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Multilevel heritage language classes

Here are some suggestions for optimizing teaching and learning in a multilevel heritage language class.

Most HL classes are heterogeneous due to variations in students' language abilities. These variations may be the consequence of:

  • length of time spent in the HL country
  • type and duration of schooling in the HL country
  • attendance of HL classes in the U.S.
  • HL literacy skills
  • HL use at home
  • motivation for using and/or studying HL
  • status of heritage language or dialect
  • self-esteem
  • preferred learning styles
  • etc.

If a large number of students want to enroll in an HL class, they might be divided into two or several HL tracks according to their scores on the placement test; in this case the classes would be relatively homogeneous. Classes with low enrollments, however, are frequently multilevel classes, and this presents challenges to both the instructor and the class.

No matter how diverse language abilities in a multilevel HL class might be, all students should be given the opportunity to practice the language and make progress toward their learning goals.

1. HL proficiency levels - objectives - teaching - assessment - adjustment of teaching

  • At the beginning of the course administer a placement test to identify the overall 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. (See below for implementation strategies.)
  • 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.
  • If possible, have students keep their homework assignments in portfolios so they can assess their progress throughout the course.

2. Class work

If you use a textbook for your class, try to create easier versions of certain reading passages or ask the more advanced students in your class to do it. In this way, the less advanced students will be able to read texts corresponding to their language level. If you create your own reader for the class, include passages at different levels of difficulty.

When you introduce a language activity to the class, give clear instructions. 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. When you elicit responses from the whole class, name the students who want to answer. However, don't ask the same students all the time. Ask both easier and more complex questions so all students can answer some of your questions.

Establish the rule that each student in the class has to say something at least once during a lesson. Enforce the rule as often as you can. Sometimes you can say, "Now I will listen to the students who have not said anything yet/who have not expressed their opinions yet."

There are three main ways of organizing tasks for a multilevel class:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

3. Whole class - pair work - group work - individual responses

  • 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 creative activities: role play, reader's theater, debates, surveys, analyses. (See "Communicative activities" link to "Approaches to HL instruction.") Group members will help one another carry out the task. When groups have "rehearsed" their activity, they report to the class.
  • Set up responsibilities for group work so that each group member knows what is expected of him/her: the "actors" perform the skit, the "narrator" tells what is going to happen, the "reporter" summarizes the event after it was completed, etc.
  • 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.

4. Classroom climate

  • Be supportive and encouraging of your students' language efforts. Praise achievement.
  • Have a sense of humor.
  • 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 persons. 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.
  • Whenever possible, draw on your students' knowledge of their heritage culture, and replicate heritage events in the classroom.

5. Class routines

  • Establish a class routine and observe it throughout the course. In this way, students can concentrate on the language tasks and not waste time on trying to clarify procedures.
  • General class routines include rules concerning attendance, tardiness, make up work for missed classes, deadlines for class projects, dates of quizzes and exams, etc.
  • Specific class routines detail procedures for class work: the parts of each lesson, when and how to use the textbook, reading aloud/silently, student participation in class, time limits for tasks, partners' responsibilities in pair and group work, requirements for group projects, etc.

Submitted by Georgiana Galateanu, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, UCLA

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