Monday, September 17, 2018

How do I plan a multilevel lesson?

Best Practices in Multi-level Teaching:
Planning a multi-level lesson

Teaching a multi-level class can be a fabulous experience or a frustrating endeavor. While every class can be classified as a multi-level language class (students are, after all, individuals), there is something unique about teaching a class where a portion of the class has a higher or lower proficiency level than the rest.

The principal challenge in multi-level teaching (MLT) lies with designing and delivering a lesson that sets every student up for success, regardless of the proficiency level. 

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Multi-level teaching Mixed Ability Groups
Teaching in a way that invites both the lower-level and higher-level students engage them in their own learning process.  Refer to Actively Engaging Students in the classroom for more on this subject.

Structuring a multi-level lesson appropriately makes sure you’ve consciously considered how to scaffold each group of students towards language ownership.  It also encourages you to consider how you will give the students opportunities to work with peers who share their proficiency level and with those who don’t share their level of language proficiency. 

In this segment of our Multi-Level Teaching series, we will unpack a model multi-level lesson to uncover more principles of multi-level teaching (MLT).

Best Practices in Multi-level Lesson Planning 

While planning your multi-level lesson, you may wonder...

1.             How do I engage all of my students when they all have different levels?  I'm either going to bore some or bury others with the language.
2.            Should I have the higher-level learners work with the lower level learners?  After all, the higher-level students can help the ones that don’t know what’s going on.
3.            How can I differentiate each level’s learning throughout the lesson?  I don’t have the time to prepare separate materials for the two levels.
4.            How on earth, am I going to structure this to work in my class?  I can imagine chaos breaking out in my classroom as soon as I deviate from my format.

Reflecting on each of these questions can help guide us towards designing a multi-level lesson that sets all of the students up for success.

Following this is a multi-level lesson sequence for a conversation class.  To set the scene, imagine a classroom of 30 students.  A portion of these students is at a novice level while another portion of the class has a high beginning level of English language proficiency.  The class is working on greeting others.

As you review the steps in the lesson, pay attention to the following factors:

1.    Lesson Flow:  How does the lesson unfold in a way that decreases chaos while increasing student engagement?
2.    Groupings:  How does the lesson provide opportunities for equal ability and mixed ability groups?
3.   Tasks:  How do the tasks that each level of learner has encourage them to take their learning to the next level?

Lesson Objectives Students will be able to…

Lower Proficiency Level

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    greet one another by asking, “how are you?”  “how are you doing?”
  • respond to greetings using, “excellent, very good, ok, terrible, good, so-so”.
  • ask for someone’s name using the phrase, “what is your name again?”

Higher Proficiency Level

  • greet one another by asking, “how to have you been?”  “How is it going?”
  • respond with, “I’m doing (awesome, pretty good, alright, not bad, not good)”.
  • Ask for someone’s name using the phrase, “I forgot your name.  What is it again?”
Lesson Steps:

1.    Whole class:  With the class, the teacher creates a list of common greetings (how are you, how’s it going, how have you been?) and their responses on the board.  Each student chooses one that s/he wants to practice and greets his/her peers seated close by. The teacher checks for comprehension by having random students greet one another.
2.   Mixed Pairs:  Students get with any partner and practice asking and answering the questions with the board's words.
3.   Mixed Groups:  Students form groups randomly by standing in circles around the room.  Students take turns greeting the other members of the groups using the language they have.  The teacher observes each group, noticing who is struggling and who is demonstrating fluency.
4.   Equal Groups:  The teacher puts students into groups by ability (LL=lower level; HL=higher level).  The teacher gives each group a ball that they will pass to one another while greeting one another.  
        →  LL group: The teacher observes the activity and stops the activity to focus on one of the questions x and respond with 4 responses (excellent, very good, ok, terrible). The teacher observes.  
       →  HL group: The teacher observes the activity and then focuses on one of the challenging questions (how’s it going?).  The teacher introduces four new expressions (awesome, not bad, not good, pretty good, horrible) and writes them on 8x11 pieces of paper, and placing them in the center of the circle on the floor. The teacher observes.  
 →  LL group: The teacher observes the activity.   The teacher then introduces “what’s your name again?” and writes it on an 8x11 sheet of paper for the students to see.  Students add this question to the exchange by tossing the ball, asking the person’s name, and greeting them.  The teacher observes.  
       →  HL group: The teacher observes the activity. The teacher elicits, “I forgot your name.  What was it again?” and writes it on an 8x11 sheet of paper for the students to see.  Students add this question to the exchange. The teacher observes.  
       →  LL group:  The teacher observes the activity and may change the question (how’s it going?) or encourage students to use additional responses (awesome, pretty good). The teacher observes.  
       →  HL group:  The teacher observes the activity and may encourage students to add questions to the mix. The teacher observes.

