Strategies for Mixed-Level Classes: Participation and Grouping
In the mixed-level classroom, instructors are challenged to develop strategic techniques to provide all students with equal opportunities for learning. Be prepared for such a complex scenario in the new school year with these techniques focused on planned participation and strategic grouping.
When the school year starts, you might find yourself faced with a single class full of students with varied language proficiency levels. Instructors in both ESL and EFL are often faced with this situation, and they may experience the overwhelming feeling of witnessing beginner students (with very little ability to communicate) mix with advanced students (who are able to handle almost any communicative situation)—and students at any point on the continuum between those extremes.
In the mixed-level classroom (MLC), instructors are challenged to develop strategic techniques to provide all students with equal opportunities for learning. Be prepared for such a complex scenario in the new school year with the following strategies.
The Learners, The Context: Defining the Mixed-Level Class
Even when the MLC is said to be universal, finding one uniform definition can pose a challenge. Multiple interpretations of the phenomenon have put emphasis on different aspects of students and learning within a classroom, for example, styles, skills, and proficiency levels. In this article, I address the aspect of learner language proficiency level.
Many efforts to ease the difficulties resulting from the MLC are directed toward task differentiation (Lindstromberg, 2004; Rose, 1997), material adaptation (Budden, 2008), open-ended tasks (Barrantes, 2013), and affective recommendations (Al-Shammakhi & Al-Humaidi, 2015). Added to these, assertive grouping techniques can also be a strategy to support learners’ emotional struggles, which can be caused by anxiety arising from sharing the language classroom with classmates with different proficiency levels. In this article, I provide concrete examples to ease the MLC through mindful planning of student grouping and participation.
Technique 1: Planned In-Class Participation
Language learners’ level and type of participation is usually linked to their proficiency level. In MLCs, students tend to face a disparity in quality and quantity of participation. Students with a higher proficiency level may take an active role while students with a low proficiency level may display passive behavior that limits in-class engagement and consequently slows down their learning progress. Under this premise, finding strategic and planned ways to elicit learners’ participation can assure less limited and more equal engagement from students.
Strategy 1: Successive Order Calling
In this type of spontaneous calling, you call out students by following a pattern so that they can predict who is going to be called on next. One idea is to start with a student in one corner and proceed by calling on students for each successive question or exercise one by one in a specific order (e.g., clockwise, row-by-row). Students know when they will be called, which allows them some time for preparation (Higley, 2018). Assigning a code (number or letter to each student) at the beginning of the class can help in this process. As participation is requested, keep track on the board. In that way, learners will know when their turn is coming and be ready to participate.
A-day-ahead or a-week-ahead assigned participation can also benefit students. This type of participation differs from assigned presentation in its length and purpose. Assigned participation should be short and simple. Though this idea promotes less spontaneous production, it requires extra language practice. Keys to its effectiveness are to keep it simple and to use a conversational tone so that it will not cause unnecessary anxiety or elaborated preparation on the part of the learner.
Strategy 2: Role Assigning
Group students for a presentation or report and have them take a specific role within their group. This promotes each students’ participation at their own level. In addition, leadership is distributed, and learners’ different behaviors, preferences, ways of working, and language proficiencies are individually catered to. It is always important to rotate groups and roles so that responsibilities are varied.
Strategy 3: Random or Cold Calling
This strategy can be used only when the teacher has created a supportive classroom atmosphere where students feel okay taking risks. With cold calling, you would simply choose a student at random, regardless of proficiency level, to respond to a question or participate in a particular task. The first priority with this strategy is to avoid humiliating students; this strategy definitely puts on the spot shy, unprepared, and less proficient students. However, the key to avoid this is giving them the opportunity to save face. One way to do so is by allowing students to say “I don’t know” while you follow up the conversation with related questions.
There are many creative materials that language instructors have designed to aid cold calling. To avoid having students feel targeted, you could blindly pick cards with the students’ names from a shuffled deck or a hat. In this technological era, hand-held computer software and apps that randomize the calling of students are also available (e.g., Random Team Generator). These approaches are beneficial because they distance the instructor from the selection, and students understand that there is no bias involved.
The goal for directly addressing planned grouping is to enhance students’ opportunities to have equal learning achievement without putting language proficiency in the spotlight. The idea of purposefully planning grouping is to encourage and strengthen participation from all students during all stages of the class. The next section describes a set of strategies to mindfully plan that grouping.
Technique 2: Strategic Grouping
Traditional group and pair work class arrangements have proved to have advantages and disadvantages. For the most part, both promote student-student interaction, maximize speaking time, and provide a less threatening way to participate than individual work. The techniques you use to group students may ease the negative consequences of the MLC.
Strategy 1: Grouping by Proficiency Level
This strategy may be effective only if you’ve created a collaborative rapport in your classroom so that students know how to demonstrate mutual respect and encouragement. Otherwise, subgroups can generate a status-based relationship that can result in division rather than collaboration. If you have a collaborative environment in place, students may benefit in each of their roles either as mentors or mentees.
