Planning for and Instructing
Multilevel Classes Using the
Canadian Language Benchmarks
The Purposes of this Module are to …
 identify four frameworks for selecting and adapting
tasks, based on the Canadian Language Benchmarks;
 provide examples of multilevel tasks that correspond to
the four frameworks;
 offer practical suggestions for grouping learners; and
 provide a sample multilevel lesson for learners at CLB
levels 1, 3, and 5.
Rationale for Multilevel Classes
• Administrators are often balancing the complex needs of
teachers and learners and trying to accommodate both.
• Multilevel classes may be necessary due to a high demand
for and shortage of ESL instructors.
• Limited funding of some ESL programs often restricts the
number of classes that can be provided in a community at a
given time.
• Although multilevel instruction can present challenges for
instructors, it is a reality for most programs, as no two
learners have identical listening, speaking, reading, and
writing skills, nor do any two learners progress at the same
Four Frameworks for Selecting and Adapting Tasks
Willis & Willis (2007): Task Types
Skehan (1998):
2.1. Code Complexity
2.2. Cognitive Complexity
2.3. Communicative Stress
Bowler and Parminter (2002):
3.1. Bias Tasks
3.2. Tiered Tasks
Lynch (1996): Grading Texts and Tasks
Framework 1. Task Types
(Willis & Willis, 2007)
 In order to plan interesting and stimulating tasks for any topic,
Willis and Willis (2007) have created the task generator.
 Once a topic has been chosen, the task generator can be used to
identify seven different task types.
Instructors select tasks according to the topic and task types: listing,
ordering, matching, comparing, sharing personal experience, projects
and creative tasks, and problem solving.
Some tasks naturally lend themselves better to certain topics.
Instructors do not need to use each of the seven task types during a
Depending on the theme, any number of task types may be used in one
 The following slides demonstrate how the task generator may be
used to teach a lesson within a thematic unit on food.
The Task Generator
(Willis & Willis, 2007, p. 108)
Ordering and
Projects and
Task Generator Example Tasks
Topic: Food
1. Listing: brainstorming, fact-finding
 Make a list of food you like to eat.
 List all the fruit and vegetables that you can think of.
2. Comparing: finding differences or similarities
 Classify a given list of foods into groups based on
Canada’s Food Guide.
 Sort a given list of fruits and vegetables into three
a) available in my home country,
b) available in Canada,
c) available in both Canada and my home country.
Task Generator Example Tasks (cont’d.)
3. Matching: words and phrases to pictures, directions to
a street map
 Given a map of a supermarket, locate where the
following food is found (list).
 Match pictures with food found in given recipes (e.g.,
noodles, chicken, broth = chicken noodle soup).
4. Comparing: finding differences or similarities
 Compare the cost of items in two different supermarket
 Compare the nutrition facts on two different brands of
the same food item.
Task Generator Example Tasks (cont’d.)
5. Sharing personal experience: story-telling, anecdotes,
 Tell your partner about the best meal you have ever
 Tell your partner about a cooking disaster that you have
6. Projects and creative tasks: class newspaper, poster,
survey, fantasy
 Create a class cookbook.
 Design a restaurant: menu, decor, theme and
Task Generator Example Tasks (cont’d.)
7. Problem-solving: puzzles, logic problems, prediction
 With a supermarket flyer and a limit of 25 dollars, plan a
dinner for four.
 What are the advantages and disadvantages of ‘fast
Framework 2. Skehan’s (1998) Theoretical Framework
for Differentiated Instruction
 Task difficulty is influenced by three main factors:
2.1 Code (Linguistic) Complexity
- the language required to complete the task
2.2 Cognitive Complexity
- the thinking skills required to complete the task
2.2.a. Cognitive Familiarity
2.2.b. Cognitive Processing
2.3 Communicative Stress
- the conditions under which the task is to be
2.1. Code (Linguistic) Complexity
 Linguistic complexity and variety
Ideas can be explained in simple or complex language.
 Vocabulary load and variety
The words chosen for any activity can also be simplified using
frequently occurring vocabulary or complex structures.
