Let’s face it, teachers of mixed-ability classes have a lot on their plate. Weaker students may give up on work assigned to them and stronger students often finish very quickly. Both groups can switch off and start messing about. Nobody would disagree that ‘Every child matters’, but for a teacher with eight classes of thirty children, responding to each child’s needs can sometimes seem a challenge to put it mildly.
The glass is half full!
Although challenging, mixed ability classes also have many advantages. First off, they represent a microcosm of society: we’re likely to get varied input and ideas from students and these classes lend themselves to developing values like respect, tolerance and helping others: they encourage co-operative learning. Also, they may require creativity on our part, but that makes us better teachers!
All students need to feel the satisfaction of finishing a task
Onto classroom practice. While it might be tempting to say “Don’t worry if you haven’t finished, we’ll look at it together as a class,” if we say it too often then our weaker students will never get to finish anything: this is crushing for self-esteem. It can’t be our go-to strategy.
Core and extension activities
This is simple: all students have to complete some of the tasks, after which they move onto others if they have time. We can have a bit of fun with how we label these tasks (NOT ‘easy’, ‘medium’ and ´hard’). What about a menu? Everyone has to eat a main course, and we go for a starter and a dessert if we’re up to it. To continue with the food metaphor, what about a curry system: korma activities (mild), chicken tikka activities (medium) and… who can manage a vindaloo activity (hot)? Here we avoid stigma because we are not prescribing different activities to students.
Give everyone a chance to shine
A student who is strong in speaking may not be strong in writing and vice-versa, so we’ll need variety. Also, include activities that do not only need ‘pure English level’ to be accomplished successfully. I remember a student who was average at English but had a real flair for the dramatic and came into his own every time we acted anything out. Let’s consider an example activity with this in mind.
Act out the dialogue
Your coursebook instructs students to ‘Read out the dialogue’. We can spice this up. How about getting students to read out their part with a certain emotion (angry, surprised, sad etc) and other students guess the emotion being represented? Trust me, it’s a lot of fun!
Differentiated task, same outcome
We can of course provide different activities tailored to different students, but this can get messy and time-consuming when it comes to correcting. A way to avoid this is to differentiate a task, but keep the outcome the same for all students.
Most teachers have probably done a gap fill with songs at some point. Let’s look at how we can add different levels of challenge. The song in question is ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ by U2, and it’s a classic for contextualizing the present perfect. Look at the following four boxes: can you work out what you need to do? Which is the the hardest?
A) You need to fill in the past participle
B) You need to fill in the auxiliary, past participle, put the lines in order and eliminate the lines you don’t hear
C) You need to put the lines in order
D) You need to put the lines in order and fill in the auxiliary and past participle.
B is the hardest obviously. C or A is the easiest. But the point here is that the outcome is the same whichever task you do (getting the song lyrics, in the right order).
Let’s get students to continue the song, including other difficult things they have done in the present perfect tense. This creative task works well because it is open: all students can answer at their own level.
A final word…
There are ways to avoid stigma as we have seen, but students do ‘get wise’ that not everybody is always doing the same thing. Don’t let the stigma question put you off though: in my experience, the gratitude from a weaker student who knows their teacher is making an effort to help them (to say nothing of the learning that takes place) far outweighs this risk.
What tricks do you use in mixed-ability classes?
You might also be interested in…