Be flexible!

In my last post I gave some suggestions and tips on teaching mixed ability classes. I wanted to follow it up with discussing flexible and inflexible tasks, which in my opinion is the easiest way to address mixed ability classes without too much extra preparation time.

Consider these examples in the context of a mixed ability class you have. What potential problems with class and task management can you think of?

  • fill in the gaps with the correct form of the verb in brackets
  • use the prompts to make correct sentences: I wish/Mike/not smoke
  • read the text and decide whether the sentences are true or false

Some of the things that are most likely to happen in a mixed ability group are:

  • some sts finish too early and start yawning
  • some sts don’t finish the task because it’s too difficult
  • some find it really easy and start wondering what’s the point of being in this class
  • some struggle and need extensive guidance
  • some get all answers right and continue yawning
  • some get most wrong and look terribly embarrassed
  1. The three examples of tasks I showed above are what is called: inflexible tasks and are usually characterised by two factors:
  • the focus is a specific language point (or a set of points), e.g. past simple verbs, OR a prolonged focus on a listening or reading text
  • there’s only one correct answer

Consequently, some students might already know the language point and find the task too easy, whereas others will find it too challenging, and might need extensive guidance and help. Some will finish early then and get most answers correct, whereas some will take much longer and make many mistakes. In both cases students are likely to become demotivated.

Some examples of inflexible tasks include: drills, dictations, fill–in–the–gaps, multiple choice, etc. In a nutshell, there is only a small and predictable number of correct answers, which are fixed in advance.

So ideally, we want to avoid inflexible tasks, especially when the abilities in class are really mixed. Of course, the problems mentioned above (e.g. early finishers) can be addressed in a number of different ways, some of which I described in the previous post. However, in my opinion it’s much easier to add a bit of flexibility to the task design, which will solve the problems before they actually come up in class.

Look at the examples below and think how they are different from the three tasks I showed earlier, i.e. how are they more flexible:

  • use these verbs in their past form and write a minimum of 5 sentences about your weekend (go, have, drink, sleep, watch, read, like, make, do)
  • write at least 4 sentences starting with I wish
  • read the text and find at least two things you would like to tell your partner about (i.e. something surprising, something you didn’t know/understand, etc.)

2. All of the above are examples of flexible tasks , as they “tend to have a very broad range of aims, many of which only potentially rather than (ostensibly) certainly come into play. The key desideratum concerning task flexibility is that some of the aims (but perhaps not all of them) should be achievable even by the lowest level learners in your class” (Lindstromberg 2000: 2). They can also have some of the below characteristics:

  • choice, e.g. choose from a list of questions the ones you’ll ask your partner
  • quantity: partial completion is OK, and students who do less in initial stages of an activity can still participate in its later stages
  • sophistication: the students are offered freedom in terms of language and cognitive sophistication of their responses, e.g. in 5 minutes write at least 4 sentences starting with I wish. (Rationale: strong students can go beyond the 4 sentences, as well as have the freedom to experiment with more difficult language and concepts, while the weaker can still complete the task and receive praise)
  • student roles: some tasks can be so designed that certain roles will be inevitably more challenging. Lindstromberg (2000: 3) suggests this activity: in-role interview in which a lower proficiency student (a ‘novelist’ researching the criminal mind’) asks questions given on a handout while the interviewee (a ‘notorious desperado’) relies, in answering, entirely on her or his own experience and/or imagination.

Please let me know whether you’ve found this post helpful in the comments section.


3 thoughts on “Be flexible!

  1. Hi! Excellent article. Thnks for sharing some ideas about flexible tasks. I think it works great if you have a large class. Do you have more articles related to mixed ability class? Greetings 🙂 Dani from Mexico.

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