In the case of high proficient learners, having the opportunity to support less proficient students may help them gain a better understanding of lesson content because they can improve their cognitive abilities and presentation skills through explaining and elaborating concepts. Less proficient students can benefit from hearing and interacting more closely with classmates and from assistance, encouragement, and stimulation from students with higher levels of language proficiency.
Strategy 2: Grouping by Age
Language instructors in private institutes or in adult learning programs may have to teach across age levels. When age is a factor in your MLC, you can use this variable to group students. It is likely that students with similar ages share the same language learning purposes and challenges. Their range of experiences, skills, and interests may encourage active engagement in class activities.
Strategy 3: Random Grouping
Random grouping is generally considered an equitable technique. Students and teacher must be ready for the unexpected. This technique assures that students have a chance to interact with all classmates. Here are a few ways to randomly group students:
Color and Animal Codes: Prepare different card sets in different colors or with sets of animals. Use these cards by handing them out randomly prior to each activity and then asking students with similar or different colors/animals to group.
Alphabetical Order: Using the first or last letter in students’ given names or surnames, ask learners to group. To add an element of surprise, you can rotate the category so that instead of names only you can ask students to group themselves based on the first letter of their neighborhood, birth month, country of origin (in the case of multilingual classes), or any other category you can think of.
Matching Pairs: Prepare slips of paper with well-known pairs of celebrities, movies/books and authors, foods (e.g., peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs), and phrases (e.g., “It’s now or never,” “Don’t worry, be happy,” “safe and sound”). Once you have distributed them, tell your students to find their partners. The list of possible pairs to match may be long; inviting students to determine which matches can work gives them a sense of involvement in class decisions, and they can also serve to provide some opportunities to teach about culture.
There is no single best strategy for all groups, and there is not even a single best strategy for a particular group, but you can continue to try varied strategies to see what works best for your learners. Be mindful and appreciative of the unique individual and group preferences of your students. Through careful observation and constant information-gathering, you can identify learners needs. Once you’ve taken a clear picture of your own teaching and learning conditions, you can find ways to connect and engage your students using class characteristics and strategic participation and grouping techniques.
Al-Shammakhi, F. & Al-Humaidi, S. (2015). Challenges facing EFL teachers in mixed ability classes and strategies used to overcome them. World Journal of English Language, 5(3), 33–45.
Barrantes, L. (2013). The mixed-proficiency language class: Consequences for students, professors and the institution. Letras,53, 111–135.
Budden, J. (2008). Adapting materials for mixed ability classes. Retrieved from https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/adapting-materials-mixed-ability-classes
Higley, P. (2018). Encouraging classroom participation through in-class reviews. The Teaching Professor, 32(3), 3.
Lindstromberg, S. (2004). Towards better results with mixed proficiency classes: Use of flexible tasks. Humanising Language Teaching, 6(3).
Rose, J. (1997). Mixed ability: An ‘inclusive’ classroom. English Teaching Professional.
Download this article (PDF)
Lena Barrantes is currently a PhD candidate in educational research at the University of Calgary. She has been an EFL instructor in her home country, Costa Rica, for 16 years at Universidad Nacional. She has also worked as a pre-service and an in-service teacher trainer. Her current research focuses on the professional agency of EFL instructors. She has shared her work in international conferences and has published in academic journals in Costa Rica and Canada.
TESOL Says Farewell to Associate Executive Director John Segota after 23 Years
TESOL Executive Director Chris Powers shares a humble farewell to John Segota, TESOL Associate Executive Director, who leaves TESOL International Association this month to helm the National Association for Gifted Children as their new executive director. John's contributions to the association and to the ELT field have been far-reaching and significant.
I have typically used this space to highlight TESOL activities that support our strategic outcomes. This time, I would like to use this column to honor and recognize a long-time staff member who has dedicated his career to helping us advance our Global Presence and Connectivity, our Knowledge and Expertise, and our Voice and Advocacy.
John Segota, who joined us in 1996 as a project coordinator and rose to become our associate executive director, will be leaving us this month to join the
John Segota (right) with Diane Staehr Fenner at the 2016 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit.
John Segota, who joined us in 1996 as a project coordinator and rose to become our associate executive director, will be leaving us this month to join theNational Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) as their new executive director. I am very happy for John and very pleased with his well-deserved success. While our association will miss John, he already knows that I am looking forward to working with him to find ways to collaborate and serve gifted English learners.
John’s contributions are most readily recognized in helping TESOL raise our collective voice and advocate for English teachers and learners. First as a coordinator for advocacy and public relations and later as director of the department, John spearheaded many of our most significant public policy initiatives, including our Advocacy and Public Policy Summit and our Public Policy Professional Council.
But John’s contributions go far beyond advocacy.
TESOL Board of Directors and staff lunch meeting
As professional relations manager, he strengthened our global presence and connectivity, helping to forge some of our strongest partnerships with organizations such as AFT, NABE, and EnglishUSA and our more than 100 affiliates worldwide.
