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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue C ::: September 1997

Multilevel Literacy Planning and Practice

by Cathy Shank and Lynda Terrill
As ESOL practitioners in intensive, non-intensive, family literacy, and workplace classes, we have found that literacy classes are invigorating places where both teachers and learners benefit and grow. We have also found that as ESOL teachers plan and build literacy classes, they need to acquire a great "tolerance of ambiguity," since the literacy classroom is not a neat, simple, or static place.

Teachers need to understand that the multilevel nature of a literacy class is intrinsically advantageous to the class dynamics, that many techniques, activities, and materials are successful in such classes, and that adapting and changing plans can and should happen every day in response to the complex needs of the learners.

We would like to first describe the workings of one multilevel literacy class and then share some general planning and management strategies, as well as classroom activities and techniques which we have found successful.

Multilevel Class

This spring, after having taught advanced ESOL classes for three and a half years, I - Lynda Terrill - went back to teaching literacy-level learners. From April to June, I taught an intensive class, and a non-intensive family literacy class. Although I had taught adult basic education (ABE) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) literacy many times before, when I began my class in April, I was immediately reminded about how much planning and adapting it takes to successfully teach a literacy group.

In my class of 24 people, I had women and men from 19 countries who spoke ten languages. The students ages ranged from 20 to 64 and their education levels ranged from none to 16 years. A few of the students began class upon arrival in the U.S., while two of the students have been here for 17 years. The class included a homeless woman, an engineer, a few people interested in the citizenship test, and at least three people who spoke three or four languages fluently. I mention these facts not because they are startling, but because they are typical. Very different people end up in a literacy class.

This diversity pressed me to plan and adapt daily. I had to try to foster an atmosphere where diversity, change, and ambiguity were accepted and expected. This class was successful because the learners learned to work together well, express their needs, and also because we all learned to be flexible.

At the beginning of the quarter, I needed to reacquaint myself with the old reliables of literacy as well as become familiar with new materials. My program, the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP), is lucky to have an extensive library which includes many class sets available for student use. I needed to dig up some of my manipulatives, borrow from colleagues, and make new ones. I never felt that I had enough planning time, but that is typical, too. Actually, after the class and I got acquainted, it was the students themselves who chose the lessons, by their responses to various topics and activities.

Getting Acquainted

I have found that the more learners know each other and begin to build a community in the classroom, the more con dent and successful they are in their language learning. So, in the first days of class I tried many ice-breaking activities related to personal identification: exchanging name cards, conversation grids, throw-the-ball-ask-questions, alphabet letter musical chairs, bingo, circle and line dialogues, and more.

For example, circle dialogues gave everyone a chance to be physically together in a group. I began by modeling a new or review question and its answer. I asked the question to the student to my left. That student answered me then asked the question to the next student. All could listen to the exchanges many times, while only having to be in the spotlight once. Hearing the exchanges plus the peer corrections and suggestions help students build confidence.

In the line dialogues students became more independent and interactive; probably because I was not listening to all the exchanges. I asked the students - mostly through gesture and example - to form two lines facing each other. One half remained stationary and asked questions while their counterparts moved in circular sequence from question to question. This wonderful confusion of practice, socializing, and laughing liberated the students from preconceived notions of school while helping them to make friends.

Setting Realistic Goals

We also did some needs assessment beginning in the first days of class and we continued informally throughout the entire session. I knew that when I tried to ask students which English skill was most important for them - reading, writing, speaking, or listening - they would say everything. I agreed with that, but I tried to explain that they couldn't learn everything in only 12 weeks so I needed an idea of what was most important. I tried to elicit situations and places where the students might need English, such as getting a job or going to the doctor. I illustrated and labeled each skill and posted one skill in each corner of the room. I asked the students to stand by the skill that was most important to them. Of course, many students were confused, but through repetition, demonstration, and having learners help each other in their native languages, the instructions were finally understood. As students were still standing in their chosen corners, I wrote their names on the appropriate skill choice and left them posted for the rest of the quarter.

That activity helped prepare students for the more complicated task of choosing which topics to study. I had illustrations of possible topics - such as housing and health - which the students and I discussed until many people understood the choices. Next, I gave students a handout that pictured all the choices and I asked them to circle the ve most important topics. Some students circled words and some circled pictures. Students helped each other with the task as I circulated demonstrating and explaining.

The next day, on a transparency, I presented a tally of the topics that had been marked, and the class and I counted together to and out which topics had been chosen. Many students found the entire task challenging both because of unfamiliarity with the concept of needs assessment and because of difficulties in understanding and expressing themselves in English. But everyone ultimately understood the inherent fairness of this group process. The process itself served to forge a strong class bond while showing students that their voices were heard.

All these activities - both ice-breaking and needs assessment - worked in three ways: they helped students to get to know each other and feel comfortable with each other and with me; they helped students to understand that there would be may activities in class, not all of which they would fully understand; and they gave me many chances to assess a variety of skills, ideas, and feeling for each student.