To assess word frequency, simply paste a text into VocabProfile on
the LexTutor website
 Redundancy and lexical density
Paraphrase, synonyms, and examples provide elaboration and
make texts more comprehensible to learners.
2.1. Multilevel Examples of Modifying
Code (Linguistic) Complexity
Topic: Health
Code complexity
Linguistic complexity and
Task: Learners complete a
medical form.
Learners fill in a questionnaire
that asks for name, address,
phone number, and
emergency contact
Learners fill in a questionnaire
that asks for personal
information, as well as
previous medical history.
Vocabulary load and variety.
Learners read a simplified
Task: Learners read a pamphlet pamphlet on basic nutrition
in a doctor's office.
designed for literacy learners.
Learners read a pamphlet
designed for native speakers
about food allergies.
Redundancy and density.
Task: Learners read an article
in a doctor's office.
Learners read an article
designed for native speakers
about a diabetes prevention
Learners read an elaborated
article designed for low
proficiency learners (with
synonyms and examples)
about a diabetes prevention
2.2.a. Cognitive Familiarity
 Familiarity of topic and its predictability
Certain topics are more familiar, depending on learners’
backgrounds. Complexity can be added by changing the
topic, predicted language patterns, or the order in which
certain elements occur in a conversation or text.
 Familiarity of discourse genre
Certain text types (e.g., letters) are more familiar than
others (e.g., technical reports).
 Familiarity of task
The more familiar learners are with a certain type of task,
the easier it becomes. Task repetition promotes fluency.
2.2.a. Cognitive Familiarity Example Tasks
Topic: Health
Cognitive Familiarity
Familiarity of topic and its
Task: Learners describe
health symptoms.
Learners describe cold
Learners describe
symptoms of a stroke.
Familiarity of discourse
Task: Learners report an
Learners complete a time
sheet to report an absence
due to medical illness.
Learners complete an
extended disability
insurance form to report a
long-term illness.
Familiarity of task.
Task: Learners role-play a
discussion with a nurse
about their health and
Learners list what they have Learners describe
eaten in the past 24 hours. symptoms of a food allergy
and predict what food
caused the reaction.
2.2.b. Cognitive Processing
 Information organization
Tasks can be made easier or more challenging by delivering
them in sequence versus in a scrambled presentation. An
example might be sequenced versus scrambled picture story
frames or sequenced paragraphs versus out-of-order
 Amount of computation
The instructor can make the task more or less challenging by
altering the amount of computation required. For example, a
less proficient learner might be required to give directions on a
map with the route already marked, and the more proficient
learner might be required to give directions using an
unmarked map.
2.2.b. Cognitive Processing (cont’d.)
• Clarity and sufficiency of information given
Clear, explicit description is easier for learners to process
than implicit information that requires them to make
• Information type
Concrete concepts are easier for learners to process than
abstract ideas.
2.2.b. Cognitive Processing Example Tasks
Cognitive processing
Information organization.
Task: Learners narrate a
picture story about an
accident – slipping on ice,
going to hospital, setting a
cast, going home, etc.
Learners will narrate a story
based on a set of 6 pictures
that are chronologically
Learners will sequence a set
of 8 pictures, narrate the
story, and provide a suitable
Amount of computation.
Task: Have learners select a
bottle of painkiller.
Have learners examine flyers
and choose two bottles of
painkiller. Determine the
cost per tablet for each
bottle. Which one is the
better bargain?
Have learners examine three
bottles of painkiller. Which
type of painkiller is most
appropriate to treat a pulled
muscle? Determine the cost
per tablet.
2.2.b. Cognitive Processing (cont’d.)
Cognitive processing
Clarity and sufficiency of
information given.
Task: Learners identify
causes of cold and flu.
In a given text, learners
Using a given text, and
underline symptoms related based upon symptoms
to the flu.
provided, learners have to
identify whether a person
has a cold or the flu.
Information type.
Task: Learners identify
symptoms of stress.
