Ever found yourself teaching ESOL to learners of all abilities? You may have learners who are quite comfortable chatting in English, albeit with some grammatical errors and one or two questionable vocab choices. Alongside could be learners who know a lot of words but can’t string them together meaningfully. There may be those working on phonics and those who know their grammar but pronunciation keeps getting in the way.

With church-based ESOL classes, it’s wise practice to draw in volunteers, ex-teachers, and, if you’re fortunate enough, even an ESOL trained person or two. However, the reality may be that you are by yourself, or have just one or two helpers lacking confidence to wade into teaching.

Accommodating late walk-ins and referrals might be your ‘food and drink’ (Matthew 10:34-40) for often-vulnerable and desperate people: the call to demonstrate kindness and mercy – in humility – with God watching (Micah 6:8). Or you might, like me, be holding out for more male students and people from South East Asia to join my class of Bengali housewives.

To add to the challenge, other ‘mixed levels’ are often at play alongside ability in the English language: expectations and attitudes to language learning, learning ability, varying learning styles, self-esteem and confidence, educational background, illiteracy in heart language, under/over estimating language ability/progress, and unrealistic goals.

You may have learners who are traumatised by their pasts and the harsh challenges of getting to grips with life here. There might be those who have been waiting months and years for asylum decisions and whose mental health has taken a hit as applications have been rejected.

Attendance, motivation, and focus may vie for attention alongside depression, money, housing, bills, transport, adequate clothing, food, and schooling. Learners may be juggling jobs, childcare, and troubleshooting ill-health, disability, or cultural barriers to attending class. In short, what an opportunity to demonstrate Christ-like compassion, love, and empathy. A slowing down and noticing of an individual: a gentle question, an offer of help, a word of prayer.

In other words, we are not in control a lot of the time. We shouldn’t be overly ambitious and expect too much of ourselves. We can’t meet everyone’s needs. When learners find it difficult to ‘fit in’, it might be worth pointing out a class elsewhere where they can access more of what they need. Although sad, there is a marvellous Kingdom opportunity here: signposting other churches and Christians, connecting, recommending, working together in a spirit of co-operation, partnership, and friendship.

With all of this in mind, having an intake procedure does pay some dividends in knowing where your learners are at and how you can help them with their English. This could include registration and intake at limited times, a placement test,[1] needs analysis,[2] a register, along with getting-to-know-one another activities.[3] Armed with this information, you may want to split your class into roughly two ability groups. You can then approach activities using ‘differentiation’ to arrive at your goals for the lesson.[4]

For example, a goal may be for learners to identify rooms in their house using some key vocab. A starter activity could be looking at a picture/photo of a typical house as a group (be sensitive to the displaced – think learner-centric – it could be a bedsit, hotel, terrace, or flat). Photos are a fantastic resource because learners of all levels can process them at the same time. The onus is put on the learners to be creative, work together, and use language they already know to express themselves.[5] Kingdom values are being expressed here in relationships: sincerity, valuing, preferring, humility, love (see Philippians 2:3-4, Romans, 12:9-10).

Learners could write or copy the names of rooms onto their own copy of the house picture. Supplying a list of vocab to students that need it shows your compassion for those who find writing difficult. Grouping learners together in various ways encourages sharing, working together, and helping one another.[6] For higher ability learners, the first letter or an anagram of each room could be provided. Extra vocab items such as ‘attic’, ‘cellar’, and ‘drive’, along with correct pronunciation and spelling could be an extra challenge.[7]

A follow up activity could be sharing information about the house in pairs and small groups. Lower level learners could be helped with sentence prompts (e.g. There are ____ bedrooms). Higher level learners, meanwhile could generate questions to respond to and ask one another (e.g. How many bedrooms are there?).[8] They may want to write about their own house as an extension activity or for homework.

