Teaching English in a Large Multilevel
上海市奉贤区致远高级中学 吕敏英 (201400)
Large multilevel class teaching is a major mode being used in most schools in China.
There exist many constraints on effective English teaching in such environment. The
article discusses some problems involved and outlines the possible benefits. On the
basis of the brief analysis, a few suggestions, in the light of current education thinking
to enhance classroom practice, are presented to see to it that English teaching in a
large multilevel class is successful.
Key words: large multilevel class; English teaching
There has been some research on large multilevel class teaching in developed
countries, though the definition of large class may be slightly different from that in
developing countries. British professor of education Natalie Hess defines large classes
as “classes of thirty or more students in elementary, secondary, adult, and tertiary
settings” and she defines multilevel classes as “the kinds of classes that have been
roughly arranged according to ability, or simply classes that have been arranged
according to age-group with no thought to language ability. These are classes in which
students vary considerably in their language and literacy skills.”
According to the current situation of China’s education, a large multilevel class is
defined in this paper as a class that has 50 learners or more in elementary, secondary
and tertiary education settings, in which learners are roughly classified by age-stage
without considering their language ability. The level, aptitude and attitude the learners
have on language are totally different. Such classes are in need of a great deal of
special attention and encouragement to make progress.
President of China Jiang zeming addressed at the third National Educational
Conference in 1999, “Education must face all the students and open up their full
human potential. The major goal in education should be fostering students’ creativity
and practical capacities.” It indicates that the focus of current education in China
should be on the enhancement of the capacities of learners at all levels. Only when the
gifts and human potentials of all learners are fully cultivated, can the quality of the
whole nation’s education be further developed and fill the requirements of 21 st
Since the teaching and learning of English, as a foreign language, is mostly conducted
in large multilevel classes in China, it is quite essential that strategies of coping with
large multilevel class English teaching be explored and promoted. The writer is
carrying on the research on the strategies of successful large multilevel class English
teaching, hoping to provide advice for the language teachers who work with large
2. Problems of working with a large multilevel class
Due to the mixed-ability grouping as well as the large class size, there unavoidably
exist many constraints on effective large multilevel class English teaching. The major
problems may be as follows.
2.1. Classroom organization
A large multilevel class is normally fully occupied, and hence appears to be crowded,
which will bring about a lot of problems relevant to classroom organization. For
instance, when a teacher uses group work, there might be chaos in the classroom with
so many seats moved, which may cause an unpleasant English learning atmosphere.
Besides, the teacher has to speak aloud to make sure every one can hear him/her
clearly, which will make him/her exhausted. Language communication between the
teacher and learners and peer work among the learners become difficult due to visual
and physical obstacles. Consequently, classroom may even be out of control at some
2.2 Excessive check work
Dealing with a large multilevel class, the English teacher has to check over 50 written
or oral assignments each day so as to give the learners immediate feedback or
comments. This is really a huge and tedious task, which will occupy most of teacher’s
work time, making him/her unable to respond every individual properly, leaving him/
her little time to make teaching preparation, to say nothing of self-development.
2.3 Satisfying various learning styles
Each of the learners has his/her own way to follow English lessons, accept the
knowledge and develop language competences through classroom practice, which of
course are quite different at many aspects. Take text study for example. Some learners
focus on preview and prefer to get access to the contents and structures individually,
while some others may lay emphasis on review and choose to work on the text with
the instruction of the teacher in the whole class. A large multilevel class usually
involves more learning styles, which is difficult to provide proper teachings to meet
the demand for each style and seems more difficult to cater for the needs of every
2.4 Having learners activated
To make learners concentrated, to have them involved, and to get them promptly
responded have always been the essential aims every English teacher tries to reach.
However, the tasks of activities in a large multilevel class are usually not
individualized. And the interaction between the teacher and the whole class usually
occurs more, during which only a small part of the learners participate actively in the
classroom activities, with most of them not activated and some even feeling bored,
which seems quite discouraging.
3. Benefits of dealing with a large multilevel class
As indicated above, teaching English in a large multilevel class is really tedious,
exhausting and demanding work. However, teachers may not have realized that it is a
challenging and interesting job as well. A few benefits of this are as follows.
3.1 Obtaining more knowledge
In a large multilevel class, more comments, more references, more personal
experience, as well as more learning styles may be found, which will help both the
teacher and learners a lot over many aspects. Teachers will be pushed to prepare
lessons carefully in order to present an interesting, multi-inclusive, and learner-
centered lecture. Learners can benefit from mutual learning and obtain more
knowledge through classroom communication. Thus English learning atmosphere
may be promoted by presenting an informative lecture or by organizing an attractive
3.2 Enhancing mutual learning
Multilevel grouping provides more chances to allow the more capable learners to
improve their English by making explanation, stating clearly, and giving effective
examples to the others. Meanwhile it supplies the less capable ones with considerable
support as well. Such cooperative, interdependent learning will enhance a positive
mutual learning, which is definitely beneficial to all levels of learners.