John also played a significant role in strengthening our knowledge and expertise. He led our efforts to develop
John (right) in Seoul, South Korea, during the 2010 TESOL SpellEvent
John also played a significant role in strengthening our knowledge and expertise. He led our efforts to developnew standards and revise old ones. He oversaw one of TESOL’s first U.S. federal contracts to provide linguistic expertise on the U.S. naturalization exam. He helped conceptualize and co-convene the Summit on the Future of the TESOL Profession, and he contributed to the Action Agenda for the Future of the TESOL Profession.
A true expert in association governance, John provided significant guidance to our Board of Directors through our first-ever governance review and restructuring.
John has indeed done it all at TESOL. In addition to his deep institutional knowledge, what we will truly miss most is the warm colleague and always friendly coworker.
Please join me in thanking John for his many years of dedicated service to TESOL and congratulating him on his new opportunity.
John speaking at a National Coalition for Literacy event
John helping present the 2017 Outstanding Advocate Award to Gil Mendoza (right)
John at CATESOL 2015 with Judith O'Loughlin
2019 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit Brings More Than 100 Advocates to Capitol Hill
This past June, TESOL International Association held its annual TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit, which brought more than 100 TESOL professionals from all over the United States, including representatives from 25 affiliates, to Washington, DC, for 3 full days of learning, networking, and advocating on Capitol Hill.
This past June, TESOL International Association held its annual TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit, which brought more than 100 TESOL professionals from all over the United States, including representatives from 25 affiliates, to Washington, DC, for 3 full days of learning, networking, and advocating on Capitol Hill. This year’s summit was supported in part by TESOL’s strategic partner, the American Federation of Teachers.
With the goal of equipping TESOL professionals with the tools to become influential advocates on behalf of English learners (ELs), as well as embedding the knowledge of key education policies, the summit saw attendees spend the first 2 days learning from policy experts, networking with other TESOL professionals, and understanding effective advocacy techniques and strategies. The summit concluded with attendees holding more than 175 meetings with senators, representatives, and staffers on Capitol Hill.
2019 summit materials
Following opening remarks from TESOL International Association President Deborah Healey and Executive Director Christopher Powers, both of whom discussed the importance of everyday advocacy and collective action on Capitol Hill, the summit began with a detailed legislative update from TESOL’s John Segota, Associate Executive Director, and David Cutler, Policy and Communications Manager. Focusing on significant issues facing all ELs, attendees were provided with a wealth of policy information from the very start. Both Segota and Cutler detailed the proposed FY 2020 federal budget for major education programs, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Workforce Improvement and Opportunity Act; spoke about the numerous bills in Congress that aim to address undocumented students, such as the American Dream and Promise Act; and also spent time addressing TESOL’s primary policy focus during the summit: passing the Reaching English Learners Act. Following this in-depth update, participants gathered for a general session led by Roger Rosenthal of the Migrant Legal Action Program, who discussed the rights of immigrant children and ELs in public schools.
Advocacy and The 6 Principles©
After a productive networking lunch, the summit’s first breakout sessions featured speakers from the American Federation of Teachers and Migration Policy Institute. To conclude a very eventful first day, participants were led by TESOL President-Elect Deborah Short through the first half of their advocacy training, starting with an introduction of The 6 Principles© and The Principles’ connection to advocacy. Following Short’s presentation, participants reviewed TESOL’s key U.S. policy priorities and logistics for their meetings on Capitol Hill and spent time meeting with other participants from the same state in order to strategize for their meetings.
The TESOL Advocacy Action Center
During the afternoon session, participants were also given a special first look at TESOL’s brand-new Advocacy Action Center. Launched during the summit, the new TESOL Advocacy Action Center is a free resource for all advocates, TESOL members and nonmembers alike, to find and contact their members of Congress. Also in the action center, advocates will find calls to action from TESOL, where they can send prewritten messages to their members of Congress on important issues TESOL is tracking, such as the Reaching English Learners Act.
Day 2: Policy Deep Dive and Meeting Prep
After returning from lunch, participants welcomed two legislative aides who currently serve members of Congress. Kerry McKittrick from the office of Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Bridget Kelleher from the office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) discussed the Reaching English Learners Act. The bill would create a new funding stream within Title II of the Higher Education Act to help better prepare future English language teachers by providing grants to create partnerships between teacher education programs and local schools, allowing for future teachers to work with ELs earlier and more frequently in their training. As participants prepared to ask their members of Congress to become cosponsors of this important bill, both McKittrick and Kelleher offered words of advice for this year’s advocates, providing great insider tips for speaking with members of Congress and their staff about policy issues.
Summitt attendees policy mapping
Following the panel of congressional aides, attendees spent the afternoon further preparing for their meetings on Capitol Hill. Starting out with an activity to map out their advocacy strategies for when they return home, participants ended their day working in small groups, often with peers from the same state, where they finalized their strategies and talking points for their meetings on the Hill.
