Getting Students to Work Across Levels in the Multi-level Classroom

Sarah LynnSarah Lynn

Getting Students to Work Across Levels in the Multi-level Classroom

In com/ae/emac/newsletters/november-2009-adulted.html” target=”_blank”>last month’s article, I addressed how to differentiate instruction by sorting students according to their skill level. In this month’s article, I provide some tips on working with mixed-ability groups.

Mixed-ability grouping is a great way for students to learn from one
another and to build classroom community. Grouping students across
levels works particularly well when the task is open-ended and less
structured. Pre-level students benefit from working with their more
skilled partners, and the above-level students are challenged by their
leadership roles. However, this perfect-world scenario sometimes falls
apart. Occasionally the more-skilled students dominate the process
while the lesser-skilled students withdraw and take no risks. By doing
some prep work up front, you can help students manage the dynamics of
group work so that it is an engaging and challenging experience for

1. Explain how above-level
students can help their pre-level classmates.

When teachers assign students to groups, we often say “help each other”
or “work together.” Remember to get specific. Describe how students can
help one another. For example:

Read the story together.

Above-level student:
Read the story aloud to your partner.

Practice the dialogue together.

Above-level student:
Model the pronunciation of each line first.

Ask and answer the discussion questions.

Above-level student:
Respond to the question first in order to model answers.

Practice new vocabulary

Above-level student:
Give an example of the word in a sentence.

2. Talk about good teaching practices.

Have students follow these principles in their group work:

  • Wait! Give your partner time to
  • Don’t tell! Give an example but
    don’t give the answer.
  • Ask for help! The teacher is
    always here to help.

3. Equip students with language for managing group work.

Write a list of phrases on the board (or even better, post them permanently on the wall) to remind students of useful group-work language. For example:



  • You go first.

  • It’s my turn.
your partner to participate

  • What do you have for
  • number . . .?

  • How about you?

  • What do you think?
Ask to
make sure you understand

  • What do you mean?

  • What does ________ mean?

  • How do you pronounce this word?

  • Could you please repeat that?

  • What did you say?


  • Let’s . . .

  • Maybe we can . .

  • What if we . . .
your partner you understand

  • I see what you mean.

  • That’s an interesting idea.

  • That’s right.
about differences

  • I have a different answer.

  • I see it another way.


4. Divvy up the responsibilities.

Look at what each group activity requires of students, identify different roles, and assign the roles to students according to their skills. For example:

Role plays: Students act out situations using vocabulary and
grammar they have studied. The pre-level student plays the role of the person who asks the questions. (The teacher can provide a paper with the questions listed.)
The above-level student plays the role of the person responding, which
allows for lots of improvisation and embellishments.

Here are some examples:


Employer Applicant
Doctor Patient
a doctor’s appointment
Receptionist Patient
Waiter Diner
Dispatcher Caller
Returning a purchase to a store Customer Service Person Customer
an apartment
Applicant Landlord

Team projects: Students work together in groups of three or more to make a product or complete an activity. These projects can vary widely, but include such activities as:

  • design a poster on a topic;
  • solve a problem;
  • do a survey and make a graph;
  • discuss ideas;
  • create a menu;
  • plan a party;
  • write up a community guide;
  • make a holiday calendar;
  • play a board game; or
  • write a story.

The pre-level student can: The above-level student can:
  • keep the time
  • assemble the supplies
  • read aloud the directions,
    questions, or anything else printed on the activity handout
  • copy the group answers on the board
  • draw the group poster or calendar
  • collate and assemble information
    for a booklet or directory
  • lead the discussion
  • model the activity
  • take notes during the discussion
  • be spokesperson for the group
  • edit the groups first
  • write a summary of
    the group work


Group work is a great vehicle for practicing language. If you
anticipate the kinds of tasks, roles, and language needed for the group
work, your students will benefit from the experience and learn valuable
collaborative skills.
Sarah Lynn
currently teaches at a literacy/learning program in Cambridge, MA. She
has trained volunteers and led workshops on many aspects of teaching
adult education students. Sarah has taught ESL for 20 years in the U.S.
and abroad. Sarah is a series author and a featured instructor on the
Future Teacher Training DVD.

“Ask Sarah Lynn “Our Teachers Helper” is part of the Future


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