Another approach to multi-level classes that might work for your context is ‘topic-based teaching’. This involves learners tackling a theme and working on content with the teacher facilitating. For example: Choose a special object of personal interest. Plan & practise a short talk and tell the class about the object. This certainly reduces preparation time and encourages learners to work at their own pace and ability.[9] A free-to-listen-to presentation on how to set up topic-based teaching can be found here on the 2:19 website.

No doubt about it, multilevel classes certainly call for a little more creativity and preparation. We can take heart, however, that learners often quietly take note of our care for them. Through our words and deeds, people see who we are not only what we teach. As we ponder – with Christ’s help – how to help people with their linguistic needs, may what my 2:19 colleague, Marina, describes as a ‘beautiful community’ begin to be built.


Recommended Reading & Resources

Smith, David I., On Christian Teaching: Practising Faith in the Classroom (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018). Intense reading yet one of the most effective books to date on faith and teaching. Insightful and practical ideas on how faith motivates and impacts teaching and learning.

Smith, David and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000). A bit dated with an overly formal style yet containing lots of useful, practical thoughts on the links between teaching, hospitality, and witness.

Online Articles

Swainston-Harrison, Marina. Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes https://www.twonineteen.org.uk/2018/teaching-mixed-ability-classes/ (last accessed Oct 23)

Oxford Union Press. 5 Simple Ways To Use Coursebook Images In Mixed Ability Classes. https://teachingenglishwithoxford.oup.com/2023/10/11/5-simple-ways-to-use-coursebook-images-in-mixed-ability-classes/?dm_i=1MVU,8FRGG,PLX76J,YU5YP,1 (last accessed Oct 23)

Englishclub.com.  Teaching English to Multi-Level Classes.  https://www.englishclub.com/teaching-tips/teaching-multi-level-classes.htm (last accessed Oct 23)

Jenkins, Rob. (2012).  Making the Multilevel ESL Classroom Work. Santa Ana College School of Continuing Education.   https://eslteacherdotnet.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/multilevel-instruction-article.pdf (last accessed Oct 23)

KristieMarie. (2022). Make It Happen: 5 Strong Strategies to Teach Different Levels of ESL Students at Once. FluentU English Educator Blog.  https://www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/different-levels-of-esl-students/ (last accessed Oct 23)


English with Cambridge. (2020). Teaching Mixed Ability Classes.

Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxkn8sWubaA (last accessed Oct 23)

Cambridge University Press ELT. (2011).  Facilitating Multilevel Classrooms.

Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMNHkG6ZKQA (last accessed Oct 23)


About 2:19

2:19 are a bunch of ordinary people who are passionate about teaching English and their Christian faith. The writers of this article, Daniel Whetham and Marina Swainston-Harrison, spend quite a bit of their time supporting UK churches with teacher training so that people feel better equipped to connect with international people with the English language.



[1] Free and accurate ‘placement tests’ are hard to come by! This 100 question grammar and vocab test with answer key can be found here. Don’t be taken in by its description as ‘quick’. Learners will need adequate time to complete it and it will need careful marking.

[2] This is getting to know your learners more. Use questions such as ‘How long have you been studying English?’, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ I like combining this with ‘Learner Training’ by asking learners to consider good study habits. This could include taking note of new vocab items in chunks rather than in isolation and watching English news and films with subtitles.

[3] ‘Find someone who…’ is a great relationship-building activity that urges learners (and the teacher!) to complete a task by asking ‘missing’ information from others (e.g. ‘Find someone who can speak more than three languages’).

[4] Teacher jargon for providing support for different ability levels within the same task/aims.

[5] For some great ideas of how to implement images In mixed ability classes click here.

[6] So-called ‘peer learning’ works well for recall/revision activities. e.g. teachers prompt pairs and groups for answers rather than individuals one by one. Ponder more such ideas on ‘Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes’ summarised here by my colleague, Marina.

[7] This approach is termed ‘differentiating the input’.

[8] This approach is ‘differentiating the process’.

[9] Giving open-ended prompts, tasks, options, choice. e.g. answer any question not necessarily starting at #1. Teacher jargon refers to this as ‘differentiation by output’.