Day 3: Capitol Hill Day
On Wednesday, summit participants descended on Capitol Hill, meeting with their representatives in the House and Senate. Many participants from the same state met with their representatives as a group, in a concerted effort to advocate on behalf of ELs and fellow educators from their home state. After traversing the Capitol grounds, participants gathered for a closing dinner, where they shared their experiences after a long day of advocating.
Emphasizing the need to focus on continuous advocacy efforts, Arlene Costello of Florida noted, “If I don’t continue to educate [members of Congress], one day they’ll stop and say ‘well you didn’t tell me about any of that.’” Giving a great overview about his experiences acting as a resource on Capitol Hill, returning summit attendee Alan Seaman of Illinois said, “We had good conversations with two new staffers and they were asking me all kinds of questions, so it was a perfect opportunity to be a resource.” First-time advocacy summit attendee Larissa Lopez of Puerto Rico closed the evening by saying, “I was so impressed with the way that everyone conducted themselves. We got such a warm reception, and I was not expecting that. I had an amazing experience.”
Joanne Clyde, Maria Alanis, and Gina Johnson-Wells
with Senator Sherrod Brown
In the days following the 2019 summit, participants saw their hard work pay off very quickly (which is truly remarkable). A major accomplishment that can be directly attributed to the advocacy work of summit attendees are the eight members of Congress who agreed to become cosponsors of the Reaching English Learners Act, including one member who cosponsored just hours after meeting with a TESOL advocate! Summit participants left Washington, DC, energized, empowered, and excited to continue their hard work and advocacy efforts back home!
For more video testimonials, see the the Highlights from the 2019 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit page.
Information about the 2020 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit, including the dates and location, will be announced in early 2020.
Starting the School Year With Effective Assessment and Feedback
A new school year is starting, and we are all back full of energy. Because we firmly believe the way we assess students’ work and the way we give feedback to them have a strong impact, both inside and outside the classroom, we would like to share some powerful ideas to help our students thrive.
In this article, we discuss and evaluate different formative assessment strategies and feedback techniques that promote not only students’ interest and accuracy in the learning of the English language but also their progress in broader educational and social aspects. Hattie (2009) states that feedback is seen as a primary component of formative assessment and has a powerful influence on learning and achievement. Helpful feedback always has emotional resonance and is constructive while it points out areas in which performance should be improved. Based on this assumption, we go through and analyze the concepts of formative assessment and effective feedback and the strong interrelation and relevance they have in the teaching and learning process.
What Makes Good Feedback?
Our first issue is to determine what characterises constructive feedback. “Effective feedback does not do the thinking for the student” (Chappuis, 2012, p. 37) but it rather helps him or her to discover errors and to devise “tactics and strategies” (Brookhart, 2010a) to do remedial work on his or her own. Therefore, effective feedback must always be descriptive, either in oral or written form, and inform learners what their strengths are and, when necessary, point out areas to work on and suggest specific changes to make in order to facilitate the correct acquisition of the intended learning outcome. In other words, feedback needs to state with clarity what the student is doing well as well as provide tips, strategies, advice, and even examples that will lead to improvement and success.
Good Feedback Is Timely
Effective feedback is timelybecause it must occur during the learning, when the student still has the chance to act on it (assessment for learning). Additionally, it limits corrective information to an amount the student can act on, and it addresses partial understanding: If a student’s work doesn’t demonstrate at least partial understanding, then reteaching, rather than feedback, is needed (Chappuis, 2012).
Good Feedback Is Goal-Oriented
On referring to formative feedback, Petty (2009) speaks about medals, missions, and goals. Feedback should help learners to
- discover what they are expected to achieve (goal),
- understand where they are and how far they have gotten in relation to the goal (medal), and
- find ways to close the existing gap (mission).
See Figure 1.
Figure 1. Toward achieving a goal.
See Figure 2 for a possible feedback form to implement Petty’s (2009) model.
Figure 2. Possible feedback form.
Good Feedback Is Explicit
Our On Target form (see Figure 3), which develops from the Stars and Stairs form by Chappuis (2012), is a tool to give explicit feedback. On the form, draw an arrow on target, and next to it mention something the student has done well or describe a good feature of his or her work. Below this, draw another target with arrows at some distance from the center, along with some feature that needs improvement or correction and one or more strategies to deal with that feature.
Brookhart (2010a) remarks that good feedback is feedback students can not only understand but also use to improve. We’d like to highlight again that it should be descriptive, both in oral and written forms. Avoid comments such as Well done!, Great job!, Poor, Incomplete or Try harder! All of these phrases are just loaded with opinion and judgment but do not give students any specific information about what needs to be done to improve.
If we want learners to be able to make changes and succeed, we must be explicit about what it is that makes their work satisfactory, poor, or even incomplete. Brookhart (2010a) describes this as giving learners the power to change.
Good Feedback Is Sensible With Praise
Praise and value are two fundamental and empowering elements to consider. Teachers should value and praise even small attainments and attempts, knowing that positive reinforcement even of small achievements can bring about benefits in the students’ performance within the language class and in other spheres of life. Yet, when giving compliments, we must be judicious because students will surely be aware of embellishment and might resent it, resulting in a counterproductive effect on the teaching and learning processes.