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5.    Mixed Pairs:  Students get with any partner 
       and practice asking and answering the questions with the language they have been practicing.
6.   Whole-Class:  Students choose one to two greetings they would like to practice and mingle with peers, asking the person’s name and how they are. The teacher checks for comprehension as random students ask one another the questions.
7.   Mixed Groups:  Students share one thing they learned using the language shell on the board, “what did you learn? I learned….”
8.   Whole-Class:  The teacher has random students ask other students what they learned.

Processing the Multi-level lesson

Unpacking the lesson highlights how the design supports student learning regardless of their proficiency levels.  We’ll do this by looking at how the lessons flow, how groups were used, and the types of tasks students were given.  While reviewing the following, keep in mind how each step of the lesson engages the students and moves them towards attaining the lesson’s objectives.

Flow:  Take a look at the flow of the lesson from start to finish.  Notice how it moves from one class configuration to another in a way that supports student learning.  By looking at the bolded headings, you can see a pattern emerge.

whole-class  ➔  pairs  ➔  groups  ➔  pairs  ➔  whole class. 

In the lesson, students work as a class, in groups, and with a partner throughout the class.  Notice the specific purpose each of these serves. 

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Multilevel Teaching:  Mixed Pairs
Whole class activities set the scene at the beginning, shift the focus from one activity to another, assess the students, and wind the lesson down.  
Pair practice opportunities provide immediate practice, a quick opportunity to clarify language with peers and a chance to consider the next step.  
Small group work provides more peer support, can be used for controlled or free activities, gives the teacher a chance to work with students at their proficiency levels.

There are a couple of considerations to consider when considering how to configure the class flow.  First, you should try to provide opportunities for whole class, small group, and pair interactions.  Second, use the activity’s purpose as a guide to the configuration.  Third, use these configurations to scaffold the students to success.

Big idea: An effective multi-level lesson uses a variety of student groupings to stimulate learning in every student. 

Grouping:  In the lesson, there are a variety of different groupings.  Notice when the lesson plan calls for equal ability groups, mixed ability groups, and where it may not seem to matter.  At the most basic level, you should see another pattern in the lesson:

mixed  ➔  equal  ➔  mixed

Using mixed and equal ability groups to maximize learning is a key multi-level teaching strategy.  

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Multi-level Teaching:  Engaging Students
There Students work with others who share their proficiency level and times when they are working with students who have different levels.  Likewise, there are moments when it doesn’t matter who the students work with.  

Ideally, each multi-level lesson should have opportunities for equal and mixed ability groupings.  The benefit of mixed groups is that the higher-level learners get to ‘teach’ the lower level students.  In this case, the plus is also the minus.  Higher-level learners may do too much of the work or not feel challenged enough.  Lower level students may not have a chance to be the teacher.  

Equal ability groups have the advantage of allowing students to work at their individual levels with language that is within their reach.  It also allows the teacher to work with each proficiency level separately.  The challenge with this may lie in grouping the students efficiently and what tasks to provide each to develop their language abilities without drowning them.

Students need both opportunities to develop greater proficiency.  When deciding what kind of group to use, consider the purpose of the activity.  Equal ability and mixed ability groups have their own strengths that, together, set all students up for success.

Big idea:  An effective multi-level lesson gives students targeted opportunities with peers at a similar proficiency level and those who have different levels.

