ESL Multilevel Activities

All ESL classes have multilevel students to a degree, but in general, the students are close enough to each other that they can all benefit from the same activity. When we refer to teaching an ESL multilevel class, therefore, we are referring to a class where the students are so far apart in language skills that a single game or activity cannot be given to all students.

Obviously, this can be a planning nightmare and a lot of extra work for the ESL teacher.  The good news is though, that even extreme differences in language levels can be successfully managed so that all the students progress. There are ways to organize the classroom to handle teaching multilevel ESL classes and strategies and activities that work across various levels.

ESL Multilevel Class Sizes


In deciding on how a plan for organizing the class, it is important to consider the number of students and the range of levels. Small classes of 3 – 9 students generally lend themselves to different approaches than classes of 10, 15, or 20 students. 

For a small class, you can often split your time and efforts effectively between the individual students. Once you know your students, it is easy to frame your discussions so that more difficult questions are addressed to your more advanced students.

Drama is an ideal multilevel activity which lends itself well to small groups.  Here the lead roles can be given to the more advanced students.  Advanced students can be in charge of creating scripts and giving out roles as well as acting to increase their involvement and motivation. 


ESL Multilevel Activity 1 - Buddy Reading


This multilevel ESL activity works for all class sizes. For writing and reading, students pair up for buddy reading. Buddy reading involves one student reading and the "buddy" helping to make sure that the reader is pronouncing the words correctly. The buddy also asks questions after the reading to check comprehension. 
two students reading

You will need to model this for the group first, but with adults it is often a very easy multilevel activity for them to pick up since it is similar to studying together outside of class. Higher level students are able to monitor lower level students, and interestingly, having lower level students monitoring higher level students often works to help the higher level students become more aware of fossilized errors that they are making. 

ESL Multilevel Activity 2 - Peer Editing


Similarly, peer editing allows students to look at each other's work and make corrections and comments at their own levels. Pre-writing and rough drafts can be done independently. Advanced ESL students can be encouraged to write more and with greater grammatical complexity. Peer editing is then done as a last step before writing the final draft. Students can be encouraged to discuss content as well as grammar and punctuation.

one student is helping another one learn English

Games are, of course, the ultimate ESL multilevel activity. The beauty of games is that they are generally excellent for encouraging meaningful interaction between students even with very different levels of English.  By taking time to pre-teach any necessary vocabulary and grammar, all students will be able to participate in the games together. Examples of multilevel ESL games that work well are Jigsaw Reading, Name the Thing, and How It's Made – these ESL games and more are all in my book of games for teens and adults. 

ESL Multilevel Activity 3 - Jigsaw Reading


Jigsaw reading is quick to prepare. You simply select a reading, pre-teach the vocabulary and grammar, preferably with games, and divide the reading into parts. Each student reads their part of the article or story silently to themselves. Advanced students should be given longer and more challenging passages, and lower level students the short, simpler parts. After reading, you can have the student either write a summary of the article or story, or give it orally. Finally, working together, the students try to reconstruct the article in the correct order, and check it against the original article.

ESL Multilevel Activity 4 - Name the Thing


Have the students work in pairs, and give each pair a set of three or four pictures of similar, but not identical items, such as four similar cars. One person holds a matching picture of one of the items displayed on the table and uses this as a reference for answering questions asked by the other students. These students ask questions to narrow down their choices and pick the correct matching picture.  The more advanced students can do the questioning, as this is harder than coming up with answers.  A tip for this game is to first demonstrate it at the front of the class and then ask students to each collect a set of pictures for the game to play at the next lesson.  The teacher can then keep the best of those sets for future use.


All these games are included in the English Language Games Book for teens and adults with 175 games and activities!



ESL Multilevel Activity 5 - How it's Made

group working on lego project

How It's Made simply requires directions on assembling something. It is always fun to do peanut butter sandwiches or some other simple food, and actually bring in the ingredients to practice with. Each student is given one step in the process, and they must discuss their step with the others and decide where they fit in.  It can also be done with blocks or a simple puzzle or model Lego.  Give the more advanced students more steps and/or more complex instructions.  The beginners have something simple, like putting the wheels on the Lego car.  You can actually photocopy the instructions that come with the model – making them a bit bigger, and cut them up, giving out a paragraph or two per student.  It's best to have one model to every three or four students to allow for plenty of speaking practise.

How It's Made Variant: Another way to play this if you have no instructions to hand is to simply have a rule where a student cannot move any piece without saying something.  If a student wants to pick up a piece off the table and try it to see if it fits on the model or in the puzzle, or stick it with another piece, he or she MUST say something in English.   

For example, using a puzzle with a picture that includes some red flowers: advanced students give a running commentary of their actions, "I'm just going to see if this small red piece fits on here... it looks like it might be part of a flower.  Oh no, it doesn't fit".  Whereas a beginner might say, "I think this is a flower", or "it fits/it doesn't fit".  Alternatively, you can have students practise and repeat any kind of sentence or grammar that you are learning, and it does not have to be related to the theme of the puzzle or model at all.  So a beginner could say "I like pears" and this will give them the right to try a piece on the model or puzzle.  If working with several groups they can race each other to see who finishes first.


