The Only Tool You Need When Teaching Multilevel ESL Classes

Can you picture an NFL quarterback and pee-wee football players on the same team?

Sometimes teaching a multilevel English class can feel like that.

And as teacher, you have the job of being coach to all, bringing out the strengths of each team member while driving home effective lessons.

How can one teacher do that when there is such a mix of students in the classroom? Is it even possible?

The Struggles of Multilevel ESL Classes

If you have ever been assigned an all-levels class, you already know that teaching beginners, advanced students and everyone in between at the same time is a challenge.

You can teach to the middle, like many teachers do, but your advanced students will be bored while your beginners will be completely lost.

Finding activities that appeal to students all along the skill spectrum is challenging no matter what. We would love to use use flexible activities that can engage both beginners and advanced students alike, but those are few and far between.

Most of all, getting everyone in a multilevel class to participate, no matter what activities you prepare, is sometimes nearly impossible.

So, what is a teacher to do?

For teachers struggling to make sure every student gets the most out of their multilevel class, strategic interaction might be the answer for in-class issues.

Strategic Interaction: Your Secret Weapon for Teaching Multilevel ESL Classes

Strategic interaction is a teaching technique similar to a role play.

What makes strategic interaction special is that a group of students who are often at different English levels—rather than an individual—is assigned each role in the interaction.

While only one student from the group will act as speaker during the interaction, which usually happens at the front of the class, everyone in the group is responsible for deciding what that person says during the dialogue.

The group discusses together what the speaker will say together in a cluster—like team members in a football huddle—and then makes a plan for the interaction including brainstorming phrases and responses that might be used. After this, the chosen speaker moves to the front of the room to act as the quarterback, tossing out the words and ideas that his or her group came up with together.

In addition to having a role, each group also has a secret goal to accomplish during the dialogue which often conflicts with the goals of the other groups. Students must continue the dialogue, the speaker often coming back to discuss ideas and plans with his or her group and then returning up front, until all the roles in the dialogue can come to a compromise.

The Advantages to Strategic Interaction

What makes strategic interaction great for multilevel classes are a few key features.

  • First of all, it is flexible. You can tailor the topic and the roles to the skills and interests of your students.
  • You can take breaks as a class. Once the role play with the designated speakers has gone on for a while—or if it seems like the students hit an obstacle, ran out of ideas or otherwise got stuck—you can pause the interaction and have the speakers return to their groups for a team pow-wow. There they can discuss more ideas, approaches, vocabulary and phrases.
  • The best English interactions are based on real-life situations. This means you can choose or design your role play based on what your students are learning. They can then use the specific vocabulary and/or grammar they are learning in other aspects of class. Plus, they will get great practice for situations they will encounter with real-world language use.
  • Everyone participates at their language level, and no one is left out. More advanced students can represent the group in the dialogue while less advanced students can contribute their ideas in the safety of their small group—not always in front of the class. Errors in the smaller group will not be as public or as noticeable and therefore speaking will be less intimidating for your beginners. At the same time, everyone assists with the dialogue and watches the role play unfold, so they feel like they are part of everything.
  • Different level students work together to accomplish a goal. Lower-level students will improve their language just by interacting with higher-level students. Higher-level students will be able to encourage and assist lower-level students, since they have navigated those waters in the past.
  • Strategic interaction is communicative. It is not just going through static exercises but instead requires students to use English to accomplish a goal.
  • Students must work together to accomplish that goal. Goal-oriented work is more like real language use and will prepare students for what they will do with English outside of the ESL classroom.
  • Finally, strategic interaction encourages higher-level thinking. You will help students develop skills which are useful for speaking English and beyond, such as problem solving, negotiating and compromising.

How to Set Up a Strategic Interaction

No matter what skill range your class represents, here are five simple steps for running a successful strategic interaction in your multilevel class.

1. Divide your class into two (or more) groups depending on the roles in the role play. Each group plays one role.

2. Give each side a role. Each role has a specific goal in the role play that the other role is not aware of. (See the examples below.)

3. Have groups choose a representative to speak in front of the class. More advanced students will usually step up to fill this role, although you can encourage lower-level students to do this and go back to their more experienced group members for advice as often as needed.

4. Give groups a chance to discuss what their speaker might say during the role play. They can discuss in English—and their first languages if you think that’s a good idea for your class—and they can make notes on specific vocabulary or phrases the speaker might use and how he or she should respond depending on what the other speaker says.

