Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mixed Ability Madness

The Scenario

At some point during our career we get one of those classes that are made up of mixed abilities. By mixed abilities, I mean different levels within the same class, not students who are good at writing and others who are good at listening. Of course, I understand that within a level descripter such as Intermediate there are more and less capable students. 

I'm talking about a class where students are really different in levels. At the moment I've got a false beginner and an Upper-Intermediate student in the same class. The problem is when it's a closed group and you can't move them to an appropriate class. "You can't please everyone all of the time" takes on a new meaning in this situation! If you're not careful you can end up pleasing nobody.

This is my reality at the moment.

What I've been doing.

I've only had two classes with this class and I've tried a few things.

1. I've used the stronger students as peer teachers, explaining simple rules to weaker students and helping them complete exercises.
2. I've given the stronger students more teacher like roles, such as reading out texts used in dictagloss activities.
3. I've got the stronger students at the board eliciting vocabulary from the weaker students and writing it up on the board.
4. I've given the higher level students work to do separately whilst in class with the other students.


I'm not happy with this situation. It feels like I'm short changing everyone. The lower levels are perhaps being made to feel uncomfortable and the higher levels are probably feeling used.
The problem is that I have no alternative. What can I do? Any suggestions? What do you do with mixed ability classes?

#ELTchat Mixed Ability Classes


  1. Hi Leahn,
    I totally sympathise. I had a whole year of mixed ability madness last year. It took me a long time to feel my way towards a compromise. Half way through the year I attended a workshop by Penny Ur on teaching mixed abilities at TESOL Spain (were you at the same workshop?) and it was good to find some of my tentative attempts being confirmed and others being extended. She used the same quote as you about pleasing everybody, but she also gave it a positive spin, saying that we can please some of the people some of the time, and so long as we make sure those some are different at different points in the class/course than we can feel like we're doing a good job.
    A couple of things that rang true for me were:
    1 use open questions where a simple one, two or three word answer is fine - but where ss can also stretch themselves if they want to/can
    2 ask lower level students to kick off brainstorming sessions so they can supply the core/the basics and then the higher level students embellish and expand
    3 allow thinking and processing and writing time before asking for spoken production
    4 use competition that relies on knowledge of topics not level of language

    I blogged about some of my mixed ability classes. I don't know if the situation is similar. I was working with 17-18 year olds but I guess some of the challenges are the same whatever the age.

    Here's one of the posts where I explored the problems of multi level classes.
    Hope it's of some use.

    Good luck with the class!

  2. Hi Leahn,
    I just had a quick look in my diigo library and found this post: by Michelle Worgan with an activity that might work with mixed abilities.
    Not sure how much it will help!
    When I was in Malaysia I had a class of twelve 11-14 year olds, with everything ranging from students who couldn't speak Malay (only their tribal language) or even write their names to students who could speak their tribal language, Malay and Elementary level English. It was a real challenge. The way I solved it (pre-CELTA, so I don't know if I would do the same now) was to have a single broad topic, like a story or the connecting words, and prepare two worksheets - one for the lower level and one for the higher level. This seemed to work at the time, but obviously involves more work.
    In terms of grammar, one book I like is 'Timesaver 50 mixed ability grammar lessons' - it's aimed at teens, but seems to work with adults too, though it must depend on your students. Every grammar point has three levels, and students can start at the beginning and work up, or jump in at a higher level.
    Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Ceri,

    Thanks for the advice. I missed Penny Ur talking about Mixed Abilities. I saw her keynote. It's a shame I missed it.

    I did an open ended activity the other day which worked well, so I'm going to try some more of those type activities. I tried using the lower level SS to brainstorm rather than the higher ones which also worked well.

    I will have to try the competition idea it's a good one as they have knowledge to impart and as you said doesn't require language knowledge.

    They're soldiers who are preparing for mlitary exams and a couple are officers so, it's a bt different to your teen stuation although I read your posts at the time and they rang true!

    Thanks Ceri

  4. Hi Sandy,

    The Timesaver book sounds good! I'll see if there's a copy floating around.. cheers,