Different but Equal: Getting the Best out of Mixed-Ability Classes

Different but Equal
Getting the Best out of Mixed-Ability Classes

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 6,439 views |

If you teach ESL for long enough, you’ll have to deal with the complex issue of mixed-ability classes.

It’s often simply not possible to organize the students into groups of similar ability, and so we need a toolbox of methods to handle the results. The key to succeeding in this tricky situation is your own awareness of the issue and its consequences, and it can help, before you meet the class, to get some background information and predict what issues might arise.

Here are some tried-and-tested tactics for handling mixed-ability groups:

Make Use of 11 Ways to Get the Best out of Mixed-Ability Classes

  1. 1

    Be Aware

    However carefully you judge the pace of your class, it’s likely that the highest-level students will become bored and seek additional challenge (or distraction). Signs of this are cellphone use, chattering (especially in L1, their first language), doing work for other classes, sleepiness, and staring out of the window. Keep an eye out for these signals.

  2. 2

    Randomize Your Questions

    It is very important that the more able students don’t monopolize feedback sessions. If you allow your students simply to call out the answers, it stands to reason that you’ll hear chiefly from the high-level people. The same is unfortunately true when you ask for raised hands. Instead, cold-calling is a good solution. It’s not as scary as it sounds, and it makes sure that everyone gets a chance to answer. Moreover, you’ll hear from all of your students, not just the most confident ones, which gives you valuable information on the pace of their learning.

  3. 3

    Use Eye Contact to Elicit Answers

    This is the fastest way to engage a student, and is a gesture which the whole world recognizes: “I’m looking at you, and speaking to you, so although you may not understand every word, I clearly want something from you.” Those at whom you’re not looking will also recognize that this isn’t their moment to answer. As your students become more used to this practice, they’ll learn to watch your eyes and respond accordingly.

  4. 4

    Carefully Consider Partnerships

    There are different schools of thought on this. Some claim that asking people of different levels to work together is a recipe for antagonism and frustration. Others claim it provides a good example for the lower-level student will still affording meaningful practice for the higher-level student. I encourage you to be the judge, and to consider each pairing on its own merits. Perhaps allocate these pairings in advance, based on what you’ve learned of the students’ temperaments and levels. As the partnership develops, keep an eye out for signs of boredom or tension, and change the setup during your next class if necessary.

  5. 5

    Monitor Proportionately

     Divide your time carefully to ensure that those who need you to listen and help will receive adequate support. This doesn’t mean abandoning the high-flyers, but it does mean ensuring that you’ve heard everyone produce the target language, no matter their level. One of my favorite methods is to stand so that I can hear a low-level pair, but see a high-level group; this way, I can correct the problems I’m hearing while judging whether the higher-level students are still on target, or whether their attentions are wandering.

  6. 6

    Be Wary of Stratification

    There’s a natural tendency for ‘birds of a feather to flock together’, but I urge you not to let factions develop along the lines of ability, nationality, gender or faith. This can be very destructive and harms one of our major aims in mixed-background ESL classes: the breaking down of linguistic and cultural barriers. Assign seating if necessary, using a chart or name cards. One solution I often use, during pairwork or interviews, is to ask the students to find someone they haven’t yet spoken with today; I then monitor to make sure this is done.

  7. 7

    Keep It Light

    Especially when one of the lower-level students is making mistakes, or is confused, don’t make a big deal of it. Emphasizing the gap in ability will only embarrass people, frustrate others, and create divisions. Keep your corrections light-hearted and smiley, and bring in others (of a similar level, preferably) to help fix the problem. Classmates can also be team mates, pulling in the same direction and striving for the same objective; have this dynamic as your aim.

  8. 8

    Back-pocket Exercises

    Keep your higher-level students busy, particularly if they finish the assigned exercises quickly. Quizzes, puzzles, cross-words, word-searches, dictionary searches, internet research and vocabulary practice are all good ways to keep them stimulated and practicing language. The alternative, all too often these days, is that they resort to goofing off on their phones.

  9. 9

    Use Your Hands

    In the same way as using eye contact, using gestures can help keep a lid on the high-flyers while encouraging those from whom you haven’t heard in a while. A beckoning ‘come here’ motion works well for this, while a raised palm (the universal ‘stop’ signal) is an abrupt but effective way to cool someone’s jets. Transform the ‘stop’ into a ‘go’ (open, flat palm, fingertips toward the student) once you’re ready to hear the answer.

  10. q

    Play Catch-up

    One way of solving the mixed-ability conundrum is to make a special effort to help the lower-level students catch up; this is the alternative to bringing the overall class level down. Additional homework, one-to-one tutoring, extra in-class monitoring and even extended classes are all possible and useful. Be careful, though, that these students don’t see themselves as being in need of remedial work because of some innate deficiency; they just need more practice opportunities, like anyone who’s trying to quickly acquire a new skill.

  11. w


    Adjust your congratulations, facial expressions and gestures of appreciation depending on the level of the student. A higher-level student who nails a straightforward grammar question might get a thumbs up, while a lower-level student who pleasantly surprises you might get two thumbs up, a “Good job!” or a fist-bump (my students love these!)

In all, forewarned is fore-armed; your class list and any data you can find on past performance (including the opinions of colleagues who have worked with the same students) are tools to help you predict likely mixed-ability issues.

Treat everyone the same, except when you don’t; adjust your methodology to address skills differences, while remembering that all of your students are worthy of your best efforts.

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