Tasks:  Reviewing the tasks that each group has reveals another important component of effective multi-level teaching.  At times, students are doing the same exact thing, and at other times, they are doing things a bit differently. While there are ways to give each level of student distinct tasks, it’s most evident when using equal ability groups.  There are basically 4 categories of tasks to use with equal ability groups, each with its own purpose.

1.    The same language the same way:  “Use these vocabulary words to describe the picture.”  Both lower-level groups and higher-level groups use the same set of vocabulary words to talk about the picture.  The lower level group may have more support.
2.    Same language different way:  “Use these vocabulary words to describe the picture."  Lower level groups have a language shell – There’s a ____ There are _____s.  Higher-level groups have a list of choices – I think that’s a…; If I’m not wrong…; I believe…
3.    The different language the same way “Use these vocabulary words to describe the picture.”  Lower level groups have their own list of 8 vocabulary words; higher-level groups have a list of 12 different vocabulary words that are more at their level.
4.    Different language different way: “Use these vocabulary words to describe the picture.”  Lower level groups complete a cloze exercise (fill in the blank) with the 8 vocab words.  Higher-level groups write dialogues using 8-12 of their words.

As a general rule, mixed ability groups, usually fall into the first category, using the same language in the same way (see steps 5 & 6 for exceptions).  Equal ability groups tend to fall in the other three, as it’s easier to differentiate learning with them.

Notice the types of groupings and the types of tasks students do at each step of the multi-level lesson.

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1.  Whole Class:  same language – same way
2.   Mixed Pairs: same language – same way
3.   Mixed Groups: same language – same way
4.   Equal Groups: different language – same way
5.   Mixed Pairs: different language – same way
6.   Whole-Class:  different language – same way
7.   Mixed Groups: same language – same way
8.   Whole-Class:  same language – same way

Differentiating learning by changing the language 
and/or its use is a multi-level teaching strategy.

If you’re a teacher who likes to get really creative, you can come up with some wonderful activities for each proficiency level, whether in mixed or equal ability groups.  As the lesson models, you can also look for simpler ways to differentiate the learning.  Students can always work with level-specific vocabulary and grammar structures, a relatively easy way to modify the lesson for each group of students.  The activity's purpose will inform you of what the students will need.

Big idea:  An effective multi-level lesson gives students a variety of level-appropriate tasks and encourages students to increase their language abilities.

Comprehension Checking: We have yet to mention the critical role that comprehension checks play in managing a multi-level class of learners.  In step 8 of the lesson, there are five steps that specifically indicate comprehension checking (steps 1,3,4,6,8).   What does that say about how important comprehension checking is to managing a multi-level lesson

The conscious and continuous assessment helps us adjust the lesson's flow, groups, and activities.

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Multi-level teaching:  Teacher monitoring

These are the moments the teacher uses to measure what is helping or hindering student learning.  Activities can be modified, students can switch levels, or equal group activity can be done with mixed groups.  The only way to find out is to get the students to show what they know.

Big Idea:  On-going comprehension checks are critical to adapting the lesson to students’ immediate needs.

Summary:  As we plan our multi-level lessons, we should consider the flow of the lesson from one group configuration to another, whether they will be equal or mixed ability groups, and what the students will be doing in their groups.  If you’ve been teaching multi-level classes for a while; you know there’s a big learning curve. 

Nonetheless, it’s a worthy skill to develop.  Paying attention to the lesson flow, level grouping, and tasks can make things a bit easier.  The more awareness we bring to this in the beginning, the quicker we develop these multi-level teaching strategies.

Big Idea:  Teaching a multi-level class has unique challenges.  While we can’t erase the challenges completely, we can minimize the negative impact on learning.

TESOL Trainers offers more information on structuring a multi-level lesson, engaging students at their levels, and multi-level teaching, check out our blog. 

For information on professional development for your educational institution, or becoming a TESOL certified teacher, visit TESOL Trainers or email us.

Next Up:  Multi-level teaching triumph; it’s all in the tasks.

TESOL Trainers provides world-class professional development to all sorts of educational institutions that seek excellence in teaching and learning.  Whether traditional workshops or remote seminars, John Kongsvik and his team of trainers will inspire and empower your educators to change their approach to teaching and learning.

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