Are you teaching a mixed level French class? Do you feel like you’re struggling to teach all levels? Do you feel like you’re cramming two (or more) lesson plans into one class period? You’re not alone! A lot of foreign language teachers find themselves in exactly this position, and it can be really scary, tiring, and stressful, but it doesn’t have to be!
I began my teaching career as a high school French teacher where I spent eight years before moving to middle school FSL and then immersion. Four of those eight years were spent with 4 or 5 preps and a combined-level class. Each year, I got better, I felt less stressed, and made more progress with my students, but I have to admit that I had my share of not-so-successful moments. Here’s what I learned.
There are plenty of benefits to having a mixed level French class.
You might have them 2 years in a row (or more).
I always loved this, because it allowed me to really develop a relationship with my students. They were more willing to take risks or make mistakes, because they were comfortable with me.
It also makes the back-to-school time so much easier. They already know your expectations, so you have less work on your hands there. You already know the areas they do well in and where they can improve, so this allows for more individualized lessons.
You have a lot of opportunities to differentiate.
I mean, you have to differentiate, so look at it as an advantage. You’ll be able provide more challenging materials for your younger group, and you can remediate as needed for the upper level. You don’t have to wait to show advanced topics until the students are at a certain level. This is not how we learned our native language, but it seems pretty standard for foreign language. You might have some native speakers in your class, so you would be using some of the strategies you use to teach them.
You’ll have a lot of time for small groups.
You simply can’t teach the whole class at once every day, all class period. This means that you’ll need to break them into groups to work on the appropriate material. I’m a huge fan of group work. With fun activities like board games or speaking cards, students will love having the time to interact.
Students teach and learn from their peers a lot in mixed level classes.
I’ve noticed that the less-advanced students really look up to the students in the higher level, and this really motivates them to push themselves. The upper-level students take on a mentor role, and they learn even more deeply at times as they explain concepts to their classmates.
Ultimately, I found that the key to making it work was to treat them as one class. All classrooms have students working at different levels, so even if we are teaching two levels, it is really important to build a community. If students feel connected to one another, despite being in different levels, it just makes the whole process easier. It might have taken a little time in the beginning, but as the year went on, they really did become a close-knit group.
There are also some difficulties with having a mixed level French class.
Madame, j’ai fini !
Part of the class has finished the activity and is ready to move on. Other students are working well on their own, but are moving more slowly. Another group of students doesn’t understand the activity and needs more help.
You’re not sure who to teach.
It’s hard to design a lesson that will teach the required material to all students. Some students need a complete lesson on the topic, others could benefit from a quick review, and the rest don’t really need to practice any more at all. The stronger students will get bored if you don’t teach quickly enough and the students who need help will get frustrated if you go too fast.
The curriculum doesn’t match the students’ needs – or it doesn’t even exist!
This is a hard one! I have taught in a number of schools where there was little or no guidance to what I was actually supposed to teach. If we had a curriculum, the teaching expectations were pretty far from what I felt needed to happen. Having no curriculum meant having no clear direction. It also meant a lot more freedom to meet students where they are. I was lucky to have had really supportive administrations, so I was able to make the adaptations I needed to teach more effectively.
Classroom management is tricky.
Even the best of kids will look for something to do when they don’t feel like there is much structure. The teacher is constantly going back and forth between the levels. There is no down-time and it can feel like a rushed pace for the entire period.
Here’s what I did to make my mixed-level classes a success.
1. Provide choice for personalized progress.
I’m a huge lover of choice. Maybe I offer a choice of delivery method on a project, have students choose a certain number of questions on a test, or have the students complete a choice board for each unit.
Provide choice on tests. Perhaps everyone does section A. Then a level 3 student would choose 5 questions from section B and a level 4 student would choose 5 questions from section C. The theme might be the same, for example, talking about the past. However, perhaps a level 3 student would use the imparfait and the passé composé where a level 4 would have questions using the plus-que-parfait in addition to the imparfait and passé composé.
2. Use centers and technology to your advantage.
Have centers for different levels and allow students to move through them. This is a great way to have students working productively on something while you work with another group. You can also use technology such as Boom Cards™ to help students review concepts on their own. If your students have access to devices, practicing with a deck of Boom Cards or making flashcards to share with others on Quizlet is a lot of fun for them. This is really helpful for those students who finish early, because they can work on something at a center while others finish up.
