Mixed-Ability Teaching Essay

Edmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Ahead of his webinar on the subject, Ed joins us today to discuss mixed-ability teaching and setting learning goals for language learners of differing levels of skill. 

What do we mean by mixed-ability?

Mixed-ability classes are the norm, rather than the exception. Whether or not a class has been streamed according to language level, there are still likely to be big differences between individual learners in every group. I’ll be exploring some of these differences in the webinar.

What about differentiated learning?

Differentiating the learning activities in class is a good way to make language more accessible to learners at different levels – without losing a sense of togetherness.

Here are three ways that classroom activities can be differentiated:

Differentiating the input

For a reading comprehension activity, create two alternative versions of the text beside the original: one version adapted to make it more accessible, and another version made more challenging. Learners each tackle one of the three texts and then answer the same comprehension questions.

Differentiating the process

Alternatively, provide students with identical input (e.g. a set of questions) and then choose one of a number of options for finding out the answers (e.g. by reading a text, by doing individual research, or by completing a spoken information-gap activity.)

Differentiating the output

Open-ended questions can turn a narrow activity into something more accessible and flexible. Students all get the same prompt, but can respond in their own way. For a writing task, provide a ‘menu’ of prompt questions from which learners can choose the one they find most interesting. And why not set a time limit instead of a word limit? Then students write as much as they can within the allotted time.

How can we set appropriate learning goals?

A successful learning environment is one that is goal-oriented, but we should remember that setting ill-conceived or unrealistic goals is counter-productive. Achievable and desirable goals, on the other hand, lead to a healthy learning environment where students’ efforts are rewarded – triggering further motivation.

It’s not all about language – identifying personal goals and groups goals that are not related to language can have a beneficial effect on the group dynamic and individual achievement. Examples might be remembering to switch off phones in class, or finding a different partner to work with for every pairwork activity.

Grouping learners within lessons

When learners in mixed-ability groups are given activities to tackle in small groups and pairs there are more opportunities for personalized learning than in frontal teaching.

Pair work and group work also offer greater variety within activities, allowing individual students to work together with a number of different classmates in the same lesson and, over the course of a term, with everyone in the class.

There are many techniques for grouping learners and a number of different criteria that can be applied – I’ll be exploring some of these in the webinar.

Managing the mixed-ability classroom

Managing the classroom is the responsibility of the teacher – but that does not mean that students should be completely excluded from the process. In fact, there are many ways that we can involve students meaningfully in the day-to-day running of the classroom by finding a variety of appropriate, self-affirming and constructive roles for them to perform. I’ll be sharing some examples in the webinar.

If you’re interested in learning more about the subject and gaining practical ideas for managing mixed ability in the classroom, please register below for this free webinar, taking place on 19th and 21st January.

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Categories: Adult ESL, Teenagers, Young Learners | Tags: Mixed Ability Teaching, Mixed-ability, Teenagers, Young Learners | Permalink.

Classroom management: teaching mixed-ability classes

By Tim Bowen

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Advice and suggestions for teaching English to mixed-ability classes.

Romina Trossero in Argentina wrote into our Grammar Help section with the
following problem:

“I’d like to get some information about mixed ability English language classes and some activities to use with a class in which there are two levels of English.”

This is Tim Bowen's response:

This is a very common problem. Most, if not all, language classes contain students of mixed abilities. This happens for a number of reasons, but mainly because of different learning styles, different learning speeds, variations in motivation and, very frequently, as a result of logistic decisions. Very often the teacher is faced with a class with two or more distinct levels of ability and has to tackle the problem of how to meet the needs of everyone in the class. Naturally, this is not an easy problem to solve and it would be wrong to suggest that there are any simple solutions. A fundamental step, however, is to talk to the class about the situation and to present it to them as a normal situation and one that the class as a whole has to deal with. This is probably best done in the mother tongue of the students. As most of the solutions to the problem depend on cooperation between the members of the class, it is essential to stress the need for teamwork and for the class to use English whenever possible in classroom communication.

The use of pair and group work is essential if you are to involve all the members of the class. A fundamental technique here is the use of questionnaires and interviews. By pairing off weaker and stronger students and involving both in the preparation and implementation of the questionnaire you should ensure maximum participation of all the students. You can then get the weaker students to interview the stronger ones and vice-versa. Of course, this may be frustrating for the stronger ones, but if they are able to see their role as that of “helper” or even mentor, it may also have a positive effect.

A second area of activity that can be productive in mixed ability classes is project work. Again, this can work successfully using mixed groups where the stronger help the weaker, but another approach is to form groups that are at approximately the same level and assign different tasks that are appropriate to the level of each group. By adjusting the complexity of the task, you can ensure that each group has a task that it can carry out successfully, thereby providing the correct level of challenge for the higher level students and not demotivating the weaker ones.

A third area is that of homework. If you set the whole class the same homework task irrespective of level, then you will have to expect very mixed results. As with progress tests, the purpose of homework should be to consolidate class work. To this end, giving weaker students less demanding tasks can help both to motivate them and to give them further practice in areas of the language which they have not yet mastered. Assigning more challenging tasks to the stronger students in the group should ensure that they remain motivated and continue to make progress. It is more work for the teacher but, ultimately, it should produce results.

Choral drilling can be an effective way of involving weaker or shy students. If applied judiciously (in other words not all the time), it can give excellent practice in rhythm and intonation, as well as reinforcing word order and grammatical structure.

Finally, be diplomatic in your questioning techniques. Try to avoid putting weaker students “on the spot” by nominating them to be the first to answer a question in open class. Instead, try to encourage a culture of attentive listening in the classroom so that you ask a stronger student first and then ask a weaker student to repeat the answer. It may take time but, once this style of interaction becomes habitual, it can be very productive in terms of class dynamics.

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