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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue C ::: September 1997

The Multilevel Umbrella

by Miriam Burt
Whenever instructors of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for adult learners get together, one topic always comes up: the multilevel adult ESOL classroom. How do you manage the class? How do you meet all learners' needs and get everyone involved? Practitioners call us at the National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE) and ask for curricula, activities, techniques - anything they can use in class. The topic appears from time to time on TESLIT-L and NIFL-ESL, the electronic listservs for ESOL practitioners. Discussions flourish as instructors talk about favorite activities to use in classrooms where the Salvadoran construction worker who loves to talk but can't read either Spanish or English sits next to the Korean housewife who loves to do grammar worksheets but can't say a word of English.

Because of the interest in the topic, NCLE staff discussed publishing a digest - a synopsis of research - on it. Feeling that teachers might be looking for a quick fix, we resisted and worked on topics we felt were more clearly definable, more discrete, and hence more easily researched. We published digests on teaching learners with minimal literacy skills, teaching those with learning disabilities, teaching literacy skills in the native language to ESOL learners, considering culture when teaching Southeast Asian refugees, and doing needs assessment in the adult ESOL classroom. We suspected these might be the real issues teachers were grappling with and that they were all factors that went into making a class "multilevel." These digests were well-received, but the clamor for the multilevel digest did not cease.

Finally we relented and decided to do the digest. As an adjunct ERIC clearinghouse, one thing we logically do when we have a research question, or need more information on a subject, or are providing information for potential digest authors, is to search the ERIC database. ERIC stands for Educational Resources Information Center, and is a national information system designed to provide users with access to an extensive body of education-related resources. This 30-year old system is funded under the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), and is the world's largest source of education information, containing nearly a million abstracts of documents and journal article on education research and practice. We searched the ERIC database, requesting documents that address the concepts of multilevel, second language instruction, ESL, and adult instruction and found very few articles. None made any reference to research on the issue. Reading the articles on microfiche, I found they were full of references to Jill Bell's Teaching Multilevel Classes in ESL (1991) and included descriptions of activities and grouping strategies to use to maximize learner participation. As we had suspected, running like a thread throughout the articles was a description of what makes ESOL classes multilevel. Factors such as diverse literacy levels, learning disabilities, varying expectations of instruction, and differing reasons for being in class were discussed in all the articles.

NCLE published the digest (Shank and Terrill, 1995), describing the factors and discussing grouping strategies. It remains one of NCLE's most requested publications. And now, two years later, for this article, we did another ERIC search and found only a handful of documents new since 1995. Once again, the documents described grouping strategies to maximize student participation and factors to consider in teaching the multilevel class. No hard, generalizable research was discussed in any article.

No Hard Research

Upon reflection, this lack of hard research on the multilevel classroom is not surprising. This is because "Multilevel classroom" is truly an umbrella term: it is a phrase that covers a multitude of situations. It encompasses the need to deal with issues surrounding literacy, such as how to teach those who have no literacy skills in their native language, those who learned to read in another alphabet, and those who can read scientific generals in English but do not understand a spoken sentence. It includes issues surrounding classroom expectations, such as how to teach those who want to learn in an environment where the teacher is a sort of benign dictator, those who have never been in a classroom, before, so have no sense of even what is meant by writing on the board, and those who came up through the U.S. school system and expect a lively give and take in the classroom. It embraces issues surrounding reasons for studying English, such as how to teach those who are there to prepare themselves to pass a citizenship exam, those who want to be able to speak with their children's teachers, those who need to get a job, and those who want to be able to pass an exam that will make them eligible for training or for academic study.

These are just a few of the factors that contribute to the multilevel classroom. Others include learning styles, learning disabilities, pace of learning, class and gender issues, and so on. In any one adult ESOL class any number of these factors can be involved.

So, where does this leave us? Questions still float on the listservs, callers still ask for materials to use with multilevel classes, and practitioners still "Exchange recipes" for activities that will reach all the learners in their multilevel classes. Are they looking for the mythical silver bullet? Probably not. It's more likely that the multilevel umbrella, which so describes their classes, also provides one of the best vehicles for talking about instruction, about techniques and activities, about what it is that adult ESOL (and, I suspect, ABE) educators do to help their students learn. And that's all right.

About the Author

Miriam Burt, Associate Director of the National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., has worked in the field of adult ESOL education for more than 20 years. Some of her earlier jobs in ESOL education include directing a federally-funded workplace literacy program in Washington, D.C.; coordinating an adult ESL program in Arlington, Virginia; and training teachers and teacher trainers at a refugee camp for Southeast Asians in the Philippines.


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

Shank, C., & Terrill, L. (1995). "Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes." ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Series No. ED 383242) v

List of Electronic Resources used by Miriam Burt

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL