Dealing with multi-aged English language classrooms

When I saw the topic for #ELTchat on 9th October was Dealing with multi-aged classrooms, I wanted to take part, even though the second chat is now at 7am my time and I that’s when I’m out walking in the bush near my house.  I struggled to keep up on my phone, at the same time trying not to trip over anything and keeping one eye on the dog ☺.  Fortunately there weren’t as many participants as usual, so it was easier to follow and I even managed to send off a few tweets of my own.

I have had a lot of students who have migrated to Australia to perform grandparent duties, that is, helping to care for grandchildren while their parents are working. Consequently they often come to my evening class where the predominant group are younger migrants (though this still varies from 18-60) who are working or studying, so often getting a lot more English input day to day. In contrast, often the ‘grandparents’ don’t have much exposure to English outside of class, particularly when they have come with very low-level English language skills.  I’ve also had classes with some very young adults who are struggling with making a new life in a new country, often without their family and friends, and sometimes alone.  So this chat was one I didn’t want to miss.

The #ELTchat Summary

First of all we chatted about the age ranges we are seeing, or have seen in our classes.

There were a few of us dealing mostly with adults, with groups from around 18-88 in one class

There were others teaching younger learners – teens and children.  Spans reported were 5 -11, 10-17 and 12-15 year olds, which were variously described as “a challenge”, “a nightmare”, but others found that it wasn’t so problematic and could work well.  @Shaunwilden mentioned that a class with a 6-year age span “covers quite a lot of child development”.

And others reported having classes with mixed teens and adults, with someone mentioning they’d had students as young as 14 years old in an adult class.

This thread prompted @ELTExperiences to ask, Why do we assume that there are greater issues between Young Learners and Adults? adding that “perhaps most issues are with adults than expected”.  The responses included comments that it may be because YLs are more open about showing feelings, where adults keep them in filter; with adults there are benefits that balance any drawbacks; kids want to play and adults want to ‘learn’; kids don’t want to play with younger kids; intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

What other differences did chat participants see in learners of different ages?

While there seemed to be general agreement that it depends very much on the individual learner, there were a few observations from participants regarding> Fluency vs accuracy… 
Some felt that younger students are more fluent and older more accurate, while others thought that the older students might be more cautious rather than accurate, or possibly more hung up on accuracy (or even more cautious and that’s why more accurate.  Though this wasn’t everyone’s experience.

Dependency on translation and grammar explanations
There was a suggestion that older students are more dependent on translation and grammar explanations.  But other have seen the opposite, so it was agred that it usually depends on their educational background and there are exceptions.

(English) language learning experience 
Some older students have experience of communicating in other additional language, and some may have been learning English for many years and have (or have experienced) a different approach.  These were seen as an advantages which could be exploited in the classroom

Time, will and motivation to learn
Sometimes older students (e.g. retired) have a lot more time to dedicate to studying.  As well as more will and motivation, especially as some teens are obligated by parents and don’t really want to be there.

Creativity vs knowledge
Someone suggested that younger students are much more creative, while older students ‘know’ more, which was a good combination.

Are there any limitations to those mixed age groups you would prefer to have – e.g. no teens and grandads or what?

@Marisa_C posed this question, and there were a range of responses, which included: not really if they’re all adults; a limit of +14 for “adult” classes; a preference to have teens separate and elders separate (if they want it); and that younger groups (under 17/18) need to be divided.

Issues & Problems

Materials
It is hard to find relevant materials to suit all ages, so need to find ‘themes’ to engage all students.   Fortunately in a country such as Australia, ‘settlement’ is common, though even ‘settlement’ is different at different ages too!> Discipline
Discipline was mentioned as an issue by quite a few people, in both adult and YL classes.  However, having older adults can help with discipline of younger learners (more on that later).
There was also the issues of having a parent and child, or a boss and a worker, in the same class

Past education experiences and expectations
With large age gap there are bound to be different experiences of education and what students expect from a lesson.  Also, how accustomed to studying they are.  There can be an even wider range of past educational experiences in a multicultural class – the teacher can make no assumptions!

Rates of assimilation 

Pace
This was seen as a problem especially with the teen/older adult mix.

Teens are at the prime of their L2 acquisition – after 16 all downhill – and it could be hard for a, say, 60 year old to keep up.  But again this does depend on the individuals too – @cerirhiannon had seen some very slow teens!!

Someone felt that teens needs quicker transitions, but another comment was that they think they need quicker transitions but sometimes they… do things too quickly.

@Shaunwilden mentioned a BBC programme that talked about how critical 2-4 years is: Toddler brain scan gives language insighthttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-24446292

Benefits of mixed aged classes, or ways teachers are working with the differences:

Many of the differences that were mentioned in learners at different ages (also stages, learning styles, etc.) can be exploited in mixed-aged classes, such as: the accuracy vs fluency distinction; that younger students don’t need to understand every word; that some older students have experience of communicating in other L2.Having grandparently types in with younger students can help with discipline.  (as can having a nun or two!).  Having ‘older’ people in a class with teenagers means that the teacher I can share the job of being the ‘parent’ as there’s more than one person they need to respect, which keeps them in line.There was a side discussion about whether the younger students really respect the adults in the class or accept them as peers?  It can a mixture of both. If everyone is there to learn then the respect is there, but it could be hard for older adults who feel they lose face/respect in class. Some younger students benefit from the diligence of more mature classmates and from participating in grown up conversation.Often it’s the older people that are harder work.  @Marisa_C recalled one 75+ year-old keen student roping in a young guy to be his translator – though she said they had a ball!    This type of scenario is an opportunity to work with the differences., getting them to share stories, ideas, experiences.

