Assessing and teaching English to mixed ability students from day 1

How to use our English Level Test Sample as a back-to-school classroom management strategy to get to know your students on the very first day.
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A teacher-friendly English Level Test Sample is a must-have for every busy teacher, and can easily be used as a back-to-school activity. 

Assessing and teaching English to mixed ability students is a constant for the majority of EFL and ESL teachers, and therefore it helps them shape their teaching practice. Whether you are teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL), you are likely to have classes resulting from mixed ability grouping and most probably in overcrowded classrooms. This is the first topic we are going to analyze in the first four sections of this post. 

Subsequently, we are going to see how to assess your students’ English language skills on day 1, using an English Level Test sample as a back-to-school classroom management strategy. 

Finally, I will provide you with some affordable ready-to-use English level test samples, which could be a great start to help you find the right track for the upcoming school year.

What is the greatest advantage of mixed ability grouping?

Those who support mixed ability grouping theory focus, obviously, on the advantages of mixed ability grouping, particularly its potential to create greater equity among students as well as to enable students to interact with others who are at a different ability level. These are two underestimated yet powerful tools that schools can use to develop both cognitive and social skills. However, after working with mixed ability groups for over a decade, I have to admit that it would be a relief to have a same-ability group from time to time (although I do wonder if those exist), not because I disagree with mixed ability grouping, but mostly due to the workload I get.

What is the greatest challenge of mixed ability grouping?

I remember complaining to a group of fellow teachers about having 22 students in a mixed ability classroom, which included students with learning disabilities and students with behavioral disorders. A colleague from China smiled and said the number of students per class there often reaches 50.

I felt both astonishment and anguish. Our numbers keep growing. Is that the number we are also aiming at? After giving it some serious thought, I believe those numbers would be manageable here too, in a utopian classroom where all students actually understood the difference between freedom and doing or saying whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.

Times are definitely changing as they have always been, maybe a bit faster now. That is to say that we are now in an era of numbers and Smartphone thumbs. Yes, Smartphone thumbs are actually a thing! I can’t help but wonder what will happen next. Regardless of what the future might bring, it is safe to say that we all have to adapt or sinking is what fate holds for us all (this is Bob Dylan’s metaphor, more meaningful than ever).

It is high time we all started swimming!

With the increasing number of students per class, and their growing agility when it comes to concealing thumb movement during class, it is crucial to get students to listen, to give effective learning a chance. Teachers and students have to aim at becoming a better version of themselves and not just cognitively, but also ethically and civically.

I don’t agree with the argument that high numbers of students per class will ever favor inclusion. Those numbers favor profit and at a huge loss. A loss that surpasses any cognitive knowledge that students can get from attending school.

Nevertheless, accepting that times are changing doesn’t mean conforming to everything around us as is; on the contrary, it means acknowledging the change so that you can stop, process the information you have gathered, and start swimming, i.e., reshaping your practice.

Bob Dylan was right when he addressed mothers and fathers (I would also include all educators). If we don’t process the reality as is, we won’t be able to find out what we can do to lend a hand and help improve it; we will be wasting major opportunities to create healthy bonds.

Excerpt of Bob Dylan's lyrics Times they are changing, starting at 'mothers and fathers throughout the land'
Bob Dylan's 'Times they are changing'

Teach students how to respect

In addition, there is a tendency to see teachers as entertainers as well as to neglect the importance of boundaries to what can be done inside a classroom and inside our schools. It is important to keep in mind that educators have much higher purposes when they set their feet in school and in the classroom and one of those purposes is to help students develop moral and social capabilities, especially those that don’t have reliable role models in their household.

In a mixed ability classroom, it all starts with teaching to respect differences, conveying the importance of knowledge and the weight of healthy social interactions.

What is the real problem in our schools then?

Sadly, overcrowded classrooms are a reality for all teachers, not just for language teachers. I dare say, with a fairly high degree of certainty, that class size is the biggest obstacle to effective learning in the classroom. First, it is a catalyst for disruptive behavior; second, it reduces teacher-student interactions and bonding in the classroom.

