Useful Approach to Mixed-Ability Classrooms
Last fall, I taught students of varying abilities in the same EFL classroom. For example, I had students from China and France who were false beginners, students from Brazil whose placement tests assessed them at the intermediate level, and students from Italy who were intermediate/advanced. This course took place in the United States and was a challenge to teach because I had students who were not accustomed to the Roman alphabet, students who were accustomed to being academically successful, and a student who had developed a love-hate relationship with school settings. In addition to their various EFL-learning needs, the students ranged in age from late teens to mid-fifties. In simplest terms, I was concerned that I would not be able to find a common ground from which to build a rapport and keep the students focused and engaged. Fortunately, I themed the first week of the course on “Food in the United States,” and all of my students had something to say about this topic.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Heidi H. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
As a way to engage the students in the first few lesson plans, I would show a short video or commercial about American fast food. I would then elicit comments from the class about the types of food shown in the videos. Some students could say full sentences—“I see a hamburger,” for example. While others would simply say “hamburger” or “french fries.” I would then ask students to form small groups to chat about their observations of American-style foods. The small groups comprised false beginners, intermediate, and advanced students. I asked that the stronger students initially report back to the whole class about their group observations. I would then ask the students who were not as strong to share what one person from the group said about American-style foods. This activity worked well for most of the class; however, one of my students struggled. This individual communicated to me that she did not like school and had experiences with mean teachers. I then made it a point to chat with her before and after class to see how she was doing. Our rapport started out on the shaky ground; it grew better over time.
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Because of the multilevel-attention this small class required, I felt like I needed to teach it as if it were a large class. For the first week, I gave students worksheets. I only had 9 students, and I asked them to work on these individually. The worksheets asked information about their personal experiences with food in their native countries as well as food in the United States. The false beginners would share details about eating lunch in the United States and eating lunch in their home countries. These details would often include simple lists of foods (rice, fish, and vegetables, for example). My stronger students would provide more of a food critique of native dishes versus American-style dishes. One of these students even suggested a recipe for pasta. Furthermore, I encouraged choral repetition drills when we went over food-related vocabulary (lasagna, chocolate, delicious, etc..).
Given that my current employer will continue to have classes that offer combined, multilevel learning needs, I will continue to employ the various methods mentioned in the above paragraphs. However, to apply more of what I have learned through this ITTT course, I will also strive for more strategic, learner-centered lessons by designing materials that target beginners and more advanced students at their particular EFL level. Furthermore, I will see how grouping strong students together and less advanced students together in separate groups might work in my class. In other words, I cannot let my methods stagnate; I will continue to try various approaches to foster a caring, successful learning environment.
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