ER, she will cut down to the main points in a base version, and ask a parallel story (write, read, act out etc) with the whole class before moving over to the base version of the real thing. Then she has to base further steps on success of the whole class, but they all build on this base story.

Because this process takes a long time, the teacher should use all possible resources to uncover other media on the topic. Try to find songs, news reports, videos of all sorts, pieces of films, Facebook posts that will add to the variety in the room, as long as the input can be made comprehensible. (I’m partial to songs.) Students can help, and they like doing so. With time and many sources for the same topic, the specialty structures will become familiar, and all the usual high-frequency structures will hit more often.

2. Using advanced students to help the other levels

  • They can write the ongoing story in the target language.
  • They can come up with real questions about the story.
  • They can later email a typed version of that story to the teacher for corrections and reading in class.
  • They can be “simultaneous interpreters” for lowest-level students. These should rotate out every ten to fifteen minutes, just like with “real” interpreters. Brains get full. The purpose is not to translate every word, but to give the lowest-level students a lifeline.
  • They can do class drawings on an iPad educreations-style app, adding in pictures and wry comments along with phrases (think memes) that support the drawings.
  • For homework, they can do quick translations for their parents or expand a class story to the next level.
  • They can communicate with target-language country Edmodo pals on the topic, or write questions to partners in other same-country classrooms.
  • They can occasionally be the scribes in story-creation groups.
  • They can create Embedded Readings from texts directed at the lowest levels.
  • They can be the scribes at the board during story-asking for unknown structures.
  • They can help lower-level students during FVR Independent Reading, possibly reading comprehensible materials to them, possibly reading their own texts and assisting as needed. (In the first four or five weeks, the beginners can’t read anything in Russian on their own.)
  • They can be the leaders for “Special Person” interviews, learning how to ask follow-up questions and quizzing classmates on their knowledge about their peers.

3. Other notes

  • A huge positive is the “Special Person” interview, which takes place nearly every day. If the students can spin it out for an hour, the teacher can be delighted by how much time they spent in the language. Power Points can provide vocabulary support with pictures. A beginner might be on the “stage” only five minutes or so, but often it’s so enjoyable, they want more. But whenever someone gets up to be interviewed, it’s helpful to run through most of the information that the class knows so that they get used to relating information about others. Otherwise, the interviewee can do a first-person run-through. Either way, it doesn’t take long, and is great input and makes students feel proud of what they can say.
  • When everyone knows everything from the original interview questions about students in the class, members of the class can suggest questions to add to the interview. “Who would you like to invite to the prom?” “What colors would you paint this room?” “How do you manage the reading in English 10?” and “What event would you repeat if you could?” are questions my kids put in the box last year. 
  • Grammar pop-ups are aimed at the upper levels, but made comprehensible for the lower levels.
  • Find a way to do one written perspective change on each class story that the group writes out. (For me, that was once or twice a month.) 
  • Ask students to help create questions of the type that Carol Gaab suggests to reach for higher-level thinking. (Predictions, comparisons, expectations.)
  • Everyone keeps track of their writing fluency (but beginners don’t start writing until second semester at least).
  • After the first semester, everyone does short videos and Google Voice calls to demonstrate oral proficiency two or three times a semester. These are for assessment, not necessarily for grades.

4 responses to “Split-level classes

  1. A lot of great ideas here, I am going to reread this over Winter Break as I plan Spring semester for my IB cohort Spanish 3 class.

    One thing that has caught my attention is the way that the term “FVR” is being used to substitute for “independent reading”. FVR has to be self-selected pleasure reading, so by definition you cannot assign a particular reading during FVR, nor can students be all reading the same text (unless they all voluntarily decided to read that text on their own, for example a manga with a large fandom might inspire such readers). Also FVR cannot “feel” like part of an assessed lesson, the emphasis should be on pleasure reading. Since FVR is a very specific method, I think you should change those references to “independent reading period”.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


  2. I taught IB for many years and this is similar to what I did, at least the first point. We were studying education around the world and there were many very advanced resources, so I created my own TPRS/ CI informational text about complex concepts dealing with the plight of education around the world. We read about Malala, education in South Africa and Afghanistan. We also studied Japan (I created an interview between two students discussing education in Japan) I discuss this on my blog ” Exploring complex concepts in the lower levels. The great thing about this was we did many big unit with big concepts and the students discussed in a very basic way. Our finale was a Language Symposium (my principal called it the Spanish Fair), students presented, in the target language to the community members about different countries around the world and the challenges that faced education.

    Liked by 1 person

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