Essentials of teaching in a mixed-ability classroom

How to work with mixed-ability classes

How to work with mixed-ability classes

22.11.2023

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  • Teaching qualifications
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  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

We often work with groups of learners whose levels of English, ages, sources of motivation, learning speeds, and experiences of learning the language vary. 

Moreover, their purposes might be absolutely different too.

Such groups are called “mixed-ability classes”. There is even a teacher joke that if there are two students in a group, it is already a “mixed-ability class”.

In this article, we are going to discuss some professional recommendations on how to work with such a class, the problems you may face, and things you can do to solve them.

Become a pro in motivating your students

What is a “mixed-ability class”?

It is quite difficult to find a single definition of this term, as all people have different abilities, different attitudes, and different learning styles.

However, every teacher faces some difficulties related to this kind of class:

  • strong students complete tasks quickly while the rest are just starting to do them;
  • the strong begin to get annoyed or disturbed while the weaker feels anxious and pressured;
  • strong students answer questions quickly, leaving no time for the weaker to even think.

This list can be longer. Taking into account all situations like these, we may say that courses with different levels of achievement and learning levels are referred to as mixed-ability classes. 

The strengths and weaknesses of the learners in these classes vary, as does their way and pace of learning.

What can make your class “mixed”?

There are plenty of various reasons to consider the classroom you teach in a mixed one.

The following factors can have an impact on the quality of a single ESL lesson

  1. Age and maturity of students. We should agree that “adults” between 20 and 50 years old are harder to teach than a group of 9-year-olds.
  2. Learning styles. Sometimes teaching visual and kinaesthetic learners in the same class might be a great struggle.
  3. Levels, aptitudes, and exposure. Some people have much more experience with the language than others. While you have to simply avoid mixing the levels, sometimes it’s almost impossible to overcome the variety of exposure.

What I mean here is that both learners may have A2 level, but one of them listens to English songs all the time and likes to sing along. The pronunciation of this person is better than the skills of the person who doesn’t listen to music and has only dealt with short e-mails from their business partners, for example. 

Both people know something approximately at the same level but they are likely to have a different set of achievements and problems while dealing with the language.

How to survive in a mixed-ability class?

The learning background makes a difference here as well. Here are some aspects of the mixed-ability class related to the culture of learning:

  1. Language of origin. Teaching an international class might also be a challenge as students have different native languages, which may have a great impact on their progress in English.
  2. Cultural context. The tradition of how the student is supposed to behave in the classroom may have an impact on the positioning of a person within the classroom, their engagement and activeness, their will to discuss certain topics, building rapport, and much more.
  3. Independence. Simply put, students may need your help in a different way which is defined by their previous learning background. Both the need for constant guidance and the irritation of those who don't need it lead every teacher to the long and challenging search for balance.
  4. Motivation for studying English, which is a thing of huge importance. The lack of initial motivation may lead some students to not keeping up with the rest of the class, which creates significant gaps in knowledge and even levels in certain cases.

General tips for the mixed-ability class

Now it’s time for tips on how to deal with the most common issues in the mixed-ability class.

Be prepared

Mixed-ability classes usually require some extra preparation.

You’d better always have a couple of extra tasks for those who completed the tasks earlier because, in such types of classes, you are always likely to have fast finishers. 

So, don’t let them get bored. After all, boredom leads to a lack of motivation or an impression that there is nothing left to learn.

Be prepared for any challenges!

Effective managing tips from us

Be attentive to the differences

Mixed-ability classes are always about extra attentiveness.

You constantly have to take into account the different styles of dealing with the new information your learners have, their strengths and weaknesses. For example, some students need to see how to do a task to complete it. 

That is why you should never shorten your instructions to facilitate the needs of the stronger people because, in this way, the weaker students will suffer. Be attentive to everybody and keep the balance between the needs.

Tips on becoming a perfect ESL teacher!

Put fewer limitations

Now, let’s look at two ways to instruct your students and choose the most appropriate one for the mixed-ability class:

А) you have five minutes, make as many sentences as possible about your favorite book;

B) make up seven sentences about your favorite book.

In a class where students have slightly different levels of English, only the second option is suitable, as it does not limit the strong students, but also allows the weaker to show that they know. At the same time, everyone works, and everyone is at their own level.

This is what we meant by putting fewer limitations.

Give more space for both stronger and weaker students to work at their own pace.

This brings us to the first tip of having some extra tasks in case weaker students need some extra time.

Practice the correct pairing

The correct division into groups is a key to success in the case of a mixed-ability class. 

If you want to keep the discussion equal and lively, put strong and weak students into separate groups. In this way, strong students won’t be bored and will feel more motivated with people of the same level while weak students won’t lose their confidence. 

Still, pairing strong and weak students might also be a good practice. 

Sometimes, it is more effective for the weak students to get some explanations from their peers rather than from their teacher. Strong students don’t normally get angry and feel some extra motivation due to the responsibility that you give them. 

However, be very attentive to the change of attitude towards such pairing. 

If you group strong students with weak students too often, they will soon become sick and tired of each other: the stronger will become irritated and tired, while the weaker will feel like a burden.

Add some pair work to your lessons

Never underestimate the effort

In a mixed-ability class, it is crucial to praise every effort. 

Don’t compare strong students to weak students. Compare your students’ progress only to their own achievements. The weaker learner might work even harder than the stronger.

However, visible changes take time. 

Make sure, though, that you, as a teacher, pay attention to every single change your students achieve and every small victory your students have.

Tips on specific skills

Reading tips

There are three options that can be used in a mixed-ability classroom:

  1. Adapt the text that is offered to students ( differentiating the input ). For example, replace some words with less complicated synonyms for weaker students or make the text more difficult for stronger students.
  2. Change the tasks that students perform after reading the text ( differentiating the process ). For example, strong students write complete answers to questions, weaker ones can do True / False, or multiple-choice tasks.
  3. Change the outcome ( differentiating the outcome ). Here it is very appropriate to use open-ended questions, where each student can show their knowledge and is not limited to sentence size or number of words. It is important to set time limits for the task, but do not limit the amount of work.

Improve your students' reading strategies

Listening tips

Listening tips are very similar to reading tips, except for adapting the audio recording. However, it is possible to adapt the process and the outcomes. 

For example, lower-level students answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and stronger students have to answer ‘why’.

How else can you help with reading and listening assignments?

  • discuss listening / reading answers (guessing, ask to predict);
  • provide answers to the weaker;
  • visual aids;
  • write more than one word in response for stronger students;
  • use distractors for stronger students.

It’s crucial to analyze students' needs for selecting the tasks properly: what tasks do they like? What skills do they prioritize? Is it better for them to work in pairs or alone? 

Teachers have to understand which teaching style is suitable for students, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of each of them. In this way, you demonstrate your support, and the students feel that the teacher is interested.

Although it’s not easy to work with mixed-ability classes, we become more experienced, creative, and teach our students to be patient and tolerant, which is so important, especially for young learners and teenagers.

Do you need to have some extra tasks in the mixed-ability classroom?

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko

    Author

    Teacher of General English & IELTS

  • Olena Ukrainska

    Olena Ukrainska

    Author

    CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English, author and teacher of the course for children with dyslexia and dysgraphia

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