By María de la Lama
In schools, the group composition for teaching English poses the dilemma of whether to have multilevel classes or group students according to their knowledge of English.
Some of the reasons why schools may resist the idea of convening students according to their knowledge of English, which may imply mixing students from different school grades, are the following:
- More English teachers would be needed since English classes would be taught simultaneously, probably to a larger number of groups. In addition, organizing students in groups according to their English proficiency will make it difficult to structure the school's class schedule.
- In a heterogeneous group, usually made up of students of the same grade, all students in the class have a unique learning goal despite the individual differences that exist between students with respect to their English proficiency. Therefore, you may find cases in which a student who has a level of Elementary English must reach the Intermediate level at the end of the academic year.
- It is presumed that in multilevel groups strong students can help weak ones and that weak students will be motivated to work harder than the rest. The formation of pairs in which one of the students has strong skills in English is considered a suitable way to deal with heterogeneous classes.
- Usually in a multilevel distribution of students, schools establish a specific objective that must be achieved in terms of international exams according to the grade. Therefore, a curricular objective such as "at the end of fourth grade students must pass an international B1 exam" is frequently seen.
- Although multilevel groups are usually larger than homogenous ones, it is expected that class participation will not be affected since communicative activities can always be carried out.
But are these arguments solid enough not to promote the formation of groups according to students’ English proficiency?
- The number of teachers required has to be proportional to the number of groups into which students will be divided. Often, schools improve the results of their English program grouping only into three levels: Elementary, Pre-Intermediate and Intermediate groups.
- As with any other subject, not all the students have the same skills for learning mathematics, history or foreign languages. If mastering a foreign language is the ultimate goal, students need to be grouped in homogeneous classes aimed to reach feasible objectives. Thus, students with an Elementary level can reach a solid Pre-Intermediate at the end of the year while students with a better command of the language can achieve a more advanced level. When students are kept in a multilevel system there is a risk that the students with lower levels of proficiency may not be able to succeed in the course.
- Conducting activities in pairs where a student with strong linguistic skills gets to work with a partner whose skills are not that good should not be done frequently since the weaker student may feel overwhelmed while the other one may consider the activity a waste of time with little or no chance of improvement.
Most of the time, adopting a multilevel system to compose groups in schools responds to administrative reasons. However, maximizing opportunities for effective English learning should be a priority and a very valuable investment rather than an administrative issue.
DE LA LAMA, MARIA, Bachelor in Education, has a master's degree in Applied Linguistics and a Bachelor's in Linguistics, both obtained at the University of California, Davis. She also holds an MBA from Universidad del Pacífico. She currently serves as the Director of the Language Center at Universidad del Pacífico.