3.3 Plenty of chances for interaction
In a small class, learners know each other very well, and hence may lose interest in
interaction, which will lead to a dull English learning atmosphere short of dynamics.
However, in a large multilevel class, learners may be easy to motivate and interaction
among them may be more active, since they are exposed to more chances to interact
with new fellows, which seems more challenging to them.
4. Suggestions on coping with a large multilevel class
Considering the problems and benefits related to English teaching in a large
multilevel class, a few suggestions as regards the issues are given as follows.
4.1 Proper layout of seats
Seats need to be rearranged in the classroom. Instead of simply rowing with isolated
lines, seats may be laid around one or two desks to allow learners to be classified into
a number of groups, arranged either by the same level or by mixed levels according to
different tasks of activities. Learners can be informed of the group arrangement before
each activity. Such layout of seats will make it not only easier for learners to carry on
their group work such as brainstorming, peer learning as well as discovery way of
learning, but more convenient for the teacher to give appropriate support to different
groups as well.
4.2 Encouraging participation
In a large multilevel class, to encourage as many learners as possible to participate in
classroom activities is what every teacher has to attain. Several ways can serve this
Giving a question before calling the name to respond, and leaving plenty of time
to allow learners to think.
Waiting patiently until many learners are willing to respond instead of choosing
the first one who has volunteered to give an answer.
Listening carefully when the learner is talking about a personal topic, even if the
topic is beyond our lesson plan, for the topic may be far more interesting to
learners than what we originally planned.
Not disturbing the learner who is giving the answer to the question and not
forgetting to give immediate positive feedback to any participant.
4.3 Involving learners in collaboration
Collaborative learning is a must in a large multilevel class. Since a teacher is not able
to serve the immediate needs of all learners at the same time, learners must soon learn
to use one another as language resources. Group work, pair work, peer comment,
brainstorming, collaborative writing, collaborative community projects, and group
poster presentations are all best solutions to involving learners in collaboration.
Through such learning, learners participate more, and they get to learn how to
cooperate with one another, how to get self-improvement, and will become more
efficient English learners.
4.4 Employing self-assessment as well as peer-assessment
A large multilevel class teacher can hardly provide each learner with immediate
feedback or comments on his work, and therefore it is essential for learners to be
taught how to make self-assessment as well as peer-assessment themselves. Self-
assessment requires learners to self-monitor their own English learning processes and
abilities, which makes a powerful impact on their becoming independent English
learners. Peer-assessment helps to develop learners’ awareness of personal strengths
and weakness, and gives a learner the benefit of another’s perspective. These two
sorts of assessments can apply to all levels of English learners, who will consequently
become responsible for their own learning.
4.5 Promoting individualization
In a large multilevel class it is most important to create activities that can keep more
advanced learners feeling challenging and at the same time allow the less advanced
learners to make progress at their own pace. Teachers can individualize tasks in two
ways---they can use the same material in different ways, or they can use different
materials in the same way. The other effective way to promote individualization is
self-access center. A self-access center of English may be some special projects, such
as individualized selected readings, specialized vocabulary lists, listening tapes, and
pictures that the teacher or learners have collected for the learners who need extra
work or specialized attention. Such self-access center enables learners to work on
aspects of English they need to practice and the climate in the classroom is more
accessible and pleasant.
4.6 Variable way of conducting teaching
The principle of variety will help to energize English teaching, especially in a large
multilevel class. To stimulate all learners’ interest over the whole learning process, the
ways of teaching English need to be variable and flexible. For example, if the learners
have been reading silently for a while, let them join partners and read to one another.
If the class has been very active, it is time for a reflective activity. Besides, learners at
different levels can be given different tasks. More capable learners can do more
demanding tasks while the less capable ones can deal with less challenging work.
Furthermore, game-like activities with clear goals and motivating processes can be
created to guide learners through involving tasks into thoughtful and insightful use of
English. In addition, the proper use of attractive visuals, problem solving processes,
and role-plays can all get learners deeply absorbed.
In this article, the problems and benefits of teaching English in a large multilevel class
are analyzed. On the basis of the brief analysis, the ways to conduct effective English
teaching in a large multilevel class are discussed. Since large multilevel class English
teaching is still a major mode being used in elementary and secondary education in
China, discussion on how to improve such teaching is undoubtedly of great
significance. To promote the process, a few personal views related to the topic are
presented in the light of current education thinking to enhance classroom practice. I
would be much pleased if this could make a minor contribution to current English
classroom teaching. Any comments or feedback as regards this would be more than
welcomed and greatly appreciated.
1. Anne Convery and Do Coyle, Differentiation and individual learners (CILT, 1999)
2. Leslie Dickinson, Learner Autonomy (Authentik, 1992)
3. Natalie Hess, Teaching Large Multilevel Classes (Cambridge, 2001)