Mixed and multilevel HL classes
If a large number of students want to enroll in an HL course, they might be divided into two or several groups based on their scores on the placement test; the resulting classes would be relatively homogeneous. Classes with low enrollments, however, are frequently multilevel, with students’ language abilities possibly ranging from low-intermediate to low-advanced (Bell, 1991:1). Another common situation is that of mixed HL-FL classes, in which heritage speakers study the language side by side with foreign language learners. These classes are usually multilevel, too, with students displaying a wide range of language proficiencies.
Multilevel HL classes are challenging both for the instructor and the learner. The HL instructor needs to effectively address the needs of all the students in the class, while the students have to cope with feelings of inadequacy and work harder if their proficiency is low, or accept the greater language needs of their peers and participate in the overall learning effort, if their proficiency is higher than the average.
Mixed classes also present challenges. HL students usually have a broader informal and overall vocabulary, higher oral fluency, and an instinctive mastery of grammar. By contrast, FL learners typically read and write better, and have a better theoretical understanding of the way the HL grammatical system works.
In all types of HL classes, students should have the opportunity to practice the language and make progress toward their learning goals. Here are some suggestions for optimizing teaching and learning in a multilevel HL class.
1) Stages in the instructional process
- At the beginning of the course administer a placement test to identify the proficiency level of each student in your class.
- Establish learning objectives for students at each level of proficiency in the class.
- Select or adapt HL material, and plan differentiated class activities and tests.
- Check student progress regularly and analyze test results. Adjust your teaching, language materials, and class activities to help the students who have difficulties.
- Teach students how to learn. Model strategies for learning grammar and vocabulary, developing literacy skills, reading for information, using a dictionary, etc.
2) Teaching techniques
- If you use a textbook in your class, try to create easier versions of certain reading passages. In this way, the less advanced students will be able to read texts at their language level. If you create your own reader for the class, include passages at different levels of difficulty.
- Include activities for the more advanced students both in the class routines and for homework. For example, such students can choose or be assigned topics for individual research that will culminate with written reports and oral presentations to the class, followed by class discussion of the findings. (Achugar, 2003:230).
- When you introduce a language activity to the class, give clear instructions so that lower proficiency students understand the task. Provide one or two examples, and write the example(s) on the board for reference before the students engage in the activity.
- Give students time to perform each language task. Ask both easier and more complex questions so all students can answer some of your questions.
3) Learning tasks
There are three main ways of organizing tasks for a multilevel class (cf. Bell, 1991):
- Use the same language material, but assign different tasks. For example, ask students to describe a picture. Lower-level students will write sentences about the picture; mid-level students will write a paragraph describing the picture; and higher-level students will write their opinion of the picture.
- Use different language material, but assign the same task. For example, request students to fill in verbs expressing motion (vocabulary) or the right forms of the verbs in parentheses (grammar). There can be 2-3 passages on the same handout, and each student or group fills in the passage corresponding to their language level.
- Use different language material and assign different tasks. For instance, the lower-level students can look at a map and plan an itinerary for a weekend trip; the mid-level students may read a tourist leaflet and list things to do at each place; while the higher-level students can compare and contrast tourist attractions at each place based on information from several travel books.
4) Student interaction
- Explain the new lesson to the whole class. Check for comprehension of the items you have taught by addressing questions to the whole class. Give students time to think, then name individuals who want to answer.
- Divide students into pairs and ask them to practice the language material you have introduced. If possible, provide 2-3 practice activities, each of them at a different language level. Model the expected response at each level. Pairs work on the language task corresponding to their proficiency level. Circulate as pairs are working and provide help as necessary. Check the responses with the whole class.
- Activities suitable for pair practice are reading aloud, clarifying meaning, practicing dialogues, reciting grammar forms, filling in words or grammar forms, asking and answering questions, etc.
- Use group work for more complex and creative activities: surveys, group presentations, collaborative writing (Hess, 2001: 11). Group members will help one another carry out the task. When groups have "rehearsed" their activity or completed their project, they report to the class.
- End the lesson with whole class work and individual responses. Ask review questions of the whole class. Elicit easier or more complex answers in accordance with individual students' proficiency. Alternately, engage the whole class in an assessment task.
- Form mentor - pupil partnerships between more and less advanced students. The more advanced students will thus become your unofficial assistants, helping clarify issues to their classmates. Mixed-ability pairs and/or groups can work together both in class and on homework assignments or projects.
5) Classroom climate
- Create a feeling of community in your class, so students do not feel nervous because of their limited language abilities and are willing to take risks.
- Try to know your students as people. Encourage them to talk about themselves. Listen to their opinions, personal experiences, memories, future plans, accounts of important events in their community.
- Participate in the HL community events together with your students so you bond with them and they bond with one another.
- Draw on your students' knowledge of their heritage culture, and replicate heritage events in the classroom.
Contributed by Georgiana Galateanu
Published: Tuesday, January 09, 2007