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Multi-level classes and scaffolding

What do you do when you can offer scaffolding to lower-level learners in a multi-level class but are not sure which students actually need it?  I have this challenge with an intermediate level class that is open to drop-ins who self-select which class to attend (beginner or intermediate are their choices).   For example, I occasionally offer dictations as a listening activity with target vocabulary words in the passage.  As a scaffold for the lowest intermediates, I provide the same passage as a worksheet with blanks to fill in the target vocabulary.   I've even tried adding a word bank for greater scaffolding.  The difficulty is determining who needs what scaffolding.  For some regulars, I'm sure who needs scaffolding.  For others, I just don't know what scaffolding to offer.  Self-selection has not proven to be very effective.  Students simply don't know what they need and neither do I.  Does anyone have any suggestions about how to improve the determination of who needs scaffolding?     


Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hi Ellen, Thanks for posting this question. I have always felt that teaching a multilevel class is the most challenging thing ESL teachers are asked to do. I think we can all agree that all ESL classes are multilevel; some are just a lot more so than others.

You described one way you are already providing scaffolding is by creating different levels of a cloze activity. I think this is one of the most effective ways to provide support to lower level learners. You indicated that asking the students to choose the level they need has not worked well since learners don't seem to really know their levels.

One way I have dealt with this is to lay out the different handouts on a table and have the students come up and choose the one they like best. Inevitably, some students will choose an easier level than they are ready for, and when this happens, I'll encourage them to try a harder level.

I'm eager to hear other ideas for supporting all learners in a multilevel class.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

athomas's picture

I have taught multilevel classes most of my adult ESL teaching time. As much as scaffolding is important it is not easy to  be effective. The best practice I have figured out is to have differentiated activities for every lesson. Differentiation  of activities present for both  reading and writing giving consideration to students' goals seems to be far more effective  in my experience.

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello all, Here are some ideas that I have found important when teaching multilevel classes. Do any of these techniques resonate for you? Which have you found to be most helpful? What would you add to this list?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

1) Establish a comfortable environment and a sense of community in the classroom.

Everyone learns best when they feel comfortable and safe. Learners must feel comfortable in order to take the risks that are required to learn. Teachers must be aware of learners’ literacy strengths and weaknesses so that instruction can be tailored at appropriate levels, i.e., not too difficult and not too easy.  Teachers can create a sense of community in the classroom by structuring activities so that learners become acquainted with one another. A respectful atmosphere is essential for engaged learning. When there is a sense of community in the classroom, learners are more likely to learn from one another. 

2) Structure blocks of time around meaningful instructional routines.

Teachers should talk explicitly about the class schedule with their students. Learners can also contribute to planning as well as adjusting the schedule when changes are necessary. Talking to students about the schedule helps everyone to have a shared understanding of how blocks of time in class will be used.  Learners understand that they will be working on their own and in small groups at certain times and that the teacher will be working with different groups at various times. Having blocks of time scheduled in this way can help make the teacher’s planning more manageable and has the added advantage of helping learners to plan their busy lives, as well. Daily classroom routines, such as getting started and closing routines, should be more than just meaningless fillers. Routines should reflect activities that are purposeful and meaningful to learners.

3) Use a thematic approach.

Using a thematic approach in a multilevel class allows the teacher to structure related activities for different levels of learners.  In other words, instead of having different topics for students at different levels to work on, everyone is reading, writing, and talking about the same topic, although the actual activities for learners at different levels will vary in difficulty.  Through a thematic approach to instruction, all learners can share their unique knowledge and experiences on the related theme. Moreover, learners greatly benefit from engaging in common discussions in class where important vocabulary and content knowledge are presented and naturally recycled.  Importantly, teachers should involve learners in deciding which topics will be addressed in class.

4) Differentiate instruction by using different tasks and materials and by varying the level of support provided to learners.

