What are The Ways to Manage and Adapt Teaching and Learning for Mixed-Ability Classes?
Teachers of ESL will often find themselves in charge of a class with students at different levels of proficiency. When this happens, the teacher needs to know ways to adapt and manage the class and activities in a way that benefits all the students. The stronger students could become bored if the teacher caters to the weaker ones, and, reversely, the weaker students could become demotivated and feel forgotten and left behind when they cannot keep up with the advanced students. So how can a teacher make sure all the students get what they need from the class?
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Leigh K. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Adapting materials according to the level
Joe Budden, in the article "Adapting Materials for Mixed Ability Classes," provided a great chart breaking down simple ideas about adapting learning materials according to student level. When teaching reading, Budden suggests asking the stronger students who finish early "rewrite a part of the text in a different tense/person," and support the weaker students "if there are gaps, give students the answers in a jumbled order, with a few extras." If teaching a listening activity the teacher could give the advanced students "the tapescript and nominate a ‘vocabulary master’ to look up tricky words or expressions in a dictionary to then explain to the group," and for the beginner students, the teacher should "pre-teach vocabulary, use visual prompts when appropriate. Give students time to discuss answers before feeding back to the class." For writing the stronger students could have an increased word limit while the weaker ones have a smaller word count to work with. For speaking activities, the teacher can "ban easy words like ‘nice’ to push their vocab to a higher level." for the upper levels and "let students make notes before the speaking activity begins. Allow for ‘thinking time’." The table gives more examples of adapting materials accordingly. (Budden 2008)
Another recommendation when dealing with mixed ability classes is careful grouping. Harmer says mixed ability classes can benefit from separate table seating and groups so they can work on different tasks. But he also lays out the potential problems with this. "students may not always want to be with the same colleagues; indeed their preferences may change over time, Secondly it makes 'whole-class' teaching difficult since students are more diffuse and separate." (Harmer 2007) Because of this is it a good idea to experiment with the groupings. One activity, it may be a good idea to group similar level students so "they work to their full potential." (Budden 2008) Another activity or task may benefit from mixed ability groups. Putting stronger students with weaker ones may help both, as the higher-level students "become occupied teaching the lower-level ones, and the lower level ones get a better understanding because they are no longer relying on their equally befuddled friends!" (Willis 2018) Also grouping weaker students together will give the teacher a chance to sit and help them while the advanced students work on a task. (Willis 2018) Teaching the weaker ones will give the stronger students practice with communicating and the weaker ones will get the information they need.
Also Read: Teaching at a Language Academy in Korea
Lindsay Clandfield, in her article "Methodology: Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes," she offers the following strategies: 1. Adapting asks, 2. Extending asks, and 3. Encouraging cooperation and peer questioning. The first strategy is the same as Budden's advice. Adapt the materials so the advanced students do not get bored and so the beginner students have materials accessible to their level. Strategy two gives the example of having the students answer three or four questions on a worksheet. When the advanced students finish early, extend the activity by having them answer any remaining questions. Strategy three keeps the students working together regardless of level. (Clandfield)
Other tips for managing classes of mixed ability students are: To come up with activities that require everyone to participate at their levels. Be random when asking the students questions, and ask questions appropriate to their level. Correct the stronger students just as much, if not more so, than the beginner students to push the stronger ones and not discourage the beginners. And praise the lower levels with as much enthusiasm as much as the higher levels. (Clandfield) (Budden 2008)
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Teaching mixed-ability classes can pose problems for the teacher and students. The teacher will have to work hard at finding appropriate activities and materials and find ways to adapt to provide the students with a beneficial learning experience.
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