What Is Formative Assessment?
Formative assessment is also known as ongoing or continuous assessment because teachers use it to check on the progress of their students and then use the information for future teaching (Vazquez, 2014). Future teaching can mean the following lesson or even that day’s lesson, if immediate remedial action seems prudent. Examples of formative assessment include informal quizzes and tasks, such as written exercises, games, dramatizations, or simply oral discussions.
Research shows that learners of all ages, especially (the so called) low-achievers, can profit highly from formative assessment and from positive and timely formative feedback. They can also feel easily frustrated—and unmotivated to learn—when assessment is not frequent enough or feedback is scarce or wrongly given. It is relevant here to mention that we should principally assess students according to what they themselves are capable of doing and not against the whole group or an established standard, if we intend to help them achieve larger gains.
Formative Assessment Techniques
Three powerful assessment techniques we use and would like to share follow (activities collected in Rutherford & Oliver, 2008):
2-Minute Warning: This technique gives learners who are taking a test a 2-minute period before the end of it to be able to consult any materials they have in order to search for that “nugget” of information they are finding difficult to recall or retrieve. As a result, because they will only be able to find information they are missing if they are well organized, students’ organizational skills will be improved. (David Baker, Longmont, CO)
Extra Inning: Tell students at the end of a test that it will not be corrected and that they will be given an extra opportunity to revise, add, and/or modify any information in it during the following lesson. Learners generally concentrate on that information they could not remember to be able to add or change answers in their tests later. You may ask students to use a different colour for any change they make, though exams should get full marks for the complete work submitted. (David Brinkley, Longmont, CO)
Try-Angle: A figure of a triangle is given to (or drawn by) each student. They write (just on one side of it) information they find relevant while learning a new topic. Students are then told that they will be allowed to use this try-angle during the testing on that particular content. An advantage of this is that students will be focusing on relevant data along all of the teaching and learning processes. (Sharon Boudreau, Fairfax County, VA)
A Note on Assessments
It is important to mention that you should use these or other assessment techniques alternatively and from time to time, so as to bring some brain-compatible novelty to the testing situations that may be of help for most learners, but especially for those who need some extra guidance and motivation when being evaluated.
Fostering Meaningful Learning
To round off, it is relevant to restate the huge effect formative assessment and formative feedback have on students’ performance quality. Several authors (Rutherford & Oliver, 2008; Hattie, 2009; Brookhart, 2010a; Brookhart, 2010b; Chappius, 2012; Chappuis, Commodore, & Stiggins, 2017) agree that students could learn without formal tests (summative assessment) but they could scarcely succeed without
- positive reinforcement from a significant other,
- ongoing assessment, or
- formative feedback.
In other words, deliberately strengthening the practice of formative assessment and formative feedback produces significant and often substantial learning gains in learners.
Effective assessment of students’ performance and timely and proper feedback empower students to keep track of their own learning processes and, above all, foster meaningful, long-lasting learning.
Our message to all teachers following Petty’s (2009) medals, missions, and goals model:
- A Goal: Frankly “assess” the way in which you assess and give feedback to your students.
- A Medal: Congratulations on all the good you have caused in this sense.
- A Mission: Discard the practices you suspect may be counterproductive or hinder learning inside and outside the classroom.
And last but not least, keep on enjoying being a teacher…that makes the difference!
Brookhart, S. (2010a). How to give effective feedback to your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Brookhart, S. (2010b). Assess higher order thinking skills in your classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Chappuis, J. (2012). How am I doing? Educational Leadership, 70(1), 36–41.
Chappuis, S., Commodore, H., & Stiggins, R. (2017). Balanced assessment systems. Leadership, quality, and the role of classroom assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.
Petty, G. (2009). Teaching today: A practical guide (4th ed.). Cheltenham, England: Nelson Thornes.
Rutherford, P., & Oliver, B. (2008). Instructions for all students (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Just Ask Publications and Professional Development. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/30Bj0sy
Vazquez, E. (2014). Assessing assessment. 16th International Conference for Teachers of English and English Coordinators, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2Lnf76E
Download this article (PDF)
Débora Nacamuli Klebs is a passionate teacher and teacher educator and a national and an international lecturer. She has specialized in didactics and has lectured on methodology for more than 23 years at two prestigious teacher training colleges in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has authored and coauthored several articles on the teaching field and has presented at the TESOL International Convention for the last 3 years.
Esther Vázquez is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Esther holds a bachelor’s degree in educational management and a diploma in neurolearning and in neurodiversity. She has lectured extensively on varied topics of interest in the educational field in Argentina and internationally. In 2017, she was a presenter at the TESOL International Convention (Seattle, Washington, USA) and was awarded a TESOL Professional Development Scholarship.
Culturally Responsive Teaching for the New School Year
by Deniz Toker
The diversity gap between teachers and students matters: Teachers have to go the extra mile to help their culturally and linguistically diverse students. Learn how.
