Split/Multilevel Classes

What does conversation in a Level 1 & 2 split class look like?

Week 8 of fully unsheltered grammar, Level 1&2 Spanish.  What does PQA (personalised questions and answers) look like? 

I’m posting this to show that– as long as you keep the language 100% comprehensible– you can easily operate with two levels at once.  You can see that the 2s and I are providing input for the 1s and there is no real output pressure.  I check for understanding, I provide a chance for y/n and/or one-word answers, and I let the kids say as much or as little as they want.

Also note what we are doing re: grammar.  The beginners can easily operate in 3 verb tenses.  Traditionally you would see pretérito (passé composé) in level 2 and imperfecto (imparfait) in level 3. Now, a lot of the beginners won’t be able to say everything, but after awhile it will kick in. As Susan Gross points out, if the input has everything we need from Day 1, and it’s comprehensible, kids will pick it up when they have heard it a ton and are ready for it.

The main rule: if it is said or read,nit must be 100% comprehensible.  I also do a lot of gesturing for verbs, nouns and past tense.  Here is what we did for a bit today.

Me: Fahim, ¿qué hiciste anoche?

Fahim (level 2): Fui al gimnasio con Danny.

Me: Class, what did he just say?

Class: I went to the gym with Danny.

Me: ¿Te gustó? ¿Fue divertido?

Fahim: Sí, fue muy divertido. Me gustó mucho.

Me: Clase, ¿adónde fueron Fahim y Danny anoche– al gimnasio, o al cine?

Class: al gimnasio

Me: Sí, clase, los chicos fueron al gimnasio.

Me: Clase, a Fahim y Danny, ¿les gustó o no les gustó el gimnasio?

Class: Les gustó.

Me: Sí, les gustó el gimnasio.  Class, what does that mean?

Class: He likes the gym.

Me: Whoa! Les gustó means “they liked.”  So when I ask ¿les gustó el gimnasio? what am I asking?

Class: Did they like the gym.

Me to Marya (level 1): Marya, ¿fuiste al gimnasio anoche?

Marya: No.

Me: ¿Te gusta ir al gimnasio, o te gusta ir al cine?

Marya: al cine

Me: ¿Tenías mucha tarea anoche?


Me: Class, what did I just ask Marya?

Class: Did you have a lot of homework last night?

Me to Ace (level 2): ¿Qué hiciste anoche tú?

Ace: tenía mucha tarea en inglés, y ví la televisión.

Me: ¿Ves mucha televisión, o ves poca televisión?

Ace: Poca televisión.

Me: ¿Por qué no ves mucha televisión?

Ace: No me gusta mucho la televisión. Es aburrido.

Me: ¿Qué prefieres: ver la televisión o textear con tus amigos?

Ace: Prefiero textear con tus amigos. (“I prefer to text with your friends”– an error)

Me (adding a bunch of emphasis): ¿ prefieres textear con MIS amigos? (I point at Ace then at me)

Ace (laughs): yo prefiero textear con MIS amigos.

Me to class: Class, what did Ace just say?

Class: I prefer texting with my friends.

Me to Manisha (level 1): Manisha, ¿prefieres textear con tus amigas, o hacer la tarea?

Manisha: textear

Me: Hacer la tarea– ¿es interesante o aburrido? 

Manisha: Es aburrido.

Me: Textear con tus amigas: ¿cómo es? ¿Es divertido o es aburrido textear?

Manisha: Divertido.

How To Teach a Split Class

I have a Spanish 1 and 2 split right now.  Six true beginners, nineteen level 2s, and three native speakers.  I also have three level 2s who have not had Spanish for 18 months (they had Level 1 in grade 10 and now in gr 12 they have level 2). Ten years ago, with communicative and grammar teaching (the ¡Juntos! Program) this would have kicked my ass.  If there is one thing that totally freaks language teachers out, it is getting a range of grades or abilities in one class.

But you know what? My split’s all right…as a matter of fact, it’s a gas!  So, what is it like having a split class using comprehensible input and how did I do it? I also suggest reading Gerry Wass on this topic.

