Volume VII - 2002-03

Mixed Level Language Class: An Unlikely Formula for Success
     by Dennis Sjolie

     Dr. Dennis Sjolie is Coordinator of ESL at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Both necessity and interest have led him to explore and develop the mixed-level ESL classroom. His research and conference presentations include work in language-teaching pedagogy and cross-cultural issues.

EDITOR 'S NOTE: In a carefully developed argument, Sjolie makes an almost startling observation concerning the advantages of mixing varying abilities in a single ESL class. The dynamic alternative he discusses puts into question the assumption that careful and uniform placement according to level is always required for ESL programs.

     The world is in the process of learning English. This simple fact becomes increasingly obvious as the “Age of Information ” reinvents itself as the “Age of Going Online,” and those wishing to communicate in cyberspace must do so in English. Braine (1993) informs us that the number of international students partaking in American higher education increases at a rate of approximately five percent annually. The 1997 edition of International Education's English Language and Orientation Programs in the U.S. (DeAngelis &Steen,1997) lists and describes more than 800 ESL programs offered to undergraduate and graduate non-native English speaking students at U.S. institutions of higher education. Crandall (1993) specifies how “the fastest-growing area of study in …community colleges is ESL ” (p.258), citing a 1992 study by Ignash, which reports eight community colleges offering 70 or more ESL sections. El Paso Community College alone reports 429 such sections. City College of San Francisco, with one of the largest ESL student populations in the country, strives to meet the needs of “20,000 non-credit and 5,000 credit ESL students ” (Non-Credit ESL Placement Test Procedure Manual,p.1). Similarly, Community College Week, in the August 21,2000, issue, reports a 2.6 increase of non-native English speaking students in Oregon community colleges, bringing “more than $169 million into Oregon 's economy during the 1998-99 school year in tuition, books, and living expenses …” (p1-2). Moreover, these numbers of students are not expected to decrease; not when considering that immigrants legally entering the U.S. annually number 400,000 —with again as many estimated entering illegally —according to Linse (1995). Moreover, these numbers do not reflect people coming to the U.S. for purposes of study alone. Bearing this in mind, Linse advises educators to “plan programs for their current ESL students with the realization that the numbers of ESL students is very likely to increase ” (p.45).

Who Are All These Students?

     Braine (1993) profiles the students defined and categorized by the term “ESL students ” as “both international and immigrant students, [and ] that for many, English could be a third or fourth language ” (p.4). Linse (1995)describes them as extremely different from previous populations of ESL students, in that they “come from a much wider variety of linguistic, educational, cultural, and political backgrounds than their predecessors ” (p.45). To this, Peck (1991) adds,“the same class many include students from 10 different countries …some who are illiterate in their native languages to some with Ph.D.'s …a doctor from Iran and a mechanic from Cuba ” (p.368).

     Given this vast array of students, teachers may understandably feel at a loss concerning exactly what to do once in the classroom. Here sits a graduate student in Computer Science from mainland China; next to her is a first-year student, the wife of an Education Ed.D. candidate from Taiwan; behind her is a young refugee from Sudan; just across from them is a third-year student, a member of an exchange program from a university in Germany. Don 't forget the former priest from Puerto Rico. Sometimes it seems that initially, as if for lack for anything better to do, teachers turn to assessment. What grand irony this is, considering the words of Hughes (1989).

     Many language teachers harbor a deep mistrust of tests and testers …(a) mistrust that is frequently well-founded (as) a great deal of language testing is of a very poor quality … too often (language tests) fail to measure accurately whatever it is they are intended to measure.(p.1) Yap (1993) and Curt &Keenan (1995) agree,affirming that the wide range of commercially available
assessment tools make it problematic —if not impossible —to reach any real level of consistent or adequate student assessment.

Assessment and More Assessment Nevertheless

     Despite serious questions concerning the validity of assessment, Waddy (1984)decrees, “once the student has completed the registration form, the next step is to get some indication of where that student should be placed ” (p.9). This is assessment as we all too often see it today —assessment as Yap defines: “for the purpose of sorting people into groups and predicting their future performance ” (p.3). But the word “assess,” coming from the Latin “assidere,” which literally means “sit beside,”(Weddel,1997), seems, in its origin, to imply more than the common practice of pigeonholing students into Level I, Level II, or Level III English language classes. Of course, we do have to assess incoming students. That is not the issue or argument here. Rather, the point is to question the ideology and practice that “assessment is needed to help insure proper placement of each student ” (Waddy, p.9), to screen out students whose language skills are considered too low for even a beginning level ESL class.

