As I did last spring, I will post some of the better papers written by my students. In this case, I will be posting papers written as part of a graduate course in Academic Writing. The Master’s program is fairly new, and is designed as a way for working teachers to get a Master’s degree without having to take a lot of time off from work.. That means the course was taught in only three weeks – a very compressed time in which to teach a writing course.
This paper is written by Nguyễn Thị Mai Trang, a teacher at Tran Phu High School, Ba Ria Vung Tau Province (on the coast east of Sài Gòn ). She is now a Postgraduate Student of Hue College of Foreign Languages.
COLLEGE OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES
Subject: Academic Writing
DIFFICULTIES IN TEACHING
MULTILEVEL 6TH GRADE ENGLISH CLASSES
AT THUY PHUONG SECONDARY SCHOOL
Instructor: Douglas Alan Young
Researcher: Nguyễn Thò Mai Trang
Hue, Nov 2005
This research investigates the difficulties most teachers at Thuy Phuong secondary school in Huê, Việt Nam, have faced in teaching multilevel 6th grade English classes. The data collected from the teachers were used as a basis to analyze the difficulties as well as to draw out practical solutions and suggestions to overcoming those difficulties in teaching multilevel grade 6th English classes.
Multilevel classes are a real challenge for any teacher and most teachers, including English ones, have to face it (Lubik, 2005). At many schools, such as Thuy Phuong secondary school, located in Huê City, Việt Nam, teaching multilevel grade 6th English classes requires hard work from the teachers because the students’ levels are quite different. Some pupils who have studied English in previous schools can speak a little English while others hardly pronounce a word, as they have not been taught at primary schools before. Besides, studying in these classes, pupils are sometimes unmotivated because the tasks may be either too easy or too difficult for them. This is really a matter that most teachers have to face.
This paper seeks the answers to the following questions: (1) What are the problems of multilevel grade 6th English classes? and (2) What are the solutions for these problems?
1. What is a “multilevel class”?
There have been many studies on multilevel classes (or mixed ability classes) as most teachers have faced this problem in teaching.
“When we talk about multilevel classes, we tend to focus on the variation in the students’ control of the language. We talk about the influent student sitting next to the one who can barely piece together a sentence.” (Bell, 1991:1)
According to Shank and Terrill (1995), teachers use the term “multilevel” to identify any group of learners who differ from one another in one or more significant ways. Arguably, every class is multilevel because learners begin with varying degrees of competence and then progress at different rates in each of the language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
In a word, a multilevel English class is the one in which there are different students with different levels or abilities in controlling the language.
2. Why are there multilevel 6th grade English classes? There are three main reasons:
a. Previous experiences with education
In most 6th grade English classes, there is a gap between the levels of students who are completely new to English and those who have studied some English. Currently, English is an optional subject at primary schools. While some schools include English in their curriculum (Let’s Go series published by Oxford University Press), others do not. This means that in 6th grade, some pupils leaving Primary schools with a good sound knowledge of English will study better than other students who hardly know a word. Besides, at secondary schools, English is a compulsory subject that is taught at Elementary level despite some knowledge students have gained from their previous schools. This reality brings about problems not only for students but also for teachers. As reported in “The Vietnam News” (2005, Nov 16), “Students presently study basic English in primary school; but they then move on to junior and senior high school, where the curriculum repeats beginning-level English. Such a reiteration is non-pedagogically sound and tends to limit students’ English skills.”
b. The point of entry
There seems to be no criterion in forming classes at the beginning of the school year. Most students are randomly streamed. As a result, both strong and weak students may share a class.
c. Individual factors:
According to Lightbown and Spada (1993: 36, 39), students’ intelligence and motivation affect language learning.
Intelligence: Many studies using a variety of IQ tests and different methods of assessing language learning have found that intelligence levels were a good means of predicting how successful a learner would be at language learning.
Motivation: Positive attitude and motivation are related to success in language learning.
