• Classes of Mixed Ability


    You walk into your first class in a new school. You begin with introductions and to your dismay you find a great disparity in the students’ English skills. There are students who have spent time abroad and others who are struggling with Basic English sentence structure. The focus of this article will be to weigh the advantages of 2 teaching strategies for classes of mixed ability introduced in the International TESOL Teacher Training (ITTT) course: grouping similar ability levels and pairing strong with weak students.

    The first strategy is to separate students within the class so that they have similar levels as the students they do activities with. The main advantages of this strategy are the ability to separate material and to focus on needs separately. When you divide the class into groups of similar ability you can teach the groups differently. Essentially this is like dividing one class into multiple classes. Another good part of this method is that students can see the other group’s activities and presentations. They will be able to learn from this exposure and the language used will be given context in those activities. The other advantage is a focus on needs. A strong student may only need less instruction. This can allow them to work on their own and be creative while giving you time to focus more on students who need more care.

    The disadvantages to separating the class in groups of similar levels come from time constraints and lack of continuity. Even if you decide to use the same material for the class, as the teacher you must give individual instructions to each group about their tasks. Doubling the instruction time may lead to one group having a lot of down-time or confusion. Groups may have important needs or questions at the same time. While you are addressing one concern another group may not be able to continue causing frustrations. Finally brining the lessons together and creating a progression for the class is more difficult. Feedback and testing becomes more difficult and the teacher has a heavier load to bear.

    The second strategy is grouping strong students with weak ones. Advantages to this method include peer encouragement, an added review aspect for students, and togetherness. The first advantage to this type of pairing is creating a safe atmosphere for students. Strong students feel confidence when a teacher entrusts them with responsibility in class based on their performance. Weaker students also feel safe to make mistakes with other students instead of in front of the teacher. The second advantage is the review aspect. Here strong students explain the directions creating a way for weak students to hear it again. Both sets of students are reviewing the instruction in different ways. This allows each student to get the most out of the lesson based on their level. The final advantage is keeping the class as one. The teacher is sending a message here that even if you are not as advanced in English you are an essential part of the class that should get the same attention as any other student.

    The disadvantages to pairing advanced students with beginners are reverting to the native language and a dominant/passive relationship. The first disadvantage may arise when an advanced student does not want to explain the directions in English. This stops any ability to make an effort to understand the English. Advanced students may get frustrated having to lower their speech and feel they are not improving. Alternatively the partnership may have the advanced student complete the entire task and the weaker students not get involved at all. Strong students who want to finish quickly can overlook the weaker student’s needs or questions just as the weak student can force the strong student to do the work because of disinterest.

    In conclusion, teaching students of different levels can create unique challenges for the teacher. Utilizing groups of similar ability or differing ability can bring new strengths or problems into the class. The teacher must understand these pros and cons in order to effectively plan and teach the students.

    Jonathan Kempton