Are you wondering how to teach mixed-ability classes? Fear not! Super-experienced TEFL teacher, Lisa, hosted a live webinar to talk all about how to teach classes with mixed levels of students. Lisa’s webinar covered everything from how to approach different types of skills’ lessons to the do’s and don’ts of teaching classes with multiple abilities. Listen to the full webinar or read on for edited extracts.
What is a mixed ability class?
In an ideal world, you’ll have students with a similar ability learning together. It doesn’t always happen! Sometimes there’s a small difference, such as one person is a year older or particularly strong in speaking. That’s normal. It’s when that diversity increases noticeably that it’s a mixed level class.
There are a number of reasons why you might have a mixed level class. For example, if you’re working somewhere that doesn’t have many students, they might all be mixed together in one class. Another example is teaching a year group in a public school, where some students have had private English lessons but others are beginners. It also might happen if you teach at a summer school, where students come from many different countries and you have a whole range of contextual and logistical considerations that mean you have different abilities in your classroom.
Tips for approaching a mixed level class
The challenge for mixed ability classes is that some students can be bored and frustrated, while others feel unsupported or overwhelmed. It’s important to know the tricks to use.
You need to include and praise all your students, regardless of their speed of learning. One thing you can do is to pair up your students carefully so they support each other’s learning and are stimulated in the process. If someone finishes quickly, they can go and help another pair.
You also need to set tasks that ensure everyone participates. For example, you could ask your students to make a film and allocate roles: somebody is a director, somebody is a scriptwriter, one of them is the camera person and has to narrate and several are actors. You can give certain roles to people who are more comfortable and more supportive roles to people who struggle a bit – but everyone in the group has to do something.
Another tip for a mixed level classroom is to set time limits rather than a word count for an activity. For example, you could give your students five minutes to come up with as many predictions for each other’s lives as possible. When you give the feedback, you don’t count the number, you just deal with the content that comes out. Everybody can go at their own level and is included.
I also find it useful to have a couple of projects open for faster students, like writing a journal. They know, once they have finished an activity, they can go to that task. They are occupied, they are learning and they are motivated and the other students don’t feel so rushed.
Do’s and don’ts for teaching mixed-ability classes
Here are my do’s and don’ts for teaching mixed-ability classes. All these tips are relevant to any level, any age and any context. The only thing that changes is the content.
Do have extra activities that stronger or faster students can work on as self-study when they have completed a task, such as journaling, reading or working on a project.
Do maximise on student interests. If you know that a group of students adores talking about travel, choose content around travel. Whether they are struggling or finding it easy, you’re still catering to their interests so that maximises their motivation.
Do ask open-ended questions, so that a student who can only give a short answer is able to give a short answer and a student who is able to give more, can give more.
Do use different learning styles, to make sure you are catering for all the different types of learners and their particular strengths and weaknesses.
Do get to know your students and their strengths and weaknesses so you can design your lessons accordingly. For example, some students need to see a lot of visuals in order to learn, some students have to do an activity or they have to be physical.
Do drill the whole class together before you drill individuals so the more advanced students can help those who need a bit more support.
Don’t switch to your students’ language. It won’t help them to develop their independence in terms of their English speaking.
Don’t plan separate lessons for different levels. Instead adapt the activities or vary the homework.
Don’t be scared to mix compulsory with optional tasks. For example, you might set all your students five sentences and then give students who finish quickly a choice of three extra optional tasks.
Tip for reading skills in a mixed ability class
There are three things you can do to support reading in a mixed ability class. First, you can vary the reading text that you give them, so the less able students have a text with less complex language. This is called differentiating the input.
You can also vary the process. For example, the students who need support could have partners or use a gap fill activity and the stronger students answer alone or write whole sentences by themselves.
The third thing you can do is to vary the outcome. For example, you could use an open-ended question where people respond according to their level. Alternatively, you could set a time limit for a task rather than asking students to produce a set number of words or you could give students a choice of tasks or adapt tasks – for example, ask strong students to complete a sentence and the other students to circle the correct answer.
You have the same lesson but you vary the input, vary the process and vary the output.