Teaching separate lessons for different age groups or using projects
@cerirhiannon commented that, with 5 – 11 year olds, she ended up teaching 3 or 4 separate lessons at the same time.  She finds this hard work but fun and elaborated on how she manages this challenging situation: It wasn’t a big class – between 10 and 12 depending on the day and some were brothers and sisters. We had a big table, rugs and cushions on the floor, with games and various activities.  It was like monitoring group work, but on double speed!  We used to have every 4th lesson mixed (ages & levels) in a team-teaching class.  While it was hard work, it was fun and definitely good for the teacher’s fitness 😉

@HanaTicha felt the mixed age groups seems to work great with project work.  Now and then they do ‘project’ days and mix classes and found it a good experience.  She felt there could have be a limit to how this would work with different age groups, but that 10-15 is

Different roles for different age groups
If the group is mostly young then the older students could be scribes during roleplays and discussions! This could serve to gives them a status (@mary28sou)

A lot of the discussion about mixed ages in a class covered the same ground as discussions about mixed ability levels in a class.

With mixed age groups, we may be seeing mixed abilities, different attitudes not just levels, plus a wider range of needs/wants and learning styles too.    While some felt that teaching different ages is as complex as teaching multiple levels, others felt it was fine if the different ages shared the same level,@harrisonmike weighed in with another tricky situation: Try virtually pre-literate in L1 alongside PhD level qualified students in same class!    And as with mixed level/ability classes, some of the same ideas were suggested, such as, arranging tasks and activities so that everyone has chance to ‘shine’ in class at some time (as well as struggle!).@Marisa_C summed it up nicely… I think inevitable then we are talking about mixed ability teaching with a sprig of something about different attitudes not just levels.
 

After the chat – an extension activity…

One of the issues that didn’t come up during the chat was that of use of technology.  Given that we could expect to see a big gap with experience with and comfort level with technology between younger students and much older students, this was a little surprising.   I’ve had older students (60+) who avoid anything to do with computers or other technology, including one memorable student in her late 60s who usually disappeared on the way to the computer lab.  She had basic computer use skills, but felt using a computer for learning English was a waste of time.  However, when I managed to get her to the lab with the rest of the class, she was pleasantly surprised to find that the activity was interesting and useful.  But then she disappeared on the way to the lab the following week again!  At the other end of the scale was another late-60s student who had never used a computer before, and who was terrified the first time I took the class to the lab. I sat with her and helped her through every part of the activity.  The following week I started off giving her a lot of support but she quickly demonstrated that she didn’t need me so much, and the next week proudly told me her son-in-law had bought her a laptop so she could access our LMS at home.  The first time the same student recorded herself speaking in a language lab activity, she was amazed – it was the first time she had heard her own voice!Another interesting observation is when I take a class on an excursion.  Being in the centre of our nation’s capital city, we are very fortunate that there are many national institutions (museums, galleries, etc.) within easy walking or ‘bus and walking’ distance.  I usually find that the older students stride ahead with me and then we have to wait on each corner for the students (who are between a half to a third of their age) to catch up!  When I’ve given them a choice between walking or driving somewhere, it’s usually the older ones who want to walk!For the purpose of the summary, I thought I’d do a quick search to see what I might find on the Web.This one looked interesting:

Mathews-Aydinli, J. & Van Horne, R. (2006). Promoting the Success of Multilevel ESL Classes: What Teachers and Administrators Can Do. Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA)http://www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/briefs/multilevel.html
Age. Young adults (16-18) differ socially and cognitively from older adults. Although adolescents tend to progress more quickly in their language learning, they also need more structure, guidance, and support to stay motivated (Weber, 2004; Young, 2005). Senior learners also have unique concerns that need to be taken into consideration, such as issues of physical health or hearing and visual acuity (Grognet, 1997).

And:

For elderly refugees it has been particularly difficult. At a time in their lives when they should be looking forward to respect and reverence, they find themselves transplanted in a culture which is focused on youth. They have lost their homes, probably many of their family members, and most of all, their honored status
Grognet, A.G. (1997). Elderly refugees and language learning. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.
http://www.springinstitute.org/Files/refugeescomingtotheu.pdf

For those interested, there is also mention of elderly learners in this:

AMEP Research Centre Fact sheet – Retention of adult migrant learners
http://www.ameprc.mq.edu.au/docs/fact_sheets/Misc_Retention.pdf 

And issues related to teaching youth in mixed-aged classes here:

AMEP Research Centre Fact sheet – Youth in the AMEP
http://www.ameprc.mq.edu.au/docs/fact_sheets/07Teachingissues.pdf

And finally, this one:

Harding, L., & Wigglesworth, G. (2005). Different generations, different needs: Migrant youth in English language programs. Prospect, 20(3), 6–23
This recent Australian study provides a survey of language programs for migrant youth in the AMEP, and details the views of young migrant learners and their teachers/program directors. The authors propose a number of recommendations for the provision of language education for young people in both youth-specific and mixed-age classes.
http://www.ameprc.mq.edu.au/docs/prospect_journal/volume_20_no_3/20_3_2_Harding.pdf

A few of these refer to the AMEP, which is the Adult Migrant English Program. The most recent statistics I could find on age ranges in the AMEP (right across Australia) are from 2011-12:

Department of Immigration and Citizenship Annual Report 2011–12 (p.250)
http://www.immi.gov.au/about/reports/annual/2011-12/pdf/report-on-performance.pdf

#ELTchat participants for this chat:
•    @cioccas
•    @Shaunwilden
•    @HanaTicha
•    @theteacherjames
•    @cerirhiannon
•    @mattellman
•    @Marisa_C
•    @ELTExperiences
•    @SueAnnan
•    @MicaelaCarey
•    @mary28sou