Every class is a mixed ability class because no two people are exactly the same!
People in their everyday lives are able to do different things well and this is the same in the language learning class.
What we teachers usually mean by mixed ability is that we have a variety of levels of in a single class. This teaching tip looks at how we can manage classes like this, but also thinks about how you can use special skills that some of your students have.
It is very important that you try to deal with the different levels of ability in your class, because mixed ability classes are very common, especially in high schools and cannot be avoided or just complained about, they are a REALITY!
If you try to teach everyone the same thing at the same time in the same way at the same speed this is what will happen.
- Some students will get further and further behind.
- Some students will get very bored.
- There will be bad behaviour.
- Some students will stop trying.
- You will have a bad atmosphere in the class.
You cannot learn to teach mixed ability classes well overnight. You have to work at it. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Know your students.
How much data do you actually have on the students you teach? Do you know if they are also good at Maths? Music? Art? Their own first language? If students are struggling to master literacy in Arabic or their first language then they may also struggle with English. If they are good at Music and Art then it may help them if you include songs or design activities in your lessons. Students who do well in Maths may enjoy such things as substitution tables and verb tense constructions as they appear logical to them. Find out about your classes strengths and weaknesses in other subjects with a simple questionnaire near the start of the course.
Use group and pair work
These are essential for effective teaching of a mixed ability class. The alternative is something called ‘lockstep’. This means that everyone does the same thing at the same time. ‘The class’ is shown a structure on the white board. ‘The class’ does a practice exercise. ‘The class’ reads a passage. What happens is that some of the children do some of the work that the teacher gives but they do not all complete it or understand it.
Group work and pair work mean that the teacher can let children work more at their own pace and help each other. They also mean that you can give different tasks to different groups if you want to. Also, as the teacher is not standing in front of the class, s/he has more time to help students with individual problems.
Plan for mixed ability
This may seem obvious but lessons will be successful if you expect that some children will have problems and some children will finish early. You can plan what you will do if this happens. The key to planning successfully is something called ‘differentiation’. It means realising that all children are different and planning different activities for different children so that everyone can succeed.
Here are some ways to differentiate in your classes.
Give children different tasks.
Not different lessons, but different tasks to do with the same lesson material. Students can have different responsibilities on a project. We can organise the class into ability groups. An example of the first would be using the same reading text, but asking a weaker group to identify ‘action verbs’ and a more advanced group to identify ‘words with prefixes and suffixes’. If you are ‘planning a new restaurant’, a less able group can make the menus, a more able group can write a review for a newspaper about the restaurant.
You can put the children into mixed ability groups. This gives the more able a chance to help the less able. Let’s say they are reading a passage together about directions to a place where treasure is buried. One child can read the difficult vocabulary. Another may be good at drawing a map. Another may be good at puzzles. Design the task so that everyone has something to do that they are good at.
Support some children more than others.
This is when you need well-organised group work. Set the class a group task or an individual task that they can get on with quietly and then spend your time with the group or child that is having trouble, and work with them for part of the lesson.
Give your class different worksheets to work on. For example, in a lesson to make a picture story from pictures:
Group A (struggling) are given a gap fill story based on some pictures.
‘One day Tom was …… . Suddenly he…………
Group B (middle group) have pictures and some key words.
Group C (very good group) have just the pictures.
Give children different homework
Homework is private time and there is less embarrassment about getting different work, so different homework tasks can be given to individual students. You can give longer or shorter homework. You can give small extras like: these are the five words you usually spell wrong. Practice them. In the UK, primary teachers give different spellings to different groups of children every week.
‘Open’ tasks are also very useful for homework. ‘If you prepare a writing task in class like: Write about your favourite animal and then give this as homework, children can write two sentences or 2 pages depending on their ability.
Don’t see differentiation in terms of more work, just different work.
Working with text books
If you are using a textbook, remember the following things:
Not all children have to answer all questions.
Not all children have to answer the same questions.
Not all children have to read all the text.
The class does not have to do everything in the textbook!