Based on a reading, learners
label parts of the body
affected by stress (e.g.,
back, head, stomach).
Based on a reading, learners
decide which symptoms of
stress lead to problems with
the body, the mind,
emotions, and relationships.
2.3 Communicative Stress
 Time limits and time pressure
The instructor can differentiate the task by allowing groups of
lower proficiency learners to spend a greater amount of time
completing the work.
 Speed of presentation
At times the instructor can vary the difficulty of the task by
asking the learners to present their work in differing timed
allotments. An example would be having learners leave detailed
messages on an answering machine in 30 seconds whereas other
learners have only 15 seconds.
• Number of participants
Tasks with fewer participants are easier to accomplish than tasks
with many participants. For example, it is easier for groups to
reach consensus with a smaller number of participants.
2.3 Communicative Stress (cont’d.)
 Length of text used
A reading or listening passage can be modified for low
proficiency learners by reducing the amount of text that learners
are required to process.
 Type of response
Some tasks are more challenging than others. For example,
copying, locating, and underlining are simpler than critiquing,
judging, and prioritizing.
 Opportunities to control interaction
Tasks can be made easier for low proficiency learners if they
have the opportunity to ask for clarification or repetition and to
receive assistance from a higher proficiency partner.
2.3 Communicative Stress Example Tasks
Communicative Stress
Time limits and time pressure.
Learners have 10 minutes
Task: Learners design a balanced to design a balanced
meal for an adult male and an
adult female using Canada’s
Food Guide.
Learners have 5 minutes
to design a balanced
Speed of presentation.
Task: Learners present their
balanced meal menus for an
adult male and an adult female.
Learners have 1 minute
to present their meal.
Learners have 3 minutes
to present their meal.
Number of participants.
Learners work in pairs.
Task: In groups, learners plan a
balanced meal for an adult male
and an adult female.
Learners work in groups
of four.
2.3 Communicative Stress (cont’d.)
Communicative Stress
Length of texts used.
Task: Learners read an
article about nutrition.
Learners read a short
Learners read a longer,
more detailed article.
Type of response.
Task: Learners will identify
food groups.
Have learners match foods
to categories.
Have learners generate a
list of foods for each
Opportunities to control
Task: Learners will listen to
a recorded interview about
healthy eating habits.
Learners will be able to
listen to the tape several
times while answering
Learners will hear the tape
played only once while
answering questions.
Framework 3. Bias and Tiered Tasks
(Bowler & Parminter, 2002)
 Bias and tiered tasks are two ways of adapting reading or
listening activities for multilevel classes:
3.1. bias tasks require responses of varying difficulty,
3.2. tiered tasks provide varying levels of support for
learner responses.
3.1. Bias Task 1 Example
 In Task A, learners with lower proficiency answer
questions about the reading passage (see example on
next slide).
 In Task B, learners with higher proficiency formulate
questions for answers provided in the text (see example
on next slide).
 The tasks are complementary, so when they have
finished, learners can pair up (AB) with a learner from the
other group for peer feedback. This type of feedback is
very motivating for less proficient learners.
3.1. Bias Task 1 (cont’d.)
 Task A. Low proficiency:
Q: What are the four food groups?
 Task B. High proficiency:
A: vegetables and fruit, grain products,
milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives
3.1. Bias Task 2: Jigsawed Gapfill Example
(based on Bowler & Parminter, 2002, p. 63)
 To prepare this activity, make 2 copies of a reading or
listening text. Label them A and B.
 On copy A, blank out 3 basic words for low proficiency
learners (see example on next slide).
 On copy B, blank out 5 more difficult words for higher
proficiency learners (see example on next slide).
 Copy and distribute to the appropriate groups. When
learners have completed the listening activity, have them
pair up (AB) to provide feedback to each other.
Note: This can also be done with 3 groups, varying demands. Because the
gaps are in different places, differentiation is not necessarily obvious to the
3.1. Bias Task 2: Jigsawed Gapfill (cont’d.)
(based on Bowler & Parminter, 2002, p. 63)
 Copy A – Low proficiency:
Have breakfast every _____. It may help control your
hunger later ___ the day. To be active every day is a
step towards better health and a healthy _____ weight.
