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Take the headache out of teaching mixed ability classes

Take the headache out of teaching mixed ability classes

Whether online or face-to-face, if you teach English to groups of students, it’s likely your class contains a range of English learners with different strengths in the language.

Whether groups are labelled intermediate, elementary or advanced, the students within them will all have very different abilities. That means teachers can really struggle to pitch classes at just the right level to meet varying student needs and demands.

It’s why we have launched a unique, short Zoom course on Teaching Mixed Ability Classes (TMAC) so that you can learn and then practice techniques to help make your group English classes a success.

It’s for new and experienced teachers alike as we can all benefit from a little help with class management in this area.

In the TMAC course we cover how to find and use material to suit the mix of English students, ensure no-body gets left behind and how to stretch the more able learners. Here is a taste of what we cover:

* Finding basic starter material, but varying the tasks you set

If you pitch the core reading or listening material to the lower end to start, this can be good consolidation for the better ones and helpful for the lower-levels. This means you all start off at the same place, with a common theme and nobody should be left behind.

After, you differentiate the tasks and use break out rooms or pair/group work. The higher levels could have more difficult questions to answer, with more basic ones for lower levels. Alternatively, set the weaker students to answer questions 1-5 in pairs, and the higher level, 1-10.

* Helping to ‘scaffold’ the responses of the weaker students

In class discussions or when inviting freer feedback, naturally the better students may dominate. Allowing the higher levels space to have their say is healthy – and lower levels can learn a lot from their responses, but to ensure lower levels contribute, ask them by name and be specific in your question. E.g.:

        “Sam, Alice says English people are very polite. Do you agree? Why/why not?

You may also start with the higher levels when asking for responses and then ask the lower-level students to come ready to air their views next time, so giving them longer to  prepare and think a response through.

* Getting everyone speaking early with a simple, fun task

This is so important as many lower levels students can feel inhibited by their lack of English compared to the group. A simple warmer or ice-breaker, like a brainstorming game at the beginning of a lesson can really make a difference. It relaxes everyone and helps make it easier for all students to contribute in later tasks. (We’ve got some fabulous ideas for warmers and can teach you how to structure them for both online and in-class in our live Zoom Spotlight course on Engagement Activities.)

* Setting homework that is differentiated

This is where you can really make a difference. You can set the same homework for all and give extra for higher-level learners. Or, you could set three tasks, starting with the simplest through to the more challenging and ask your students to do as much as they can.

This gives students ownership of their English learning. It also sends a powerful message: that you are not limiting them by perceived level and that all are capable of completing. The only restrictions are their own time and motivation. However, you’ll need to know your students here. Being given work you can’t do because you have never seen a particular language structure before can be demoralising, so use careful judgment.

* Playing with pair work

How you pair people to practice tasks together may well be random or else based on a variety of issues relating to personality or wanting to mix nationalities. When it comes to pair work in mixed ability classes, The British Council suggest pairing weak with strong students in more controlled activities and strong with strong during freer practice activities. I can see the sense in that generally, but we recognise that each class has its own dynamics and so it is OK to vary pairings so students get a range of English-speaking partners.

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If you’d like some support with teaching mixed abilities in your classes, sign up for our next TMAC session here. You’ll benefit from watching great video explainers, expert tutor advice and a 1-hour Zoom session, where you’ll get to present a differentiated task to the group. Have fun, be inspired.

How do you differentiate your classes?  Share your ideas below…

  • Author: William Bradridge
  • Date: Wednesday 20th January 2021

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Take the headache out of teaching mixed ability classes