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Mixed ability classes
All of us teach mixed ability/multiple level classes. It is perhaps a natural side-effect of the historically recent compulsory education: in many countries, parents are required by law to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 and 16-17.
While the curriculum is oriented towards a non-existent “average” student, who is expected to absorb a lot of knowledge in a large variety of subjects during the requisite decade of studying, the real-life children differ greatly. No two pupils are alike. They have various temperaments, inclinations, interests and abilities. Their health, their stamina, their families and social milieu represent the society as a whole. In one class, we may have an assortment of polar opposites! Here is a novel aspect, a topic for discussion. We went through the same system. Let us remember our own school years. Were we excellent, straight-A students? Did we find ALL the subjects equally fascinating and manageable? Did we like ALL our teachers? Were they able and willing to satisfy our thirst for new knowledge? Did we have that shattering experience, when we suddenly discovered that our teachers made mistakes? Since we are all EL teachers here, does this necessarily mean that we struggled with, say, mathematics and science? What were our own final grades? Straight A’s, or top marks in English and literature, but good or satisfactory ones for the other subjects? Or maybe we got “Satisfactory” in all the subjects. This means, in effect, that we teachers are also a mixed-ability bunch of people. In a way, we have to deal with our own younger selves.
* The stronger students present quite a challenge to any teacher. How does a young, beginner teacher identify them? They may perform all the tasks in half the allotted time. If they cannot attract our attention, they become bored. They may also keep quiet because their peers make fun of them. Why exactly? Have you often seen those who lag behind congratulate the smartest children and offer words of praise and encouragement? A bored child may misbehave and even become disruptive in the classroom; sometimes, like Hermione Granger, they may be the very first ones to raise their hands up and try to answer all our questions ahead of the class. While we may wish to hold an intelligent conversation with the most gifted student in our room, we must involve the whole group in every activity. One way to help both the young talents and the rest of the students is to have some extra tasks ready. Once your best pupil is done with all the exercises, quietly give them a card with the new task, or have them work on an on-going project. With one very talented and extremely active girl, I had a short conversation after the lessons. We agreed that she would contain her enthusiasm and impatience, and do some research while the rest of the group would finish their work. I gave her a plan for the term. When somebody asked why she could use the internet while everybody else was busily plodding along with pens and exercise books, I said mildly that anybody could do the same if they achieved her speed – and her marks. The challenge usually works well among children. Some of them tried to emulate her, with good results.
* The weaker students are generally easier to see. First of all, there is the tell-tale behaviour, they tend to try and hide behind their classmates, and they practically never raise their hands. A good way to encourage them is to set some limits. If we know that while the rest of the class will manage to perform all the tasks in a test, the weaker ones will struggle simply because they are afraid of the amount, of what they see as an insurmountable huge number of items. We may mark those items which are a must for them, and tell them that the others are just revision, repetition, and thus are not so important. This immediately reduces the pressure, and they may actually manage to do quite a lot. Some children freeze if called to come out to the board, because they are used to getting sneers and jeers at every lesson. We may begin by letting them reply from their safe place, their own desk, and gradually move on to other forms of answers.
* The average students, or the majority of a class, are the ones at whom the whole curriculum is oriented. We should always see them, too. If they find any topic too difficult, we may find a different approach to its presentation. If a topic seems too easy or boring, we may think of how to make it more attractive. It pays to use several activities which are liked by multiple levels, be it a daily or weekly warmer, an international project, or a school festival. I once had a whole class of teenagers who loved reading aloud. It seemed to me at times that their parents had never read to them. They would rush into my classroom, open their books and look at me with shining eyes. So we chain-read on a weekly basis, a sentence per student. Thus we attacked any grammar theme, any new text, any exercise. Bottom line is, whatever works goes.