While not all ESL classes are the same, you will likely have one where it is a struggle to teach due to excessive talking. Like a round of Whack-a-Mole, as soon as you stop the lesson, redirect the talkers, and begin again, another group of students starts up. This can be super frustrating, and if you are a teacher who likes total control, aggravation may become the rule of the day. By grouping your students according to proficiency and then providing differentiated instruction, you can preempt such situations.
Both practices can work within the larger TESOL framework and not only enhance student learning but also make big classes easier to manage. For example, following the P-P-P model, you’d build your lesson around the same theme or concept and then open with a short, engaging presentation to grab your students’ attention. However, once you’ve got that attention, don’t lose it by launching into lengthy instruction. Quickly segue into group-oriented practice and production tasks, differentiated according to each group’s level.
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Tailored Instruction – Grouping by Proficiency
Trying to give whole-class instruction to a bunch of really chatty students typically leads to a lot of stopping, scolding, and repeating. Grouping students by proficiency allows you to provide instruction that’s tailored to their language learning needs. It sounds time consuming, but consider the alternative. You address the whole class but then only some are listening—how many times will you repeat yourself for those who weren’t listening or didn’t understand?
You can manage this by setting your most proficient students to task first, which allows you to spend a little more time with the least proficient ones. If these students are better behaved, then give them their instructions in writing, either on the board, in a handout, or direct to a tablet. Then they can start working immediately. Just ensure that the instructions are level-appropriate to minimize the need for clarification. Also, be sure to assign a greater volume of work; otherwise, these students may finish quicker and need to be kept busy while the rest of the class completes their work. If, for example, the task is crafting sentences, give the most proficient the largest bank of target language, have them generate more sentences, and make the work more critically and creatively challenging. If they do finish ahead of the rest, have easy self-access tasks available and train them on how to extend their own language learning.
Once you’ve provided the most proficient group(s) their assignment, then move on to the less proficient groups and set them to task. You should seat the least proficient students in the front of the class or nearest your desk as they are more apt to disengage if further from the action. This may also make it easier to provide support depending on where you station yourself in the room. Whatever written directions are provided should be carefully calculated to their level to encourage independence without taxing them too much. And remember to differentiate the work—you want the least proficient to grasp the core linguistic concept and demonstrate mastery of relevant functions and exponents appropriate to their level.
With sufficient planning, grouping and differentiating by level can actually save you time, get better results, and sidestep a lot of unnecessary headaches down the line. This is especially true for those teaching larger, mixed-ability classes—how well you differentiate for and group your students can have a significant impact on classroom management.