 Copy B – Higher proficiency:
Have _____ every day. It may help _____ your hunger
later in the day. To be _____ every day is a step _____
better health and a healthy body _____.
3.2. Tiered Task 1 Example
 For the following task, all of the learners will be provided with
the same reading passage about nutrition. All learners will
also be required to answer the same questions about the text,
with varying degrees of support.
 Less proficient learners are required to match the answers to
the questions.
 Midlevel learners are required to answer multiple-choice
 High proficiency learners are required to answer open-ended
 After each group has completed the activity, the class can
reassemble and check their answers.
3.2. Tiered Task 1 (cont’d.)
 Sample text:
“Stress is a normal part of life and often cannot be avoided. In fact,
some stress keeps people motivated and makes life interesting. Stress
becomes unhealthy when its causes are unpredictable, uncontrollable
and unpleasant. How people deal with stress is often related to
experience and personality. For example, by the time people reach
middle-age they tend to experience less stress and also have better
ways to deal with it when they are confronted with it. And, as is well
known, “Type A” personalities tend to attract stress. They are highly
competitive, impatient and always in a hurry. “Type B” personalities,
however, are relatively easygoing, are less hurried and less hostile – all
characteristics that avoid stress.”
Retrieved February 12, 2009, from
3.2. Tiered Task 1: Top Tier Example
 For less proficient learners
1.Which age group is less stressed?
2.Describe a “Type A” personality.
3.Why do “Type B” personalities avoid stress?
a.They are highly competitive, impatient, and always in a
b.They are middle-aged.
c. They are easy-going, less hurried, and less hostile.
3.2. Tiered Task 1: Middle Tier Example
 For midlevel learners:
1. Which age group is less stressed?
a. seniors
b. middle aged
c. youth
2. Describe a “Type A” personality.
a. easygoing
b. uncontrollable
c. impatient
3. Why do “Type B” personalities avoid stress?
a. They are less hostile.
b. They are competitive.
c. They are unpleasant.
3.2. Tiered Task 1: Bottom Tier Example
 For high proficiency learners:
1.Which age group is less stressed?
2.Describe a “Type A” personality.
3.Why do “Type B” personalities avoid stress?
3.2. Tiered Task 2: Dual Choice Gapfill Example
 For this task, learners are assigned to two groups. The
more proficient learners are given a reading or listening
passage in which they are required to fill in a number of
blanks. The less proficient learners are given the same
passage and are required to choose between two
possible answers for each gap.
 Like the previous tiered task, all learners are working on
the same activity; therefore, it is possible for the answers
to be corrected as a class.
 The song The Newcomers Song by Maria Dunn was
chosen for this activity:
3.2. Tiered Task 2: Dual Choice Gapfill (cont’d.)
 Give missing words only to the less proficient learners
 What are the missing words? (Choose from the missing
word list below).
You bring the _(a)_ that helped you to survive.
You bring the _(b)_ you'll see your children thrive.
You bring the _(c)_ inside your bones.
The will to _(d)_ a home.
 Missing word list:
a) skills / will
b) wish / hope
c) ancestors / relations
d) build / make
Framework 4. Grading (Adapting) Listening Tasks
(Lynch, 1996, pp. 93-97)
 Conventional options for grading listening tasks for
learners of different proficiency levels:
(Lynch, 1996, p. 94)
4. Adapting Listening Texts
 Input
 pre-modified (e.g., restrict the number of unfamiliar
 post-modified (e.g., select easier listening extracts for
 Support
Provide any form of materials (e.g., an outline, a list of
vocabulary) to assist the learners in understanding the
text prior to hearing the passage.
4. Adapting Listening Tasks
 Process
This relates to the listening purpose (e.g., listening for
the main idea versus listening for specific details).
 Output
This relates to increasing or reducing the response
demands from learners (e.g., a non-verbal response,
such as a completing a checklist versus a verbal
Slides 39-43 give some examples about how the same text and task can
be graded to allow learners of different linguistic abilities to use them.
