Even though all the ELLs in a class could be the same age, have the same native language, or test into the same proficiency level, English language instructors will always have variation in the classroom. There will always be differences in how students learn, how they think, and how they respond to instruction. This can be a huge challenge to lesson planning and meeting the needs of every learner in the classroom.
There can also be great advantages and benefits to having so much variation in the classroom. One of the tricks in making a classroom full of variation manageable and even fruitful is intentional grouping. There can be so many ways to group learners depending on the activity. Although I do group learners every class by their tested proficiency levels for at least forty percent of the class, I always start off with a fun, multi-level game or icebreaker at the beginning of class. We have a gallery walk describing famous paintings, or pairs work on asking basic questions to each other, which dig into getting to know each other deeper such as “What condiment would you be? Why?”
With these games or activities, learners are grouped in pairs or small groups across proficiency levels. Learners at “lower levels” often find themselves speaking more than their “higher level” partner or find that they might know more vocabulary words. This is such a huge motivation to learners who feel like this “low” proficiency has been branded on them.
Often times during these activities, our high level learners can really act as great teachers to their partners sharing a new word or explaining how to say or write something. As all instructors know, the best way to really learn something is by teaching it to someone else. It is great to see these learners stepping up to assist their partners and building confidence. Learners at all levels start to see that the level they were labeled with does not always truly define who they are.
We live in a world of diversity and variation. The more we show our learners that they can be both learners and teachers and that their community around them is full of teachers and fellow learners, the more we will have learners who have the tools to keep learning beyond the classroom.