If your Adminz and Headz insist on a grammar- and/or topically-themed curriculum and assessment even for a split class, I would advise you to look for another job. If the idiots in charge think that “the Unit Two test on -ar verbs, indirect object pronouns and house chores vocabulary must be given on Nov 31,” makes sense, you are stuck and so are your kids. Splits don’t work in classes tied to textbooks. (You might also ask Headz and Adminz why thy don’t have, say, Chemisty 1 and A.P. Chemistry splits 😉.)

Teaching a split class involves a mind-shift, even for C.I. teachers. The first thing we have to do is ditch the idea of “content” and “units.” We are going to provide lots of comprehended input, we will recycle vocabulary, and, by creating stories (and using Movietalks and Picturetalks that recycle story vocab), we will keep things interesting for everyone. Second, as Gerry Wass notes, we are going to stop seeing ourselves as the “Spanish 1, 3 and 4 class,” and start being a community where everyone contributes. The more advanced a student is, the more output they generate (and that output is input for the less-advanced), and they act as “dictionaries” for the less-advanced. Everyone contributes to stories! We all read…but we choose our own novels. We all enjoy the stories we make together. Third, we make sure we diferentiate when we assess. Everyone will do the same simple listening quizzes, but we’ll assess output and reading by level.

It is also instructive to note that the limited research we do have about split classes suggests that the advanced students do not fall behind relative to their peers in non-split classes. Yes, you read that correctly. If we are teaching “unsheltered grammar” (ie all verb tenses, pronouns etc at the same time), what happens is, the more-advanced students get repeated input that “contains” all the grammar, and they acquire it well. Plus, since less-advanced students get all grammar from the start, they get more exposure to it and…get better!

So here it is, in more concrete terms.

First, when I started, I put each beginner beside a Level 2.  The 2s I labeled dictionaries and I told the beginners “ask your dictionaries if you don’t understand it/me.”

Second, we use fully unsheltered grammar.  We do not save “advanced” grammar for later, because there is no such thing.  There is, however, vocabulary which is more (or less) frequently used, and we build our stories around more-used vocab. For example, in our fourth story, we have an “advanced” past subjunctive expression: pensaba que si tuviera otro novio, le fuera mejor (“she thought that if she had another boyfriend, things would be/go better for her”).  PQA is in present tense (except for a brief ¿qué hiciste anoche? routine I do start of each class). This is because in a comprehensible-input classroom, the difference between beginners and others is not in complexity of grammar, but in how much vocab they can fluently use.

Third, I initially used the 2s and native speakers as actors and my superstars for PQA.  All I did with the 1s was check to make sure they understood the questions and answers.

Fourth, when I began doing PQA , all I wanted from the 1s was first sí/no and then one-word answers.  (I also did a LOT of comp checks to make sure they weren’t just bobble-heading along.)  That was sufficient output.  They didn’t need to do any talking to learn the vocab. (I can see the traditionalists raising their hands quelle horreur! Il faut parler pour pouvoir aprender!). Eventually, the 1s just stated saying more and more on their own. I told them “say what you can say without thinking about it.”

Fifth, I have differentiated writing assessment. 2s are expected to write a minimum of 100 words in 5 mins (describing themselves or a picture with content related to a recent story), and 800 words in 45 minutes (telling a story). The assessment is always most-recent-effort-is-mark so while most of the 2s have dropped off in output since last year (we are semestered so often the kids have 7 months between language classes) output goes up each story and so do the marks– their end of year goal is 100 in 5 and 800 in 40.  For beginners I do this.

For listening assessment, it is the same for all of them.  I read 5 sentences with vocab from the story aloud, they write the Spanish, then translate.  Initially I just made the beginners translate but after 2 weeks or so they wrote Spanish too.  Some of the beginners tried to write Spanish and made hilarious spelling errors (“ahsay buen teeempo”) but these have vanished as the beginners started reading.

Reading assessment: everyone reads extended, detailed (and embedded if I have the energy) version(s) of the asked story, and turns it into a simple comic.

