Language Educators

1.  Managing multi-levels in FL classroom

Posted 04-15-2013 09:54


I'm requesting ideas as to how to deal with students taking foreign language for the first time in the class with students who may be on their 3rd or 4th year.  This seems to particularly happen in Elementary.
  Inevitably, the class is split in their degree of exposure to the target language, and we end up teaching to the lowest common denominator.  This means that more advanced students barely get past the basics and have copious review each year.  Due to vast age differences and schedules, we cannot teach by mastery level.
How can we utilize the more advanced students' expertise and challenge them, while teaching the less experienced or novice student?

Thank you for your ideas!
Kerry Fautsch

Department Head, Foreign Languages
Logos Preparatory Academy

2.  RE:Managing multi-levels in FL classroom

Posted 04-16-2013 09:31

I've experienced a similar situation.  Among 7 of us teaching Spanish, 2 of us stressed proficiency and student engagement in pairs using the target language.  So, we had two types of students coming into our classes at the beginning of a new school year.  One group that could "speak" Spanish and interact extemporaneously with any partner in the class.  The other group that was used to doing "work sheets," "work packets," "projects," and "memorized presentations or dialogues either by themselves or with another "memorized partner."

In addition to lots of pair work where the students would get up and move around the room to work with a different partner various times during the class period, I changed our seating charts monthly.  Students could work with their side by side partner.  Students could either turn around and work with the partner behind him or her.  

Using the seating chart, I would pair the students in a high/low grouping.  Students sat at individual desks and I had the desk in quads.  The monthly partners beside each other were high/low.  If you were a higher, more proficient student, the partner behind you was a lower skilled student.  If you were the lower proficient student, the higher student was either your side by side partner for the month, or the student either in front or behind you was also a higher proficiency student.  

I used lots of "rich visuals" to stimulate conversation and application of the vocab, grammar, themes, syntax being taught.  In some text books, there are excellent communicative exercises, too, which the teacher can have the students do orally in pairs.  Students would "interpret" the visuals and engage in "interactive" practice.  After you pull them back into large group for assessment and accountability, you would call upon students to "present" what they could now do.  (Interpretive-Interactive-Presentational modes)

I have a set of 3x5 index cards (different colors for different classes).  Each student has his/her name on a card.  When it was time to get the kids up to work with different partners elsewhere in the room, I would pair group them using my cards.  Sometimes high/low.  Sometimes, just the luck of the draw.  

Within a month, the lower proficiency kids had raised their speaking levels.  The stronger kids helped the weaker ones orient themselves to the "new way" of learning.  "He who teaches learns twice."

Remember!  Some of your students who have had "work sheet, memorized dialogue day" teachers are also very bright.  They immediately see what they were missing and want to catch up and do so.  

Now and then, you can pair the kids with their level functioning peers, too, by using the index cards.  

[Are you familiar with Lev Vygotsky and his ZPD...  Zone of Proximal Development?  If not, "google" him and read about his work.]

Whether you're speaking your native English or a foreign language, you meet other speakers of all sorts of backgrounds and abilities.  We grow as people when we interact with others who are similar to us and different from us.

I think this technique/method will help you combine the two groups.  

As the year progressed, I had the computer arrange students based on their academic standing in the Spanish class on the integrated computer generated seating chart.  It's a great way to use your informal and formal feedback and assessments to adjust the opportunities for learning and the growth of your students.  

Perhaps you can use the materials that you have at hand--and with the technique described above--see that your students have more success as the integrate their knowledge and skills.  It's all very low tech, but works.

Best wishes to all.  I'm sure you'll get all sorts of great ideas from our colleagues at this site.

