Throw yourself into the mix

by @thornburyscott for #eltpics

Anyone who has taught any subject for any length of time will probably be familiar with the fact that most classrooms contain a mix of abilities.  And I don’t need to tell you that managing an English language classroom where some students’ overall levels are noticeably higher/lower than the others’ is quite a challenging task.

So, without further ado, here are a few top tips and practical ideas I’ve picked up from various sources* for coping with the stress of a mixed-level class and doing justice to all students’ need and desire to really develop their English…

A few general tips for greater success…

1. Patience is a virtue (in any classroom!).
This is one of my biggest grievances when I observe teachers.  For goodness’ sake, slow down a bit – don’t be in a rush to get immediate answers to every question you ask.  All students need a moment occasionally to jot down something they’ve just learnt or understood; and slower/weaker students will sometimes need a split-second longer to respond.  So give them that chance!  Don’t cut students off, answer your own questions for them, or finish their sentences for them when they pause to search for a word.  That’s just rude in any context, let alone in a classroom, where you’re supposed to be helping people develop their own skills, not showing them how much you know.  They already know that!

2. Variety is the spice of… the classroom.
Keep your lessons well-paced and engaging, with different types and lengths of task/activity, different error correction and feedback techniques, and different interaction patterns.  Try re-pairing students at least once within every lesson.  For stronger students, it can feel frustrating to feel like you’re constantly stuck with ‘the slow one’, and you don’t want students to start getting impatient and/or rude with each other because they feel like pairwork is a burden.  Try also to include some tasks which aren’t necessarily focused on language study, but which encourage cooperation (e.g. quizzes, drawing games) and give students with strengths in non-linguistic areas a chance to show these off a bit.

3. Keep tasks and feedback student-centred andpersonalise things wherever possible.
Personalised tasks are almost always more interesting and engaging for students than tasks the coursebook or teacher provide.  When it comes to task feedback, let students nominate each other.  If there are right/wrong answers, get students to justify their choices and help each other understand.  Even if it takes longer.  Remember, you’re teaching the students, not the plan/book/language point.  Don’t just plough on assuming everyone’s understood something because one student clearly has.

4. Make task repetition fun.
Repeat speaking tasks with different partners, different roles, different levels of truth, etc. (e.g. now ask a different partner, but this time, you’re answering as Elvis Presley; or as if you were 50 years older; or you have to lie for some of your answers and see if your partner can find the lies amongst the true answers).  Students of all levels need a certain degree of repetition to aid their memory.  Weaker students in particular will really benefit from getting to do this under the guise of an ‘extended activity’ (i.e. not overtly saying “we’re going to keep doing this until Student X gets it right”).

5. Make use of homework time.
You can give weaker students extra homework, or stronger students different tasks for homework.  You can get students to prepare something for homework which they’ll share later in class (e.g. a presentation) – this way they can spend as much time as they like/need on it without their pace conflicting with other students’.  You could also let the weaker students ‘cheat’ a bit and prepare for upcoming classes beforehand, e.g. by reading through the grammar reference section before you cover a particular point in class.  Be honest with weaker students – they usually know they’re weaker and will appreciate extra support like this.

6. Scaffold feedback on tasks. 
Keep an eye on students’ progress while monitoring so you can identify weaker students’ areas of difficulty and address these in feedback, or nominate them for answers which you know they have correct, to boost their confidence (just avoid picking on them for the very first answer!).  Consider also giving students the answers to tasks mixed up (so they just need to match the right answer to the right question), or getting early finishers to prepare explanations for task answers so you can call on them in feedback to teach the others.

7. Don’t forget pronunciation work.
This is one area where even the stronger ones will always still need input, and reminding them they can still develop in this area helps avoid their feeling/acting as though they’re miles above the rest of the class and have nothing to gain from the lessons.

And a few practical activities that I have found to work well…

1. Draw and explain (good for visual learners)
Ask the sts to draw a floor plan/general organisational diagram of whatever you’re discussing.  Then they can use this to refer to when speaking, e.g. describing their home/neighbourhood/town, the organisation of their company, their family tree, etc.

2. Word hunt (for reading comprehension tasks)
Get early finishers to choose two new words (and/or two familiar words) from the text and write them on slips of paper.  Collect these in and keep them for later – either for vocab teaching/revision within the lesson, or later in the week.

3. Dictogloss (good for practising listening skills, note-taking and ‘grammaring’)
Basically, the teacher reads a short text at normal speed and students note down key words.  When you’re done reading the text, they pair up and use their notes to try and re-construct the text.  Then you read it out again (i.e. repeat this process two or three times).  Finally, students have to fill in any remaining gaps, creating grammatical, logical sentences so they end up with a text that makes sense (even if it’s not precisely what you read out to them).  Suits students of mixed levels well as nobody is capable of writing down every single word as you say it, so they just work with what they’ve got to try and create a coherent text.

4. Re-phrasing questions (for speaking activities)
For coursebook ‘questionnaire’ style activities, early finishers can re-write/re-phrase task questions by changing the tense, adding a clause, personalising it differently, etc., e.g. “How often do you watch TV?”  “How often did you watch TV when you were a child?” or “Do you have a job/where do you work?”  “Does your father have a job/where does he work?”

5. Mixed up sentences (for grammar revision)
Towards the end of a coursebook unit, students have to go back and pick out 6-10 sentences from the grammar practice and copy these into their notebooks exactly.  Then let them choose the level of difficulty for their next task: A (less challenging), B (more challenging), C (most challenging).  All students take a sentence and rewrite it with the words in a different order: As write the first and last word in the correct place but mix up the rest; Bs write all the words in a different order; Cs write all the words mixed up AND add an extra unnecessary word (e.g. to, for, a, that).  When they’re ready, students exchange with other students who chose the same level of task difficulty as them.  They rewrite each other’s sentences back into the correct order, then check with their partners.

6. Complementary tasks (for reading comprehension)
Let students choose from task A (less challenging) or task B (more challenging).  The ones who pick A answer the questions in the coursebook.  The ones who pick B write the questions for the answers you give them (after covering up the questions in the book, of course!).  After reading, conduct whole class feedback with the students who had the questions matching up with the ones who had the answers.

*These sources being: just general experience (as a language teacher and as a language learner), chats with colleagues and with students, and an excellent book by Luke Prodromou and Lindsay Clandfield called Dealing with Difficulties, which is packed with helpful ideas for various common difficulties in the language classroom, including students’ mixed levels, abilities and learning styles.

A final comment – I believe good teachers are usually those who leave their egos at the door.  To put it bluntly, our students (for teachers of adults, at least – and yes, with some exceptions, I know) book themselves on language courses to improve their English, not to meet a cool teacher.  And the complicated nature of learning means that most language courses will include some students who aren’t quite at the same level as the rest.  If this means adapting your typical teaching style/approaches/tasks/materials, so be it.  No student should be left out/left behind/bored/unchallenged.  Imagine how you would feel if that student were you.

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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