Oral assessment: none for 1s. For the 2s, they get an unstructured oral interview at the very end of the course. This is because, as VanPatten notes, practicing speaking does not develop speaking ability– only input can do that– and I would therefore waste time (i.e. not deliver comprehensible input) if I had oral assessment during the year.  We also know from Krashen that conscious feedback (“do ____” or “avoid ____”) does not turn into acquisition.

For me, I take my cue from the amazing James Hosler: listening and reading assessment is just an excuse to deliver more comprehensible input.

Sixth, we maintain interest by using comprehensible stories.  Everyone understands everything and contributes details. Both 1s and 2s focus because stories with fun details, characters and situations are interesting for everyone.  I’m not teaching Spanish– I’m teaching stories in Spanish.  The 2s act (though now after 8 weeks I can use some of the 1s as parallel characters) and do most of the extended PQA.  The 1s listen and do y/n or one-word PQA.  Everybody does choral responses.  Every story is different; every version is different; kids are interested because the subject matter is interesting in and of itself in that it involves people, humour and suspense.  Note that I am not assuming that the kids care about Spanish, nor that they want to go to Spain or Honduras and that therefore I am “preparing” them for the real world, and so they should suck up boring instruction for a payoff in five years.  No, I want to make what we are doing right now interesting. 

However, if they do end up in Mexico or Colombia, they will have been exposed to an ocean of high-frequency vocab– and all of the grammar that there is in Spanish– and so they will have a rock-solid foundation for understanding everyday speech and for adding new vocab.

Seventh, reading is important in any class, and luckily with some planning we can do it in a split class. We use four kinds of reading.

1. The stories the class comes up with. A good class job for an advanced student or native speaker is to be the secretary, who, while the story is being asked, writes it onto a tablet or other device. The secretary emails you this, you fix the inevitable errors, print it, distribute, and away you go with reading activities (volleyball/pingpong reading, choral translation, running dictation, paper airplane reading, copy-and-translate, etc). If you save these, next year you can use CTRL+M in MS-WORD and replace this year’s students’ names with next year’s 😄 thereby building your FVR library.

2. Novels. Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Andrew Snider and a growing crew of self-published writers have novels and comic books with a growing number of themes, levels etc. These are specifically designed for learners: they carefully restrict the number of unique words, focus on high-frequency vocabulary, often have culture-specific themes, and often feature adolescent or animal protagonists.

La Capibara Con Botas, for example, has a mere 70 unique words, and Carol Gaab’s hilarious Brandon Brown Wants a Dog is about the same. My own Berto y Sus Buenos Amigos has 108 unique words and can be independently read after about 60 hours of input. On the other end of complexity, Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha is a gripping, gang-themed novel with 428 unique words.

Generally, as Beniko Mason (2004, 2005) and Elley and Mangubhai (1983) point out, the most efficient use of reading time is just…reading, without followup “activities.” However, if you want them, there are a zillion novel-reading strategies (and most novels come with teacher’s packages that include reading activities).

You want 5-10 copies each of as many novels as possible. Students will choose a novel, and you give them 5-15 minutes per class to read (and do “activities,” if you need them). Since the kids are choosing, you don’t have to worry that The One Class Novel is too hard/easy for any group in class.

3. Other good reading input is the class soap opera, which you build for 4-5 classes (writing on the board, with the Class Secretary writing it down), and then edit and print out for reading. Rinse and repeat!

4. My kids make comics of class stories. I save and laminate these, and they become FVR material.

And how is it working, Stolzie?

It’s working fine, thank you very much! 😄👍 The 2s’ Spanish keeps on improving in both quality and quantity. The 1s, same. I have no management hassles.  We are a functional happy community. Everybody understands and can participate.  What else could I want?

Anyway, I no longer worry about split classes.  I am managing and I am not especially good at this, so anyone who uses C.I. should be able to easily do two levels at once by

  • keeping everything comprehensible
  • using advanced kids to generate quality output which is quality input for the less-advanced
  • not forcing beginners to talk
  • using stories, which are inherently interesting, to build broad “buy in”
  • having appropriately differentiated assessment
  • not sheltering grammar

Got a split and feeling the pinch? Try C.I. And if you have other suggestions for teaching a split, leave a comment.