Robert L. "Bobby" Oliver

3.  RE:Managing multi-levels in FL classroom

Posted 09-14-2013 16:32
I am having a similar problem in an ASL 101 class where they are all in the same level course but are not all learning at the same level (which, of course, no class of students ever does). This is my first time teaching a foreign language. Part of the curriculum in the textbook we use, Signing Naturally, is to watch the Deaf language models engaging in a dialogue on a DVD, read the corresponding pages in the textbook, and practice engaging in the same dialog in class. I have had the same experience twice: I put students in groups of three based on their proximity to each other in class, and instructed them to engage in the dialogue they had been exposed to, changing the particulars according to their own personal answers (e.g., "A: Did you learn French in HS? B: Yes, I learned French in HS, or, No, I learned Spanish in HS.) Two out of the three students in one group spent time teaching the vocabulary to the third student who didn't have the basics to engage in the dialogue; meanwhile, the students who might have been able to practice the dialogue and benefit from the practice did not get to do it. In each situation, I approached the table and instructed the two "prepared" or "ready" students to engage in the dialogue and their third "unprepared" or "not ready" student observe. I don't know whether this was the right thing to do. In the case of one student, I believe it was, because I learned from talking to that student after class that they had not even bought the book and DVD, and this was four weeks into the course. The unprepared student in the other group told me she had watched the DVD and read the book, and was struggling to catch on. I spoke with this student about particular signs and mnemonics for remembering them, and I suggested she make up her own mnemonics if mine didn't work for her. She said they did, and she thanked me. I suggested she copy the signs of the signers on the DVD while watching the DVD and then practice signing the signs for the pictures in the book (the book uses pictures so as not to intrude upon ASL with English). I have yet to follow up with this student since I spoke to them last week.

I am looking for suggestions on what to do when one student in a group holds the group back from engaging in dialogue because they don't have the vocabulary.

While we are on the subject, I am also looking for suggestions on what to do with students who don't understand me when I engage them in dialogues they should have learned from the DVD and book as assigned before class. At first, I spent a lot of time with them trying to explain the basics and get them on track; then I noticed the rest of the class was getting bored and frustrated with these students who were unprepared for class. My next tack was to cease dialogues with students who could not respond and move on to other students who could. I came back to these students after engaging other students in the same dialogues (in "display" fashion). In some cases, I came back to the unprepared students after engaging in the same dialogue with other students, and they caught on. In other cases, they still looked at me like they didn't understand, and they did not respond. What to do?

Thanks in advance for any advice.


Daniel Greene

4.  RE:Managing multi-levels in FL classroom

Posted 09-15-2013 16:29


A few things....

1. You're teaching at a community college, right?  

    In public schools K-12, most students are given free use of a textbook which they return at the end of the year; so, there's no excuse for not having a textbook at the K-12 level.  You and your students are in a different situation. 

    Does your department/college mandate or require that students buy the textbook, workbook, etc.? 

    That's a big difference between K-12 and post-secondary institutions.  In that situation, I think I would stress the importance of having access to a textbook as soon as possible.  It seems obvious to me, but -having taught part time at a community college myself- you have to be very concrete with some students at the 101 level, especially the younger ones right out of high school or with the students who weren't stellar students in their earlier years and need more direction regarding post-secondary expectations.

    Are the DVDs part of the textbook package that the students buys, or are they available in a lab, "Blackboard", or online at your or the department's website?

2. Regarding grouping.  I would not use groups of three.  The students in a group of three are not as engaged as they are in a group of two.  The only time I use a group of three is if I have an "extra" student left over, and that student needs to be put into a group of three only as a last resort.  Also, don't sit down and be that extra student's partner as you need to be floating around the room checking on student progress and reinforcing student accountability.  This gives you feedback as the instructor regarding your pacing of instruction and how you need to adjust your teaching.

3. I know most college professors do NOT do this, BUT.... do a monthly seating chart for your ASL classes.  Group them in pairs with a high and a low proficiency student in each pair.  It doesn't have to be monthly... it can be every 3 or 4 weeks.  Watch their various levels of proficiency.  I've been a volunteer sign language interpreter using PSE (Pidgin Sign Language) in the past.  My expressive skills are quite good with PSE, but my receptive skills are rather lousy.  I can communicate well with a Deaf person who signs and voices a little and who knows how to communicate with a hearing person like me who uses PSE.  SO....   As you are floating around the room, watch for expressive and receptive proficiency.  That will help you with your "monthly" heterogeneous seating chart.

