There are lots of problems ESL teachers commonly face, and one of the most difficult is mixed ability classes. Because of the competitive nature of the industry, you will find that students are often lumped together in a class, even when their English levels are clearly very different. It is annoying for the teacher and detrimental to the students’ progress. However, often there is nothing you can do about this as school administrators will have more interest lining their pockets than actually educating their students.
In this article, I will outline some methods for managing a mixed ability classroom. Teachers will all have different approaches, and these all have their own merits. This is just a bit of advice that will hopefully help a few teachers make more of a difference in difficult circumstances.
What is a Mixed Ability Class?
What I mean by mixed ability class is a group of students, defined as a class by their school, with very different levels of English ability. This unfortunately occurs at all age levels and especially throughout countries where English is a big money business, you will find – for various reasons – large groups of students working together on the same textbook even though they are very far apart in ability. These are also called multi-level classes.
Why is this a Problem?
Mixed ability classes are less than ideal for student and teacher. Students will learn fastest when surrounded by peers of similar ability level and aloud to progress together. In a mixed ability class, some students will always be working from materials that are above or below their level of English. This puts them at a significant disadvantage. It can inspire in them a negative attitude towards learning that will further hinder their progress.
Extra Work for Advanced Students
I’m going to start with the most obvious solution: Prepare extra materials or assign extra tasks to students who finish fast. If you have students in your class who are well above the level of the others, they will finish quickly and become bored and/or distracted. In order to help them reach their potential, the teacher should not allow them to simply finish and rest. You should give them something productive to do. This could mean printing an extra worksheet or asking them to write further answers. If you are teaching a language point and every student must write 5 sentences, have your fast-finishers write 10 instead.
Of course, this means extra work for the teacher. At least, it does at first. In time, you will learn how to spin most activities so that some students do more work than others. You can sometimes even just ask the advanced student an extra question while monitoring the class. This will keep them stimulated and occupied.
Group Students Carefully
One of the biggest challenges faced by teachers of mixed ability ESL classes is how to group students most effectively. If you leave it to them, your students will invariably sit next to their friends. I don’t really find this to be a big problem, but over a longer period of time you’ll find students migrate into groups that reflect their ability level. At my university, the male students often congregate at the back of the class and play on their phones, while the females mostly group at the front and pay attention. In the middle, students sit in clusters of peers who have similar levels.
In some respects, this is not so bad. Depending on class size and classroom layout, it might be feasible for the teacher to create a multi-level lesson plan and thus deal with all students appropriately. However, another way is to split the students up and put them into random – or not-so-random – groups. I find this is extremely good for motivating unmotivated students. If you manage to get groups with higher and lower level learners, you will find that the higher level ones become occupied teaching the lower level ones, and the lower level ones get a better understanding because they are no longer relying on their equally befuddled friends!
Spend More Time Helping the Weaker Students
Sometimes it is appropriate to do the opposite of the above suggestion and actually group some weaker students together. This allows you, as teacher, to offer them some closer support. While the higher-level students are occupied with some advanced task, you can sit with the lower-level students and offer them some help. In my experience, these are precisely the students who will never ask for help, yet the ones who need it most. By grouping them together, you can offer them activities that will actually benefit them and give them direct feedback that will help them improve together.
Adding Variety to the Class
Let’s face it: it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. As teachers, we all have our own habits. There are the methods we use to teach, the activities we rely upon, the topics we prefer to use, and so on… This is natural and it’s fine; however, variety might surprise you. I was teaching grammar a few years ago and stumbled upon an exciting discovery – my most disinterested class took a huge amount of interest in my most boring subject! I did a running dictation exercise and they were immediately enthusiastic. This was something totally new to them. The weaker students were able to participate just like the higher level ones, and everyone was engaged. It felt great!
The point is this: you can easily become stuck doing the same things over and over. Yet perhaps it is this range of activities and this style of learning that causes some students to do well and others to do poorly. If you shake things up in the classroom, you might just inspire some of your “weaker” students to succeed. It doesn’t have to be guesswork – you can just ask them outright! Go to some of your lower-level students and ask them what they like and what they want to learn, and try incorporating that into the class.
Your textbook is designed for a particular level of student. This is the cause of so much frustration for new teachers with big, mixed classes. How can you teach a mixed ability class with a book intended for one particular level?! Well, you have to be creative and you have to put in the extra effort. I know it is exhausting, but you should try adapting materials. Over time, it becomes easier and less time-consuming. Ultimately, though, if you do this you will keep all your students working on useful, appropriate materials that allow them to progress effectively.
It is hard to teach mixed ability classes for ESL or any other subject. Unfortunately, it will almost always require extra work from the teacher – and we are usually overworked already! My advice is to stay positive about the situation. It is easy to become frustrated. After all, mixed ability classes often present problems in behaviour. However, if you are pro-active and create sensible solutions to the problem by implementing the above ideas, you will find it is not so difficult, and your students will respond positively.