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“I want to change my level.”


It’s halfway through the summer again, a time when I coordinate 4-week general English programs (amongst other language learning courses) and the woes we all face have crept up on me like a bull in a China shop. Year after year, you’d think I’d have mastered solutions to the cries of students who don’t neatly place into a pre-existing level (or at least don’t think they do), but it’s an ever-evolving, constantly adapting, flexible learning process I go through.

“I want to change my level.”

We all want to think that we’ve placed students into the level that is correct for them on the first shot, but for one reason or another, some students feel as though they’d be happier or learn more in a higher level. I write this post, trying to think through their reasons, how I respond and ultimately how to deal.

Case #1 – The irrelevance of level names
Student: In my country, I was Intermediate. Here I am in low level. I should be Intermediate.
Maybe the level descriptors that go along with what’s generally accepted as Intermediate don’t match up as well as one would think globally. Maybe in another country, this student progressed through the levels available simply because they paid and finished the time at that level. Here, our placement test put them back to where they haven’t demonstrated the language outcomes well. Maybe, as one Turkish student tried bartering me with recently, the level name is very important for getting into a certain school/job in their country, and they can easily pay for that level name there (the customer is always right springs to mind). Whatever reality it happens to be, I lean towards no accommodation in this case.

Case #2 – Previous exposure to language
Student: My class is too easy. I feel like I am not learning anything new. I know all of the language we are learning already.
Learners go to class in the first couple days, see vocabulary or grammar they’ve studied before and immediately judge that they know it already. This exposure is likely true, but the question really is, can they use it outside of gap fills and matching activities? Much of the time, I’m going to guess the answer is … unreliably. Where final tests have been the focus of their previous language learning experiences, it’s easy to conclude that perfection has occurred. Explaining this to the student can often result in heavy sighs and lack of buy-in, even when presented with evidence from the class itself. My response to this tends to be ‘Sorry, prove you can do what you think you can. Back to class.’

Case #3 – Faulty logic: higher level equals more learning
Student: I want more hard work because I want to learn more harder.
It would be lovely if every higher level included two or three lower level students there so they could be challenged (and quite possibly realise this difficulty on their own). Unfortunately it’s just not practical to set that precedent. Another way around it, have a visitor day where the top students from a previous level join in and then go back. Mixing the levels up on one or two days might just satisfy everyone low, and give the higher students an opportunity to teach/mentor those that join. I’ve always liked the idea of mixing classes together, at least once in a while.

Case #4 – The fault of the assessment
Student: My class is too easy. I feel like I am not learning anything new. I know all of the language we are learning already.
OK, so no placement test is foolproof. Neither is any testing situation. Sometimes people are affected by outside influences that inhibit their language use during a test: nerves, body condition, assessor variances, etc. If I find their abilities to express their concerns really don’t match the level they’ve been placed in, I like to give the student the opportunity to think about and tell me their opinions on why that might be. It gives me a longer opportunity to assess their abilities myself and shows that a student may have thought this through more than just a simple knee-jerk reaction like Case #1 & #2.  Other times, teachers can misjudge what their students don’t know in the first couple days. Yes, a curriculum with language outcomes guides here, but everyone can be a little unsure at first and going easier rather than more difficult off the bat can be the default position. My thoughts are to go a bit challenging initially to a) push the students to show what they’re capable of; b) prevent students from the initial thoughts of Case #1 & #2; and c) show students gaps in their knowledge. It can be better to ease up later than lose the students initially.

Case #5 – The integrated skills approach issue
Student: My writing is better than my speaking. Can I go to different levels to improve different things?
Don’t we all wish it were true that learners’ reading, writing, listening and speaking skills all progressed at the same level. Sometimes it works out nicely; other times there appear wildly different. For an integrated skills class, what do you do with students who score a 3/10 in an oral placement and 75% for reading & writing? How about vice versa? In this type of program, every DoS wonders what’s the best place for them – Low or High? Maybe meet in the middle in Intermediate? Barring no affective filters as in Case #4, the problem seems to lie in the program design itself then. Should students take classes dedicated to improving certain skills? Is this a good case against the integrated skills approach? Is it fair to ask teachers to differentiate their instruction? Should we place the burden on the learners to make the most of their classes by autonomously going above and beyond? Yes, yes and yes. The hard truth is that there is a fundamental problem with most commercially-designed, short-term language learning programs: they’re too short, include too many students in a class and pay too little to the teacher to justify not operating within a set curriculum (though I’m unsure when it stops being too little), not to mention employing the misguided, unspoken promise of improving a neatly packaged level if the course is paid for. 

Perhaps I’m just not a fan of short-term levels or levels at all.

PS – “I want to change my level.” – “OK. Put in some effort.”

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This is soooooo true. All of it. Yep. Been there, don’t want to hear that again, but I will. I believe there is a better way, but I don’t know what it is, yet. The funny thing is (and I don’t want to generalize, but I will) there is a group of students from a small European country surrounded by mountains that are the only students that have asked for me to place them DOWN a level. I think all of the other students think they are crazy. They tell me that they know the answers, but want to practice it until they feel comfortable with the language before moving on. Completely different perspective on things.

I think you hit on the main issue of the levels as a commodity. The problem is that the levels are used to pay or hire workers, or give students better marks in school. This is the issue and we will never get rid of it from our end. Language learning is becoming less and less about learning the language as it is about prestige. It is also about looking good to your peers. Forget knowing the language, I want to know my level!!!

That’s the beauty of teaching in the format of a learning center – no division according to levels. Though I know it isn’t realistic for most teaching situations.
Great points which I agree with. I would be wary of the idea of a “vistor’s day” though. Based on my experience in the learning center, I can tell you that this backfires. Sometimes stronger students that really have been placed in the correct group don’t know the answer to a question appearing in the lower level material. Then the weaker students think they should have been placed in that higher level too!

Zoltan Toth

Very interesting thoughts, Tyson.I have been seeing the same / hearing reaction from students over the past 6 weeks. And I find that often they use the excuses you mention, even though the real reason is often much more mundane, and the students themselves will volunteer this info if you probe them long enough: they simply want to be with a friend; they don’t like the class atmosphere or the teacher; their parents are pressuring them to move to a higher level; they want to be with a cute boy / girl in another class … reasons that levels have nothing to do with, although “level” seems to be the easiest and simplest handle for most students to grab onto.

Joanne Hincks

Tyson, we are in the same city and same field and it is interesting to see the similarities and differences between our worlds. Good to learn a bit about your summer program. I deal with longer terms ( 3 terms in a 43 week year) and newcomers who are here to stay. We get the “I want to change my level” constantly. Most of the time we can ask (insist) the learner stay put for two weeks and talk to the teacher about promotion if they claim the class is too easy, or come back to the office if they claim the class is too hard. After 2 weeks, they are almost always satisfied with the level. Obviously no time for that in a four week program! Occasionally learners have been mis-placed during initial assessment by us, a school from which they have transferred or by the central assessment centre. If it is obvious a mistake has been made we try to assign the learner into the class that is most suitable to them. It is now trickier as we have moved towards a centralized all Ontario database so if a learner is assigned higher level than they are actually at, we can’t do anything about it.

Is it about teaching, teaching situations, or about learning?

[…] blog post that will strike a chord with many: “I want to change my level” by Tyson Seburnt […]

How are you evaluating students to start? If it is via a test and offering a different version of the test. After all, sometimes students really do just have an off day. If they can show that their score can significantly increase then they can be moved to a higher class.

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