TeachingEnglish
Teaching mixed-ability classes 2

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.

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

The first article deals with...

Discussion and needs analysis
Student self awareness
Work groupings


This second article deals with the following strategies.

  • Range of tasks
  • Extra work / Homework
  • Student nomination
  • Error correction
  • Conclusion


Range of tasks
This involves creating or providing different tasks for different levels.

For example, the number of comprehension questions for a text. You might have two sets of questions, A and B. Perhaps all students have to complete set A, the stronger ones also have to complete set B. Or, they even have an extra reading text.

This obviously increases the amount of lesson preparation. However, it is possible to think of fairly simple extra tasks. For example, during a reading lesson, the stronger students have to do detailed dictionary work on vocabulary in the text. It takes very little time to select words for the students to research. With the stronger students spending 10 minutes working with dictionaries, you have time to monitor and help the weaker ones with the text. Then you can go through the shared comprehension tasks as a class, and perhaps the stronger students can make a presentation about the words they have researched.

Extra work / homework
It is straightforward to give different students different homework - unless it is part of a standardised assessment procedure. Give weaker students homework which really does consolidate the class work, and give the stronger students work that will widen their knowledge or put it to the test a little more. When teaching mixed ability classes, the weaker students will be missing things during the lesson, or failing to understand. Use homework to address this. The stronger students may feel held back during the class, so homework can now really push them (if they are so inclined!)

Writing tasks are great for homework, as a productive skill that can be performed individually. You can expect more from the stronger students, and use it as a way to identify their weaknesses, which may not be so apparent during the class.

Student nomination
This is a simple classroom management technique that really helps in the mixed ability class.

When asking for answers to questions, ask particular students, rather than asking the class in a open fashion e.g. 'What's the answer to number 9?' is an open question, whereas 'What's the answer to number nine, Maria?' is a nominated question. If you ask open questions, the same old strong students will provide the answers. This creates a poor dynamic to the class, for many reasons.

When nominating...

  • Ask the question before you give the name of the student. That way, everyone has to listen
  • Consider how easy it is for the student to answer. If a weak student will struggle, perhaps ask a stronger student. If a weak student should be capable, then ask them.
  • Avoid making students seem foolish, and yet also avoid patronising them by only asking super simple questions
  • Nominate with variety. Be careful to avoid nominating the same selection of students. In a large class, I keep a note of the students I have asked over a lesson, just to make sure I haven't developed a pattern.


Error correction
In a mixed level class you can have different expectations of the language the different students produce. Sometimes, it can push stronger students if you correct them heavily - although you should be sensitive about this. And for weaker students, be more selective in your error correction.

To conclude
The key strategies for teaching mixed level classes are probably developing a positive and collaborative working atmosphere and providing a variety of work suitable for different levels. It probably doesn't work to stick your head in the sand and pretend the class is all of one homogenous level, a situation which doesn't exist anywhere.

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

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