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Multilevel Instruction and Adult English Language Learners

by Susan Watson

Adult educators recognize that classes for adult English language learners (ELLs) are multilevel in many ways: age, education background, world view, first language, other languages spoken, oral language skills, print skills, and more. One aspect of multilevel instruction I have experienced is ELLs with fluent oral skills but limited reading and writing skills in their first language as well as English. It is often the case that these students did not have the opportunity to attend much formal schooling, or perhaps their formal schooling was interrupted. Whatever their background, we know that adult ELLs are global citizens who bring diverse funds of knowledge to the adult education classroom. They are already parents, workers, and citizens who manage busy lives in our communities and turn to adult education for specific purposes and needs. Arguably, language instruction is more effective when all of these circumstances are taken into consideration. However, multilevel instruction is complex. How can teachers and administrators plan for the instructional needs of such a diverse student population? In this article, I provide some practical tips and resources for multilevel instruction with adult ELLs in these four areas: (1) intake and assessment, (2) instructional strategies, (3) instructional materials, and (4) classroom management. I conclude with a list of resources that might spark creative ideas for multilevel instruction with your students.

Intake and Assessment

By design, many programs assess and level students’ language skills during the intake process. Adult ELLs are then placed in beginning, intermediate, and advanced level classes. Still, other programs purposefully design classes to be multilevel, calling them “intermediate-advanced,” or “multilevel beginning.” It is also possible that ELLs of all skill levels are placed into one class. Placement protocols vary and need to reflect the demographics of the student population as well as program resources. Whatever the program design, it is important to know how students are placed in your class so that you can better plan for instruction. For example, if students are placed in a class based on their oral English skills, they likely speak and listen at about the same level, but their reading and writing skills could vary widely. With this class, you might consider selecting instructional materials that are not only text-based so that students have different ways to access content. Conversely, if students are placed by their English reading and writing skills, they may need more scaffolding with speaking and listening skills.

“The ASPD contains important information about students’ language and education backgrounds that can be used to inform instruction.”

Another way to learn about students’ skills is to be aware of what pre-test and post-test your program uses and how to interpret the results. Some tests, such as the BEST Plus oral interview, measure oral skills. A student’s BEST Plus score can inform you about her speaking and listening skills but not reveal much about her reading and writing abilities. The BEST Literacy test, on the other hand, assesses reading and writing but will not be very informative about oral skills. Being aware of what test your program uses and how to interpret the results is another important aspect of the intake and assessment process that can aid in instructional planning.

Finally, all students complete an Adult Student Profile Document, or ASPD, during the intake process. The ASPD contains important information about students’ language and education backgrounds that can be used to inform instruction. Such information includes home country, first language, and years of formal schooling. However, the ASPD also contains personally identifying information that must be kept secured. If you do not have access to ASPD forms, you can always ask students directly. One way to accomplish this is to incorporate what you want to learn into an instructional activity such as an icebreaker, which also benefits students by helping them get acquainted. One popular activity is called Find Someone Who. Here, students mingle and find other students who meet some criteria you assign, such as same home country, same birthday, same favorite color, and so on. Usually there is an incentive for students to complete the activity and/or to share the information they have collected about their classmates. You might also assign more advanced students the task of writing about their language and education backgrounds with a carefully constructed writing prompt or template.

By taking into consideration the many ways adult ELLs’ language skills are multilevel and learning about your program’s design, intake, and assessment process, you can begin to plan for more effective instruction. More information on the ASPD form and the Virginia assessment policy can be found on the Virginia Department of Education Adult Education website.

Instructional Strategies

Broadly put, an instructional strategy is the way a teacher delivers content. An important instructional strategy for multilevel teaching is differentiated instruction. Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) describe differentiated instruction as creating a balance between content and students’ individual needs, with the goal of creating more equitable access to content and a consideration of differences in how students learn. With differentiated instruction, all students learn the same content, but they access that content in different ways (e.g., simplified language, scaffolding).

