How to Teach Mixed Ability Language Courses

How to Teach Mixed Ability Language Courses
One of the most difficult situations for a language teacher is a group with students of different levels, varying learning ability, or both. How do you design a lesson to meet all the varying needs?

Most teachers at one time or another are faced with the challenge of a group of students of different levels.

One of the most difficult situations for the language teacher is a group which includes students of different levels, of varying learning ability, or even both. The class has to be organised so that no-one needs to feel they’re wasting time waiting for the others or alternatively, that they are “out of their depth” in comparison to other members of the group. How do you design a lesson to meet all the varying needs?

One way of coping with this situation is to abandon lockstep teaching (all of the students working on the same activity at the same time) for at least part of the lesson, so that the teacher can work intensively with one sub-group while the others work independently. This, of course, means that you need to have suitable materials for autonomous study on hand. These could be in any format, but if you have computers available in the classroom, the easiest solution is to use on-line materials.

It would be possible, of course, to make these materials the sole basis of the lessons. Each student works through a course at his/her own level while the teacher circulates, monitors and gives help , explanation and practice as necessary. In groups where the students are of widely differing levels, this could well be the best solution. But with others, where the difference is less extreme, it’s also possible to integrate the autonomous work into more traditional full class lessons.

As an example, let’s look at a mixed level EFL group including students from upper-elementary to mid-intermediate levels. The next area to be covered in the course they are following is the present perfect for past to present events – for example, He’s worked here for the last five months. For the upper-elementary students this is a completely new structure, and they’re going to need a systematic presentation as well as a lot of controlled practice before they can go on to freer activities using the structure. But for the mid-intermediate students, the lesson is only revision and consolidation.

Here is a possible outline for the lesson :

Stage One : The first activity is a warm-up consolidating the simple past, which all students have met before.

Stage Two : The class then splits into two groups. The elementary and weaker intermediate students remain with the teacher for a systematic presentation of the new structure, while the other, stronger students work independently at the computer on a second simple past consolidation activity -this might be a short listening or reading activity.

Stage Three : When the teacher has finished the presentation, the class comes back together to do a receptive practice activity which asks them to distinguish between the two verb forms. For example :

Look at the sentences and answer the questions below them.

a. I’ve lived in New York for three years.
Where does he live now?
a) In New York
b) We don’t know

b. I studied English for two years.
Does she study English now?
a) Yes
b) No

c. She’s worked for ICN for twelve years.
Where does she work now?
a) For ICN
b) We don’t know

and so on. The aim of this activity is to check that all the students understand the use of the form. If any of the higher level students in fact don’t, the teacher can ask the lower level students to explain. This both checks that the students who heard the presentation really do understand, and also improves motivation: one of the problems of a mixed ability group is that it is always the same, weaker or lower level students who “don’t know/can’t do”, leading to the possibility of low self-esteem and demotivation towards the course. This activity gives them the chance to be the ones who do know.

Stage Four : The class then divides into two groups again. The stronger students return to the computer and work on activities which consolidate the present perfect at their own level. These activities could be grammar practice, a listening consolidation, or whatever the teacher thinks is right for those students at that point. Meanwhile the lower level students stay with the teacher to complete some controlled practice work.

Stage Five : The groups then change over. The stronger students work with the teacher on some semi-controlled or freer practice, while the others work independently at their own level – which may or may not mean completing the same activities done by the stronger students at stage four.

Stage Six : Finally the group comes back into lockstep and works on an activity organised in one of the following ways :

a) Students are grouped in mixed high/low level pairs with the stronger student having a more challenging role

b) Again, students are paired high/low and complete an activity in which the strong students help the weaker ones

c) Students are paired or grouped with others of the same ability – high/high, low/low – and work on an activity at their own level.

The constant change in the lesson between lockstep and ability group work has various advantages.

a) Perhaps the most important factor of lockstep work is that it allows the students to develop a single group identity and co-operative working atmosphere. However, this will only happen if the lockstep stages are equally useful for everyone. The split group stages make certain that when the students do work together, they are able to work on an activity at the correct level of challenge for all members of the group. No-one is left feeling I know this already but nor does anyone feel that the class is too challenging or too fast.

b) The lesson format also has the practical advantage that you don’t need an enormous number of computers. Only half the class will be working at the computers at any one time. If the students work in pairs, that means that a group of twelve would need only three computers.

But why should you choose on-line materials rather than any other type of materials – textbooks, for instance? There are two practical advantages:

a) Firstly, on-line materials are specifically designed for independent study and are staged accordingly, while “ordinary” materials are often intended for teacher-led classes and may not be easily adaptable for students working alone.

b) And even when this is possible, creating a sequence of activities taken from various sources, then adding instructions, answers, explanations etc to make them suitable for independent use means a large amount of preparation for the teacher and is extremely time consuming. A coherently staged on-line course will already have done most of the work for you – the only preparation you need to do is to familiarise yourself with the materials and choose which activities you want each group to do at which point of the lesson.

Sue Swift
Sue Swift has worked in the area of ELT for over 30 years as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She writes on EFL methodology and other issues connected with language teaching, and runs a site for EFL teachers,

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  1. Excellent idea. However, it is limited to classes which have computers and unfortunately my classroom doesn’t have a computer. I like the idea, it’s very creative. If I had a chance, I really would like to try it. Thank you.

  2. I really like the idea of improving the self-esteem of the so called “weak students”. But, like Gulay, I don’t have computers in the classroom. Anyway, I’ll try with some handouts. It seems that it is not only a good idea for mixed but also to large groups.

  3. Great idea, it boosts students’ self-esteem. I would go for reinforcing pair work by putting a weaker student with a stronger student to boost fluency and accuracy.


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