Examining the Perspective of the Learner

     Rather than “gatekeeping assessment,” let us turn our attention to assessment that serves students: needs assessment —collectively defined by Linse (1995), Weddel (1997), and Yap (1993) as assessment that examines the perspective of the learner. Such assessment takes into account the wants, needs, and expectations of the learner, essential information so instructors might, as Clahsen (1985) stresses, “tailor instruction to the learners ' requirements ” (p.283).Too often,educators and administrators oddly forget or overlook the fact that education is about teaching students —meeting the vital needs of students —not testing to see if students can meet the needs of instructors and administrators. In order to keep proper perspective and focus, educators must bear in mind one plain fact: learning that does not meet the present situation or past experiences of ESL students quickly becomes irrelevant to those students. Therefore, ESL curriculum must absolutely be purposeful and establish relevant goals (Weddel). Needs assessment, done through profiling individual students' backgrounds pertaining to education, culture, personal characteristics, likes, dislikes, skills, knowledge, and present language ability is the first step in building flexible, adaptive, non-stagnant curriculum. Such curriculum far exceeds the all-too-often fixed curriculum geared for Level I: student has little English ability; Level II: student has limited English communication ability; Level III: student needs wider range of vocabulary and greater reading proficiency.

How Needs Assessment Is Accomplished

     There are numerous approaches to needs assessment; nevertheless,the more approaches utilized, the more thoroughly instructors understand student needs. Weddel suggests teachers use survey questionnaires to gather information. McGrail & Schwarts (1993) advocate application of learner-compiled inventories of language and literacy use. Instructors may conduct student interviews either individually or in small groups. Initially, for beginning level students, instructors may find it essential to carry out much of the needs assessment in the students ' native languages. This is perfectly acceptable. Instructors who are not fluent in various student languages might ask more advanced students,former students, even colleagues, to assist with translation. In certain instances, the ESL students are already a class when the instructor first meets them. The opening discussion, in such situations, might be geared as much as possible to needs assessment. Who better than the students to define what curriculum they need and want? Information gleaned from the students might then be applied to program planning,curriculum development, and the gathering and arrangement of necessary materials. Several class periods might be used for conversation to “draw out ” the students as much as possible, making it easier for instructors to begin defining the wants and needs of the class.

     When conducting needs assessment and wrestling with the resulting curriculum development issues, teachers and instructors must remind themselves that not all ESL programs in higher education are programs belonging to City College of San Francisco, with 25,000 ESL students. So why try to emulate them? Many ESL students choose to avoid huge programs for the benefits and personal attention afforded at smaller colleges and universities. Many ESL programs throughout the Midwestern states serve the needs of 100 ESL students, or fewer. Likewise, Braine (1993) states that over half of the campuses in Alabama serve fewer than fifty ESL students. At certain institutions with small ESL programs,instructors lament how small student numbers limit the variety of class levels so desperately needed.

       Rather than bemoaning a desperate situation,these instructors ought to be recognizing a great opportunity. Here is the chance to question why ESL students must so often be “identified and placed in ESL [classes ] based on the native language(s) they speak ” (Linse,1995,p.47), or be placed according to test scores that have nothing to do with students ' personalities, experiences, or goals. Then, once students are placed, too frequently the aims of the respective “levels ” are primarily to advance students to the next level. But real language is more than levels. Real language teaching is more than language processing geared to any one specified level.

Mixed-Level Language Classes

     From the foregoing discussion, it is evident that re-examining discipline-specific approaches to ESL class structure begins immediately upon initial contact with students, with the methods of assessment utilized to prepare for instruction.In this re-examination, there are serious implications. Already we have noted the wide variety of ESL students comprising our ESL classes. Are we now to add to that wide variety of students a wide variety of student English language proficiencies as well? Indeed, we are. As Peck (1991) puts it: “ESL teachers are …jugglers,juggling the needs of an astonishing variety of students …[striving ] to identify and to meet, as far as possible, their differing needs ” (p.371). A musician might put this in slightly different terms: “It 's all in the mix.”

     Indeed, it is all in the mix! Similar to many language teachers, I initially failed to perceive the advantages to students in the widely mixed language level classroom. I, too, bemoaned the lack of adequate support, size,and structure to present a full-blown language program with possibilities of sorting students, pigeonholing students, and making students fit the curriculum. In the midst of my complaining, I gritted my teeth and entered the classroom. I entered the mix. Keep it simple, I thought, coming to coordinate a new ESL program at a small, private college in Iowa, coming from a state-of-the-art, long-since-perfected model language teaching center in Minneapolis and recently having written ESL curriculum professionally in Princeton, New Jersey, for that same language center 's curriculum and development headquarters. Keep it simple. Help the students learn to listen, speak, read, and write to the utmost of their ability —to the utmost of your ability. I indeed entered the mix!