Mixed-level Spanish Class– Day 1

In 2004, I was given a Spanish 1/2 split and floundered big-time. This year, our beginning Spanish numbers are up, so I have 1.5 blocks of Beginning Spanish plus Level 2s, and today I started with my split…and unlike in 2004, this split is going to be just fine, thank you.

Class composition:

— a bunch of kids who had TPRS with me last year (full mix– all verbs and grammar from Day 1. A few of these had me 2 years ago, then didn’t take Spanish last year (schedule conflicts)).

— 3 very low native speakers

— 3 total beginners

– 1 kid who has had 2 years of full-on grammar grind at another school. Super-low output but understands a bit.

— 1 kid who had the grammar grind at another school until November last year, and who then got full-mix TPRS with me for 1.5 months (about 30 classes). She did terribly on arriving– she had spent 2.5 months doing “units” on numbers, colours, etc– but her fluency grew after about 3 weeks and eventually she got around 75% on her final.

Today I paired the beginners with my proficient 2s and told the beginners “you are sitting beside a dictionary.” They are supposed to ask their “dictionaries” if things are unclear or I am busy. The dictionaries are my most-proficient students.

They filled out their class questionaires. This (idea from Ben Slavic) is great: they write down their real name, and then favorite colour, pet, celebrity girlfrind/boyfriend, where they live, and secret skill. They can tell the truth (fine…) or lie (much more interesting). The key: I told them that they have to be OK with me talking about whatever they write down. So Jas– err, Bee Once– has three boyfriends (Jake T Austin, Dave Franco, and Theo James), while Chelsea has a pet dolphin, and Breileigh lives in the Florida Keys with Ashton Kutcher and her pet koala. Fahim I told, not more than 5 girlfriends, please. Jürgen, who has a certain admiration for Walter White, chose as his nickname Heisenjürg. This stuff will be used in stories, where the various kids will be parallel characters.

I handed out course outlines, made my seating chart, then jumped right into pre-story PQA– personalised questions and answers. On my board was the following:

— has, wants, is
— are you…? I am…
— do you have? I (don’t) have
— what’s your name? My name is____
— what’s his/her name? His/her name is ____

— good-looking, ugly
— girl, boy
— girlfriend, boyfriend

I got Ace to come up and sit in the megachair, and started asking him questions. What’s your name? Are you a boy? Do you have a girlfriend? What is her name? Is your girlfriend good-looking? I went s.l.o.w.l.y. and then asked my other Level 2s the same questions. I did a LOT of pop-ups today.

The energy moment came when I asked the class “Is Jürgen a boy?” and Fahim said “no, she is a girl.” “Fine,” I said, “if Jürgen is a girl, so are you,” and I got my blond wig out, and Fahim became Fahima, answering questions in an absurdly high girl voice. Fahim is quite a ham and happily messes with genders. This would actually be an interesting idea: have a willing kid wear/take off the wig (signifying gender change) and answer PQA questions in 2 genders.

I was able to spend about 45 min in random PQA. The 1s at the end were able to answer yes/no to various questions, and they understood the questions (I directly asked them).

I am gonna start Adriana’s story “Los Gatos Azules” (the blue cats) tomorrow and today was basically setting up for the actor questions. I will do a bit more PQA tomorrow with gustar (“to like,” more or less), querer (“to want”) and ir (“to go”), then jump into the story.

So the operative principles are

A) the 2s are providing comprehensible input for the 1s. Since everybody is rusty right now (1 year since last Spanish class and in some cases 2 years), they are using the Q&As on board, but output, while simple, is flawless. Elicited output from the 2s is going to be sí/no questions with the occasional one-word answer.

B) I direct comprehension checks mostly at the 1s, since the 2s are mostly answering quickly and accurately.

C) The biggest challenge is going to be reading: the 1s will be slower, and know a lot less vocab, than the 2s. I have embedded readings for our asked stories, but the question– and I would love advice on this– will be how to keep the 2s engaged and the 1s not lost.