The number of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students in U.S. schools keeps rising steadily every school year, which warrants assiduous attention to the unique pedagogical needs of these students. The National Center for Education Statistics (2019) clearly states that
Between fall 2000 and fall 2015, the percentage of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools who were White decreased from 61 to 49 percent. The percentage of Black students also decreased during this period from 17 to 15 percent. In contrast, there was an increase in the percentage of students enrolled in public schools who were Hispanic (from 16 to 26 percent) and Asian/Pacific Islander (4 to 5 percent) during this time period. (para. 1)
These numbers show that education is not “Black” and “White” anymore, and this major demographic change necessitates systematic and proper training of both pre- and in-service teachers. Although new data from the National Center for Education Statistics point to a positive trend regarding diversity in the U.S. teaching workforce, the majority of teachers continue to be predominantly White (Ingersoll & Merrill, 2017).
You may wonder why this diversity gap between teachers and students matters. Research keeps providing evidence to show us how important it is for students to share the same race/ethnicity with teachers because it directly affects their attitudes, motivation, and achievement (Egalite & Kisida, 2018). To bridge the achievement and sociocultural gaps between CLD students and teachers, all subject teachers should correctly understand and then adopt culturally responsive teaching (CRT) practices.
What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
First and foremost, we should see culture as a dynamic and complex phenomenon and avoid all kinds of stereotypes. In today’s world, cultural hybridization is an essential term to grasp the situation in which most of our CLD students are. Lindholm and Myles (2019) define it as “the blending or fusion of cultural elements, such as forms of behavior, music, food, and language from different cultures” (p. 2).
Of course, our students’ multiple cultures go beyond that and define who they are and how they function in society. So, we should be mindful of the fluid and multifaceted nature of culture and its influence on our students’ identities and their performances at school. Keeping that in mind, culturally responsive teachers know that they are supposed to go the extra mile to help their CLD students by employing more equitable and culturally sensitive teaching practices.
Having synthesized different definitions of CRT by various scholars, Siwatu (2007) came up with four fundamental pillars to explain it to us:
CRT uses students’ cultural knowledge experiences, prior knowledge, and individual learning preferences as a conduit to facilitate the teaching-learning process.
CRT incorporates students’ cultural orientations (e.g., individualistic vs. collectivist) to design culturally compatible classroom environments.
CRT provides students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned using a variety of assessment techniques.
CRT equips students with the necessary tools to function in mainstream culture while simultaneously helping students maintain their cultural identity, native language, and connection to their culture.
I would also like to add that CRT is basically an asset-based approach to education, so it urges teachers to explore the strengths of their CLD students. Valuing and tapping into students’ home cultures not only benefits nonmainstream but also mainstream students by fostering an inclusive environment in which everybody is acknowledged and respected.
Last but definitely not least, CRT cannot exist without its social-justice-for-all component. Culturally responsive teachers never shy away from talking about controversial topics, such as immigration or racism, in the class. These teachers pave the way for their students to become critical thinkers by helping them acquire higher order thinking skills (HOTs) throughout the lesson regardless of the subject.
How Can I Start Applying Culturally Responsive Teaching?
The very first step we should take is to conduct a self-assessment. Unfortunately, we all have explicit/implicit biases toward certain groups of people, which plays a major role in forming our opinions and judgments. Therefore, we must critically assess our own biases and assumptions and do our best to be aware of them at all times. Here are some questions you can start with:
What are my perceptions of students from different racial or ethnic groups? With language or dialects different from mine?
What are the sources of these perceptions (e.g., friends, relatives, television, movies)?
How do I respond to my students, based on these perceptions?
Have I experienced others’ making assumptions about me based on my membership in a specific group? How did I feel?
What kinds of information, skills, and resources do I need to acquire to effectively teach from a multicultural perspective?
In what ways do I collaborate with other educators, family members, and community groups to address the needs of all my students?
(Adapted from Bromley, 1997)
You can also try taking the tests from Project Implicit to face your implicit biases.
Getting to Know Your Students
When the new school year starts, we spend a fair amount of time learning our new students’ names; correct pronunciation can be difficult, especially when we are not familiar with different languages. Also, mispronouncing a student’s name is now considered the newest form of microaggression. So, we should make a concerted effort to say our students’ names as accurately as possible. We can even record it when they say their names so that we can practice later. Furthermore, we should do our best to learn about our CLD students’ home cultures instead of making assumptions. You can hand out simple templates to collect information about them (see Figure 1 for an example) and then this data can lend itself to your lesson material preparation process.
Current and Relevant Bulletin Boards and Books Corners
Unless our CLD students see their cultures and cultural figures represented in the books they read and the posters they see on the walls (see examples in Figures 2 and 3), it is almost impossible for them to feel they belong in our classrooms. Once we have gotten to know our students, we should include community leaders, newsworthy events, holidays, and so on from their home countries/cultures; we can even ask them to prepare a poster for the classroom. Likewise, the book corner should reflect the diversity existing in the classroom by offering all students a variety and range of culturally diverse literature.