     What a mix it was! There sat a middle-aged Jewish couple, refugees from what at that time was Soviet-controlled Uzbekistan ; two basketball players —semi-pro —from Panama; a young woman from Puerto Rico; three more young women —Chinese —from Taiwan; a young man and a young woman from Vietnam; a young woman —a former refugee —from Cambodia; and a young man from Yugoslavia. Their language skills were as broad and varied as their origins —total beginner to extremely advanced. But they would study together, in the same language class, each and every day. Immediately I understood that “keep it simple ” was not a sufficient plan. I must work to meet individual needs as much as humanly possible, through one-on-one tutoring ,through special, small-group projects, and through recruitment of volunteer help. I would develop a language center for self-directed learning projects with multi-media materials. I would require the more advanced students to serve as tutors and mentors for the less advanced students. I would focus on communication,insisting that all students communicate with one another at all times. Yet I would not fall into the trap that Linse (1995)warns of: “Too often, educators develop programs that help students develop only social language skills ” (p.50). Communication skills would come first, certainly, with a demand for social language skills; but the obvious underlying agenda would always be academic English. Many of the students needed “survival English ” first; yet, ultimately, their goal was to succeed academically, for their dreams included actively pursuing degree programs at the college level. Some of them already had degrees from universities in their native countries. We would do whatever student need demanded, for, as Linse continues: “When educators include and teach skills that ESL students need to participate in the local community, they are making it possible for students to reach their potential both inside and outside the classroom …”(p.51).

The Risk-Taking Classroom

     Waddy (1984)affirms that, “good teachers have a wonderful knack for daydreaming ” (p.11). But all too often, the marvelous ideas that teachers have never get tried in their classrooms. Perhaps the ideas are too soon forgotten, or perhaps the level of instruction is not quite suited to the idea .I did not have that problem with my first mixed-level classroom .I soon realized our situation allowed the class to do whatever we wished,so long as the outcome was communication. Periodically, in Minneapolis, I had worked with students who complained of the pointlessness of their highly structured, same-level ESL classes at the various institutions of higher education they attended. Scarcella, Andersen &Krashen (1990), referring to a 1975 paper “Group Work and Communicative Competence in the ESOL Classroom ” by Long, list the typical obstacles that undermine the more traditional, discipline specific approach to ESL:

The language used in traditional textbook exercises is often unconnected discourse.Students
have little opportunity to speak; in a class of 30,Long points out,“while oral work is in progress, 29 …students will be ?unemployed.'”Teacher —student interaction is often restricted to basic patterns,such as the “teacher stimulus —student response —teacher response ” type..The truth value of what students say is unimportant in classroom exchanges; only the grammatical and phonological accuracy of student speech is attended to.(p.282)

Cultural Awareness and Communication

     There was certainly no reason to allow such obstacles to undermine any possible chance of success in our classroom. The very idea of bringing a diverse group of individuals together in a single class was a risk; therefore, I determined early this classroom would indeed be a “risk-taking ” classroom. It would be the very sort of classroom Galloway (1987)defines: “The risk-taking classroom stretches and challenges performance without overwhelming, through a climate of low anxiety and high motivation ” (p.62). The risk-taking classroom, Galloway specifies, replaces the typical pattern drill with spontaneous interaction; the conditioned response with the creative response; a lack of urgency with the desire to communicate; error avoidance with guessing and trial and error; modeled speech with natural redundancy; predetermined meaning with negotiated meaning. Likewise, such a classroom replaces cultural isolation with cultural awareness. Of course, I did not know all of this at the time. I only knew my students wanted desperately to communicate, and I, equally as desperately, wanted them to communicate.

Risk Is Challenge

     It did not take long before I realized that something dynamic was occurring in this widely mixed classroom. These students faced a challenge often lacking in same-level classes —they all had to reach beyond their individual levels to communicate with one another. That was a fact perhaps even more important than their ability to communicate with me. In their struggles to communicate and make meaning, their reach had to extend far, far beyond their grasp. This was true even for the top-level students, those who now had to serve as guides and part-time mentors for the lower level students. It is during such times, when the reach of students must extend their grasp, that the most exciting, the most vital, the most real language learning occurs. This is precisely the point to which Pica &Doughty (1985)refer when they say:

In a small body of research,it has been shown that when nonnative speakers engage in genuine communication with each other,as opposed to a native speaker interlocutor,they appear to experience a greater degree of involvement in their negotiation for message meaning (Varonis & Gass,1985).Furthermore,when students engage independently in group discussion,they have been shown to use their second language for a wider range of rhetorical purposes than in discussion led by their teacher (Long, Adams, McLean & Castanos, 1976, p.115).

