Working in a Class of Students with Mixed Abilities

Hermine Gevorgyan

At the beginning of each school-year we compile new EFL subject syllabuses for different grades of our high school. All these subject syllabuses are oriented towards the so-called “average” student with “average” language competencies, however, the number of such average students is very few. In fact, we usually have classes with mixed ability students, and the student-centered approach is the right way to deal with such classes. Our aim is to get all the students engaged in the teaching-learning process. To achieve our aim, we have to overcome several problems typical to classes with mixed ability students.

The teacher’s problems while working with mixed ability classes are as follows:

·         When all the students in the class are given the same task, the stronger students finish it earlier than others and have to wait for the other students to finish it. In such cases they get bored and think that they could do and learn more if they were given more difficult tasks.

·         The weaker students, on the other hand, think that the task is too difficult for them and come to the conclusion that if they were given an easier task, they would be able to do it and learn more.

To overcome the above-mentioned problems it is suggested that we should compile tasks with easy, medium and hard questions. I frequently compile such tasks, and the positive effect of such activity is obvious.

Pairing and grouping in mixed ability classes     

In large classes, using pair and group work is an effective way of getting our students to use and practice the language. Group work has a lot of benefits. It, first of all, teaches the students to collaborate with each other and develops responsibility for team work which is a very important feature for their future life. Working in groups can also develop communication skills, where each student can express his/her own ideas, opinions and approaches. It also helps students to give feedback to each other and work on it. Group work can also be done outside the classroom. Last year we implemented a project called ‘’Foreigners in Armenia’’.    This project united students with high competency of English and the students with comparatively low competency of the language. The stronger students took interviews from the foreigners in the streets of Yerevan, and the weaker students recorded these conversations and made video films.

Why do I prefer to work with the students using group work and pair work? The answer is simple, I want to minimize TTT and maximize STT.

Dealing with mixed levels:

I try different groupings. Sometimes it can be useful to have pairs/threes mixing stronger and weaker students together. It may be possible to have a long term pairing where a stronger student takes on the role of a guide and supports the weaker student in certain activities. Consequently, the stronger, hardworking students work again, and the weaker students take the advantage of it.   Another option is to group students of similar levels together and have a few versions of the tasks- a version for stronger groups, a version of medium difficulty and a version for weaker groups. Personally, I have tried both and I take the second option precedence over the first option. In this case nearly all the students are engaged in carrying out the project, as it is given to them according to their interests, level of language. And everybody is a leader here.

There are different levels of reading/listening tests. The tests are given to the students taking into account the level of their language competency. Weaker students listen to the recordings intended for students with lower level of language competency, while the students with medium and high level of language competency listen to corresponding recordings. After they have listened to the recordings, the weaker students are asked to answer some simple questions to the plot of the text, and the stronger students are asked to analyze the text or the story.

Dealing with early finishers

Even though there are groups of the similar levels, we still have certain students who always finish tasks quicker. Here is the solution to this issue.

·         I have a task extension ready. This can be something as simple as 2 or 3 extra gapped sentences or comprehension questions, a couple of questions to discuss with other early finishers, or students could prepare some questions for other students.

Managing big numbers

The students’ level and interests can be very different, so I have to divide them into many groups, pairs when I deal with a big number of students.

The learning process should be organized in a way that every group should work simultaneously. Having group leaders is another solution to the issue. For every group of four to six students assign a group leader who:

-          gives out materials,

-          checks answers to the exercises done by the group,

-          helps the students who need it.

Managing limited space

To my delight, our school refrains us from having traditional rows of desks. It gives us opportunities of arranging seats in the classroom which could foster the students to communicate freely without disturbing each other, and there is enough room for the teacher to move around and come up to different groups.

In this short article of mine I tried to show my methods of dealing with mixed-ability classes where students differ greatly in ability, motivation for learning English, needs and interests.


Some used sources

Teaching English to students in mixed-ability classes.

Teaching Mixed Ability ESL Classes

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