Teaching mixed ability – some tips

Having students at different levels of proficiency in the same class can be one of the major preoccupations for any teacher as it appears to make planning and conducting a class much more complicated. However, in reality, all classes will have students who will differ in terms of motivation, speed of acquisition, language abilities, preferred sensory system, etc. In a sense then, ALL groups/classes are mixed ability, and as a teacher it is important to know how to tap into these different abilities in order to enhance the learning process.
Overall, there are 3 ways in which mixed ability can be tackled, that is differentiation of content, tasks and teacher roles.
  1. Differentiating content: one way of dealing with mixed ability is to provide different students with different content which will match their current level, interests and abilities
    • different texts on the same topic chosen on the basis of language difficulty, information density, etc.
    • allow students to choose the content they are going to work with by e.g. providing a range of different grammar/vocabulary exercises, different reading texts for HW, etc.
  2. Differentiating student action:
    • different tasks: provide different students with different tasks for the same, e.g reading text, which will reflect they high or low abilities and help them improve their skills and achieve the goals
    • different student roles: if we’re doing a discussion, for example, a weaker student can be the chairman who controls it (this will reduce the stress of spoken performance but give a great sense of achievement and control). We can also provide scaffoldings for weaker students if doing, e.g. a role play
    • early finishers: if students are doing the same task, some will inevitably finish earlier. Prepare extra tasks for them to reward them for their effort and to challenge them even more. This should be done with care, though, so it does not come across as a punishment.
    • different student responses: encourage flexible tasks (Lindstromberg 2004), i.e. tasks with a wide ray of aims, some of which will be achievable even by low–level students; for example, we might ask students to write a minimum of 3 sentences starting with I wish… (apart from the number produced, the sentences will vary in terms of linguistic and intellectual sophistication) – I’m going to talk about flexible tasks in more detail in a future post
    • discover student talents: allow students to show off their other talents which do not necessarily involve linguistic brilliance. By doing this, a less proficient student can still excel at something in the class and show their best

3. Differentiating teacher roles: whether you’re working with the whole class, groups, pairs or individuals, your aim should be to respond to different students differently, depending on their different abilities:

    • giving feedback: we frequently have to feedback to the student on how well he or she is doing; weaker students might need more guidance and prompting, whereas the better ones pushing them a bit to aim higher by providing extra questions, showing a possible extension to the activity or upgrading their language. However, we need to ensure that we do not ignore anybody by spending more time with certain individuals
    • being inclusive: the key is to set the task in such a way that initially all students can successfully react and respond to it; then the teacher can deploy one of the above differentiating techniques. However, it is crucial that neither high– nor low–achievers feel excluded from the task.
    • differentiating groupings: flexible grouping can be very helpful in mixed proficiency classes and can be done in two basic ways:

a) separating weak from strong students, so that each group might be doing: a different task or reading/listening to a different text (more/less difficult).

b)  mixing weak with strong students, so that the former benefit from higher linguistic input, and the latter profit from having to explain, guide and help

  1. This is all great but let’s be realistic: of course ideally we should have the opportunity to respond, help, guide and work with each student individually following their needs, expectations and linguistic lacks. Unfortunately, the reality is not such a lovely place, and our teaching context might not allow us to do certain things. Nevertheless, we all agree that differentiation is important and that it cannot be abandoned altogether. Thus:
  • be realistic about how much differentiation you can achieve (e.g. if there’s just one computer you can’t assign separate internet tasks for individuals)
  • it is much easier to respond to learners as individuals based on their ability, rather than plan a different work scheme/task for every student/pair; therefore, it might make sense, especially in large groups, to concentrate on flexible tasks
  • is it always necessary or beneficial to differentiate or maybe based on your lesson aims it is better to teach the class as a whole (e.g. reinforcing group cohesion)?
  • build a mental repertory of tasks for early finishers
  • Lindstromberg (2004) suggests “increasing the proportion of writing-before-speaking activities you do.” On the one hand, they give fluent students meaningful accuracy practice. On the other, “it increases the likelihood that, in later pair- or groupwork, less proficient students will be able to say something that is interesting and comprehensible.”
  • the ultimate aim of differentiation, as Harmer (2007) points out, is achieving learner autonomy and passing some responsibility for the learning process into students’ hands
I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section:
  • Have you used any of the above techniques in your classes?

    How do you tackle mixed ability?

    Which of the above could you use with on of your groups?

Reading up on mixed ability:
  • Lindstromberg, S. Towards better results with mixed-proficiency classes: use of flexible tasks. 2004
  • Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. p. 127 – 131. Longman 2007.
  • Tomlison, C. A. Differentiating Instruction For Advanced Learners In the Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom. ERIC EC Digest #E536, October 1995

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14 thoughts on “Teaching mixed ability – some tips

  1. Dear Marek, it has been really interesting to read and learn through your ideas. Actually, I am teaching a mixed-proficiency group and it has been such a great experience since I could realise how smart students can be despite their own boundaries. However, after reading your lines, I have just realised about all the useful resources I can use in class. Thanks a lot!
    Regards, Guillermo (Mexico)

  2. Thanks for the great ideas especially the mixed learning references at the end of your article.
    regards
    Anonymous aka Hoani

  3. Hi Guillermo,
    Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you've learned something from the post. I hope you can use some of these tips to better help your students. Let me know how it goes!
    Best,

    Marek

  4. Hey Marek,

    I was just thinking about doing a workshop on teaching mixed-ability to classes and came across this post while doing some background reading – nice one!

    Hope all’s well with you these days,

    Ben

    1. Hi Ben,
      Great to hear from you 🙂
      And nice to hear that the blog is high in Google search results. Or at least high enough to be found 🙂
      Whereabouts do you teach these days? I was in Canada in March for three weeks in Ontario and Quebec. Went to the TESOL Convention and travelled around a bit. Loved it 🙂
      Best,
      Marek

      1. Nice one – if you liked it out East, you should try the West Coast! Started this year at IH Vancouver so will most likely be here for the next couple of years if you’re ever out this way.

        I’ll probably try to make it TESOL next year if it’s in Toronto.

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