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Multiple Levels, Multiple Responsibilities

by Lenore Balliro
In the 13 or so years I have been involved in adult basic education, no issue has surfaced for classroom teachers as regularly as the multilevel class. Workshops devoted to this topic reliably draw big crowds at conferences and staff development centers; dialogues on national listserves such as TESL-LIT have focused on the topic. Jill Bell's book, Teaching Multilevel Classes in ESOL, has proven a perennially popular title in the Adult Literacy Resource Institute library, a statewide adult literacy resource center in Massachusetts where I work as the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) coordinator.

Often, the issue of multilevel' surfaces soon after teachers recognize the complex compositions of their classrooms. To successfully engage all the learners in their classes, they are compelled to seek out practical solutions in the form of techniques and classroom management ideas. Even veteran teachers, many of whom could lead their own workshops on the multilevel class, are intent on locating those elusive strategies to address the challenges in their classrooms. New and experienced teachers alike display the same underlying, often implicit assumption: "I, the teacher, am the one responsible for meeting everyone's needs in my class." I want to suggest that teachers simply can not meet everyone's needs in a multilevel class; teachers can approach the issue in constructive ways, however, and employ strategies that help make teaching the multilevel class less mysterious and overwhelming.

The Meaning of Multilevel

In many of the multilevel workshops I have facilitated with teachers over the years, we start our discussions, not with practical strategies, but with perceptions, concerns, and insights about the concept of multilevel. I encourage teachers to unpack' the concept by reflecting on what we mean when we talk about multi' and what we should expect of ourselves as classroom teachers when presented with challenging situations because of these differences. A richer understanding of the term multilevel emerges. This kind of discussion, often overlooked in the need for strategies, helps us look more analytically at the concept of multilevel: where do problems emerge and who should take responsibility for them?

Some of the multi's' described in workshop discussions with teachers are not related to level' at all. These include cultural differences among students and between teachers and students; class differences, again among students in home countries and between teacher and students; age and gender differences; differences in educational backgrounds; differences in motivation, in ethnicity, in first languages; differences in learning styles.

Many of these differences, some teachers reflect, do not present themselves as problems; rather, they enrich the communities of learners and are often the attraction for instructors to stay in this field. In numerous workshops, I have heard teachers discuss how their lives and those of their students are enlarged by their experiences with students from many countries and backgrounds; the multi' nature of the class makes them continually challenge their own assumptions in a variety of contexts. Looked at through this prism, multi' becomes a strength rather than a deficit, and teachers often concur that working from strengths is the cornerstone of adult education practice.

Although many teachers acknowledge that a vibrant, diverse classroom provides stimulation and enrichment, they are also quick to admit that it is often difficult to orchestrate a class when it is necessary to teach to many ability levels at the same time. In the ESOL classroom, differences in language and literacy proficiency levels, as well as differences in experiences with education and print, are often profound.

For example, in ESOL classes, students who speak English very well but have limited reading and writing abilities learn alongside beginning speakers of English. This makes it hard to engage everyone in oral language practice. Further, some students may be highly educated in their home countries and are learning to read in English as they learn to speak it; other students may be learning to acquire literacy for the first time. The first languages of some students are alphabetic; others are not. In some ABE classes, a wide range of reading abilities and experiences with print also surfaces. Some students are ready to prepare for the tests of General Educational Development (GED) while others need to build academic skills before they can attempt GED-level work. Some students may do fine with the reading components of GED but are weak in math. And teachers often need to explain cultural concepts to GED students new to the United States; the same information may bore classmates born in the U.S.

In both ABE and ESOL classes, some students display metacognitive awareness of their learning while others may not know how to step back and reflect on learning-to-learn strategies. In addition, both ABE and ESOL teachers often identify students with learning disabilities in their classes, which further complicates the classroom composition. Teachers have suggested that because of these wide differences in abilities, some students are inevitably bored while others remain lost.

Meeting Needs: the Myth

When pressed, many teachers admit that they try to meet everyone's needs in their classes, all the time, even though they know it is ultimately impossible. It is with this implicit goal in mind that they plan their instructional strategies. Where does this pressing motivation come from? For several years, the prevailing attitude and set of approaches in adult education has stressed learner-centered pedagogy. Teachers are encouraged, and in some cases mandated, to develop an individual education plan (IEP) for the student, articulating each student's personal learning and often job or career goals. Teachers are reminded to assess learners' interests as well as abilities, and to plan instruction to ensure that students' learning goals are met.

Starting from learners' goals and concerns is a good thing. But many teachers have taken learner-centered pedagogy to heart in a way that may contribute to additional stress as they teach the multilevel class. Faced with a multitude of learner differences and seemingly overwhelming needs, teachers feel it is incumbent upon them to make sure each person's needs and goals are met. As mentioned earlier, I do not think this is a realistic expectation. More than one teacher, however, has lamented that "it's just really hard to say NO." In so many cases, teachers care passionately about the lives of their students, for many of whom the system has failed. Teachers are naturally inclined to welcome as many students as possible, to act as advocate, broker, support system. And they encourage students to think that they will get all their needs met. This is a set up: teachers burn out, students get frustrated. Both a great deal of reflection about what one teacher can realistically do and protracted negotiation between teacher and student must take place within a multilevel class to ensure that reasonable expectations are outlined.

Policymakers and Administrators

Though the field of adult education asserts the need for learner-centered pedagogy, enough resources are simply not available to meet the often ambitious agenda inherent in a learner-centered approach. Not enough classes, not enough technological support, not enough teacher aides or tutors, not enough counselors, not enough child care, and not enough well-prepared teachers exist to handle the needs in the field. Examined from this perspective, some of the responsibility to address the complex challenges of multilevel classes rests with policymakers. They must establish realistic expectations about what can be accomplished with the limited resources we do have.

Program administrators also need to take some responsibility for addressing the multilevel issue. Programs might need to reassess, for example, their open-entry open-exit policies. As one adult educator put it, "the class has a right to its own identify." If this identity is continually challenged and disrupted while students enter and exit, it disturbs the equilibrium the class struggles to achieve for optimal learning. Program administrators, in concert with teachers, may need to examine other kinds of grouping rather than proficiency. These might be classes around certain topics, for example, or classes with the same first language. They may have to display courage in setting limits about who can and cannot enter a particular class. They may need to build a stronger referral structure for students who are unable to access their services. These limits may help in setting more realistic guidelines for the composition of classes. It may be necessary for teachers, once again - loudly and together - to say no before administrators are willing to address these issues on a program design level.

Serving Students Well

Even with the best set of policies, optimum classroom resources, and solid program design, teaching the multilevel class is still a juggling act, one that requires finely honed teaching and classroom management skills. Perhaps we can never fully meet all the needs of all the students in our adult education classes; that doesn't mean that we cannot serve them well. By enlightening policymakers and program administrators to the realities of multilevel teaching, by engaging in a wide variety of staff development activities to improve classroom teaching, and by assisting learners to identify, prioritize, and meet their learning needs, the challenge of the multilevel class may be less daunting. We can strive, as ESOL teacher Annie St. John does, to "make students feel safe and challenged at the same time."

About the Author

Lenore Balliro has worked as a teacher, curriculum developer, administrator, and staff developer in adult ESOL. For nine years she facilitated staff development for teachers through the Adult Literacy Resource Institute in Boston. In September, she will begin editing the Massachusetts adult education newsletter, Bright Ideas.


Bell, J. (1991). Teaching Multilevel Classes in ESL. San Diego, CA: Dominie Press. 

Ideas for a Multilevel Class by Lenore Balliro