5. Start the role play. The speaker confers with their group throughout the interaction to decide what to say and how to handle a particular situation. Everyone participates and shares their ideas. Since this happens in the group and not in front of the class, there is less stress and pressure to use perfect grammar and lower-level students can freely share their ideas.

6. The participants must come to an agreement to end the dialogue.

7. Spend a few minutes after the dialogue debriefing what speakers said and what compromise they came to in order to end the dialogue.

Examples of Strategic Interactions

Travel Plans with Friends

In this interaction, two friends discuss plans for the weekend.

Language to practice: Travel and tourism vocabulary, requests and discussing hypothetical situations.

Role A, tourist friend: An American friend has lent you his car to travel to New York City for the weekend, but you are unfamiliar with American traffic laws. You would feel far more comfortable if your friend agreed to come with you to NYC. Goal: You must convince your friend to accompany you on your trip.

Role B, local American friend: You agreed to lend your car to an international student who has become a good friend. Unfortunately, your uncle, who is terminally ill, has said he will buy you a new car if you will bring your parents to visit him. (They are unable to drive themselves.) He wants them to come on the same weekend you promised your car to your friend. Goal: Make your friend understand why he or she can no longer borrow your car.

In this role play, the two speakers, upon the advice of their group, will discuss the plans for the weekend. Speaker A might express his or her discomfort at driving alone to New York City. He might hint that he wants his friend to come, or he might try to use guilt to get his friend to accompany him.

Speaker B might talk about his family, especially his parents who are unable to drive. He might talk about how his car is not in good shape. He may or may not choose to be honest with speaker A.

Together the speakers may come to an agreement to go together to New York City another weekend once speaker B has received a new car, or they might agree on something completely different. The outcome depends entirely on the members of your class.

You can write your own strategic interaction for any topic you are studying in class, but here are a couple of additional examples to get you started.

Sibling Support: Brother and Sister

In this interaction, a brother and sister discuss the future, particularly in regards to employment and health issues.

Language to practice: Work vocabulary, legal vocabulary, medical vocabulary, expressions about feelings, phrases for hypothetical situations and thinking about the future.

Role A, brother: You and your younger sister used all your money to move to the U.S. where you were able to get a job. The job is hard work and does not pay much, but it is worth the advantages of being in the U.S. Recently, a friend offered you a better job, one that pays much more and is more appealing to you. But the conditions for the job are that you have to move to Chicago and you have to come alone. Your sister is not well and has just entered the hospital. What will you do? Prepare to discuss the situation with your sister. Goal: Be able to take care of yourself and your sister.

Role B, sister: You and your brother used all your money to move to the U.S. where you both have jobs. You had to quit your job just this week because of poor health. In fact, you are currently in the hospital. You hate it there for many reasons, but one big reason is because you do not speak English well. The doctor said you can leave if you can prove you have someone at home to take care of you. Discuss this matter with your brother, who lives with you. Goal: Leave the hospital.

Meet the Family: Couple and Parents

Language to practice: Family and household vocabulary, expressions of affection and love, questions and answers.

Role A, husband: You married a woman from another country, who you have known for many years, but you eloped and did not tell your family. You have invited your family to your house to meet her and to break the news that you have gotten married. Goal: Your parents will forgive your secrecy and embrace your new wife as a member of the family.

Role B, mother: Your son has returned from a six month job assignment in another country. He has brought a girl home with him, but you have not met her yet. You are concerned that he brought this girl with him after such a short time in the country. You are about to meet her and see your son for the first time since he came home. What will you say to her? Goal: Your son and the mystery woman will live nearby, rather than traveling or living overseas.

Role C, father: Your son works for your company. He took a six month placement overseas for the company, but he did not successfully complete the job assignment while he was there. You have heard at the office that he may lose his job because of it. You are going to dinner at your son’s house before he returns to work on Monday. What will you say to your son? How will you prepare him for what his boss will say on Monday? Goal: Your son is able to keep his job.

Role D, wife: You have invited your in-laws to your house for dinner. You go into the kitchen when they arrive so your husband can greet them first. There you discover that dinner has burned. What will you say to your in-laws? Goal: Make a really good impression on your new in-laws.


If you are teaching a multilevel class, take heart. With a little experience and the knowledge of how to run a strategic interaction, you will have all of your class members successfully participating in class in no time.

Try out these sample interactions, and start having fun with all your students!

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