Figure 2. Malala women’s empowerment board. (Senica, n.d.)
Figure 3. Women's history month quote flaps bulletin board. (Lewis, n.d.)
Using a Variety of Instructional Methods and Materials
Needless to say, the more different teaching strategies we use, the better we address the needs of diverse students in our classrooms. CLD students inevitably process new information through their frames of references, which are shaped by their home cultures and languages. If we do not modify our daily teaching practices, some learners, who need more scaffolding and explicit instruction, will always be at a disadvantage. To prevent this, teachers can utilize
- student’s first language,
- modeling and gestures,
- visuals and realia,
- graphic organizers,
- intentional group/partner work,
- sentence structures and frames (e.g., I know…, because…), and
- connecting new information to background knowledge. (Houser, n.d.)
I have recently become a staunch advocate of CRT and have been trying to implement it in my own classrooms. I always strive to learn from my students about their cultures and think of creative ways to incorporate them into my lesson plans. I also benefit from cooperative learning in which students have to work together to complete a task. In addition to standardized tests, I use multiple and ongoing assessments, such as journal writing and portfolio assignments. As well, I never miss a chance to meet their parents and collaborate with them whenever possible.
So far, I have attempted to share the basics of CRT; however, to do justice to this pedagogy, which has the potential to level the playing field for all students, you have to exert yourself. You should see this introductory article as the tip of the iceberg: It is not enough to cover all aspects of CRT. To this end, I’ve created a website where you can delve into CRT and familiarize yourself with both theory and practice.
To conclude, we can all benefit from CRT practices and help our students become autonomous and critical thinkers. It is a moral obligation for all educators to adopt more inclusive and diverse teaching practices so that everyone can navigate in this ever-growing multicultural world. So, practice self-reflection, uncover your biases, learn from your students, teach in different ways, and promote equity and diversity at all costs!
D’Angelo Bromley, K. (1997). Language art: Exploring connections. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Egalite, A. J., & Kisida, B. (2018). The effects of teacher match on students’ academic perceptions and attitudes. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 40(1), 59–81.
Houser, K. (n.d.). 8 strategies for scaffolding instruction. Retrieved from https://www.mshouser.com/teaching-tips/8-strategies-for-scaffolding-instruction
Ingersoll, R., & Merrill, L. (2017). A quarter century of changes in the elementary and secondary teaching force: From 1987 to 2012. Statistical Analysis Report (NCES 2017-092). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Lewis, K. (n.d.). Women's history month quote flaps bulletin board [Pinterest post]. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/568790627919349788/
Lindholm, T., & Myles, J. (2019). Navigating the intercultural classroom. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_rbb.asp
Senica, T. (n.d.). Malala women's empowerment board [Pinterest post]. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/379569074843501388/
Siwatu, K. O. (2007). Preservice teachers’ culturally responsive teaching self-efficacy and outcome expectancy beliefs. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23(7), 1086–1101.
Download this article (PDF)
Deniz Toker graduated with an MA in TESOL from Western Michigan University, where he worked as a graduate research assistant in the Special Education and Literacy Studies Department. He earned his BA in English linguistics from Hacettepe University in Turkey and then obtained CELTA. He has been teaching English as a foreign/second language for almost 10 years. His main research interests lie in culturally responsive pedagogy and fair assessment practices for language learners.
Social Media for ELT: Teaching Narrative Writing
by Jennifer Borch
Narrative writing can be daunting for ELLs; bring Facebook into the classroom to show your students they're already competent storytellers.
Twenty-first-century learners are “plugged-in,” fluent with technology, and motivated by social media. Start your school year by creatively connecting to tech-savvy students’ enthusiasm for social media: Engage them in authentic and meaningful English-language learning opportunities in a familiar and motivating context.
While teaching a graduate-level creative writing course in Morocco, I realized that narrative writing was a daunting task for even advanced-level linguistics students. The idea of breaking away from academic writing and intellectual dialogue was unsettling. Writing short stories, a task which I had imagined would be a fun and creative break from the norm, turned out to be an anxiety-ridden plunge into uncertainty for many students. This realization prompted me to bring social media into the classroom to show students that they were, in fact, already competent narrative storytellers. Facebook became my friend, and the following series of social media–connected lessons for teaching narrative writing was born.
Lesson 1: Establishing a Model and Making Connections to Social Media
Establishing a Model
To produce good writing, students need to read good writing. Before you can ask students to write narrative fiction, it’s essential to expose them to some quality examples. Find a text that is appropriate for your students and that clearly models the essentials of narrative writing on which you intend to focus (e.g., character, setting, plot, point of view, theme). Have students read the text alone, in pairs, or as a group.
Define and discuss each of the components of narrative fiction using specific examples from your model text. For instance, try the following tasks:
Ask students to identify the main characters and secondary characters in the story.
Discuss the physical settings in the story and the time frame in which the story takes place.
Ask students to summarize the plot in five or six sentences, identify the point of view of the narrator, and discuss any lessons they may have learned from the story.