     I frequently recall a young Japanese student in Minneapolis who once said to me, “In my ESL class, I only get to speak once or twice a week.” Not so in the mixed--level ESL classroom! Here,students are required to participate in continuous, on-going dialogues: dialogues with one another in pairs and in small groups; dialogues with instructors; self-dialogues, and more. Dialogues in pairs and in small groups might include discussions from readings, discussions of beliefs or opinions,discussions in preparation for and enactment of role-play situations, discussions pertaining to grammatical concerns, even formal discussions in the form of interviews or panel presentations. Dialogues with instructors might include personal tutoring, discussion of writing exercises such as letters, response papers, dialogue “e-journals,” even formal research work. Self-dialogues might include informal as well as formal speeches and presentations. In all of this, students remain motivated, for they wish to remain a vital part of the group, to communicate fully in order to partake in what is going on in class —the jokes as well as the serious curriculum.

     As in all ESL course work,the areas of primary concern in the mixed-level ESL classroom remain listening, speaking, reading, and writing —together with the more recently emerging concern of culture. Moore (1994) reminds us, “Some language experts are convinced that language cannot be separated from culture ” (p.617), and a host of other language-teaching theorists agree. This message holds especially true in the mixed-level ESL classroom, where it is vital that each area of primary concern be based upon topics of interest and accessibility to each student; where each student studies topics emerging from dialogues that are timely and essential, pertaining to students' personal experiences, interests, goals, lives, and cultures. Important, too, is the fact that these topics, ever-emerging from on-going dialogues, not be limited to the classroom. Rather, study topics may be derived from movies, restaurants, concerts, and formal as well as informal field trips. In this sense, visits to museums and historical sites are no more important than picnics, boating, and water skiing.

     As mentioned above, peer tutoring and mentoring is essential to the success of the mixed-level ESL classroom. By becoming tutors and mentors, the more advanced students refine, expand, and reinforce their knowledge of English, while fostering the communication skills of the less advanced students who now have a greater array of “models ” for language acquisition. In this approach we are implementing a factor that Mir-Djalali (1993) hails as imperative:

Language learning as a human activity needs to be interactive,involving the give and take of natural discussions and positioning the learner in a communicative mode that will create the
energy and enthusiasm necessary to generate interactive sentences.The focus should be directed toward solving a communication problem,rather than toward conscious classroom performance (p.163).

The Wish to Establish Relationships

     A key factor at work in the mixed-level classroom is that students are genuinely interested in learning about one another. That is where cultural aspects of varied individual backgrounds come strongly into focus. Students want to communicate with one another to learn about their peers' interests, experiences, knowledge, and future goals. They want to build friendships. They want to share information about their cultures respectively, and learn about the cultural behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of their classmates. They want to share a wide variety of new experiences together. They want to be a vital part of “the mix.”

     The members of my first mixed-level ESL classroom at that small college in Iowa did very fine. They did all the above-mentioned experiments and exercises —and even more. Most importantly, they all learned English. Most of them became fine students. Several of them went on to complete graduate work —one even attaining an M.A.degree in English from the University of Iowa. Since those days, I have moved on to coordinate a larger ESL program and have worked as a consultant for establishing English language study programs both in the U.S.and abroad. I have taught in same-level classrooms as well as in mixed-level classrooms. But the mixed-level classroom is always the most challenging, the most exciting, the most heartwrenching, and ultimately, beyond all doubt, the most fun.

     What are the language learning results of mixed-level ESL classes? The results are increased language skills for students of all levels, total beginner to high advanced. As an example, TOEFL scores from a pre-33 test/post-test TOEFL exam given to a mixed-level class during our six-week Summer Intensive ESL Program at the University of South Dakota, Summer of 1998, indicate the language growth of three sample students: one beginner, one intermediate, one advanced. The scores are as follow: 320 to 403; 493 to 560; 580 to 616. Such sample scores speak for themselves. I have rarely observed such improved scores among students in same-level classes that I have taught for similar lengths of time.

     Certainly, much more research needs to be conducted regarding language-skill improvement in the mixed-level ESL classroom. I make no claim but to begin scratching the surface of this area. Nevertheless, from what I have observed, it is clear to me that real language learning is accomplished through interaction and real language use. Again, from what I have observed, the greatest interaction and real language use occurs in the mixed-level ESL classroom, a classroom where students work together, mentor one another, discuss and listen to and read about and write about matters on concern to them. In doing this, they realize goals they have established for themselves, goals frequently developed together with their peers. Here they are not pigeonholed, not made to fit a curriculum predetermined for them. Here, they are indeed living the language, and the language is living through them. Here, they are “the mix ”—each and every one of them adding an important element to the whole that we create as we progress and learn from one another.


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