Tim Bowen offers practical advice and suggestions on teaching English to students in mixed-ability classes.

Photo of a teacher and their students in a classroom.

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Romina Trossero in Argentina wrote into our Grammar Help section with the following problem:

‘I’d like to get some information about mixed-ability English language classes and some activities to use with a class in which there are two levels of English.’

This is Tim Bowen’s response:

This is a very common problem. Most, if not all, language classes contain students of mixed abilities. This happens for a number of reasons, but mainly because of different learning styles, different learning speeds, variations in motivation and, very frequently, as a result of logistical decisions. Very often the teacher is faced with a class which has two or more distinct levels of ability, and they have to tackle the problem of how to meet the needs of everyone in the class. Naturally, this is not an easy problem to solve, and it would be wrong to suggest that there are any simple solutions. A fundamental step, however, is to talk to the class about the problem, presenting it to them both as a normal situation and one that the class as a whole has to deal with. This is best done in the students’ first language (L1), if possible. As most of the solutions to the problem depend on cooperation between the members of the class, it is essential to stress the need for teamwork and for the class to use English wherever possible in classroom communication.

Pairing up

The use of pair and group work is essential if you are to involve all the members of the class. A fundamental technique here is the use of questionnaires and interviews. By pairing off the weaker and stronger students and by involving both in the preparation and implementation of the questionnaire you should ensure maximum participation of all the students. You can then get the weaker students to interview their stronger peers and vice-versa. Of course, this may be frustrating for the stronger students, but if they are able to see their role as that of ‘helper’, or even mentor, it may also have a positive effect.

Project work

A second area of activity that can be productive in mixed-ability classes is project work. Again, this can work successfully using mixed groups where the stronger help the weaker, but another approach is to form groups that are at approximately the same level and assign different tasks that are appropriate to the level of each group. By adjusting the complexity of the task, you can ensure that each group has a task that it can carry out successfully, thereby providing the correct level of challenge for the higher level students and not demotivating the weaker ones.

The importance of homework

A third area is that of homework. If you set the whole class the same homework task, irrespective of level, then you will have to expect very mixed results. As with progress tests, the purpose of homework should be to consolidate class work. To this end, giving weaker students less demanding tasks than their stronger peers can help both to motivate them and to give them further practice in areas of the language which they have not yet mastered. Assigning more challenging tasks to the stronger students in the group should ensure that they remain motivated and continue to make progress. It is more work for the teacher, but, ultimately, it should produce results.

The role of drilling

Choral drilling can be an effective way of involving weaker or shy students. If applied judiciously (in other words not all the time), it can give excellent practice in rhythm and intonation, as well as reinforcing word order and grammatical structure.

Finally …

Be diplomatic in your questioning techniques. Try to avoid putting weaker students ‘on the spot’ by nominating them to be the first to answer a question in open class. Instead, try to encourage a culture of attentive listening in the classroom so that you ask a stronger student first and then ask a weaker student to repeat the answer. It may take time but, once this style of interaction becomes habitual, it can be very productive in terms of class dynamics.