Tips for speaking skills in a mixed ability class
A good way to manage speaking activities is through pairing students up. If you want to manage the level of difficulty on a speaking task, you can put strong students together and students who need more time together. You don’t have to plan separate lessons – you can extend and adapt your activities. For example, those that finish first can interview others who have finished or they can swap around partners.
It’s also useful to do a lot of mingling activities with mixed ability classes, so students manage their own time. You might say, ‘Go and find three people who are…’ You are not making anybody feel excluded or over-praising certain people. Everyone can manage it in their own way.
Tips for writing skills in a mixed ability class
My first tip for managing writing activities for a mixed ability class is to set a time limit, rather than a word count, and also to give students a choice of topics.
Another tip is to tell students who finish faster to check each other’s work. You’re keeping them busy and engaged and the other students are having time to process and write, without feeling rushed and stressed.
I also do a lot of project work, so that students can work at their own pace. For example, the students might have to come up with a magazine and the people who can write better do that, while the people who are stronger at speaking interview each other – they could make it celebrity gossip. There are lots of way of integrating different abilities in a project.
Tips for listening skills in a mixed ability class
Managing listening skills in a mixed ability class is very similar to reading: you can vary the process or you can vary the outcome. The main difference between listening and reading is that, unless they each have their own headphones, you can’t give them different content to listen to at the same time.
You can still vary the process though. For example, you could ask your lower level students to give a yes / no answer to a question but your higher level students need to give a more complex answer, such as saying why rather than simply yes / no.
Responding to students’ needs
A needs analysis is key to figuring out the levels of your students. You can ask questions like: What kind of activities do you enjoy or benefit from? Which language skill do you most want to develop? Do you prefer working individually or with a partner? You can assess your students’ learning style, their motivation, their language strengths and weaknesses. That will help you to know their needs and their interests, so you can keep everybody motivated.
In a mixed level class, whether you are dealing with it explicitly or a subtle way, you are getting your students to develop self-awareness about their strengths and weaknesses. The person who needs longer to write something down, gets longer to write something down and knows they know will be supported.
You should also really develop peer-to-peer support in a mixed level class and vary the interaction pattern – so get them to work in pairs, get them to work in groups, get them to work as a whole class and encourage co-operation. You should be doing that anyway as a TEFL teacher but it becomes extremely important to develop that skill in a mixed level class. Treat the whole class equally, call on everybody, include everybody in an activity and use a lot of praise.
Tips for managing mixed-ability classes online
If you’re on Zoom, you can use the virtual tools to differentiate students online. For example, you can put students into breakout rooms and get them to use the chat to share ideas. There is also an interactive whiteboard, which they can write and draw on.
One thing that is different, in terms of managing the differentiation online, is that you’re not able to monitor all the students so easily, as you have got to jump between the breakout rooms to check on them. It’s important to make sure that the people you’re leaving on their own are capable of being left on their own – so it can be good to mix the stronger and weaker students.
You can still do many of the activities for mixed levels online. You could even make a film together. You could have a theme, such as a trip to a shop. They could agree what the topic is, who edits it, who narrates it, etc. Each person could film 30 seconds and they could form a collage. You could manage all of that remotely. It just requires consolidating.
Advantages to teaching mixed levels
While it’s a challenge to deal with mixed levels, there are also some advantages. It’s super creative, as you have to adapt and vary your activities. You vary the input, you vary the process, you vary the output, you give open-ended questions, you also give a mixture of compulsory activities and choices. It widens your approach and really develops your problem-solving focus.
I also like the peer-to-peer student support of mixed ability classes. You want your students to become independent learners. When they’re in a mixed-ability class you can optimise that by getting them to support each other and work independently. They learn that their teacher is not a little creature that follows them around and helps and corrects them all the time. They need to be in the world and learn to develop their own learning.
Another advantage is that you really have to pay attention to your students’ learning style which is good for you as a teacher. As you get better and better at mixed-ability classes, you will get better and better at teaching a class of similar level students too because you include those different approaches. It allows you to be more flexible, more innovative – and innovation is massively linked to learning.