This key addresses three different aspects of instruction:  using different tasks, using different materials, and varying the level of support.  It is vital that teachers provide materials to learners at the right instructional level.  When we ask learners to work with material that is too difficult, this often results in frustration. Similarly tasks that are too easy are also inappropriate.  Teachers can vary the difficulty of tasks, for example by decreasing or increasing the amount of text and by creating tasks that assume more or less knowledge and ability.  For instance, a cloze activity can be designed for learners at various levels by deleting more words for advanced learners and deleting fewer words for learners at lower levels. Adding a word bank also makes the task easier. Teachers can support learning in various ways, for example, by having learners work with a partner, providing a graphic organizer of key ideas, providing bilingual or picture dictionaries, providing audio tapes of texts, using computers, etc.

5) Group learners purposefully.

Teachers sometimes group learners with similar abilities together.  Other times they may group a higher student with a lower student.  For English learners, teachers often group students from different language backgrounds so the learners will rely on using English. Other times, it is helpful to group learners who speak the same language together so they can support one another.  Each of these various means for grouping learners is an example of purposeful grouping strategies. The way teachers group learners is often dependent on the particular task teachers are asking learners to do.  It is important that grouping strategies are fluid so that learners are working in different kinds of groups from day to day and that teachers consider learners’ common experiences and interests when making grouping decisions.  Allowing learners some choice in grouping is certainly appropriate at times, too.

6) Use cooperative and collaborative learning strategies.

In cooperative learning activities learners work together to complete predetermined activities that are designed by the teacher.  In cooperative learning, learners must rely on one another in order to complete the tasks, and there is typically a particular outcome that is expected.  In collaborative learning, on the other hand, the outcome is more open-ended and more learner-centered because learners participate in determining the direction of the learning activities. While learners will still be engaging with one another and relying on one another in collaborative learning, the teacher has not predetermined the activities or the outcome. Both cooperative and collaborative learning are needed in multilevel classrooms, so that teachers can draw upon the strengths of every learner as well as provide peer support as needed.

Janet Kazlauskas's picture

I use these two strategies in my classroom. The theme was baseball and the authentic materials I provided were magazines and newspaper articles and the you tube videos. One activity I planned was for the students to work together to create a poster about baseball and then present their boards to the rest of the class. I did not group the learners purposely and in the future would like to develop this practice. I was not specific in a predetermined outcome. I allowed the students to choose which vocabulary words and real photographs to cut out and glue to their poster. By allowing students to cooperate and collaborate on their own I could see the strengths of all the learners in my class.

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hi Janet and all, Thanks for sharing your project on baseball, Janet. You say you allowed learners a lot of choice for this project. I think that's great. It's hard for many of us to give up control of outcomes, but I think learners gain a lot when we can relinquish control.

Can you say more about how you might think about your grouping decisions going forward?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP


S Jones's picture

I do more w/ math than language but ... if I'm not sure, I scaffold... 

Kathy_Tracey's picture

Hi all,
One specific strategy I have use is the muddiest point. At the end of a lesson, students write down one question that identifies the concept they are struggling with. This helps me adjust the next lesson and determine where the learning gaps are.
Since the learner is writing down their single question, it's kept to an index size card, making the process less intidating to students.
What do you think? Would this work for you?

Kathy Tracey

Ellen Patron's picture

So far, it sounds like you all have suggested three options about how to determine scaffolding for multi-level classes.  The drop-in nature of our program does complicate the matter.  The first suggestion is to actually show students the scaffolding choice(s) and let them choose each time I've prepared a choice.  I would need to physically show the class the scaffold or project the image of the scaffold.  With 25-30 students or so , I'd need to project the scaffold image via the OHP just to save time. This choice would mean students would actually be preparing for the activity before it starts.  Hmmmmm.....pre-listening, pre-writing, pre-reading but about process rather than content.   It means teaching two sets of directions for one period of activity each time I have scaffolding.  That's not a problem but always necessary with any scaffolding.    2.  With the second suggestion, I can track students over the longer term with note cards I keep on file and distribute the scaffolding  to regular students consistently, and pinch hit/allow for self-selection, I suppose, for new students/non-regulars.  This option would eliminate the guess work for the core group of students but still require the non-regular students to make a personal choice.    Hmmmm.... 3.  The third option seems to suggest developing completely differentiated activities for the multiple levels entirely rather than overlapping one activity with variations.  Let me say Hmmmmm on more time!  

