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.

Utilizing Online Tools for Classroom Projects

Recent times have created unprecedented shifts in our classrooms. Suddenly, teachers around the world were thrusted into online classrooms, platforms, and required to scramble for resources appropriate for distanced learning. In the era of ever-evolving technology and content, it has been a challenge to keep learning in the classroom meaningful and relevant for our students. Teachers are confronted with the task to create activities and projects that allow students to demonstrate mastery of content and make creative connections, all the while with the added complication of online learning. The following ideas and examples were developed with the idea that teachers can use our new reality to promote engaged, active, meaningful, and socially interactive learning. 

Using Social Media or Website Templates

A versatile tool for teachers is editable PPT templates. They can be created on Google Slides or PowerPoint. Once a template is created, students can insert pictures, text, and content to meet project requirements. Social media platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, provide familiar layouts for students to display research or reading projects. Creating reviews or blogs are relevant and meaningful tasks for students that require creativity. Creating content can be made easier with set templates and online resources, such as photos, illustrations, or video clips. These resources lessen the work load of completing projects and allow students more time and flexibility to focus on demonstrating their understanding and creativity. In a technology-less classroom, these templates can be printed and reproduced for traditional-styled projects.

Extensive reading projects completed on PPT templates of a Facebook profile (Images from Netflix’s “Anne with An ‘E'”)
Extensive reading project completed on PPT templates of an Instagram post (Images from pinterest.com)

What type of templates should I create?

When considering the type of social media or website platform to use as a classroom project or activity, think about which websites or type of social media is the most popular with (or most familiar to) your students. This creates motivation when students recognize something that is relevant or connected their own lives. The more associations we can build between the content students learn in the classroom to the content they encounter in the real world, the more meaningful learning becomes. If access to technology and internet is no longer a barrier in our “new” classrooms, use these tools for an educational advantage—have students create actual social media posts to be shared, blogs or websites to be viewed, and projects where they can socially interact with their classmates or a wider community.  

Project based on a Trip Advisor review template
Post-reading activity completed on a template of a Twitter post (Images from movie adaptation of “The Giver”)
Post-reading activity completed on a template of a messenger application

Source: Presentation templates by SlidesCarnival

Creating a template from scratch can seem like a daunting task. There are some free and paid (Teachers Pay Teachers) resources out there that are great in the time crunch. There are benefits in creating your own templates: scaffolding student work, making the task level-appropriate, or adding different components to one project. The most important thing to remember is to provide your students with an example. Show them what type of work you expect and watch them exceed your expectations!

Flipgrid: The Resource That Tricks Your Students Into Actually Talking

Speaking is scary.

This is something that’s applicable not only to English Learners (ELs), but also often native speakers. When I have to make a call, order food, or interact with someone I don’t know, I often find myself mentally rehearsing exactly what I want to say before even approaching the other person, and I know I’m not alone. 

However, as educators, we often expect students to be able to speak freely and unabashedly. While this is an important skill to develop, this remains difficult or even threatening to students. They often clam up and refuse to speak beyond monosyllables, answering in yes or no, or only following a set pattern given by the teacher.

There’s a lot of other issues that come with teaching speaking as well. First and foremost, how can someone objectively grade speaking? How can learners know their speaking errors, or how to improve? What’s a fun way to get students to practice?

One of the best solutions I’ve found to all of these problems is to use an online platform called Flipgrid.

While Flipgrid wasn’t necessarily made with ELs in mind, it is certainly perfect for the EL classroom. Flipgrid is a free online learning platform (also available as an app) that allows students to record short videos. It’s reminiscent of popular apps such as TikTok or Snapchat, which makes it a breeze for young learners to adapt to. I’ve been using Flipgrid for over a year now, and am a huge fan of its interface, what it allows students to do, and how engaged students are when using it.

Flipgrid is both free and simple to sign up for. You can simply create an account, then create a group. You can add your students to it (and choose your students usernames, which is a feature I love since many students tend to get ah, creative when choosing what to call themselves), set a discussion topic, and get started.

The discussion topics can take all sorts of different forms. It’s necessary to give your topic a title (be it a chapter name, grammar point, discussion question – you name it) and a prompt. In your prompt, you can give your students specific questions to answer, a minimum speaking time, a scaffolded answer for them to read off of, and more. You can also add media resources to encourage your students. In the past, I’ve often recorded a video myself for my students and used YouTube clips for them to talk about, but the choices are various.

You can use Flipgrid for a variety of purposes, ranging from having them answer simple speaking questions to making a speaking portfolio, which I’ll talk more about later. In my own teaching practice, I’ve mainly used Flipgrid to create projects for my students. For example, I had students create how-to cooking videos in one class, instead of doing the tired old imperative-tense exercises offered by the textbook. I was blown away by student videos – they truly went all out in what they made! 

Flipgrid is great because you can record whatever – in this cooking video, the student edited a lot and added text to aid their speaking.

In another class, students made commercials in groups. I was warned beforehand that these students were low-level and rarely spoke; however, by using Flipgrid students were able to write a script beforehand, which gave them a lower-threat environment to practice speaking. They can also do multiple takes or edit videos together, so if a mistake is made, it’s of no importance; students can simply take it out. 

I’m a firm believer that students will engage more with the material when they are interested by it, and creating an experience that resembles social media can really help students shine. Shy students who barely dare to pipe up on Zoom can create wonderful videos of themselves speaking. If a student is really shy about how they look, they also have the option to not show their face (such as in the above image) or use a filter. 

Another huge benefit of Flipgrid is that students can rewatch their own videos. This makes it possible for students to view their own problems. For example, I had a high-level student who often left the “s” off third person verbs (for example, she would say “the boy run to the store” instead of “the boy runs to the store”) and found it almost impossible to correct herself naturally. However, after only a few weeks of watching and listening to her own videos, the student was able to remedy this error!

Flipgrid also automatically generates closed captioning for videos. While these can sometimes be wildly incorrect – especially for students with heavier accents – it also allows these students to see a visual representation of what their pronunciation sounds like, which can be extraordinarily helpful. If the close captions guess that there is a curse word, it will automatically star it out. Don’t worry about any of this – you can go in and edit the closed captions if you so wish!

In this caption, you can see the student is repeating words as she realized she made a mistake.

Flipgrid gives a few options for student feedback. You can either use a built in rubric, or create your own. You can also write feedback or – as I prefer to do – record feedback. I use my recorded feedback to model pronunciation or grammar errors, as well as to give students more listening practice. Remember, if all else fails they can always read the closed captioning Flipgrid automatically supplies. You can scroll through the image below to see a completed rubric.

The feedback options leads me to one of the best features about Flipgrid: it can be used to create a “speaking portfolio” of sorts for students. With language learning, speaking is often one of the hardest, most obscure things to try to objectively grade. It can also be difficult for students to see their own progress, which can sometimes make students feel discouraged. Even if the educator only created one Flipgrid video of their students speaking at the beginning of the school year, it can allow both them and the student to look back and see how much they’ve progressed.

Overall, I think that Flipgrid is a great tool that can easily be used in an ESL classroom by students of almost any age. It’s easy for students to use, provides a great opportunity for students to practice speaking in a non-threatening environment.