ESL Multilevel Activity 6 - Using an Article


Let's say you have a low intermediate group, an intermediate group and an advanced group working on reading non-fiction articles. Non-fiction often has fairly difficult academic vocabulary. For the whole group part of the lesson, you would read an example article to the class, demonstrating how to preview the article by looking at the title, sub-titles, and illustrations; asking for predictions about the content of the text; and going over key vocabulary.

students working together in groups

After the article has been read together as a class, you could break the students into their three leveled groups. Each group would get an activity to assess their understanding of the article and these activities would be level appropriate. The advanced group might be asked to write about their opinion of the content or debate elements of the article. The intermediate group might be asked to answer a multiple choice quiz or answer simple content-based questions, while the low intermediate group might be asked to do a fill in the blank exercise based on sentences from the article with vocabulary they've just learned. Each group works on their own level using the same article.

To reduce preparation for the teacher and increase the class involvement let the class do the prep work: First read the article together as described above.  Next set homework for the most advanced students to prepare a multiple choice questionnaire about the article.  Let the intermediates prepare a fill in the blanks.  The beginners can have vocabulary to learn.  Students hand in their work for marking, or do peer marking in class.  Then in a future lesson, the multiple choice questions are given to the intermediates and the fill in the blanks are given to the beginners.  The teacher only has to give one or two thought-provoking questions to the advanced students to discuss or write about.

If there is time, the lesson can close with a whole group activity. Games that allow for players to use language at their own comfort level are great for this.  With larger groups like this team games and relay games are especially fun. 


Multilevel Classroom Organization


There are two types of classroom organization that I have found especially effective with large, multilevel classrooms of 10-20 students: the "whole-group-to-leveled groups" approach, and the "small groups with centers" model. Both have their strong points and there is nothing to say that they can't be combined.


Using the "Whole-group-to-leveled groups"


The "whole-group-to-leveled-groups" approach is quite a mouthful but is fairly simple to implement. The idea is that you do a short introductory activity with the entire class, and then break the students up into leveled groups for student-to-student practice. This works really well when the gap between students is at the upper end of the scale, from intermediate to advanced, for example. It's also the best choice if you don't have a lot of classroom resources. In this case, you differentiate the levels by how you group the students, and what practice activity you give them. Often, the activities are simply variations on themes, with the lower level versions being more scaffolded than the upper.

Using the Small Groups and Centers Model


The "small groups and centers" model is based on the principles of Guided Reading. The idea is to prepare a 20-30 minute lesson for each level. While you are teaching one small group at a given level, the other groups are doing independent work at centers. You have to pre-stock the centers with appropriate activities, and plan multiple lessons, but since the activities can often be more than once, and the lessons are short, it is still a manageable choice for multilevel ESL classrooms.

Let's say you are doing a unit on houses for a class with beginners, intermediates, and upper intermediates or advanced. You can divide the class time into three equal parts and have a group lesson table and two activity centers. While one group is at the lesson table with the teacher, the other two groups are each at a center. Two of the best kinds of centers to have are a gaming center and a listening center. The gaming center can be stocked with a variety of ESL board games, role-plays, brain-teasers, and charades. Students will interact at their own level within the structures of the game.


ESL Gaming Center

ESL Strategy games like Battleship, where players have to figure out where the opponent has hidden his fleet and bomb it before his own is bombed makes a great center game from my book of games. Pictionary, where the players try to guess words from each other's drawings is another old standby. Alternatively, you could have role-play cards for students to choose from and act out, and even tape if you have the equipment. You can then review the tapes as a class at the end of the week, and hand out a best actor award!

ESL Listening Center

The listening center, consisting of a CD or tape playing with multiple headphones, allows students to listen and read along to stories or non-fiction articles, and then complete a response activity – like a journal entry answering a comprehension question, or drawing a picture of a scene that they heard about in the story.


Multi-level Classroom Strategies

Within the above models for classroom organization, there are some ESL strategies that can be employed to help the work go more smoothly across levels.

  1. Use whole-class ESL games to build classroom unity. This way students that don't normally work in the same group can get to know each other and benefit from each other's experiences.

  2. Use lots of gestures to back up your spoken words so that lower level students can follow as well as advanced students. For common classroom instructions you should come up with consistent signs that are used all the time and all the students have practiced.

  3. When teaching new words or tenses, don't just teach vocabulary, but also teach the most common sentence structures these specialized words will appear in. For example: "fall - fell - fallen – Yesterday I fell in a hole". By teaching common sentence structures, all the students at each level will be able to make sentences using the vocabulary and it will encourage correct usage in context, rather than learning a list of words in isolation.

  4. Always have extra ESL activities for the "fast finishers"  - those advanced students that might be rushing a bit because they think it is too easy.

  5. Create models and scaffolded ESL exercises for any writing practice, so that lower levels aren't left floundering. For more advanced students, simply do the same exercise with less structure given and more independence in the writing.


Finally, remember that every ESL class needs multilevel activities to a degree. If you happen to be one of those teachers that has an ESL class where the gap is wider than average, don't panic! With a little forethought and planning, you will be more than up to facing the challenge. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Ann Vernon promotes learning through English language games and activities.  Go to: Book of Games and Activities