I'm going to start with suggestion one the next time I have multi-level scaffolding.  Not tomorrow though since calls for thunderstorms and that always means lower attendance.  I'll let you know how it works out....


Ellen Clore-Patron




Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hi Ellen, Just to clarify a bit ... there are several ways to do a cloze activity. I tend to use a listening cloze most often. For those who may not be familiar, a cloze features a text with one or more words missing. Students listen to the teacher or a peer dictate the sentences. In other words, they listen and write the missing word(s). The directions can be the same or almost the same for each group. The first time you use a listening cloze activity, the teacher can fairly quickly explain the process to the class, and then have the lower level students sit close by to provide extra support. Students who are even more advanced might be able to write the entire story.

Once the students have done the activity a time or two, they understand the directions well.

You might choose to have the higher level students dictate to each other, while the teacher dictates to the lower level group. See an example below of a text written by a student that we used for a cloze activity. In this case, the student dictated the story to the whole class, which is another option.

Complete Text from a Student's Story

1. I lived in Malaysia for four years.

2. I worked in a restaurant.

3. I took orders and served food.

4. The restaurant was very busy with many customers.

5. I was tired after work.

6. I was happy to have a little money to buy food.

Easy: Listen and circle the right word. Write the word on the line.

1. I lived in Malaysia for   five   /   four   years.               ________________________________


2. I   worked  /  work    in a restaurant.                           ________________________________


3. I took orders and served   fruit   /   food.                     ________________________________


4. The restaurant   was   /   is    very busy with many customers. ________________________________


5. I was tired after   work   /    week.                              ________________________________


6. I was happy to have a little   money   /   marry    to buy food. ________________________________


Medium: Listen for the word in the box and write the word on the line.

took           four        restaurant

1. I lived in Malaysia for ________________ years.


2. I worked in a ________________________________.


3. I ____________________________ orders and served food.


food            busy        tired




4. The restaurant was very _______________________ with many customers.


5. I was ______________________________ after work.


6. I was happy to have a little money to buy _____________________.


Higher: Listen for the word and write the word on the line.

1. I lived in __________________________________ for ________________ years.


2. I ______________________________  in a _______________________________.


3. I ___________________________  orders and ___________________________ food.


4. The restaurant was very __________________ with many ___________________________.


5. I was __________________________ after __________________________________.


6. I was _________________________ to have a little money to buy _____________________.


Please let me know if you have questions or further suggestions.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Ellen Patron's picture

Hi Susan,

It is good to see variations on tried and true activities. Thank you.  


Laura Priebe's picture

I like this suggestion -- thanks so much!  I was familiar with using cloze activities with a reading selection to check comprehension, but here it almost looks like you expanded using a Language Experience Story from a student -- great idea!  I often do a language experience story with each student at the end of class, writing it on the board.  I like how you used student writing for this, and showed how the activity can be used at different levels.  Looking forward to trying this... I might move a LES to the beginning of the class, and use the computer screen instead of the board so I could more easily remove words and insert blanks.  Then the student who "wrote" the story could read it and fill in the blanks verbally, while the others write the missing words, basically giving us a dictation in the context of a LES.

Laura Priebe's picture

I like this suggestion -- thanks so much!  I was familiar with using cloze activities with a reading selection to check comprehension, but here it almost looks like you expanded using a Language Experience Story from a student -- great idea!  I often do a language experience story with each student at the end of class, writing it on the board.  I like how you used student writing for this, and showed how the activity can be used at different levels.  Looking forward to trying this... I might move a LES to the beginning of the class, and use the computer screen instead of the board so I could more easily remove words and insert blanks.  Then the student who "wrote" the story could read it and fill in the blanks verbally, while the others write the missing words, basically giving us a dictation in the context of a LES.

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Thanks for sharing your idea, Laura. Please let us know how it goes!

Cheers, Susan

leehaller's picture

It sounds like your main question is not so much how to scaffold but how to determine who needs which level.  This is a great question!  One approach I might try is to have some kind of quick "question of the day" or journal or similar activity which you do before any activity which you might be scaffolding.  If it is written, you can circulate and assess students' writing skills on the fly and put whichever paper you determine is best for them face down on their desks.  If your assessment needs to be oral it's a little trickier but maybe you could have people fill out an entry slip as they come in the door with their name on it, and swipe their slip with a highlighter during a preceding speaking activity (could still be question of the day), using one color for lower and one for higher?  Or some management system like that; not sure what would work in your context.  Good luck, and let us know what you come up with!

