One of those things every language teacher has to learn to deal with is the broad ability range in any given class. No matter how homogeneously (single-leveled) the class has been put together, there are always students who are far ahead of the group, and a number of learners who are far behind. That’s just the way of things, it seems. The trick is to keep every learner actively involved at his own level.
There are a number of things a teacher can do to help each learner unlock his own potential. The first step, of course, is to create an overview of where the learners currently are, and where you’d like them to go next. I described this process in an earlier blog (ESL and the long-term plan).
In this blog entry, I will continue along this path and work out an idea to allow children of different ability levels to work together in a meaningful way. But first, a side trip along Inspiration Lane…
Years ago, I came across a site called raz-kids.com. I’ve written a blog about that as well (Raz-kids review) in the past, in which my enthusiasm for this site is clear enough. However, what I didn’t mention about this site was that it also allows for children of different ability levels to work together, using plays from their Readers Theater.
In this script, children are assigned roles based on their ability level. The levels differ in vocabulary use, length of sentences, and how often that character has to speak.
I began to wonder if it was possible to achieve the same result, but with a bit more freedom. I came up with a simple solution. What would happen, I wondered, if we took the concept of different ability roles and mixed it with what we know about functions and notions?
We already know that functions are descriptions of things one can do with a language. For instance, describe your pet, talk about your hobby, or list ten things you like about your job are all examples of functions.
We also know that notions are examples of how to fulfil those functions. For instance, “My dog is big and brown,” is a notion that fulfils the function “describe your pet.”
Not only that, but there are fixed notions and variable notions. In the example below, the words “This is a ….” is the fixed notion, because it doesn’t change. The words chair, table, pencil, book, and teacher can vary, so they are variable notions.
But enough review. Time to make the step from theory to practice: differentiating the dialogues.
In practice, Beginning learners need more support, so it’s generally a good idea to let them work with dialogues using fixed notions.
Intermediate learners still need some support, but they’re also able to make some choices. It’s a good idea to let them work with dialogues using variable notions.
Advanced learners don’t need much support, but in order to have them work together with other learners, they can use dialogue cards with functions on them.
Working out this idea a bit further, I designed dialogue cards that reflect these three levels. The blue card is for the beginning learner, and contains a fixed notion dialogue. The yellow card is for the intermediate learner and has space for variable notions. The advanced learners get the red card, and these dialogues are built of functions that are parallel to the fixed notions on the blue card. The roles, A and B, remain the same for each card, so that roles are interchangeable.
Here is a simple example to illustrate this:
No matter what color card a learner has, he or she can participate in a meaningful conversation with any other person in the class. It’s important to note that when a learner indicates that his card is too easy or too difficult, he should be allowed to trade colors. It’s important to realize that no child wants to be bored, and to give them space to decide for themselves what level he or she feels comfortable with. Also, when you start a new topic, they may all need to start at beginner’s level, as they are dealing with new vocabulary and grammar. Once they catch on, they may move on to the more difficult levels in the dialogue cards.
Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to experiment with the dialogues in your own lessons. And – I hope to hear about your successful experiences!