3. What are the problems of multilevel classes?
a. Applying Methodologies and Techniques
Teachers really have difficulties in using methodologies and techniques because some techniques may be easy to some students but difficult for others. As Bell (1991:10) points out, “What can I give them to do that won’t bore the advanced students and won’t be too difficult for the beginners?”
b. Managing class
What should the teachers do when some pupils finish the tasks (during class time) earlier than the other students do? The advanced students, who do not want to waste time waiting for the others, may do their own business that the teachers cannot control. Lewis (2002:33) reports, “There’s such a variety of levels in this class that it’s really difficult to organize a good lesson.”
c. Assessing and Evaluating
Sometimes teachers find it difficult to design tests. Difficult tests will be out of weak students’ abilities while easy tests will de-motivate strong students. Bell (1991:12) says that it is difficult to devise an evaluative instrument suitable for students with such varied backgrounds and skills.
4. What are solutions for multilevel grade 6th English classes?
a. Planning tasks for the Multilevel Class.
Galateanu ( 2005) points out three main ways of planning tasks for a multilevel class:
(1) Use the same language material, but assign different tasks.
(2) Use different language material, but assign the same tasks.
(3) Use different language material and assign different tasks.
b. Managing the multilevel classroom through organizing activities:
Bell (1991: 103, 131) suggests a variety of techniques and grouping strategies:
Whole Group activities are appropriate initially for beginning a new class and regularly for daily warm-up time.
Small Group work provides opportunities for learners to use their language skills and is often less intimidating than whole group work.
Cross-ability grouping allows stronger learners to help others and maximizes complementary learner strengths.
Cross-ability pairs work best when partners are given different roles and heavier demands are placed on the more proficient learner.
Grouping students by these ways will bring about a lot of advantages for both teachers and students. The teachers can play the role of a facilitator or an adviser who can spend more time on helping weak students than strong ones. More importantly, good learners can also act as peer tutors or peer group leaders; weak students can feel more self-confident. Above all, students really have a lot of chances to learn from one another.
c. Assessing and evaluating (ongoing)
Assessing and evaluating are important parts of teaching process as Bell (1991: 43) points out, “the teachers need to institute ongoing evaluation procedures so that we can adjust our approach to suit the class.”
- The subjects of the study: 8 English teachers from Thuy Phuong secondary school.
- Data collection: The data presented in this research were collected from 8 questionnaires
- Data analysis: according to statistical frequency and percentage.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
Data collected from questionnaires answered by 8 teachers from Thuy Phuong Secondary school are presented through the following tables:
Table 1: Difficulties in teaching multilevel 6th grade English class.
Difficulties the teachers have faced Number Percentage
Applying Methodologies and Techniques 6 75%
Managing class 4 50%
Assessing and Evaluating 3 37.5%
As we can see from Table 1, most surveyed teachers affirmed that they had difficulties in teaching a multilevel grade 6th English class. Actually, 75% of the teachers really had difficulties in applying methodologies and techniques. According to them, communicative approach is best for advanced students while lower-level students only get benefits from techniques such as Repetition Drills in Audio-lingual method. The statistics in table 1 also showed that how to manage a multilevel English class seemed to be the problem of only 50% of the investigated teachers. The rest 50% had no difficulties because they attended Vietnamese Teaching Training Network - VTTN Program conducted by British Councils every year. Only 37.5 % of those questioned met difficulties in assessing and evaluating students’ learning because they had some experience in assessing and evaluating.
Table 2: Planning tasks
Ways of planning tasks Number Percentage
Different tasks – same materials 6 75%
Same tasks – same materials 5 62.5%
Same tasks – different materials 2 25%
Different tasks – different materials 1 12.5%
The recorded data in table 2 showed that by using the same material (prescribed textbook Tieng Anh 6), 75 % of the teachers designed different tasks suitable to their students’ levels. These teachers tried their best to satisfy both the fixed syllabus and real needs of their students. On the contrary, 62.5% had both strong and weak students do the same tasks although students’ abilities were not the same level. Statistics in table 2 also revealed that, in order to offer students further practice as well as to consolidate the knowledge in the textbook, two teachers, taking 25%, required students to do the same tasks with different materials, which really helped both strong and weak students improve their English. With the same purpose as above, only one teacher (12.5%) designed different tasks with different materials because of the allotted class time (45 minutes for each period, three periods a week).
