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ESL Multilevel Activities

group of students with mixed abilities

All ESL classes need multilevel activities to a degree, but students are generally close enough to benefit from the same task. By an ESL multilevel class, we mean one where the students are so far apart in language skills that they cannot all work on the same game or activity.

Obviously, ESL multilevel activities can be a planning nightmare and extra work for the ESL teacher. However, the good news is that there are ways to help all students progress, however disparate their levels. In addition, there are strategies and activities that work across various levels.

ESL Multilevel Class Sizes

In deciding on a plan for ESL multilevel activities, consider the number of students and the range of levels. For example, small classes of 3 – 9 students generally lend themselves to different approaches than classes of 15 or 20 students.

You can often split your time and efforts effectively between the individual students for a small class. Once you know your students, it is easy to frame your discussions to address harder questions to your more advanced students.

Drama is an ideal multilevel activity that lends itself well to small groups. Give lead roles to the more advanced students. In addition to acting, advanced students can create scripts and attribute roles to increase their involvement and motivation.

ESL Multilevel Activity 1 – Buddy Reading

This activity works for all class sizes. For example, students pair up for buddy writing and reading. Buddy reading involves one student reading and the “buddy” helping ensure that the reader pronounces the words correctly. The buddy also asks questions to check comprehension.


EFL students reading book together

Buddy reading involves one student reading and the “buddy” helping the reader with pronunciation.

This mixed ability activity involves one student reading and the “buddy” helping the reader with pronunciation. Do model this for the group first, but with adults, it is often straightforward since it is similar to studying together outside of class. Higher-level students can monitor lower-level students, which is beneficial to both parties. However, interestingly, having lower-level students monitor higher-level students often helps the latter become aware of fossilized errors they make.

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 levels. Students can prepare rough drafts independently. Advanced ESL students can write longer and more complex texts than their classmates. Peer editing is then the last step before writing the final draft. Students can discuss content as well as grammar and punctuation.

Peer editing allows students to look at each other’s work and make corrections and comments.

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. Pre-teach necessary vocabulary and grammar so that all students can participate in the games together. Jigsaw Reading, Name the Thing, and How It’s Made are three multilevel ESL games that work well from my book games for teens and adults.

ESL Multilevel Activity 3 – Jigsaw Reading

Jigsaw reading is quick to prepare. First, select a reading passage and pre-teach the vocabulary and grammar with games. Next, divide the text into parts, giving advanced students longer, more challenging passages and lower-level ones shorter, simpler sections. Then, each student reads their part of the article or story silently. Finally, after reading, students can either write a summary of the article or story or give it orally. Alternatively, students work together to reconstruct the article in the correct order and check it against the original text.

ESL Multilevel Activity 4 – Name the Thing

Have the students work in pairs and give each one three or four similar but not identical pictures. So, for example, display four similar car pictures on the board or table. One person holds a duplicate picture of one of the cars and uses this as a reference for answering the other students’ questions. These students ask questions to narrow down their choices and spot the matching picture. The more advanced students can ask the questions as it is more challenging than answering.

To save on preparation time, demonstrate this game and give students the task of collecting matching pictures to play in the next class. The teacher can then keep the best of those sets for future use.

Multilevel Resources:

Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults

ESL Online Games (One to one and groups)

ESL Multilevel Activity 5 – How it’s Made

How It’s Made requires directions on assembling something.

The activity How It’s Made requires directions on assembling something. Though not always practical, it is fun to make peanut butter sandwiches or other simple food. Each student has one step in the process, and they must discuss their job with the others and decide where they fit in. Use this method with blocks, puzzles or Lego. Give the more advanced students more steps or more complex instructions. The beginners have something simple, like putting the wheels on the Lego car. You can photocopy the instructions that come with the model – making them a bit bigger. Then, cut them up, and give a paragraph or two per student. It’s best to have one model for every three or four students to allow plenty of involvement and speaking practise.

How It’s Made Variant

Another way to play if you have no instructions to hand is to say that a student cannot move any piece without saying something. If a student wants to pick up a bit to see if it fits on the model, they MUST say something in English.

For example, using a puzzle with 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, students can repeat any sentence, 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.’ This contribution gives 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

Suppose you have a low intermediate group, an intermediate, and an advanced group working on reading non-fiction articles. Non-fiction often has an academic vocabulary. For the whole group part of the lesson, read an example article and demonstrate how to preview it by looking at the title, sub-titles, and illustrations, asking for predictions about the text’s content going over crucial vocabulary.

After reading the article together, you could break the students into three leveled groups. Each group would get a different activity to assess their understanding of the article. For example, the advanced group could write up their opinion of the content or debate elements of the topic. The intermediate group might answer a multiple-choice quiz or simple content-based questions. In contrast, the lower group might fill in some blanks based on sentences from the text. Thus, each group works at their level using the same article.

Save on preparation

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

If there is time, the lesson can close with a whole group activity. Games that allow players to use language at their comfort level are great for this. The classroom vocabulary game Relay Race is ideal for this.

Multilevel Classroom Organization

Two ways to manage large, multilevel classrooms of 20 students are “whole-group-to-leveled groups” and “small groups with centers.” Both have strong points, and there is no reason not to combine them.

Using the “Whole-group-to-leveled groups”

The “whole-group-to-leveled-groups” approach is quite a mouthful but is relatively 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 method works 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 the practice activity you give them. Often, the activities are simply variations on themes.

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 the teacher takes the students of a given level, the others work in groups at centers. Of course, you have to pre-stock the centers with appropriate activities and plan multiple lessons. But, on the other hand, you can use these many times.

Let’s say you have a unit on houses for a mixed level class from beginners to 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 centers are a gaming center and a listening center. The gaming center can be stocked with various ESL board games, role-plays, brain-teasers, and charades. Students will interact at their level within the structures of the game.

ESL Gaming Center

ESL Strategy games like Battleships, where players have to figure out where the opponent has hidden his fleet is a great center game. Pictionary, where players guess words from each other’s drawings, is another classic. Alternatively, you could have role-play cards for students to act and record. You can then review the recordings as a class at the end of the week and hand out the best actor award!

ESL Listening Center

The listening center would have multiple headphones to allow students to listen and read along to stories or non-fiction. They might 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

Here are some strategies to help things go smoothly across the levels.

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

Use gestures while speaking so that lower-level students can follow. You should develop consistent signs for standard classroom instructions so students get to know them.

When teaching new words or tenses, teach vocabulary along with common sentence structures. For example, “fall – fell – fallen – Yesterday I fell in a hole.” By teaching common sentence structures, all the students can make sentences using the vocabulary at their level. In addition, they will learn correct usage rather than learning a list of words in isolation.

Have extra activities handy for the fast finishers.

Create scaffolded writing exercises too so that lower levels don’t flounder. For example, more advanced students can do the same exercise with less structure and more independence.Finally, remember that every ESL class needs multilevel activities to a degree. So if you happen to be one of those teachers with an ESL class where the gap is wider than average, don’t panic! With a bit of forethought and planning, you will be more than up to facing the challenge.

Great Resources

All these games are included in these books – paperback or PDF

Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults

ESL Online Games (One to one and groups)

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