4. Are you giving some sort of classroom Class Participation & Home Work grade in your syllabus?  Let me see if I can attach the forms that I have used in ESL and Latin classes.  Please edit them to fit your needs and your students' needs for the ASL classroom.  (I also have them in Spanish, French, German and Chinese. If you want to see any of those, let me know and I'll send them to you.)  Have your students fill out these forms weekly.  Make yourself several copies of your monthly seating chart for recording your observations week by week.  Again, edit/revise my documents to fit your and the students' needs.

5. In an earlier posting, I mentioned having a set of 3x5 index cards, each card having a student's name on it.  During the class period, after the students have done some partner work with their high/low partner, use your index cards to "deal out" different partners.  That is.... the students will get up and move to work with a different partner.  It is here that you can mix and match higher achieving students together.  Or just follow the luck of the draw of the cards.  Also, on these cards, you can make some notes about expressive and receptive proficiency using some sort of code.  That will help you in grouping the students for these impromptu pairings.  Or.... After the students enter class, sit down, and the tardy bell rings.....  you could do some high/high and low/low pairing....then have them return to their seats and work with a high/low partner.  It's your call as the teacher.

6. If you don't mind, go back and read my earlier posting about grouping, using index cards.....etc.  Also, see if you can find "rich" visuals or line drawings of the Deaf interacting in real world situations with both the Deaf/HI and "hearing" people.  Put a visual up on the screen....   Ask for "signs."  Students will raise their hands and give you signs.  You repeat their sign back to them...correct any miss-signing and give them a quick "great" or "good."   Collect signs from several in the class.  Get the pairs to practice the signs for 30 seconds or a minute.  Then ask for a complete signed sentence about the visual.  Of course the signers must get up and sign to the room using proper Deaf etiquette for doing so.  After a few volunteers... and your "dignifying" their signed sentences by signing back to them.... Get them to practice in pairs.  Then ask for question signs...  Then have them get in pairs taking turns signing questions and answers to each other.

7. After they've worked with all of this vocabulary-expressively and receptively-bring out the DVDs. 

8. Of course, you will want to float around during all of this noting what needs to be discussed, added, corrected....etc....

9. You will want to do some "checks for understanding," too.  When it comes to practicing dialogs, use your deck of cards and have them practice with different partners in the room.  They will improve practicing with each other and rehearsing with different people as well as signing with different people and "reading signs" off of different people.

10. When it's time to assess the dialogs [In your post you wrote going from individual to individual.... Or having two proficient students perform before you.]  use your cards again.  Put the entire class into a large circle.  Then pull two cards from your deck and let those two start an improvised dialog based around the theme that your unit is stressing.  You will have given them a rubric beforehand....regarding length of dialog, certain structures, a problem to solve together....  and if each individual has to do a "monologue" inside of the dialog.  [A monolog being 4-6 sentences of extended discourse.]  After they finish and you record a presentation grade for them, have the members of the class [the audience] sign a comment about what they just watched the "presenters" sign about.  Keep a record of this as participation.  And/or have the "audience" ask the presenters further questions about their dialogs, etc....

11. I remember my sign language classes.  The teacher would sign. We would "repeat" or "copy."  We as students never interacted with each other expressing our own thoughts within the confines of the vocab signs being learned.  Sometimes we rehearsed "canned," memorized dialogs.  Or we would get up and "make a presentation."  It was always teacher/student.  Not much student/student with teacher coaching.

12. BTW, when teaching Spanish, French, Latin, ESL....  I had my students learn those foreign alphabets along with finger spelling in ASL.... Also taught them the ASL numbers with the Spanish, French, Latin and ESL pronunciations.  They learned how to finger spell their "foreign language" names with voice and finger spelling.  In my travels, I have met a -very much in love- young German Deaf couple in Berlin, and we "chatted."  In Buenos Aires I met a Deaf man at a restaurant and we "chatted."  He told me about his School for the Deaf and which streets to avoid in Buenos Aires.  A previous Miss Deaf Virginia was a Spanish major at Gallaudet... and we signed en espanol.  Sign is great, too, for communicating under water-or behind "sound proof" glass.  J End of commercial.

