TeachingEnglish
Adapting materials for mixed ability classes

All classes are mixed ability to one extent or another. Extreme cases, when you have near native level speakers with beginners, can be very challenging for the teacher.

In these cases it’s important to remember that all students will get something out of the class, but not necessarily the same things, and not necessarily what you aim to teach them! For example, the beginners may begin to get a grasp of your classroom language whilst the stronger students may begin to be able to put a new tense into use.

Adapting materials for mixed ability classes can take different forms.

  • One way to adapt materials is to rewrite reading texts and grade the language accordingly for different levels. In an ideal world where a teacher has all the time in the world to prepare their classes this may be the perfect solution. However, the reality is that this sort of adaptation is extremely time consuming and not many teachers can actually go to this length to adapt materials for mixed level groups. Another problem that can arise with this sort of adaptation is that it can be awkward to give out different texts to different students. There’s a danger that they will instantly realise that they have been labelled as a weak or strong student and, in the case of the weaker students, this will no doubt effect their motivation.


I would like to offer some ideas of how you can support your weaker students and offer extension activities for your stronger students whilst using the same materials as the starting point for the class. This way the preparation time involved for the teacher isn’t drastically higher, and the group can still work together for most of the class.

These ideas are taken from a workshop I attended last year on mixed ability classes. Thanks to my colleagues at the Young Learners’ Centre in Barcelona and especially to Lucy Mardel who led the workshop.

  Extension activities for stronger students Support for weaker students
Reading

Ask early finishers to write new vocab up on the board with definitions.


Rewrite a part of the text in a different tense / person.


Write their personal opinion / a short summary of the text.Write questions about the text.

 

Pre-teach difficult vocabulary and leave it written on the board for students to refer to. Use visuals if possible.


If there are gaps, give students the answers in a jumbled order, with a few extras.

Draw attention to the title, pictures etc and set the scene beforehand so their mind is on track for the topic.

Break the text into chunks and give the option of only reading some of the text.

 

Listening

Give out the tape script and nominate a ‘vocabulary master’ to look up tricky words or expressions in a dictionary to then explain to the group.

Focus on the accents or intonation of the speakers and get students to copy chunks.

If it’s a true/false activity, follow on by asking ‘why/why not?)

 

Pre-teach vocabulary, use visual prompts when appropriate.

Give students time to discuss answers before feeding back to the class.

Give students the tape script on second listening.

If it’s a gap fill, supply the words with a few extras.

 

Writing Give creative tasks that students can do at their own level.

Indicate mistakes using correction code to give students a chance to self-correct. (Sp = spelling, Gr = grammar etc.)

Increase the word limit.

Indicate where they could use more interesting ways of saying something.

 

Correct the draft together before students copy up in neat.

Reduce the word limit.

Encourage use of dictionaries / vocab books.

Give and example piece of writing as a model before they begin writing.

Pair or group weaker students with stronger students.

 

Speaking

Ask students to justify / defend their opinions.

Ban easy words like ‘nice’ to push their vocab to a higher level.

Get students to record themselves and self-correct.

Pair students of higher level together so they really go for it.

 

Give students time to rehearse and gather their ideas before a role play or discussion.

Pair weak and strong together.

Let students make notes before the speaking activity begins. Allow for ‘thinking time’.

Grade students on the effort they make rather than their ability.

With a whole class mingle like a class survey or a ‘find somebody who...’ practise the questions as a group beforehand.

Give weaker students more listening and thinking time before calling on them to answer questions.

 


Tips for good classroom management with mixed ability groups

  • Grouping
    It may seem contradictory to suggest that you group stronger students together and also suggest that you group weak with strong. However, depending on the task and the class dynamics I think there are usually opportunities for both types of grouping. It’s a good idea to experiment with mixing up the strong and weak students whilst also giving time for stronger students to work together so they work to their full potential.
  • Giving Instructions
    Giving clear instructions is vital for weaker students to be able to follow the class. Use hand gestures as well as words to explain the tasks and use stronger students to check back the instructions and even explain the task in their own language if necessary.
  • Error correction
    Stronger students can probably stand more correction. Don’t over correct weak students as it will affect their confidence. Encourage students to correct one another and demand a higher level of accuracy from the stronger students.
  • Setting goals
    Setting goals for each class or for the whole term will help to focus the students. The goals can be different for each student, depending on their level, but realising the goals will give the same sense of achievement to all.

 

Further reading:
From the English Teaching Professional magazine archive. This is an excellent article with some great ideas for creating a positive learning environment for mixed ability groups. Well worth a read - http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/node/2237sites/teacheng/files/mixedability.pdf

From the British Council Teaching English website. Some practical advice for teaching mixed ability groups.

Teaching mixed_ability classes 1
Teaching mixed_ability classes 2

 

By Jo Budden
First published 2008

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