Lee Haller

English for New Bostonians Program Manager
105 Chauncy St. 4th floor
Boston, MA 02111
(617) 982-6862
Jana Harper's picture

So one thing I've done specifically with listening cloze passages is that I'll make 5 versions, ranging from circle-the-word on Level 1 and gradually removing words until Level 5 is literally a blank piece of paper.  Then I tell the students we're going to do the activity three times in a row, and each time they will move up a level.  So that means they can start with Level 1, then 2, then 3, or 2-3-4, or 3-4-5.  They self select their starting position and then are able to move up in difficulty because they have already heard/read the text.  I generally use a 5 - 6 sentence paragraph on an informational topic. It's always fun and gives them confidence and experience at the same time.  And by the time they've heard/read it that many times, we're ready to use the text for grammar, speaking, writing, or something else. 

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Thanks for this great idea, Jana. I love that you are using informational text, too. I'll definitely be borrowing this one!

Cheers, Susan

Ellen Patron's picture

Jana and Lee, These ideas are perfect for my situation with a drop-in class and multi-level learners. Gotta try 'em out next week!  Thank you so much to you both! 

Ellen Patron's picture

I want to say thank you to the group for all your comments and suggestions on scaffolding for a multi-level class.  I tried out Jana's suggestion which was to prepare 5 versions of a listening cloze and hand out  a different beginning version (either 1, 2, or 3) for the first run of the activity.  The fifth version was a full dictation.  It didn't turn out perfectly but was a huge improvement over my standard run of 2 versions of the same listening cloze.  My lesson was the first of a 3 week health unit (intermediate) so it focused on vocabulary for medical treatment.  After definitions and  pronunciation activities, I passed out a word scramble and word search to help on spelling which gave me time to check the students' progress and  decide which version of the listening cloze to give them. Once I passed out the worksheets,  I endeavored to carefully give instructions - still a few students weren't clear and didn't understand that their tablemates had different versions.   Small matter.   I ran the first level of the activity and then passed out levels 2-4 to the group.  It took more than a bit longer to make this part work and I ran out of time to run the third level.   Nevertheless, I'd say this way to scaffold is just about ideal unless you have a large, drop-in class on a beautiful spring day.  I had 37 students show up for class!  Ouch!  I had estimated how many copies at each level I'd need (which was no small effort) but only estimated having 30 students in class.  Fortunately, I'm blessed to have an assistant who could make a extra copies.   A second pair of hands made scaffolding this way possible with such high attendance. I'll definitely take this approach again but allow much more time so that I can run the dictation three times.  Just as an aside, I had a full round of applause for this lesson at the end of class and a large handful of students came up to tell me how much they liked or appreciated it.  Wow....    

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello Ellen, Thank you so much for sharing what happened when you tried out Jana's idea of repeating a dictation and making it slightly more challenging each time. It is so good to hear about actual implementation and the successful outcomes. Isn't it fantastic when learners tell us what is working?!

I also greatly appreciate your sharing that it did not necessarily go perfectly. I have said many times, that we learn a lot more when things don't go perfectly, and then we make changes -either on the spot or in the next round.

Teaching a class of 37 is a big challenge in and of itself. Best of luck with your efforts!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Kathy_Tracey's picture

Hi Ellen and friends, 

Because you are specifically working with health literacy, I wanted to share a LINCS resource that you may find valuable. These links will take you to Staying Healthy for Beginning: An English Learner's Guide to Health Care and Healthy Living.


Jana Harper's picture

So glad this worked out for you, Ellen!  I didn't mention it earlier but you probably already figured out that some students will need to repeat the exact same level, even after you've gone over the answers with them.  That's part of why I like this activity so well is that it's really flexible.  Plus, students always seem to like dictation of any sort and you can easily tailor it to accommodate any grammar or vocabulary or content that you want.  Thanks for reporting back!