Effective strategies for teaching English in mixed-ability classes

How to survive in a mixed-ability class?

How to survive in a mixed-ability class?


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies

If you work with large groups of students, you are likely to find yourself teaching  mixed-ability classes. Such situations are typical not only for government schools where you have to teach 15 – 20 students at a time (sometimes 35 – 45) but also for language schools where the number of students in a group usually doesn't exceed 10. 

Finding activities that involve every student without some getting bored or others feeling confused and insecure is quite challenging for most teachers, isn't it? So what do we need to know and what steps to take if we find ourselves in a class that doesn't look like the class our dream?

Mixed-ability vs. mixed-level

These two terms are often confused. So, let us define what each of them implies.

Mixed-level classes are classes 'where students of different levels of proficiency are grouped together' (The New A – Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury)

Such a situation occurs when students' level of English isn’t taken into account at all. This leads to having classes with a mix of kids who struggle to say their names and age along with a couple of students who might be semi-fluent (perhaps after studying abroad, with a tutor, or in language schools for years).

Mixed-ability classes are classes 'where there is a marked difference among the learners – in terms of aptitude, style or motivation' (The New A – Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury).

Your students might have the same level of English, but…  one student in your class has completed the assignment before you have even had a chance to finish passing it around to the rest of the class whereas another student is seated in the back and isn't even sure how to start. 

You may often find yourself in a class with students who are clearly of different levels. They may have different starting levels of English or they may learn at very different speeds – for any number of reasons. To some extent, all classes are mixed-ability classes. And this is the norm, not an exception.

Let's check if you work with a mixed-ability class. Tick the statements that are true for you.

There are benefits to teaching and learning to handle mixed-ability classes, despite the difficulties and challenges that may seem overwhelming. 

Mixed-ability classes give English teachers a lot of opportunities to grow as professionals since they force them to try out various teaching methods to determine which ones are most effective while also embracing various problem-solving techniques and tools to help them deal with challenges in such a classroom.

A secure teacher comes away from today with important questions to puzzle about overnight and the belief that today contains insights necessary for a more effective tomorrow.

"The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners" Carol Ann Tomlinson

Practical tips

Mixed-ability classes can be viewed either as a classroom management issue or as a syllabus and materials issue. So here are some strategies that might help you successfully handle such issues.

Adapt tasks and materials

This entails modifying a task from the book into a different, harder or easier version. For example, if you want your students to do the reading task, use differentiation:

  • Adapt the text that is offered to students.

For example, replace some words with easier synonyms for weaker students or make the text more difficult for stronger students. 

  • Change the tasks that students have to complete after reading the text. 

For example, strong students write complete answers to questions and weaker students do True/False or single-answer tasks.

  • Change the result.

Here it is very appropriate to use open questions, where each student can show their knowledge and is not limited by the length of the sentence or the number of words. It is important to set time limits for completing tasks, but not to limit the amount of work. So saying "Answer at least X questions … in 10 minutes" will work well for both strong and weak students as the stronger will do more, and the weaker do at least the required minimum.

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Listening tips are very similar to reading tips except that you adapt the audio recording. But it is quite possible to differentiate the process and the result. For example, weaker students answer yes/no questions, and stronger students must answer "why".

You can also help students by:

  • discussing options for answers to listening/reading (guessing, asking to predict);
  • giving answer options to the weaker ones;
  • providing visual support;
  • writing more than one word in the answer for strong students;
  • using words in answers to distract attention (distractors) for strong students.

Let the students decide whatever version they want to complete.

The only disadvantage of this strategy is that it requires extra preparation time, which you might notr have. Let's examine a different one.

Extend tasks

This entails making the tasks from the coursebook or any other activity extensible (to deal with fast finishers).

For example, when in your coursebook there is an activity that requires students to ask and answers certain number of questions, you can put your students in pair and tell them to choose only 3 questions they want to ask.

If they finish earlier, you will be able to tell them answer the remaining questions. 

Finally, ask them to give feedback on 2 questions they have discussed.

This way, Twhe activity is made more manageable from the start for the weaker students yet the content is still available for the stronger students in case they finish early.

Use pair/group work

These learning activities make the students rely on one another to complete the task. They might also be tasks that boost cooperation and a sense of "all being in it together" among the students.

You can pair strong with strong, weak with weak, or strong with weak. The strong with weak will work well in a very controlled activity. Strong with strong will be of benefit in a freer activity.

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The key to this is variety in the pairings. You should also be aware of the general dynamics between the pupils and develop your own ability to identify who gets along with whom.

For a group work, you can group students of mixed levels or similar ones. In a smaller group, the weaker student will feel more confident. Divide the information among the students if the group is working with a certain set of information, encouraging them to cooperate.

Think about setting tasks and feedback

Here are the things to consider when you set the tasks fro a mixed-ability group of students:

  • adjust your instructions
  • demonstrate activities with more confident students
  • make sure students understand the task and the questions by asking ICQs
  • use examples and models in the tasks, provide prompts
  • have double standards, i.e. have different expectations from different learners
  • monitor and provide support when needed.

Practice personalised feedback. While a grade on a worksheet or activity may help students understand where they stand, it does not explain how to advance. Effective feedback goes beyond assessment and provides insights that may be used to make improvements. Additionally, it shifts the focus of the lesson from gaining the best grades to learning. 

Create a positive learning environment

This strategy will work for all ages and abilities. The connection between a positive atmosphere and having good behaviour management is obvious. Simple things like knowing your students' names and learning about their lives, interests, likes and dislikes promote good relationships and contribute to creating the atmosphere of learning.

In order to establish a positive environment, your lessons need to be clearly organised. Your students need to know what they will do in each class and why it is important, what the they will learn, and how they will work, for example, in pairs or alone. It's a good idea to establish routines for both daily and weekly activities. For many weaker students, these routines provide a sense of security and structure and help reduce anxiety.

Another thing to consider is creating motivating situations with a calm and welcoming environment where the students know that mistakes are a part of learning. So it's always better to focus on communicative competence rather than relying too much on correctness.

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Students might have concerns about being negatively evaluated or even laughed at, that's why they might be scared of making mistakes when speaking or writing.

These are only a few of the strategies that have been effective for me. Mixed-ability teaching is challenging, and you could discover that some strategies are more successful than others. You will do great!

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Article authors & editors
  • Yulia Chorna

    Yulia Chorna


    DELTA Module 1, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English



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