Tiered Language Classrooms not the Answer

Tiered Language Classrooms not the Answer

Imagine the first day of an undergraduate Spanish 2 classroom with sixteen students whose enthusiasm for the course ranges from “Oh boy! Oh boy!” to “How many days a week is this again?” Some are freshmen, but most have put their language requirement off for years… until now. The first fifteen minutes fly by with an exhaustive administrative introduction. Eventually, the warm up begins, and I instruct them to get to know their neighbor.  As I walk around the room and eavesdrop on anxiously delivered greetings and introductions, I note the wide range of proficiencies. While many exude a confident flow, others haltingly state their names. Some forget their lines entirely.

This snapshot of my first day teaching Spanish 2 replayed itself frequently over the course of the next ten weeks. Five of the sixteen students were dealing with particular issues – aggravated learning disabilities or health concerns – that threatened to drastically curtail their learning outcomes. It’s normal for learners to vary widely in their skill levels for any given subject, but when 30% of my class exhibited significant learning differences, it called my whole teaching methodology into question. 

Feeling, perhaps, as unprepared for this challenge as my students felt about narrating in the past tense, I started researching potential modifications to make the material as accessible as possible.

What about a tiered classroom?

In tiered classrooms (also sometimes called differentiated classrooms), the instructor’s approaches to teaching content and evaluating student performance are adjusted to accommodate for the diversity of students’ readiness, degree of interest, and learning profiles.

By differentiating instruction and assessment, the idea is to maximize learning outcomes for those students who excel in the course while, at the same time, fully addressing the needs of other students who may require additional support. In such a classroom, the instructor may design assignments meant for varying skill levels, offer alternative assignments, and even implement a graduated grading rubric.

 David Suarez, a veteran math and science teacher, writes that when we quarantine students who are already falling through the cracks, “we frequently do so at a cost to both the students themselves and to the mainstream population from which they’ve been separated.” He maintains, however, “if we embrace full inclusion without applying effective differentiation strategies, we fail as well.”

In the microcosm of one undergraduate language class, I found both statements to be true, but instead of sorting students based on ability, pooling students’ collective resources was an effective solution.

Partnership learning and horizontal learning communities

Partnership learning can be the cornerstone of successful language instruction. It’s a teaching mode that creates a one-on-one learning situation for students in any educational environment. Every day in my classroom students paired off to practice the targeted function for that day through carefully crafted scenarios.  The below example demonstrates how two students may interact during a unit on food and restaurant vocabulary.

Student A (receives a handout including helpful phrases on how to: order food, complain, and give thanks): You arrive a new restaurant you’ve been dying to try out. The prices are high, and so are your expectations…

Student B (receives a corollary handout with instructions on how to: take an order, apologize, and bid farewell): You have been working at the town’s newest and most refined restaurant for all of two weeks. You worked hard to get this job, and you want to keep it…

In a typical class, I would give the students ample time to act out the scenario, giving every single student the stage at the same time as I circulated around the room to answer questions and make corrections.

What can be achieved through partnership learning? The answer is a horizontal learning community where each student’s learning is integral to the learning process of those around them.  Learners coevolve into peer instructors as they work together to master the material.

In a horizontal learning community, an instructor can be less preoccupied with giving struggling students sufficient individualized attention. When encouraged, more skilled students rise up to assist others. The key to making the material accessible is demonstrating to the entire class that the input of those who need more help is every bit as valuable to the learning community.

Classroom tactics

Here’s some advice on how to highlight the learning achievements of struggling students:

  • Call on them. Resist the temptation to call on “ringer” students to get that quick, accurate answer you know will keep the lesson moving right along. Call on struggling students more frequently than other students.
  • Take them seriously. Hold them to the same high standards as everyone else and earnestly listen to their answers.
  • Model respect and patience by giving the student enough time to think through and deliver an answer.
  • Celebrate the parts of an answer that are accurate before correcting.

One caveat: this teaching mode will not work without the help of the more accelerated students.  Simply put, I would not have been an effective Spanish teacher without the co-teaching that was happening in every corner of my classroom. At various points throughout the quarter, I made sure to recognize their contributions privately by thanking them for their coaching abilities and by encouraging them to continue to share their skills.

Another aspect of making material accessible is adopting smart modifications to your delivery style to take into account the particular needs of all students.  In my Spanish 2 class, by putting all instructions in writing, those with auditory challenges could keep pace. By challenging them all to a lip sync contest in Spanish, those with speech disorders could excel (and did). Carefully placed follow-up questions and rigorous one-on-one meetings assured optimal learning outcomes for highly skilled students as well.

The end results were excellent. Every single one of my students either met or exceeded Stanford’s spoken proficiency objectives by the end of our quarter together. I even had a couple of students who achieved the kind of proficiency we don’t normally see until students have had an additional quarter of Spanish.

In short, the class succeeded not because of differential treatment but because of heightened inclusion.  When a room full of learners becomes a community of teachers, achievement soars.

What is your experience with partnership learning and horizontal learning communities? What strategies do you use to accomodate diverse learning needs in the classroom? Tell us below.


Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.

See Also

To learn more about the theory of partnership learning, check out The Center for Partnership Studies(CPS), a public service organization that seeks to nurture a culture based on partnership to promote human development, social well-being, and long-term economic success. CPS is currently promoting Riane Eisler’s book Tomorrow’s Education (HarperCollins 2000), which outlines three core components of partnership learning.