Let’s talk about providing support to ESL students in Multi-Level Classrooms

In my English class in Hong Kong, I came across a peculiar situation, after giving instructions to students to start doing their book reports.

As I walked around the class, two students raised their hands to call me for help. One of those students had joined the school and started learning English last year.

The other had been in the school for years and was at a much higher English level. Thus, I asked myself, Who do I help first?

About the Author: Ibrar Mohammed is teaching English in Hong Kong and is a graduate of OnTESOL’s 250-hour TESOL Diploma.

Growing up, Ibrar always had a knack for languages, whether Cantonese or English, he would pick them up faster than his peers. Often, Ibrar would be asked to give special insights on how to learn a language.

Ibrar’s TESOL has given him a much-needed pedagogical background as he majored in English studies with a minor in journalism. Ibrar advises all teachers who choose to teach abroad to have an open mind!

The Varying Needs of ESL Students in Multi-Level Classrooms

The common perception of treating students as language patients is in itself questionable.  Each student has different needs and reacts differently to the resources they have or lack.

The ‘better’ student might just require a nudge in the right direction. This could be done in seconds. You could free up the time for the weaker student to ask as many questions as he/she may want.

However, I also thought about this issue in terms of motivation. An ESL student who has just started learning English would need more motivation to keep going.

It is a constant uphill battle to use a language system that they barely understand. Meanwhile, the student who has much better English could afford to wait. In addition, they could even figure it out by themselves if given enough time to read what is already on the paper/screen.

6 Peer to Peer ESL Activities and Their Benefits

Providing Attention To Students At Various Levels

Certainly, these are all potential outcomes.

There is no way of knowing what an individual student would do when temporarily ignored by the teacher in favor of their peers or when given a little too much help.

There is always the potential of the guidance backfiring. The ESL students could become increasingly reliant on additional help just out of habit or just get confused by a wordy explanation of the task.

One could argue that the ‘better’ student could reach even greater heights if given more guidance or new ways to embellish their work through metaphors, similes, and proverbs, etc.

That is why some teachers prefer to teach and cater their classes exclusively to the ones “who listen” or “the capable ones.” This type of thinking just feels wrong.

Eventually, even the better student would only achieve diminishing returns on their improvement as the “class general”. 

Also,  the average level is so low. So much so that there is not enough competition or expectation to foster an environment needed for development that is worthwhile for that ‘better’ student.

How To Analyze Students’ Needs in A Mixed-Level Classroom

It is best to see how those individual students deal with being ignored and being guided, respectively. In my case, the ESL students who are relatively new to English are usually less motivated to work on anything related to English.

She does not feel like this is a language she could use. She often defaults to using Mandarin in her communication, even when asked a question in English.

Seeing her eagerly ask me for guidance was a step in the right direction both for her and for me.

It seemed that she sees English as more accessible now and is willing to participate in the class in a meaningful way.

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Final Thoughts

So, I chose to support the ‘weaker’ student over the ‘better’ student, but only for a moment. The ‘better’ student has an excellent learning attitude and would probably not mind the additional time needed for me to get to him.

Recommended Reading:

Students With Learning Challenges

Teaching Large ESL Classes: Managing Class Discussions

TESOL: Developing Rapport – Classroom Management

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