4. Adapting Listening Tasks: Sample Passage
 Sample listening passage
 Transcript:
“Hi! I'm Tony Clement, Canada's Minister of Health, and today I'd like to share with you
some "Food for Thought," information available to everyone on Health Canada's web site.
We're very fortunate in Canada to have not only a very productive agricultural sector, but
also a wide variety of foods imported from around the world. When you set out to "eat
healthy," be sure to try Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern or any of the other great ethnic
foods Canada has to offer. Pay attention to portion sizes - by reading the new nutrition
labels now required on food products you will see how many portions the package
contains, and many people are surprised to discover they are actually eating two or more
portions when they thought they were eating only one! Remember: Healthy eating and
great taste go hand in hand; There are no "good" or "bad" foods - moderation is the key;
And everything tastes better when you enjoy it with family and friends! I'm Tony Clement.
You, stay healthy.”
Grading the Text: Input
(Lynch, 1996, p. 96)
 Possible modifications (from least to most difficult):
 record
a modified version replacing less familiar
expressions with simpler ones, or taking out names and
references that the learners may not know;
 reduce
 use
the length of the listening passage; and
the original text, but pause frequently to check for
Grading the Text: Support
(Lynch, 1996, p. 96)
 Possible modifications:
 provide
key visuals to help learners follow the
conversation (e.g., an outline, a map, etc.);
 give
learners a list of key vocabulary to be found in the
passage, to aid comprehension; and
 give
learners a full transcript with some of the words
blanked out.
Grading the Task: Process
(Lynch, 1996, p. 96)
 Possible modifications (from least to most difficult):
 have
learners listen for very general understanding
(e.g., It’s about healthy eating);
 have
learners identify as many of the forms of ethnic
food mentioned as possible; and
 require
the learners to make decisions based on
information in the text while listening (e.g., Are you a
healthy eater? Explain).
Grading the Task: Output
(Lynch, 1996, p. 96)
 Provide a range of response types:
 Completing
checklists (e.g., Which of the following
foods are mentioned?)
 Ordering
(e.g., In which order are these ideas
 Matching
(e.g., foods to pictures, words to definitions)
 Filling-in-the-blanks
 Answering
comprehension questions in the first
language versus answering in English
Grouping Learners
 Valuable grouping strategies include:
a) whole group,
b) small group,
c) pair work, and
d) individual work.
 Whole group activities are often used at the beginning
and at the end of a lesson.
Grouping Learners (cont’d.)
 When carefully designed, small groups and pair work may
a) greater opportunities for interaction and feedback (e.g.,
learners can practise speaking to a variety of people and learn how
to adjust their speech according to their audience).
b) less intimidating environments (e.g., shy, less confident learners
may feel more comfortable speaking).
c) more effective use of resources (i.e., where resources are
limited, they can be shared)
 Working individually allows learners to meet specific
needs and interests, to build autonomy, and to develop
strengths. It also accommodates learners who prefer to
work alone.
Other Grouping Strategies
 Other grouping strategies include:
 mixed-ability,
 same-ability,
 same-language,
 shared-interest
 These strategies can be used to meet specific learning
needs and objectives.
Mixed Ability Groups
 Mixed-ability groups can complete the same activity, but at
different levels. This allows all learners to start with the same
listening or reading text and to complete activities that are
modified to accommodate the varying proficiency levels of
the learners (see examples on previous slides)
 Mixed-ability groups can also complete class projects in which
every learner is responsible for part of the project (e.g.,
creating a class newspaper or photo-story [see Bell, pp. 120121]).
Same-Ability Groups
 Same-ability groups allow learners to focus on grammar,
vocabulary, or other language skills that are particular to
their proficiency level.
Same-Language/Interest Groups
 Same-language groups allow learners to focus on English
language difficulties that are related to their first
language (e.g., pronunciation or grammatical difficulties)
 Same-language groups may also use their first language
to share understandings (e.g., cultural, pragmatic,
conceptual knowledge).