My favorite instructional strategy for differentiation is the purposeful grouping of students either by like-ability or mixed-ability English language skills. The pedagogy of group dynamics is social learning: students work together to scaffold and bridge access to content. Grouping strategies are also an effective way to engage adult learners, something we call andragogy. For example, with like-ability grouping, students at the same skill level, whether speaking, listening, reading, or writing, work together on a task that is appropriate for their skills. More advanced groups receive materials with more complex language, and lower level groups work with more simplified language, more scaffolds, more teacher support, and so forth. All groups work on the same content but access that content in ways appropriate to their skills.

Mixed-ability groups work a bit differently because they combine students of different skill levels. Using this strategy, everyone is given a role that best fits their skills (e.g., scribe, timekeeper, presenter, and so on). Social learning and the principles of andragogy work to engage and scaffold access to content. Whichever strategy you use, grouping students frees the teacher to mingle and observe. With grouping strategies, be sure to set clear goals and objectives so students know what is expected of them and how they can benefit and learn by participating. For more tips on differentiated instruction, see this helpful blog post by Karen Ford.

“…the goal of multilevel instruction is to increase opportunities for students to access content.”

Instructional Materials

Instructional materials include textbooks, worksheets, videos, realia, and so on that teachers use to represent the target content. By differentiating the materials, the teacher begins to create more opportunities for students to access content. For example, you might change the reading level of a text that students read. More advanced readers receive a more complex version of the same text. The Newsela website is helpful here because it offers different Lexile levels of the same article. For more advanced ELLs, visit the News in Levels website for world news articles in varying lengths. You might also use the English Language Proficiency Standards, or ELPS, as a resource for differentiating materials. The ELPS describe what a student can and should be able to do at each proficiency level. If you look across levels in a standard, you can glean ideas of what students at different levels might do. For example, ELP Standard 1 states that an ELL can “construct meaning from oral presentations and literary and informational text through level appropriate listening, reading, and viewing” (AIR, 2016, p. 21). At proficiency Level 1, a student demonstrates comprehension by identifying a few key words or phrases in the text. But, by Level 4, the student can analyze and summarize information. In practice, you might assign students into like-ability groups by reading level and have the lower level groups working on identifying information while the more advanced groups are analyzing and summarizing.

Classroom Management

Classroom management refers to the many ways a teacher designs her classroom. This includes time management, physical use of space, use of resources, and so on. For example, you might arrange tables and chairs for a grouping strategy, establish classroom rules, use smartphone apps in a strategic way, or incorporate assistants and volunteers. Using volunteers and assistants is a great way to manage a multilevel class. They can pull out students for individual tutoring, and/or provide extra assistance to groups. Peer tutoring programs allow more advanced students to use their skills in creative ways. Adult students can also help you directly. For example, assign students the tasks of passing out materials, keeping track of time, being a spell-checker, and so on. Dr Robin Lovrien Schwarz advocates for learning stations where students work independently, in pairs, or in small groups to access and master content. Learning stations require an investment of time at the onset but can be used over and over. They can be computer-based or physical spaces and materials.

In conclusion, finding ways to address the multilevel language learning needs of adult ELLs leads to more effective instruction. We know that adult ELLs are always multilevel in some way, whether by language skill, experience, first language, or something else. I argue that meeting multilevel needs is an important distinction between adult education and K12 instruction, and it requires adult educators to be flexible and creative instructional planners. While it is not realistic that we can meet every need, the goal of multilevel instruction is to increase opportunities for students to access content. I believe that learning everything we can about students, program design, strategies, and resources can help us develop a multilevel practice.

Susan Watson is ESOL Specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center.


American Institutes for Research (2016). English language proficiency standards for adult education. Washington, D.C.: Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Resources for Multilevel Instruction

1.     LINCS: Promoting the Success of Multilevel ESL Classes from CAELA

2.     British Council Teaching English: Adapting Materials for Mixed Ability Classes

3.     Civics It Up! Techniques Bank

4.     Colorín Colorado: Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners

5.     Fluent U English Educator Blog: The Only Tool You Need When Teaching Multilevel ESL Classes

6.     Teaching English Games: ESL Multilevel Activities

7.     English Club: Teaching English to Multi-level Classes

8.     Teaching in the Multilevel Classroom from Pearson

9.     English Language Proficiency Standards

10.    News in Levels