Teaching a Mixed Level Classroom: A Practical Guide on Assessments

In an ESL classroom, it’s pretty common to have students of all levels. This can make it difficult for both the educator and the students. Lower-level students often feel demotivated in a classroom where the assignments are too difficult. It’s understandable – if the material is so far out of reach for them that they can’t complete it, then why should they bother? In a similar way, advanced students might feel bored if the assignment is way below their level. They’ll disengage from what we’re trying to teach, which is never what we want to foster in a classroom environment.

So, how do we engage students of all different English abilities?

Differentiation – that is, creating different assignments in order to make them appropriate to different students’ English levels- is a great way to even out the playing field and make a more equitable classroom where every student has the chance to learn, grow, and maybe even earn an A. In this post, we’ll go over the steps to begin creating differentiated assignments in your classroom.

Step 1: Know Your Student’s Levels

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It’s likely you at least have some idea how well your students speak English. In my classroom, I normally categorize students using WIDA standards, but if you’re unfamiliar with this it can look intimidating or tricky. Instead, you can try categorizing your students into low, intermediate, and high proficiency. 

When thinking about students in this way, you’ll want to judge your students by class standards. So, “intermediate” should be the level where the majority of your class is. The outliers who are better would be your “advanced” students, while the ones trailing behind are your “low” levels. 

Of course, we get classes who skew towards advanced and ones who need much more basic instruction in English. So long as you generally know where your students lie, you should be able to create assignments that are accessible to everyone. 

Step 2: Write Your (Differentiated!) Objectives 

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By the end of your lesson, you want your students to have learned or accomplished something. However, what that “something” is can vary wildly depending on your student. At times, I’ve been thrilled if my low-level students can pick up just a few vocabulary words, but this would obviously be a ridiculous objective for some of my students who are at or near full fluency. Instead, I might want them to be able to write a full, five paragraph essay by the end of the lesson. It’s important to keep this in mind when writing objectives. 

For example, check out these differentiated objectives I created for three different levels of students, in a class about American culture. 

Low Level:

  • Student can use vocabulary terms in scaffolded sentences
  • Student can discuss about appearance using scaffolded sentences and visual aids
  • Student can write about appearance with appropriate accommodations 

Intermediate Level:

  • Student can use vocabulary in short sentences
  • Student can discuss about appearance with peers and ask some questions. They may be allowed to use some supports such as sentence prompts
  • Student can write about appearance with appropriate accommodations 

Advanced Level: 

  • Students can use vocabulary terms correctly in a full, complex sentence or paragraph
  • Student can fully discuss what they’ve learned about appearance with peers; ask questions; and show general mastery of the language surrounding the curriculum
  • Student can freely write about appearance

In these three different levels of objectives, you can see I want them to all vaguely do the same thing: they should know and be able to use vocabulary, be able to discuss about appearance, and complete a writing assessment. What varies between these objectives is the level of support that students get. Keep in mind that students can normally generally complete the same thing; the only thing that should change is scaffolding and other supports. 

Step 3: Choose an Assessment

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As educators, we have a myriad of assessments available to us, ranging from jigsaws to performance assessments such as doing a presentation. In the objectives above, the assessment is for students to be able to write about appearance. As mentioned, students can almost always do the same assessment; all that needs to change is the level of support or scaffolding students might get for each assignment. This step is therefore pretty straightforward: you can just pick an assessment like you would in any normal class!

Step 4: Differentiating the Assessment

Just as objectives should be differentiated to spell out what different levels of students should be able to accomplish by the end of the lesson, assessments should also be differentiated to let students be able to actually accomplish the objectives. 

So, let’s look at a practical example, based off of our earlier objectives.

In this writing assignment, students need to describe the woman pictured below. However, as you flip through the slideshow, you can notice that low-level students need to complete a cloze activity where they simply fill in the blanks (with help of a wordbank), intermediate students are expected to write sentences, and high-level students are expected to be able to compose paragraphs.

Wrapping Up

Now that your have differentiated objectives and assessments, you of course have to give them to the students! If I’m in a physical classroom, I simply like to have three different baskets at the back with the different assessments in them. I tell the students to choose one and only turn one in. If I’m online, I upload the three versions to an LMS and again tell students to only complete and turn in one.

Ever since I started differentiating my assessments to be appropriate to student levels, I’ve noticed that there’s much higher participation overall in my classroom. Students are much more likely to complete their work if it’s accessible or interesting for them to do. Higher engagement makes my job much easier – definitely worth the small time price it takes to create differentiated assignments.

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