The ABC of ELT

What to Do About Students Who Are in the “Wrong” Level?

At the start of a semester we inevitably get some students who believe they are in the wrong level for themselves. Sometimes this is true and the wanted to move up, be in a lower group or couldn’t make any classes at their “correct level”. Sometimes they have been placed in the wrong class as a placement test isn’t always accurate and some students underperform in their written or speaking assessments.

However, sometimes these students have been placed in the right class and still insist upon moving up. With that in mind, here are a few ideas I have picked up along the way to avoid this potential outcome.

Be on the look out for misplaced students

This is easy to say but not so easy to do in practice. I suspect we have a cognitive bias of some sort that if a student has been placed in this group, they should be there. The truth is (as anyone who has been involved in placement testing will know) sometimes there aren’t groups which are 100% correct for students. Then there are some students who are really good in some areas but not in others and so may have a hard to measure level. Finally, some students can persuade the placement tester to put them in a different group, be that a higher or lower group (yes it does happen).

One thing an previous DoS did to me was tell me that I had a student who probably should be in my group and ask me to be on the look out. I came back and reported my thoughts on a couple of students. Since then, I sometimes tell colleagues that there are a couple of students who might not be in the right group (even if I have no idea) and see what they say. I think it helps prime people to be on the look out.

Check the levels of your students

In between get to know you activities in your first classes it can be beneficial to have an activity or two to check someone’s level. Of course, this can be part of the get to know you activities or it can be separate. If you do one, make sure you record the result so you can have them as a reference. Just going off your monitoring and class feedback can lead to inaccurate recordings of someone’s level based off participation rather than ability.

Push students in the first class

As I’ve previously written about, it’s a good idea to push students in the first class for a variety of reasons and the same is true for both accurately and inaccurately placed students.

If you push the class and someone still believes they have been misplaced, then it’s more likely that they have. If you only revise and check their level then you are more likely to get a “but I learned present perfect already” response.

As such, vocabulary is usually a good way to push a group seeing as students can think they’ve already learnt a certain grammar point, even when they haven’t (I’m looking at you present perfect).

Place them with stronger students in the class

If you do have a student claim they are in the wrong group even when they’re in class activity shows to the contrary, it’s a good idea to place them with the stronger students in the class. You might maybe a student who was moved up to your group when they shouldn’t be and so they are not at the “correct level”, if you pair your student who believes they are better than they are with this student, you will reinforce that perception. Paradoxically, if you have a stronger students (who perhaps should go up) and you place the student who is petitioning you to go up (when they shouldn’t) with this student, you will probably

  • show that the level of this group is higher than they initially believe
  • highlight their weaknesses and mistakes

Show them evidence of their level

Having some form of evidence is very useful because a student can always argue with the teacher’s “opinion” (especially if they have a second teacher who has inaccurately placed them for other reasons). However, evidence such as mistakes in exercises or audio recordings of their production, can be used to justify your position.

Never promise to move a student up (or down)

It may not always be possible to move a student to a different group. That group may be full, at an inappropriate age level or too difficult/easy for them. Sometimes places go very quickly and you might not have all the information. Instead it is better to say you will discuss with your colleagues and state that you make no promises just to make sure they don’t turn around later and say you promised something which you didn’t.

Ask them exactly what they found inappropriate

Their concerns may actually centre around the methodology that the group uses. Alternatively you may have miss judged the level of the whole class and have chosen an inappropriate activity, if they mention that activity was too difficult, you can admit that you picked something for the wrong level.

Alternatively they may comment that your get to know you was too easy and you can point out that it was supposed to be easy for them as the point wasn’t to push their language abilities yet.

Sometimes, you should move the students to the “wrong” level

This may be controversial, but sometimes it may be worth moving students to the “wrong” level. Personally, I wish more institutions had the guts to say to the student that the teacher and the tests are accurate and if the student doesn’t like it, they can find another school but we won’t compromise on our standards…at the same time, I believe that we should have welcoming learning environments and that every group is a mixed ability group to some degree or another. Sometimes, this students may bring something extra (like the character and enthusiasm) to a different group and keeping them in a group they don’t want to be in will make them (and everyone around them) unhappy.

It’s hard to balance and it certainly isn’t right all the time…but sometimes we should compromise.

What do you think?

Do you have any other advice or ideas? Leave a comment below.

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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