Table 3: Grouping Strategies
Grouping strategies Number Percentage
Pairs / groups at the same desk 7 87.5%
Equal-ability pairs / groups 2 25%
Cross-ability pairs / groups 3 37.5%
On being asked about planning activities, all teachers replied that they organized pair work and group work, but they had different grouping strategies. The majority of the teachers (87.5%) said that they divided students into pairs or groups of students sharing the same desks because that was the quickest way. If they formed cross-ability pairs or groups, students had to move from one desk to another, which might make loud noises affecting neighbor classes. Despite this inconvenience, the other teachers that make up 37.5 % grouped students with cross-ability so as to benefit the students. However, two out of eight teachers (25%) formed equal-ability pairs and groups. According to them, by doing this, advanced students were motivated because they had more chances to develop their skills while the teachers could pay more attention to weak pairs or groups.
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS
In summary, the results of the study have proved that multilevel 6th grade English classes have brought about a lot of difficulties to most teachers at Thuy Phuong secondary school. To overcome these difficulties, some teachers made good efforts in planning tasks suitable to students’ levels, organizing pair work and group work with good strategies. However, there were still some teachers who could not do anything else because of some personal and contextual reasons. Consequently, different strategies of different teachers might create a bigger gap of levels among students in the same grade. In my opinion, there should be a synchronic solution to get over the problem of multilevel 6th grade English classes.
In order to overcome the problems of multilevel English classes, the following things should be taken into consideration:
* For students, they should be taught to be responsible for their own learning. Besides, students should help one another in and outside classrooms to improve their knowledge of English.
* For teachers, organizing activities and planning tasks that are best suitable to all students in a class are very necessary. Teachers should not ask students to do something boring or beyond their abilities. Besides, assessing and evaluating should be an ongoing spiral. It will reflect learning and teaching processes exactly.
* For other concerned parties, should teaching English at Primary schools be optional or compulsory? A synchronic English curriculum for Primary school children is needed to make sure that all students entering 6th grade have certain knowledge of English.
I do hope that these temporary solutions will reduce the gap of abilities among students, to some extent, when they enter secondary schools.
Suggested further research
Despite the researcher’s attempts, there are still some limitations because of the allotted time and the small scale of the research. It is essential that a larger scale of research be carried out.
Bell, J. (1991). Teaching multilevel classes in ESL. California, Dominie Press, Inc.
Conference emphasizes need for improving English language skills. (2005, Nov 16). VietnamNews . Page 1.
Galateanu, G. (2005). Multilevel heritage language classes.
(2005, Nov 27)
Lewis, M. M.A. (2002, September). Reflections on Teaching. Why I am not a perfect teacher. Teacher’s Edition. Pages 32-33.
Lightbown, P. M. and Spada, N. (1993). How languages are learned. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Lubik, M. (2005). Using folktales in multilevel class teaching. http://www.maius.uni.torun.pl/ang/prace/lubik.htm (2005, Nov 28)
Shank, C. C. and Terrill, L. R. (1995, May) Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes. Arlington (Virginia) Education and Employment Program. http://www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/digests/SHANK.html (2005, Nov 27)
This survey is aimed at investigating the difficulties most teachers at Thuy Phuong secondary school have faced in teaching multilevel grade 6th English classes. This questionnaire will be used for academic research, and the result may be used for overcoming some difficulties as stated above, not for any other purposes.
Please state your age and years of teaching.
Age:……………………………… Years of teaching:…………………………..
1. Do you find it difficult to teach a multilevel 6th grade English class? (Please tick only one)
a. Yes b. No
2. If yes, what are the difficulties? (Please tick, more than one is possible)
a. Applying methodologies and techniques c. Assessing and Evaluating
b. Managing class d. Others:…………………………
3. How do you plan tasks for a multilevel English class of 6th grade? (Please tick, more than one is possible)
a. Same tasks – different materials c. Different tasks – different materials
b. Same tasks – same materials d. Different tasks – same materials
4. How do you organize activities for a multilevel 6th grade English class? (Please tick, more than one is possible)
a. Individual c. Group work
b. Pair work d. Whole class
5. How do you form pairs and groups of students? (Please tick, more than one is possible)
a. Equal-ability pairs / groups c. Random pairs / groups
b. Cross-ability pairs / groups d. Others:……………………..
6. How do you design a test for a multilevel 6th grade English class? (Please tick only one)
a. Quite easy level
b. Quite difficult level
c. Increasingly difficult level
d. Decreasingly difficult level
Thank you very much for your collaboration.