Tips for teaching large, multilevel ESL/EFL classes

It is not uncommon for ESL classes around the world to be quite large and contain a wide range of student language levels (see this thread’s comments).  Oftentimes this situation occurs in developing countries with volunteer teachers.  If you are a teacher in this situation, where do you even begin?  Here are some ideas[1]:

  1. Assess student needs. Find out what students want/need to learn.
  2. Make time to plan. This will take awhile, but the payoff will result in less frustration from you and the students in class because you will be teaching to all levels rather than just the middle.
    1. Create an overall plan. Decide on the big picture of what you’re going to teach.  For ideas of what to teach, peruse ESL texts’ table of contents appropriate to the age level on Amazon See Inside or look on ESL publishers websites (Oxford, Cambridge, Heinle, are among the largest).  This will give you a direction for the class.
    2. Determine a consistent class structure. This will depend on what works for your context, but it should include a consistent approach to each class session that helps facilitate what you’re teaching.  For example, each day, the class period may look something like this:
      1. Song
      2. Daily Quote
      3. Large group work
      4. Small group work
      5. Pair work
      6. Closing game
      7. Use groups. Plan for whole group, small group, and pair work during class.  Make sure to assign roles to group members (especially when working with mixed-ability groups) so that one person doesn’t end up doing all the work.
    3. Create opportunities for independent self-paced work. This may include crossword puzzles, flashcards, board games, magazines, art supplies.  It will take some time to set up and communicate expectations to students, but it also allows students to work at their own level.

Types of Activities

  • Whole group activities: daily warm-ups, singing, brainstorming, daily quotes
  • Small group activities: activities appropriate for similar skill or interest level
  • Pairwork: information gap, interviews, role plays
  • Activities appropriate for groups at similar levels: problem solving, writing exercises, grammar work
  • Activities appropriate for groups at different levels: board games, art projects,

More Resources

Teaching Large, Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess.  This book provides useful information on topics such as activities for getting to know students, keeping students motivated, and doing written and group work.  You can view a preview of the text here.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language to large, multilevel classes. This is a guide written for Peace Corp volunteers – although it’s old, it’s thorough and has some excellent information.

Teaching Large, Heterogenous Classrooms. An in-depth power point by leading TESOL scholar Penny Ur.

[1] Information based on:

Shank, C., & Terrill, L. (1995, May). Teaching multilevel adult esl classes. CAELA, Retrieved from

Bowman, B., Larson, M, Short, D., & McKay, H. (1992). Teaching english as a foreign language to large, multilevel classes. ERIC, Retrieved from doi: ED 358 702


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