In essence, teach students how to analyze narrative fiction for each of these elements before asking them to produce it.
Connecting It to Facebook
Most students are adept at navigating the world of Facebook. Connecting the elements of narrative fiction with this social media platform is likely to decrease your students’ anxiety level and give them an opportunity to display their proficiency with technology.
First, display a picture of a sample Facebook status update. This feature lets users create a brief multimedia post about what is happening in their lives, including feelings, whereabouts, and actions. A simple photo like the one in Figure 1 will get students excited and model the features that you would like them to use. Have each student use a blank sheet of paper to quickly design a personal status update. Encourage them to make use of all the available Facebook tools to enhance their updates.
When students have completed their personal updates, ask a few to present the sketches they have created, highlighting how they have used each of the Facebook tools to enhance their posts. Discuss how these details help the audience to better understand a character or present a clearer picture of the setting. Next, ask students to identify how each of the components of a Facebook status update relates to the components of narrative writing. If students see that, as Figure 2 shows, Facebook status updates are an example of narrative writing they do daily, the task becomes less stressful and more fun.
Lesson 2: Exploring Character Development With Facebook Profiles
For new writers to become adept at character development, it is helpful for them to analyze characters in model texts. Facebook provides an effective and creative means of character analysis through profile development.
Group Work: Preparing a Profile
Have students work in pairs and assign them characters from your model text. As an example, I facilitate this activity using the children’s fairytale Cinderella. Pairs of students are assigned the roles of Cinderella, Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother, and the Evil Stepsisters. In large classes, more than one pair will prepare a profile of the same character. Have students work together to complete a poster-sized version of a Facebook profile for their assigned character. Display a profile template for students to refer to when creating their profiles (see Figure 3 for a sample). Depending on the size of your class, you may display this with a projector, or you may provide printed templates to your students.
Students may be able to fill out much of their character’s profile with information provided in the text. They might also need to infer some information from the character’s actions. For example, we don’t know where Cinderella went to school or how she might describe her job, but we do have enough information about her character to “think like Cinderella” and infer what she might include in her profile. Allow a reasonable amount of time for this task based on the level of challenge this will present for your students.
Sharing and Reflecting
Next, ask a few groups to share the profiles they created. In a large class, students could form small groups where each character is represented and share within that group to allow every pair an opportunity to present. This interactive activity is entertaining for students, as they work together to create humorous profiles for their characters. By sharing aloud in small groups, they practice their presentation skills in a low-anxiety, authentic situation.
Finally, have students reflect on the activity. Was it easy or difficult to fill out a profile for their character? Was there information that they had to invent? Were they able to make predictions about what their character would have written? Discuss what this means. Which type of characterization did they find more interesting? Highlight to students that they have completed an in-depth character analysis.
As students move from the practice to the production stage of writing, they can repeat this activity with their own writing. In this way, students can self-assess whether they have fully developed their characters. When writers turn imaginary characters into characters on a page, it is easy to leave out important details. The Facebook status check reinforces students’ character-development skills as they begin writing their own stories.
Lesson 3: Analyzing Plot Development Through Status Updates
Facebook status posts can also be used for plot analysis by readers and for plot development by writers. Using the model text, have students work in small groups to create a poster that retells the entire story in five or six Facebook-style status updates. Assign a specific character to each group and ask them to write status updates from that character’s point of view. Encourage students to make use of all the previously discussed Facebook tools when creating their posts. Students will need to reflect on the setting, the characters present in the scene, and the mood of the narrator at the time of the post.
Remind students of the general storyline that narrative writing follows. There should be a clear introduction, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a conclusion (see Figure 4). Each status update should represent a significant event in the trajectory of the story.
Remind students to include photos (or drawings), locations, and feelings, and to tag additional characters in their posts to paint a complete picture with each update. It might help to display a visual of the storyline as well as a sample Facebook status update (see Figure 5).
Have groups share their status-update plot diagrams with the class, highlighting the important events and the commentary from their character’s point of view. Ask students to reflect on the process they have just completed. This activity stresses the way in which the narrator’s voice affects the telling of a story. How would writing a simple summary of the text differ from the status updates provided by one character? Once again, in moving from practice to production, this status-update activity can be reapplied to students’ personal writing.
Pick Your Platform and Get Creative
Linking Facebook posts to narrative writing is just one example of the limitless creative connections that teachers can make between social media and language lessons. Bringing social media into the classroom lets teachers create authentic and entertaining language-learning opportunities for tech-savvy 21st-century learners.
Note: The full version of this article was originally published in English Teaching Forum in January 2019.
Download this article (PDF)
Jennifer Borch has spent much of the past 20 years in language education in both the United States and internationally. She has worked on language and culture projects and facilitated teacher training in Morocco, Vietnam, and France. In the United States, her work is focused on refugee-background students. Her areas of expertise include service learning, virtual cultural exchange, technology integration, and girls’ empowerment training. Jennifer’s consulting work includes test item writing and scoring, standards-setting, authoring and editing teaching materials, and conducting professional development webinars.