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The difficulty of teaching a multi-level class lies in the balance between disparities among students. The process to solve this problem involves a categorization of multi-level elements and a generalization of appropriate teaching technique. Stephanie Gordon (2010, p.202) suggested that language proficiency should be the first consideration in multi-level teaching. Keith Willing (cited in Harmer, 2007, p. 88), on the other hand, classified the class according to degree of students’ participation, which is very much influenced by both the students’ learning styles and strategies.
As for teaching techniques, the best practice for grouping students turns out to be the most common discussion in the literature. Bell, Beasley, Davis, Shelly and Melinda presented brilliant grouping techniques including helping the learners to form a sense of belonging as well as understanding each other better to maintain the classroom community. Lave and Wenger, Dörnyei, Iseno discussed in detail the importance and practices of classroom community and La Fontaine proved that concrete evidences of portfolios are in need to record students’ progress and to be built on previous learning.
My problem of practice
The ELD (English Language Development) class in my placement is a class with multi-level students. In addition to language proficiency, students have different learning styles and personalities and the participation of each student varies as well. Right now, the host teacher mostly uses a whole-class response during class. The class will expect a new course in May named CCSS (Content Integration Unit Performance Task), which is an experiment of content language learning with a focus on more group tasks and community practice. Over the course of the five-week action research, combined with CCSS course, students’ progress is after undergoing a trial of three types of best practices: a) grouping activities, b) classroom community building, and c) use of portfolio as the classroom-based assessment method.
A common connection through the assigned literature is the category of student diversity, among which language proficiency and abilities differences are the noted main factors. Stephanie Gordon (2010, p.202) described the situation as such: the bigger the difference between the higher and lower level of students’ abilities, the harder it was for teachers to meet the students’ needs. Secondly, learning styles and strategies play a significant role in the participation of students, and influence the student’s sense of belonging to the class community. Keith Willing (cited in Harmer, 2007, p. 88) classified students as “convergers”, “conformists”, “concrete learners”, and “communicative learners” according to the participation degree of students.
According to Melinda (2007, p. 2), grouping activities, which ranges from two students to the whole-class work, include pair work, small group, and teamwork. Small group involves three to ten students to work together while teamwork refers to teams of students working together in competition with other teams. Brown (1999, p.29) believed classroom dynamics help improve learners’ performance. He also argued that multi-level groups benefit students more than homogenous groups. Bell, J (1991) wrote a chapter on improving classroom solidarity by grouping works including whole class warm-up exercises and cross-level jigsaws. Beasley (In Richard, 1998, p.284) applied the language experience approach (LEA) by dividing the class into two teams with two sets of tasks. Davis (In Richard, 1998, p.276) used leveled teaching, which expects students of different levels to accordingly achieve different objectives on the same material. Milrood (2002) elaborated successful learning features and advised teachers to follow proper contexts in teaching individuals in a multi-level class.
Classroom community building
Lave and Wenger (1991, cited in Stephanie, 2010, pp. 223-229) shed light on the idea of “community of practice” as the legitimate participation and identity formation. Dörnyei (2001) provided original schemes to harmonize the classroom as a community. In respect to the culture, Iseno encouraged the participation by making use of the Japanese sense of group orientation (In Richard, 1998, p.141). Part of this approach was to rearrange the student’s seats during the activities. The purpose of this is to see whether the students would benefit from opportunities of communicating with unfamiliar students (Markey, p.288). Another way to promote the idea of community of practice is to conceptualize the class routines and have students involved in the classroom management (Davis, In Richard, 1998, p.276). Routines could be as easy as material keeping and paper passing, and as challenging as becoming the teacher assistant for a certain task. Routines are made and executed in every class so that students feel accustomed to the class and teachers are in control of the class.
Portfolio as classroom-based assessment
A portfolio of classroom work is a possible way to make the learning process more sustainable. With a portfolio, there can be cohesion in learning material, and the establishment of classroom community as well as students being able to see their own progress (La Fontaine, 1998, p.195).
In addition to student work, ongoing comments in class (Iseno, in Richards, 1998, p.140) could be collected in the portfolio. The comments reflect the students’ thinking process, confusions, and inspirations for teacher and students’ later reference.
Despite all the advantages of grouping strategies, one problem is the teacher cannot be able to supervise all students’ concentration and contribution for all the time. Even with a teacher’s assistant, the learning process of the whole class of about 30 students is beyond inspecting all at once. Also in designing these activities, there is not much mentioned about how teachers could utilize high-tech help relieve the teacher and enrich the content.
Another problem is little in the literature provides a concrete methodology for categorizing learning styles or learning strategies within classroom-based learning. It is true that learning strategies are a huge topic and mostly intangible, yet given scientific action researches, learning strategies can be studied and beneficial for multi-level teaching.
Mixed-levels are analyzed in terms of mixed language proficiency and participation degree. The focus of this literature review is to discuss whether there is a solution to the teaching of a multi-level class, and to find out best practice that balances the class and ensures every student’s progress. Grouping activities, classroom community building, and the use of portfolio as the classroom-based assessment are analyzed in the literature. During the following weeks, those methods will be adapted in the placement with an expectation to improve the average language proficiency and abilities of the multi-level classroom.
Beasley: One Class, Two Levels (pp. 283-286). In Richards, J. C. (Ed.). (1998). Teaching in action: Case studies from second language classrooms.
Bell, Jill. (1991). Teaching multilevel classes in ESL. Dominie Press, Pippin Publishing Ltd., Canada.
Brown, K. (1999). Teaching disparate learner groups. Sydney, Australia: Macquairie University, National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research.
Davis: Dealing with Students of Different Proficiency Levels (pp. 273-277). In Richards, J. C. (Ed.). (1998). Teaching in action: Case studies from second language classrooms.
Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Maintaining the classroom community. In Motivational strategies in the language classroom (pp. 199-227). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Harmer, J. (2007). Describing learners. In The practice of English language teaching (4th ed., pp. 81-106). Harlow, England: Pearson Education.
La Fontaine: The Effects of a Continual Enrollment Policy on Classroom Dynamics (pp. 195-198). In Richards, J. C. (Ed.). (1998). Teaching in action: Case studies from second language classrooms.
Melinda Roberts. (2007). Teaching in the multilevel classroom. Pearson Education, Inc.
Milrood, R. (2002). Teaching heterogeneous classes. English Language Teaching Journal, 56(2), (pp.128-136).
Stephanie Gordon. (2010). A case study on multi-level language ability groupings in an ESL secondary school classroom. University of Toronto.