Daily Work

Every day I used a traditional device - copying from the board - to socialize, review old work and present new work, to expand and contract subject matter, assess individual students and groups, and to ne-tune the lesson plan for the rest of that class day. I began the quarter writing the date, my name, and the quintessential literacy question, What s your name? and its answer, My name is..." on the board.

On the first day of class this writing performed many duties: it comforted non-literate students by letting them know that this would be a real class, it gave some more advanced students something to read which included grammar points such as possessives and contractions, it gave an initial focal point to take all of our minds off being nervous, and it gave me a handy snapshot of individuals literacy skills.

Throughout the class, one of the students, Ibrahim, chose to come to class a half hour early every morning to begin his copying. Ibrahim clearly had special learning needs which were too complex for me to deal with successfully. However, he learned to copy much more confidently than before and plans on continuing his studies.

Leonid, the Russian engineer who refused to move to a more advanced class, came in early, too. Since the board work was easy for Leonid, he finished 15 minutes before the other students. To adapt for Leonid, I spent time chatting with him, presenting puzzles, word scrambles, collections of realia and their matching words, grammar or writing sheets related to the topic at hand, or writing new things on the board. With the help of a bilingual dictionary, we had discussions related to our class topics, from how to make borscht to the exchange rate between rubles and dollars. As luck would have it, Leonid sat near others who wanted to try to discuss some of the same things. As other students finished, they would join the conversation, start their own conversations, ask for the puzzles or papers, or practice reading and pronouncing what they had written

As I circled the room listening to individuals read what they had written, I was under no illusion that they could all read everything. Some students had memorized the sentences. Sometimes, I needed to read and let the students repeat. It made no difference because it was the one-on-one attention that was important for building students confidence while they practiced.

The copying process evolved all the time. After a few days, those who were comfortable with the reading and the writing were able to ad lib appropriate comments on two blank lines such as Hi, good, morning, how are you? Today is Tuesday, April 8, 1997. The others copied only the words that were actually written. As the class evolved and those students felt more able, they begin to ll the lines by asking questions about the date and spelling so that they could write independently, too. I noticed students helping each other informally or talking about something else. Language that arose from student conversations would make its way to the board. The writing was an anchor that all clung to wherever they could hold on.

Community Building Pays Off

I presented the students with their first conversation grid the second day of class. Throughout the 12 weeks, all students were able to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing with this tool. When the class practiced personal information questions such as, What is your last name?" students answered many ways. Some copied from classmates name cards, some said, "Spell it, please" and wrote down the information. Some questioners required the informants to write their names on the grid, some copied a completed form from someone else. Some wrote Martinez, others wrote "My last name is Martinez," and a few wrote "Her last name is Martinez. "

Some students worried that they did not understand the assignment or did not have the ability to finish it. They could see that some people filled in the grid differently. At this point, the foundation of classroom community building and needs assessment helped assuage student fears. I explained, with words and gestures, again and again, how small answers or big answers both could be correct.

Although some students were confused as we first worked on the grids, all were able to communicate, negotiate, practice, and be successful. In fact, the students seemed to view the multilevel nature of the class a positive element in this activity, just as I did.

Managing and Planning

Learners who find their way to the ESLO literacy classroom are a diverse group: their abilities, needs, and desires vary as much as their languages, cultures, and personalities. Managing the classroom is easier when the teacher knows what students want. Of course, learners in the same class may want to study different things. Knowing what they want can help a teacher to plan groupings: who needs more writing, who just wants to talk, who is willing to help, and who needs to be quiet.

Using many types of activities makes it possible for the teacher to address not only the multilevel nature of a class but the learning styles of the individual class members. We have found that such activities as Language Experience Approach (LEA) stories, manipulatives, conversation grids, and listening activities, engender confidence as well as independent language production. Teachers who are familiar with such techniques can prepare lessons without undue time and anxiety.

To be successful in teaching multilevel groups, we think it is important to plan a variety of flexible and interrelated activities and to always have more than enough on hand. Materials or activities that you prepare can always be set aside for use at another time or with another group. Some of our favorite resources and texts are included in the Blackboard.

Beginning with the assumption that no single textbook will offer all the materials and exercises that a multilevel class will need frees teachers to work with learners to create activities that are appropriate and necessary. As teachers listen to the voices of their learners, they can find directions for where the class should go. Once learners and teachers know and respect each other, multilevel activities are the natural, easily adaptive tools to use, so that all can learn together.

About the Authors

Cathy Shank, Special Projects Coordinator for the West Virginia ABE Staff Development Office, has worked in ESOL and ABE programs for the last 12 years as a teacher and as an administrator. With a special interest in literacy level and learning disabled adults, she has taught in classrooms and multi-media learning centers as well as provided teacher training to adult educators. She is the author of Heinle and Heinle's Collaborations Assessment Program.

Lynda Terrill teaches all levels of adult ESOL, and family and workplace literacy at the Arlington Education and Employment Program in Arlington, Virginia. She also taught ABE and GED with the Skills Enhancement Training (S.E.T.) program of the Local #32 of the Food and Beverage Workers Union in Washington, D.C. She is also an author of books in Heinle and Heinle s Collaborations series.

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