Suggestions and advice on teaching mixed ability classes

I teach an ESOL class as a volunteer, supporting the main tutor. We have seven students whose levels vary from borderline Pre-Entry to Level 1, and we're finding it very difficult to find activities that involve all the students without some getting bored and/or others being confused and insecure. In practice we normally end up teaching the students separately; roughly at Entry 1 and Level 1, but this is not ideal and we want them to feel more like a group and contribute to each other's learning. We have attended a seminar on differentiation but we're still unclear how to get the students working through the materials for their own level whilst also providing activities that everyone can participate in. Both I and the main ESOL tutor have full-time day jobs so have limited time for lesson preparation.

Anne Rupert

Hi Anne,

If your seminar on differentiation was anything like ones I’ve attended, you were probably told that all classes are to some extent mixed ability. However, this doesn’t immediately help in practical terms to deal with the situation you have on your hands. I’d like to suggest three strategies, with sample activities for each. You can decide which might work best for you.

Strategy 1: Adapting tasks

This means taking a task from the book and having a second, more or less challenging version.

Sample activity: Take a listening or reading gap fill task from the book and make another version with two choices instead of the gap.

For example:
Original: The man is wearing a _____________.

Adapted (less challenging): The man is wearing a brown hat/black coat.

Allow the students to choose which version they would like to do.

The problem with this strategy is that it involves more preparation time – time which you don’t have. Let’s look at another one.

Strategy 2: Extending tasks

This means making the tasks in the book or in class extendable (to deal with early finishers).

Sample activity: Find an activity in the book which requires students to ask each other questions (more than four).

  • Pair students up (in terms of similar ability) and tell them to choose two (or three) of the questions.
  • They should ask each other these questions. Circulate.
  • If pairs finish earlier, tell them to ask and answer the remaining questions.
  • Do feedback on the two questions that students chose to talk about.

This kind of thing means that you make the task more achievable from the outset (for the lower level students) while having the material there for the higher level ones should they finish earlier.

Strategy 3: Encouraging co-operation and peer questioning

This means having tasks that force the students to depend on each other to achieve the outcome. They also could be tasks that reinforce rapport between the students and give a sense of “all being in it together”.

Sample activities:

  • Students create a quiz in groups, with each individual contributing questions. The two groups then test each other.
  • Students work in pairs of mixed ability and create a questionnaire of things they would like to find out about other people in the class. Here’s an example I learned from Luke Prodromou, author of a book on Mixed Ability:                                               

                                                    FOOD QUESTIONNAIRE

                                                 I’d like to find someone who:
                 doesn’t eat meat   
                 likes lentils   

  • Once they have finished, they proceed as a normal Find Someone Who activity (i.e. asking and answering questions and writing names next to the categories).

Other tips 

  • For group tasks, add a specific instruction so that everyone must participate (“write two sentences each”, “submit one idea each”, “take turns to speak so that you all speak”).
  • Vary the way you nominate students to answer questions for activities; it’s easy to slip into the “one right answer” syndrome, in which you go for the one right answer first – usually provided by the stronger students. Nominate weaker students by name first, then ask the question. Start with easier questions for weaker students, alternating with harder questions for stronger students.
  • Pronunciation is an ideal candidate for correction with your stronger students. If you feel you need to “spread the correction around” so that it’s not always the weak ones getting corrected, then correct aspects such as individual sounds, word stress and intonation.
  • Be as enthusiastic in your praise of the stronger students as of the weaker ones (perhaps an obvious point, but I’m always surprised at how much a teacher’s enthusiasm can infect a class).

These are some of the techniques that have worked for me. Mixed ability teaching is difficult, and you may find that some things work better than others. Good luck with it.

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