7/3/2010 Onestopenglish | Methodology: teachi…
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Methodology: teaching mixed ability classes
Author: Lindsay Clandfield
Type: reference material
Suggestions and advice on teaching mixed ability classes
I teach an ESOL class as a volunteer, supporting the main tutor. We have seven
students whose levels vary from borderline Pre-Entry to Level 1, and we're
finding it very difficult to find activities that involve all the students without some
getting bored and/or others being confused and insecure. In practice we
normally end up teaching the students separately; roughly at Entry 1 and Level 1,
but this is not ideal and we want them to feel more like a group and contribute to
each other's learning. We have attended a seminar on differentiation but we're
still unclear how to get the students working through the materials for their own
level whilst also providing activities that everyone can participate in. Both I and
the main ESOL tutor have full-time day jobs so have limited time for lesson
If your seminar on differentiation was anything like ones I’ve attended, you were
probably told that all classes are to some extent mixed ability. However, this doesn’t
immediately help in practical terms to deal with the situation you have on your
hands. I’d like to suggest three strategies, with sample activities for each. You can
decide which might work best for you.
Strategy 1: Adapting tasks
This means taking a task from the book and having a second, more or less
Sample activity: Take a listening or reading gap fill task from the book and
make another version with two choices instead of the gap.
Original: The man is wearing a _____________.
Adapted (less challenging): The man is wearing a b rown hat/b lack coat.
Allow the students to choose which version they would like to do.
The problem with this strategy is that it involves more preparation time – time which
you don’t have. Let’s look at another one.
Strategy 2: Extending tasks
This means making the tasks in the book or in class extendable (to deal with early
Sample activity: Find an activity in the book which requires students to ask each
other questions (more than four).
Pair students up (in terms of similar ability) and tell them to choose two (or
three) of the questions.
They should ask each other these questions. Circulate.
If pairs finish earlier, tell them to ask and answer the remaining questions.
Do feedback on the two questions that students chose to talk about.
This kind of thing means that you make the task more achievable from the outset
(for the lower level students) while having the material there for the higher level ones
should they finish earlier.
Strategy 3: Encouraging co-operation and peer questioning
This means having tasks that force the students to depend on each other to achieve
the outcome. They also could be tasks that reinforce rapport between the students
and give a sense of “all being in it together”.
Students create a quiz in groups, with each individual contributing questions.
The two groups then test each other.
Students work in pairs of mixed ability and create a questionnaire of things
they would like to find out about other people in the class. Here’s an example
I learned from Luke Prodromou, author of a book on Mixed
I’d like to find someone who:
doesn’t eat meat
7/3/2010 Onestopenglish | Methodology: teachi…
Once they have finished, they proceed as a normal Find Someone Who
activity (i.e. asking and answering questions and writing names next to the
For group tasks, add a specific instruction so that everyone must participate
(“write two sentences each”, “submit one idea each”, “take turns to speak so
that you all speak”).
Vary the way you nominate students to answer questions for activities; it’s
easy to slip into the “one right answer” syndrome, in which you go for the one
right answer first – usually provided by the stronger students. Nominate
weaker students by name first, then ask the question. Start with easier
questions for weaker students, alternating with harder questions for stronger
Pronunciation is an ideal candidate for correction with your stronger
students. If you feel you need to “spread the correction around” so that it’s
not always the weak ones getting corrected, then correct aspects such as
individual sounds, word stress and intonation.
Be as enthusiastic in your praise of the stronger students as of the weaker
ones (perhaps an obvious point, but I’m always surprised at how much a
teacher’s enthusiasm can infect a class).
These are some of the techniques that have worked for me. Mixed ability teaching is
difficult, and you may find that some things work better than others. Good luck with it.
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