3. Change groups often.
Just because a student might be a level 4 doesn’t mean they can’t work with a level 3 and vice versa. If a level 3 student is ready to learn a level 4 concept, teach it to him/her. When a level 4 needs to review a level 3 concept, have that student work with a level 3 group. If you continuously change groups, students won’t even notice that you have strategically placed them in an easier or harder group.
Use whole-class question time to mix levels. This way, you won’t always group level 4s with other level 4s while the level 5s are in their own group. All students will benefit, because they will hear and use a larger variety of vocabulary and verbs if they aren’t restricted to one specific chapter in a French book.
4. Teach the same topic but have different requirements for each group.
For example, a unit on the house and home could involve grammatical topics such as reflexive verbs, the subjunctive, the passé composé, or any other group of verbs you want.
Provide students with a vocabulary list and then a challenge list. If your advanced learners have learned the words on the required list, add to the list with thematic vocabulary. Use conversation activities to use all the vocabulary. By doing this, all students get exposed to a lot of new words. You can also have them create their own lists at times.
You can use Bloom’s to get deeper with the same concept. For example, you might ask one group to recall information and apply a set of grammar rules while another group uses uses the same concepts to answer open-ended questions, write a short story, or create a new product.
5. Organize your time wisely.
The hardest part for me was trying to make sure everyone got what they needed from me without running myself crazy. Having clear time limits and set places for everything made this easier. For warm-ups, on some days, we’d do the same questions, but they would be open-ended questions or writing prompts. We’d do a lot of whole-class sharing or paired sharing, and students would benefit a lot from hearing a wide range of answers.
On other days when we might be reviewing something different, I’d have two separate sets, one on the interactive whiteboard and one written on another board in the back of the room. Each group worked on the appropriate warm-up, then I would choose a student from each group to lead the corrections for the day. This allowed me to watch both groups and step in when needed to help them make corrections.
6. Differentiate your reading activities.
You don’t always have to split them into level 2 and level 3 students, but you might choose to do that at times. You can definitely work with the same text while providing students with different questions by using structured differentiated reading activities.
This is also a great way to get work time with each group. While reading some stories from Le Petit Nicolas, my level 3s read the same story as my level 4s. Each group got questions that were targeted to their proficiency level, and at the end, they had different tasks. My level 4s created social media pages for a character in their story while the level 3s had to compare two characters in a Venn diagram and then compare and contrast them in a paragraph. The work was challenging for all groups, but appropriately leveled so that it wasn’t frustrating.
7. Let students shine with projects.
I once had a mixed level French class with levels 2 and 3. We did a project where students had to plan a trip to Paris and create a PowerPoint project to present to the class. The level 2s were working on the passé composé at the time. My level 3s were mostly focused on the futur simple. I had each group create a project based on the grammar concept they were focused on, but we all read the same texts about Paris, did the same web quests, and watched the same video clips.
When it was time to present the projects, my level 2 students got a ton of exposure to the futur simple while watching the level 3 students. In turn, the level 3s got a good review of the passé composé as they watched the level 2s. During the entire unit, I had them speaking in the passé composé, the futur simple, and of course, the présent, but I was able to focus more in-depth with each group on one concept at a time.
8. Flip your classroom.
I’ll admit, I’ve never done this, but I love the idea. I can see how this would be such a great way to present grammar in a way that doesn’t take up class time (especially if you are wanting to teach two separate concepts to two different levels). You can have kids come with some background knowledge of the concept and provide great opportunities for them to use the language in class with peers. This would allow you to mix your groups easily, as they would have already gotten the formal instruction. In doing so, you’re giving them time and opportunity to use the language naturally.
Katerina F. is a high school French teacher who flipped her class and found that students were really motivated by it. She liked it, because it freed up her class time to help them in small groups because she didn’t have to lecture during class. In addition, she was able to collect more data on their progress by building the videos into a Google Quiz. In doing this, she could put them into leveled work in the classroom. You can read some of her great teaching ideas at her blog I Love French Australia.
I hope this gives you some ideas for working with your mixed level French class. Had great success with something in your split level class? Share your great idea below!