Despite being underestimated, a strong teacher-student bond not only dictates the level of student engagement with school but also their social development. Needless to say, that while schools are forced to build groups according to logistic and economic constraints, we may well admit that we are wasting our time on student-centered pedagogy because the number of students per classroom will keep undermining most positive outcomes of any student-centered approach. The worst thing is many students and many teachers will be lost along the way for lack of motivation.

How to assess English language skills and set the tone from day one?

Being a reality we won’t be able to escape from anytime soon, here are some tips that might help other fellow teachers with mixed ability classroom management in the English classroom.

#1 Apply an English level test sample on the first day of school

Apply an English level test to get to know the level range you will be working with, but make it short. It doesn’t have to be a long test such as the following:

  • Cambridge English Placement Test
  • Oxford English Placement Test
  • International English Language Test System (IELTS)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
TpT Store link to buy up2dateSKILLS English Level Test Sample B editable word file
up2dateSKILLS English Level Test
Sample B
editable Word file

Although these are widely accepted English language tests, you should be looking for a test that covers the topics students should have mastered in previous years and some of those you have to cover.

I find it useful to assess previously acquired language skills at a very early stage. I conduct a quick multiple-choice language assessment, usually on the first day of school. Having the students take a quick English language placement test gives me a rough idea of the participants’ level range. In addition, it sets the tone for what’s to come: I have high expectations for all of them and I expect them to deliver.

#2 English Level Test Samples

Here are two video previews of an English Placement Test that you might find useful. You can use it as any EFL test or ESL test. You can find multiple versions of these tests in different formats. Please check all the options posted under each video to see if you find one that suits your needs. The English level test samples in the video are: (1) a fillable PDF file, and (2) an editable Word file, both ready to use. 

You can also get all the options of the test above as a BUNDLE at up2dateSKILLS online stores: up2 and TPT.

The bundle includes all English Level Test Samples – Versions A and B in multiple formats.

TpT store link to buy up2dateSKILLS English Level Test bundle, with samples A and B
up2dateSKILLS English Level Test
bundle
with samples A and B

#3 Take a free online English Level Test Sample

If you are curious about the sort of questions you will find on each English level test sample, I invite you to try out our free online English level test, which is similar. Like most multiple-choice ESL placement tests, it will give you a rough idea of what your level is and eventually show you some of the teaching challenges you might have to overcome in the classroom.

Link to up2dateKILLS free online English level test
Free English Level Test Online at up2dateSKILLS.com

#4 How to use up2dateSKILLS English Level Test Sample

With this English assessment test, assessing the students’ level actually becomes the easy part.

As mentioned, there are two versions of this test, namely version A and version B. The sentences in Placement Test B have been slightly changed and the answers shuffled so that you can use both versions in the same class.

Both versions have 50 multiple-choice questions, with one point available for each correct answer. Levels are then determined by the number of points your students score.

The test includes questions mostly related to grammar. It is a general English placement test and it will help you determine which level will best suit your class.

Depending on the group, I give students 20 to 30 minutes to complete the test. Some of them will complete the test in less time and some might not be able to complete all the questions, so it is important to let them know that you really have to collect the tests after 30 minutes and that it is not a problem if they leave some questions unanswered. It is all part of the assessment. If they need more than 30 minutes, they are probably struggling a bit. 

#5 Get students to learn with one another other

After conducting the general English level test and before moving ahead to the correction stage, you can ask for volunteers to make a class presentation on some of the grammar items in the test. Give them a list of the most important topics, but make sure they will be able to deliver. You can do so by guiding them.

The students who feel more comfortable are probably the ones who will take that chance, but you don’t need to see that a problem, as it is not meant to show that they are ahead of others. Most importantly, in allowing high achievers to perform first, you will be (1) gathering data to assess some of your students at an early stage, (2) revising some important content in an uncommon way, (3) setting the tone for what you expect others to achieve, while (4) buying some extra time for those who are still struggling with the language to develop their skills, before they have to give a presentation themselves.

