TeachingEnglish
Teaching mixed-ability classes 1

You may often be teaching a class which has students who are clearly of different levels. They may have different starting levels of English or they may learn at very different speeds - for any number of reasons.

These are several strategies that a teacher can use to deal with this situation. This is the first of two articles on the topic.

The second article covers...

Range of tasks
Extra work / Homework
Student nomination
Supporting the weaker students
Error correction

This first article deals with the following strategies.

  • Discussion and needs analysis
  • Student self-awareness
  • Work groupings

 

Discussion and needs analysis
It is easy for students to get frustrated in a class of mixed ability. Stronger students may feel held back, weaker students may feel pressured. The teacher may feel stressed. The best solution to this is to have an open-class discussion about the classroom situation - to ensure the best for everyone it is better to acknowledge the situation and for everyone to agree how to deal with it. It is probably best to stage and structure the discussion.  

Needs Analysis
Use a needs analysis to prompt the students to reflect upon their learning style, learning strategies, language needs, learning enjoyment, motivation, language strengths and weaknesses. Questions that might be included are...

  • What kinds of class activities do you enjoy / benefit from?
  • Which language skill do you most wish to develop?
  • Do you prefer working individually or with a partner?
  • Would you rather sit and listen to the teacher all lesson or participate in group work?


Students compare their answers in pairs or small groups. You should collect the information and prepare a statistical representation of the key questions and answers. This will help to develop the sense of shared community in the class.

Explain and discuss

Explain the mixed-level situation to the students and give a list of possible approaches to the teaching and learning. In pairs, the students rank the approaches/ideas according to their suitability for the situation.

Following feedback, you should highlight the strategies you plan to use.

A student contract
Developing with the students, or perhaps writing it yourself, a contract of behaviour for activities is a useful device. 'I will help and support my activity partner.' 'I will participate in group work.'

Tell them what you are going to do
If you think your students are not mature enough to carry out this kind of reflection, explain the situation to the class and tell them what strategies you will be using. If students know what to expect, you can hope that they will cooperate.

All of the above work could be done in the mother tongue, although I feel it is best done primarily in the target language (as it draws attention to the fact that this is a learning language issue.)


Student self-awareness
Encourage students to develop an awareness of their own language abilities and learning needs. What are their strengths and weaknesses, and how can they focus on these? How can they measure their own progress

This may take the form of a learner's diary, regular self-assessment, keeping records of mistakes, keeping a record of things learnt.

Work groupings
Varying the way students work in the class will help meet the variety of levels in the class.  

Pair work
You can pair strong with strong, weak with weak, or strong with weak. Perhaps in a very controlled activity, the strong with weak will work well. In a freer activity, perhaps strong with strong will be of benefit. Variety in the pairings is the key here - and you should also be sensitive to the general relationships between different students, and learn to note who works well with whom.

Group work
These groups could be of mixed levels or similar ones. The hope is that in a smaller group, the weaker student will feel more able to contribute. Also, if the group is working with a set of information, divide the information between the students, forcing them to work together.

You may consider dividing your class into groups by level for the whole lesson, enabling you to give a different level or number of tasks to each group. Discussion of this strategy with the class should help prevent stigmatisation.

 

Whole class - mingles
This is a favoured strategy of mine. A mingle activity involves students talking or interacting with many different members of the class in a short period of time in order to achieve a task. This means that any one student will work with students at different levels - experiencing stronger and weaker levels of communication. This supports the weaker students and provides opportunities for the stronger ones.

A classic activity is a 'Find someone who...'

  • In this activity the student has to survey the class to find people who…(for example)
    …have got something - Do you have a CD player? Or…
    …have done something - Have you eaten fish and chips? Or…
    …like something - Do you like tennis?

    If a student answers yes to a question, then the other student should ask for more information. If a student answers no, then the other should find a new person to ask, and may come back to the first student with another question later on.

    The potential for this is endless. It is a great way to provide practice of a particular language structure/area (10 questions all using the past simple) and provides controlled practice as well as the opportunity for further freer discussion. It also creates a lively classroom dynamic.

    Mingles can take many forms - students may have to find the person who has a matching word to theirs, or the second half of a split sentence. The students may all have the same or different questions, or a mixture. The key is the general principle of an information gap or communicative need.


Overall, variety in the types of working groups, and an open discussion of the class situation will help to deal with some of the difficulties that are present in mixed ability classes. The aim of these strategies is to create a positive working environment, which is all part of ensuring better learning.

Gareth Rees,teacher/teacher trainer, London Metropolitan University, UK

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