13. Being a foreign language teacher, I've always wanted to teach a bit of sign-but I am not certified.  At one of our "Super Saturday" programs for the gifted and talented, I got to teach some PSE (but also told them about ASL and SEE) for 4 Saturdays.  [One doesn't have to be certified to do those sorts of enrichment classes.]  Mindful of my learning experiences, I made sure that they practiced frequently in various pairs and in communicative situations.  At the same time, elsewhere, I was teaching zero level/entry level ESL classes.  I taught my sign language students the signs from the beginning chapters of the ESL (English as a 2nd Language) on greetings with some Deaf etiquette, clothing, colors, food.....  so that they would have a communicative context within which to practice with different partners. [I myself had never learned to sign "nice to meet you," until I met "real" Deaf people... although I knew all those signs in isolation from my classes.]

14. I hope this will help you some.  Keep up the good work.  ASL is a precious treasure.  In ASL are all the joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams of our Deaf community and of those who love and befriend them.  You are unlocking the door to that wonderful world for your "hearing" students.   Once you step through that portal, your life and experiences are that much richer.  J 


Robert L. "Bobby" Oliver

Williamsburg, VA

Robert L. "Bobby" Oliver
Williamsburg, Virginia


5.  RE:Managing multi-levels in FL classroom

Posted 10-09-2013 10:59
Thank you, Bobby. I have been meaning to reply, but wasn't sure how to get back to this thread, and then I kept forgetting to look, even though I thought of it every day. Anyway, thanks!

There is a lot in your reply to process, as well. I am thinking of moving the students around, and for several reasons. One reason is that I assigned the students to form study groups, and I did not tell them to form groups with the people sitting at their table, but they did- and then they thought their assignment to meet in study groups was fulfilled by their table work in class! No, no, no. So I clarified that they are expected to study "outside of class" (in class, it's not study; it's practice). I have not done the pairing of strong-to-weak or the random index cards, but I may give that a try.

I still struggle with what to do with students who come to class unprepared to engage in the very dialogues they are supposed to watch on the DVD and read in the book. I'm not sure I gathered from you what you suggested I do about that. Let me put the question this way: What do you do with a student who just cannot answer you when you ask them a question in class? How much time do you spend on a student who cannot answer when there are other students waiting and ready to answer? Do you say, "Think and watch and I'll come back to you," or "You need to come to class prepared," or "Can someone help him/her?" or do you spend a lot of time explaining, acting out, rephrasing, engaging, and trying and trying to get the student to understand the question, the discourse routine, and the answer? I have done a bit of all of these, except instead of saying, "You need to come to class prepared," I have said, "Practice." And then later, at the beginning of class, end of class, or on Canvas (like Blackboard), I remind everyone of the need to come to class prepared.

Last week, I instituted pop quizzes, because in all the time since I wrote and you replied, I have still had students coming to class unprepared. The jury is still out on how effective these quizzes are for student learning, but one thing it has shown me, and I hope them, is how unprepared they are and how prepared they would be if they would just do the homework. The quizzes I have given them so far have been repeats of one of the homework exercises that they were assigned to do with the DVD and workbook, so they should be a breeze for any student who did the homework. Some students have said they did the homework and still struggle on the quizzes, but at least it is an opportunity for us to find out where the breakdown is that they cannot recognize what they already did in the homework.

Anyway, I have to run, but I wanted to thank you and give you an update.


Daniel Greene

6.  RE:Managing multi-levels in FL classroom

Posted 10-11-2013 00:33
Deb Blaz wrote a nice book called 
Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Foreign Language Teachers
I'd recommend it for anyone teaching multiple levels.  

George Roland