 Groups can also be created based on learner interests,
expertise, and personal characteristics, such as age,
marital status, learning style, recreation, hobbies, likes
and dislikes, etc.
Guidelines for Multilevel Lesson Planning
Select learning objectives - see
Design the learning task - see previous slides
Activate prior knowledge (e.g., brainstorming, reading
captions/headings, viewing pictures, relating topic to learners'
Organize groups/tasks - see previous slides
Assign roles to learners (e.g., timekeeper, recorder, presenter,
Provide task extensions (e.g., if one group finishes early) - see
previous slides
Evaluate learning – see Holmes (2005), Integrating CLB Assessment
into your ESL classroom
Example Lesson
CLB health lesson – Medical Clinics (click link below)
How to adapt the lesson for a multi-level class:
1. Warm-up: see CCLB Medical Clinics lesson plan
2. Listening task (modifying length of text, Slide 21)
Less proficient learners: see CCLB Medical Clinics lesson plan
Midlevel learners: give these learners 15 names to match with
office numbers
High proficiency learners: give these learners all 20 names to
match with office numbers
Lesson plan (cont’d.)
2. Speaking task (modifying time pressure, Slide 20)
Less proficient learners: have these learners complete
the task for their list of 10 doctors
Midlevel learners: have these learners complete the
task using their list of 15 doctors in the same amount of
High proficiency learners: have these learners complete
the task using their list of 20 doctors in the same
amount of time
Lesson plan (cont’d.)
2. Reading task (modifying amount of computation, Slide 16)
Less proficient learners: use class charted directory, as described
in the lesson
Midlevel learners: use a directory (e.g., the Yellow Pages) to
locate general practitioners in your area
High proficiency learners: use the Physician Search website
below to locate general practitioners who are accepting new
patients close to your home
3. Final task – see CCLB Medical Clinics lesson plan
 Developing familiarity with a few good options for
adapting tasks will make lesson planning more efficient
and ESL instruction more effective.
Bell, J. S. (2004). Teaching multilevel classes in ESL (2nd ed.). Don Mills,
ON: Pippin.
Bowler, B. & Parminter, S. (2002). Mixed-level teaching: Tiered tasks and
bias tasks. In J. C. Richards & W. A. Renandya (Eds.), Methodology in
language teaching: An anthology of current practice (pp. 59-68).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2000). Canadian Language
Benchmarks 2000: English as a second language for adults. Ottawa,
ON: Author.
Holmes, T. (2005). Integrating CLB Assessment into your ESL classroom.
Ottawa, ON: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.
References (cont’d.)
Lynch, T. (1996). Communication in the language classroom. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Willis, D., & Willis, J. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Additional References
Adelson-Goldstein, J. (2007). The step forward professional development
program for multilevel instruction in adult ESL programs. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Brown, H. D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to
language pedagogy (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition. (2006). Promoting success of
multilevel ESL classes: What teachers and administrators can do.
Retrieved October 24, 2008, from
Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2002). Canadian Language
Benchmarks 2000: Additional sample task ideas. Ottawa, ON: Author.
Retrieved October 24, 2008, from
Additional References (cont’d.)
Colorado State University. (2008). Overview: ESL volunteer guide.
Retrieved October 24, 2008, from
Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching (4th ed.).
Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.
Hess, N. (2001). Teaching large multilevel classes. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Holmes, T. L. (2001). Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000: A guide to
implementation. Ottawa, ON: Centre for Canadian Language
Additional References (cont’d.)
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Mathews-Aydinli, J., & Van Horne, R. (2006). Promoting success of multilevel ESL
classes: What teachers and administrators can do. Washington, DC: Center for
Applied Linguistics. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from
Roberts, M. (2007). Teaching in the multilevel classroom. Pearson Education.
Retrieved March 25, 2008 from
Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. Harlow, UK: Longman.
Carolyn Dieleman, Alberta Employment and Immigration
Gertrude Aberdeen
Laura Monerris
Dr. Marilyn Abbott
Dr. Marian Rossiter

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