Managing different language levels in small groups
I wanted to write something about this conundrum as it is a question that I very frequently get asked and it also seems to concern many parents especially those who send their teenage children to Fleetham Lodge for courses but adults are also sometimes worried too.
As an educator of over 40 years experience I feel I have seen and experienced most things in education. I have taught in language schools, mainstream primary and secondary education , colleges, universities, companies and also done a lot of one-to-one tutoring and I can say, without any hesitation, that the idea of a class of completely homogeneous students, say Intermediate level, is a myth.
I am sure that most people will agree with me when I say that people learn any subject or skill in different ways at different speeds and have different strengths and weaknesses and in language learning this is exactly the case too. The levels, usually Beginner to Super-Advanced, are only a way of delivering content so that skills in language can built up step by step. With large groups (12 to 20 students) it is easier for the teacher to focus on things that will be accessible to most of the group and certainly with these class-sizes a beginner in an intermediate class would flounder and an advanced student would most likely be very bored – this is because there is no room in a large class for individual teaching. Conversely in a one-to-one class the student is central and the teaching can be very targeted towards their needs and desires which makes this method highly effective.
While one-to-one lessons may be great for getting a big boost to English skills or focusing on an exam or specific event (such as a presentation or meeting) it is not always the ideal. Language is a means of communication and while on a course in the UK the very best opportunity is the chance to communicate with others. This is especially important for teenagers who need the company of others and who, let’s face it, are on holiday and it isn’t fair to give them yet more school – so the whole social side of a summer English course is really very important. The purity of language level must then be balanced against other things such as making friends, having fun and being able to use the language outside the classroom as well as inside – and here there is no such thing as language level!!
My classes at Fleetham Lodge are usually a maximum of 4 students and I see no obstacle to mixing different levels and any good teacher worth their salt can create a fantastic learning environment which easily caters to each and every student in such a small class. Emphasis on speaking and listening using fun activities (puzzles, crossword, stories etc.) can engage everyone equally with students sharing their knowledge and helping each other out. I like to teach grammar through story-telling and visual methods which again will engage everyone and once the work of writing, reading and vocabulary gets underway there is time and scope to work individually with each student.
I would like to present two case studies from our students to illustrate how working with different levels can be achieved. One is an adult group and the other a junior group.
Claudia was a complete beginner (a very rare thing to see nowadays) and she came for a month to improve her English. During that time we also welcomed a group of 4 women from a university in the Netherlands for a 1-week course. Claudia wanted to learn everything and be able to travel, meet clients and build relationships with her clients and business partners globally (she had a very successful business and relied upon other colleagues to interpret for her and found this frustrating). The other four students found they had to teach and operate more and more in English in their jobs – dealing with International students and educational agencies across the globe and wanted to upgrade their skills. Over the 5 students the levels included Advanced, Intermediate, lower Intermediate and beginner/elementary. For two students there was also a major issue of confidence. For some of the time Claudia had her own teacher who helped her with the basics and for the rest they were all together.
One striking feature was that Claudia, despite her limited knowledge of English, was a larger than life character and she didn’t worry about making mistakes. Communication was paramount to her and this really helped the other two students who lacked confidence come out of their shells and soon the house was filled with constant chatter, laughter and ‘electricity’. The lessons were fine and everybody contributed equally and made amazing progress – we could all see it. The more advanced students helped and were sensitive to the needs of the less advanced. The teachers made certain that they also got what they needed. The balance of sheer dynamism and expertise drove everyone, every day and the results were incredible for each participant.
My second group was a teenage group. Over the years the teenage groups (on average 14 and 15 year-olds) have clustered around intermediate and upper intermediate and these are very easy to teach together. However one year we had a student who was rather more advanced and did in fact somewhat resent being in this group. As ever we concentrated on ‘inclusive’ activities in which everyone could participate and these by and large went well. As we drilled down into grammar and writing it became apparent that although Alexei was a very fluent speaker and had a wide vocabulary, his grammar knowledge was not as solid as the others as he had largely learned English ‘on the hoof’ so when it came to writing he needed more help than the others. Once this was clear Alexei realised that he too had things to learn from his classmates.
This can often be the case even with the most advanced students like my IELTS groups – some are great at one skill but need work on others.
So can mixed level groups work? I believe yes they can and do and on short courses such as those at Fleetham Lodge they can actually sometimes work better.