Articles for ESL Teachers: Multi-level Classes

TESOL Programs   - 
ATC - Advanced College of Languages and Training Canada
© Alex Shenassa. Permission is granted to individual teachers to make copies of the article below for classroom teaching.

Stuck with teaching a multi-level ESL class?

By Alex Shenassa

Multi-level ESL classes can be a nightmare even for the most experienced teachers. Imagine having to teach four advanced students, three intermediate, and five beginners, all in the same class because two other teachers have suddenly fallen ill and the boss has put you in charge. How can you deal with this seemingly impossible situation?

In her book, Teaching Multilevel Classes in ESL, considered a practical guide by many teachers, Jill Sinclair Bell provides us with a systematic approach; here are 6 tips boiled down from her ideas:

1. Start your lesson with the whole group.

You want to establish the "good happy family" feeling at the beginning of each lesson. Starting with the whole group prevents small group identity which causes students to limit their contact only to those at their own level.

2. Use a theme-based approach.

Using a theme such as "health" or "culture" or "food" is the best way to keep class cohesiveness. You can introduce the theme for the whole class as one group and elicit relevant vocabulary and grammatical structures from students. Make sure you use lots of visuals to accommodate the lower levels.

3. Divide your students into equal-ability groups and set specific tasks for each level.

Now that you've done your introduction with the whole class, it's time to divide your students according to their levels. For example, you'll have a group of four advanced students, a group of three intermediate, and five beginners. Give each group a task that is appropriate for their level.

For instance, if you're working with the theme of "health," the advanced students can work through a medical article which describes ways to prevent catching the common cold and summarize the main points as one group. The beginners could work on vocabulary matching of the symptoms with pictures.

4. Put your students into mixed-ability groups.

Now re-group your students so that each group has beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level students. Give each of these groups a new collective project.

Each student in the group should have a task that builds on what they accomplished in their previous equal-ability groups. For example, the group project could be to prepare a role-play of a patient/doctor situation at a clinic.

The beginners could have the task of cutting out pictures showing symptoms and taping them on the board with the vocabulary written beside each picture. They may also be given the task of introducing the role-play and setting the scene with a few simple sentences.

The intermediate students could take on the role of patients and writing the script for describing their symptoms.

The advanced students could play the role of doctors who have to respond to their patients' questions as well as give advice on how to prevent future diseases.

5. Now do your wrap-up as a whole group.

The wrap-up is the closure of your lesson and you want to do this as a whole group to establish that "good happy family" atmosphere that you established during your introduction.

In our example, each group can perform their role-play for the entire class and students can then vote on the best performance. This will give the experience of the whole class as one team having accomplished a great project!

6. Some points to remember.

Remember that teaching a multi-level class is challenging and often a lot of work for the teacher and not always on target for the students. Keep a positive attitude, but don't feel discouraged if you can't keep everyone happy all the time.

On the positive side, teaching a multi-level class can give you valuable experience that you'll be able to use later on in your career, because after all, isn't every class really multi-level to some extent?



Here are two good books you can consult if you want to know more deeply about teaching multi-level ESL classes. You can find both books at

Teaching Multilevel Classes in ESL by Jill Sinclair Bell

Teaching Large Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess


Alex Shenassa is a writer, teacher trainer, and the director of ATC Advanced College of Languages and Training Canada.