Alex Case addresses the difficulties faced by teachers whose young learners have very different levels of English.

Of all the potential problems you might worry about when planning a class (see also First classesLarge classes and Behaviour management), mixed levels is the one that is most likely to occur. First classes obviously only happen once in a while, discipline problems come and go, but every class you ever have will in some way be a class with mixed levels. Even if you are in a school where the children are carefully tested and streamed, whatever you do in class, some students consistently do better than some of the others. This is often because of mixed levels in knowledge of English grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, culture, etc, but there are many other things that could affect how well our students do in English class, which therefore get mixed in when we think about mixed levels.

What does mixed levels really mean?

  • Different passive knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation
  • Different active knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation
  • Different abilities to learn new grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation
  • Different abilities to pick up new grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (without conscious study)
  • Different levels of accuracy
  • Different levels of fluency
  • Different knowledge levels of vocabulary and culture in different fields (e.g. pop music, sport, animal names – in English and L1)
  • Different natural range of pitch in L1
  • Different ability to detect tones, etc (connected to musical ability)
  • Different levels of maturity
  • Different attitudes to school and studying
  • Different reading abilities
  • Different handwriting speed and neatness
  • Different hand–eye coordination and other physical abilities
  • Different concentration spans
  • Different short-term memory
  • Different long-term memory
  • Different competitive spirit
  • Different attitudes to English
  • Different energy levels
  • Different reactions to winning and losing
  • Different social skills
  • Different attitudes to working as a group
  • Different analytical/mathematical abilities
  • Different attitudes to speaking out
  • Different emotional reactions to what happens in class
  • Different imaginations
  • Different abilities to cope with lack of knowledge and information
  • Different L1 languages or dialects (and therefore different pronunciation difficulties, etc)
  • Different home environments (e.g. having a quiet place to study)
  • Different families (e.g. having supportive parents)
  • Different amounts of free time (for homework, etc)

At first glance, having this huge list of differences between students in your classes makes the problem of mixed-level classes seem even worse than just considering it to be a problem of varying amounts of English grammar knowledge. In fact, this list of problems is the start of the solution. The ‘weakest’ student in the class is unlikely to be bottom of all the categories above, and in fact might well be the best at one. Bring that skill into the English class and your ‘worst student’ is now the best! In the same way, the student who wins all the games is unlikely to be best at all the things above, so bringing the things into class he or she is weaker at will give everyone else a chance. For example, just by finding out that the student who knows it all already doesn’t do so well with new language, you can even things up by introducing some more obscure, trendy or strange language every class. If the problem is that one student always shouts out the vocabulary you are eliciting before the others, you might find that their intonation, word stress and pronunciation of individual sounds is not the best and so can concentrate on one of those rather than the name of the object. Many of the points in the list above can be used in the same way to even things up in a mixed-level class.

There is one potential danger to dealing with mixed levels by trying to even things out and let everyone come first occasionally, and that is connected to how the students respond to the class status quo being upturned. Students who are used to being the best can become demotivated by losing that position, and students who never stand out might be embarrassed by being the winner – it all depends on individual classes and students. Here is a system for working out what is best for your (unique) classes:

Problem-solving stages

Stage 1: Work out why exactly some students are doing better or worse than others.
Stage 2: Decide one or more possible responses to the problem.
Stage 3: Think about what individual student and general class reactions are likely to be.
Stage 4: Decide whether to reconsider your ideas (return to Stage 2) or try it and see (Stage 5).
Stage 5: Try your idea(s) in the classroom.
Stage 6: Reflect on how well it worked.
Stage 7: Decide whether to do more of the same in the next class and/or try something different (return to Stage 1 or 2).

As well as introducing and mixing up all the various factors in the first list above, here are some other tactics you could use to keep the stronger students stimulated and challenged, while boosting the confidence of the weaker students to make sure they learn the language they need to catch up.

The top ten mixed-level class solutions (in no particular order)

1. Vary the skills needed to do well

See above!

2. Use cooperation rather than competition
Using games that are cooperative rather than competitive goes against almost every sport and game we play in our lives and can take a bit of getting used to. It does exist in the outside world though – for example, making a human pyramid. Similar activities can be done in class by getting the whole class to join hands and touch two far away objects at the same time or make a particular shape. An easier way of moving from competitive games to the class cooperating together is to play ‘class against the teacher’ with guessing games like hangman. A similar one is to add up all the points from all the students in the class and compare it to the total number of points last week.

3. Use teams and groups
Being in teams quickly stops individuals standing out from the crowd and so gives everyone a chance to be part of success, as long as you make sure one team or group doesn’t keep doing better than all the rest!

4. Change the scoring system
If your classes, like mine, are motivated more by competition than anything else and add up points even when you don’t suggest it, then you’ll have no choice but to keep score. There are several techniques for making sure this doesn’t just point out the difference between the top students and the others. One is to give points in a game, but have such an exciting and/or chaotic end to the game that they forget all about adding them up. A similar one is to give so many points that it covers the whole whiteboard and they will never be able to count them. Alternatively, you can have a scoring system that makes it more and more difficult to score points the more points you get, e.g. balancing blocks, catching the ball in more and more difficult ways, or running and touching while holding more and more objects. You can also award points, prizes, stickers or praise for things other than good English ability, e.g. good behaviour, helping to clear up, a good singing voice, etc.

5. Add an element of luck
As well as being fun, playing Paper Scissor Stones, using dice, flipping coins, etc, should give everyone more of an equal chance.

6. Compare students with themselves
Rather than comparing each student to the others, compare the number of points in a game, marks in a test or length, neatness (and so on) of written work to their own work last week and congratulate them on any progress.

7. Use mixed abilities as a topic
You can make students aware of what having mixed abilities means by consciously bringing the topic into the English classroom. One example is using reading texts that specifically deal with the issue of people having different abilities at different things, e.g. stories of people who suddenly found something they were good at (the Ugly Duckling, etc) or stories of people helping each other out.

8. Use projects
As well as being great teaching tools in general, project work can really help in mixed-ability classes. You can increase this effect by helping students choose topics and ways of presenting them that tie in with their interests and skills. You can also vary the difficulty of the tasks with policies such as allowing students to choose what percentage of text and illustrations they want to use depending on their ability and confidence.

9. Use the best students as ‘teachers’
The students who always speak out and do well in class are usually only too happy to step up to the front of the class and take the teacher’s role. As well as providing them with a fresh challenge, it also gives everyone else a chance to speak out.

10. Give individualized work
Homework is a great opportunity to give the best students something challenging and the slower students something to boost their confidence and/or help them catch up. All the methods for doing this take some preparation, but the easiest ones could just be varying worksheets slightly by filling in some of the gaps in a text, etc, in some of the worksheets and adding some more gaps in some of the others. Similar techniques can be used in class, by having an additional game or fun worksheet for those students who finish quickly.

But don’t forget …

As a final point, when you are worrying about the best and worst kids, make sure you don’t forget the kids in the middle – something that many teachers and parents can tell you is easy to do!