You walk into a classroom that you’re told is composed of intermediate-level students. However, what you find is that half of the class is well-versed when it comes to grammar and reading and the other half of the class is practically illiterate, but their conversation skills and pronunciation is incredible. So, what do you do?
You’ll be hard pressed to find a teaching placement that does not include some variety in student levels within the same classroom. Sometimes this is due to grouping students by age (often in adolescent classes), keeping groups together throughout a program, insufficient placement testing, or a lack of resources that will allow students to be grouped more specifically by level. More often than not, you’re at the whims of your institution.
From a mile away your students may seem to be at the same level, but there will always be variations in what students know and which language skills they excel at. If this is the case, the best thing you can do for your students and your own sanity is conduct a needs analysis.
What is a Needs Analysis?
While a needs analysis won’t solve the frustrations and issues you may be facing in your multi-level classroom, it’ll give you a better idea of who your students are and where they’re at in their language learning journey. A needs analysis is simply when you collect data about your students current proficiency level, what your students would like to learn, and how they would like to learn it.
Many teachers conduct a needs analysis at the beginning of a class session, semester, or program in order to initially get to know their students. While that is an incredibly important way to use needs analysis, you can also use it at different points throughout your class to check in with students and re-assess where they are.
There are many different variations to a needs analysis. They can be either formal or informal. While they often take the form of a test or quiz, multiple choice questions aren’t your only option. It may be the best option for your students, but if it isn’t, don’t fret.
Before choosing a type of needs analysis I recommend figuring out what you want to know. For instance, if you want to find the current level of your students’ speaking skills you may not want to choose a pen-and-paper based analysis method.
Below you’ll find three different tools for needs analysis. Each tool can be used in an endless variety of ways in order to find what suits you and your class.
Writing-Based Needs Analysis
One of the most basic forms of testing your students’ level is through some sort of writing. A writing-based analysis can look extremely formal or extremely informal. Find what works best for you and your students!
At the most formal end of writing-based analysis is a simple multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank test. On this type of test you’ll likely find questions such as the following:
1. Choose the best answer for you: I like...
written work for homework // to read for homework // to study for homework // I don’t like homework
2. Fill in the blank: In class, I particularly enjoy working on____________________________________________________
Those types of questions allow you, as the teacher, to learn more about what your students want from their English class and teacher. You can actually test a large variety of skills and preferences through a writing-based analysis, even certain aspects of your students speaking level.
Integrating a question like, “Circle the answer that is true for you: I am great / okay / poor at speaking in English,” will tell you a lot about your students’ confidence level when it comes to speaking, but it will not give you a good picture of their actual speaking skills.
Open-ended questions are a much more informal way to conduct a writing-based needs analysis. Have your students write a letter or mini-essay about their hopes for the course or their reason for learning English. This type of “testing” will tell you a lot about their writing proficiency, as well as their motives and goals.
You can also have your students write on a broader topic, such as, “a time when you felt confident while speaking English” or “the most frustrating thing about the English language.” Remember that you can learn more from a needs analysis than just the answer to the question you’re asking. You can take note of their grammar, punctuation, attitudes, and confidence levels.
A writing-based needs analysis is great for your class if you’re looking to test writing skills or understand something more personal about your students. It also allows you to have an actual, physical copy of your analysis to look back on. Another great aspect of a writing-based analysis is that most individuals are more confident and more likely to share personal information when they have time to plan, construct, and edit their language (such as through writing, rather than speaking).
Speaking-Based Needs Analysis
Another great tool for needs analysis is a speaking-based assessment. This is definitely what comes to mind when I think of an informal way to test student level. Just like a writing-based needs analysis, you can get as formal or informal as you’d like.
A one-on-one interview is a great way to get to know your students and understand more about their language levels. However, interviews take a tremendous amount of time, which many teachers simply don’t have. While definitely worthwhile in a small class setting, most teachers with more than 10 students can’t commit to interviews.
If you’re interested in doing interviews with your students you may choose to make it a more formal interview. You could ask prepared questions about their past learning experiences or their thoughts about language acquisition.
If you’re looking for a more informal interview experience, think of it more as an intentional conversation. Ask your student about their life, their interests, why they want to learn English, or how they learn best. In this setting it can be helpful to share a little bit about your own life experiences as well.
Like I mentioned above, interviews aren’t for everyone, but this doesn’t mean a speaking-based analysis is out of the question. You could have your students present on their “perfect ESL classroom.” Again, the presentation can be formal and/or graded, or it can be informal and more of a discussion. Find what works for you!
One of the most informal speaking-based analysis is just a general class discussion. Take a few minutes at the beginning of your class to discuss your students’ goals, why they want to learn English, how they want to learn English, etc. You can also show them the coursebook you will be using (or a few that you like) and discuss what they like and don’t like about them. This will give you a better idea of what they value and can help guide you as you plan.
A speaking-based needs analysis is a great option if you’d like to learn more about your learners’ confidence or speaking/listening skills. It’s also a much more personal way to learn about your students, as opposed to a writing-based analysis.
Observation-Based Needs Analysis
This type of needs analysis is one of the most informal types; however, there is a lot that you can learn through observing! This is a great tool if you don’t have the time to commit to a needs analysis or if you want to see what types of language situations your students are confronting on a day-to-day basis.
There are a ton of different options when it comes to an observation-based needs analysis, and if you’re looking for a more formal option, there are plenty! If you’re teaching business English, work-based English, or a class within a specific corporation or company, try to tailor your analysis to that.
If you’re able to visit your students at their workplace, observing them in this setting can allow you to see the specific situations that they are in daily and with which they need the English language. However, this isn’t doable for many teachers, and if that’s the case, consider having your students bring in some materials from their workplace or school.
Bringing in materials isn’t only for students in business, academic, or workplace English (though it is really helpful for those students). You can also have your beginner-level students bring in a material they need help understanding from their daily home life, such as electric bills, school letters, or a form they need to fill out.
This will allow you, as a teacher, to see what they need English for, what they’re having trouble understanding, and how to move forward to serve your students!
The most informal method for observation-based needs analysis is to simply observe your students during class activities. If you’re intentional about it, you can take note of their proficiency levels and attitudes throughout class.
If you're teaching a multi-level classroom, you're definitely going to want to conduct a preliminary needs analysis in order to better understand where your students are in their language learning journey and what their goals are.
However, make sure you don't stop there! Continually check in with them and take note of their language proficiency, what they're looking for in an ESL class, and how you can best serve them! If you'd like some more activities to use on the first day (or first week) of your class, be sure to check out my article on How to Nail Your First Day!
A final note about multi-level classrooms and needs analysis': Your needs analysis should definitely influence your lesson planning, but remember that your lesson plan is not set in stone. If you're unsure of your students' levels, don't be afraid to change up what you're doing and teaching mid-lesson!
I Want to Hear From You!
How have you overcome the struggles of a multi-level classroom?
Do you usually do a needs analysis? If so, what was one of the most surprising things you learned from it?