#6 Engage students in scoring and correcting the English Level Test sample through project work

After conducting the general English level test and reviewing some key topics with the students’ presentations, comes the scoring stage, which should be carried out without jeopardizing effective learning. For full disclosure, I would like to state I have a strong belief that engaging learners in the correction of their own output is an important step to take; however, I only do so if I feel it is going to be productive. 

By allowing the students to engage in scoring the test, you will be making sure they actually see each correction and won’t just pile up their tests; in addition to that, they will be going through the information at least twice.

I would say this is a great moment to enjoy the benefits of mixed ability groups. I suggest (1) dividing students into groups of equal numbers and (2) making sure one of the students who volunteered to give a presentation is part of each group, so as to guide the group he/she has been assigned throughout the scoring stage.

Score analysis board taken from the top of the page of the English Level Test sample B
English Level Test Sample B
Score analysis board

#7 Provide the students with the answer key of their English Level Test Sample

All the tests mentioned above are general English placement tests with answers. Having the answer key will help you score your students’ level test much faster even if you choose to it yourself. Correcting the test yourself will increase the workload you have to tackle outside the classroom, but it also means you won’t have to deal with all the fuss of having to manage your classroom while your students are working in groups.

On the other hand, engaging students in scoring their own tests or those of their classmates has its perks too. It is likely to give them a sense of engagement in learning (even if you end up handing them out the English level test with answers). Above all, you will be giving your students the opportunity to succeed in achieving two things in a single assignment, namely (1) identifying the language skills they have to put some extra time into and (2) working on their social development.

The second option is likely to lessen your workload, but the feasibility and outcome are two aspects you have to ponder according to the characteristics of each group.

#8 Plan differentiated teaching strategies

Once the level test is revised, the planning time comes. That is when the real adventure starts, especially when dealing with mixed ability English classes. The data you gathered from the general English placement test will be your greatest asset when you are creating your lesson plans.

The main goal now is to put differentiation into practice without burdening yourself with a workload that you can’t cope with. Treat the whole class equally and share the same resources with all your students. 

You can use the test scores to plan your lessons, which should include a sequence of level-specific activities. Start with the easiest tasks for instance, and manage student participation in order to encourage struggling students to engage first. Assign them tasks you believe they can complete successfully. Then move on to the more complex tasks and reel high achievers in, thus enabling all students to take part in the same lesson. Make sure every student understood the main topics at the end of each lesson or chapter.

#9 Keep every student busy with ongoing activities

As there will surely be students who finish their work ahead of the rest of the class, you have to think of strategies to keep them busy. Creating ongoing individual projects might be the key to avoid disruptive behavior. It can be a journal, a scrapbook, a portfolio with vocabulary boards, a game to play with the class, a word bank, a grammar bank, and why not a book review? Asking the students to have a book to read in between tasks serves multiple purposes. If the idea of the book review is appealing to you, you should definitely check up2dateSLILLS 10 Tips to Learn English with Books.

#10 Use homework wisely

The purpose of homework is to consolidate classwork; hence, assigning homework that addresses each student’s individual weaknesses can make the planned learning objectives accessible for all students. As students are working at home, they can take the time they need to complete each task at their own pace. They won’t feel that they are being treated differently.

Some final words

In conclusion, applying an Engish Level Test Sample at an early stage will help you know your students and their needs a little better. My greatest sorrow is having to come to terms with the fact that my students’ skills can’t all be assessed with a multiple-choice English level test; but if I succeed in teaching the syllabus of a lifetime in 50-minute lessons and manage to touch some hearts along the way, then I am on the right track.

Needless to say, dear teachers and students, you should get together and fight for the reduction of students per class to achieve real inclusion, get to know each other the best you can, and be a role model. Respect and positive examples are just as good at spreading themselves as any virus.

If you are a teacher, don’t succumb to the pressure, keep waving that magic wand of yours and use all your 50 minutes well.

If you are a student, the best piece of advice I can give you is RESPECT, LISTEN, PROCESS, and SHARE; actually, if you manage to grip the first tip, all others will effortlessly follow.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these tips. Please don’t hesitate to use the comment section below.

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