Working Across Levels in the Multi-level Classroom

Mixed-ability grouping is a great way for students to learn from one another and to build classroom community.  Grouping students across levels works particularly well when the task is open-ended and less structured.   Pre-level students benefit from working with their more skilled partners, and the above-level students are challenged by their leadership roles.

This perfect-world scenario, however, sometimes falls apart.  Occasionally the more-skilled students dominate while the lesser-skilled students withdraw.  By doing some work up-front you can help students manage the dynamics of group work so that it is an engaging and challenging experience for all.


1.  Tell above-level students how to help their classmates.

When teachers assign students to groups, we often say “help each other” or “work together.”  Get specific.  Describe how students can help one another.  For example:

Activity:  Read the story together.

Above-level student:   Read the story aloud to your partner.

Activity:  Practice dialogue together.

Above-level student:   Model the pronunciation of each line first.

Activity:  Ask and answer the discussion questions.

Above-level student:   Respond to the question first to model answers.

Activity:  Practice new vocabulary

Above level student:  Give an example of the word in a sentence.

2.  Talk about good teaching practices.

Have students follow these principles in their groupwork:

  • Wait!  Give your partner time to answer.
  • Don’t tell!  Give an example but don’t give the answer.
  • Ask for help!  The teacher is always here to help.

3.  Equip students with language for managing group work.

Write a list of phrases on the board (or even better, post them permanently on the wall) to remind students of useful group-work language.  For example:

Take turns

You go first.

It’s my turn.

Ask to make sure you understand

What do you mean?

What does ________ mean?

How do you pronounce this word?

Could you please repeat that?

What did you say?

Tell your partner you understand

I see what you mean.

That’s an interesting idea.

That’s right.

Invite your partner to participate

What do you have for number  . . .?

How about you?

What do you think?

Make suggestions

Let’s . . .

Maybe we can  . .

What if we  . . .

Talk about differences

I have a different answer.

I see it another way.


4.  Divvy up the responsibilities.

Look at what each group activity requires of students, identify different roles, and assign the roles to students according to their skills.  For example:

Role plays: Students act out situations using vocabulary and grammar they have studied.

The pre-level student plays the role of the person who asks the questions.  (The teacher can provide a paper with the questions listed.) The above-level student plays the role of the person responding, which allows for lots of improvisation and embellishments.


Role plays Pre-level Role Above-level Role
Job interview Employer Applicant
Doctor Visit Doctor Patient
Getting a doctor’s appointment Receptionist Patient
Ordering food at a restaurant Waiter Diner
Calling 911 Dispatcher Caller
Making returns to a store Customer Service Person Customer
Renting an apartment Applicant Landlord


 Team projects:  Students work together in groups of three or more to make a product or complete an activity.  These projects can vary widely, but include such activities as: design a poster on a topic; solve a problem; do a survey and make a graph; discuss ideas; create a menu; plan a party; write up a community guide; make a holiday calendar; play a board game; or write a story.

The pre-level student can: The above-level student can: 
  • keep the time
  • assemble the supplies
  • read aloud the directions, questions, or anything else printed on the activity handout
  • copy the group answers on the board
  • draw the group poster or calendar
  • collate and assemble information for a booklet or directory


  • lead the discussion
  • model the activity
  • take notes during the discussion
  • be spokesperson for the group
  • edit the group’s first draft
  • write a summary of the group-work


Group-work is a great vehicle for practicing language. If you anticipate the kinds of tasks, roles, and language needed for the group work, your students will benefit from the experience and learn valuable collaborative skills.

More of My Posts about Multilevel Teaching

The Multilevel Teacher:  Creating a Common Classroom Experience http://wp.me/pMYto-b0

Multilevel Dictation Handout  http://wp.me/pMYto-8z

Conversation Cards:  A Warm-up Activity  http://wp.me/pMYto-8d

Mixing It Up!    http://wp.me/pMYto-3w

Building Better Learners:  The Teacher’s Worksheet  http://wp.me/pMYto-a8

Differentiating Instruction in a Multi-level Classroom  http://wp.me/pMYto-14