One of the challenges that many of us face in teaching conversational English is how to manage a class of mixed abilities. How do we ensure that everyone is learning in such an environment? (Even if your class isn’t labelled as ‘mixed ability’, there is bound to be a range of abilities, backgrounds, learning experiences etc.)
The following is a summary of the seminar on Teaching Mixed abilities given by Penny Ur – a renowned professor of English Language teaching and the author of many books including Five Minute Activities. It was given at a British council workshop and is available to watch on Youtube (see link below).
Firstly, it is helpful to reflect on the way that we conduct our classes. Think about your normal teaching style for a moment. Does it communicate (intentionally or otherwise) that you expect all the students to ‘know the answers’? Feedback sessions, in particular, can be daunting for lower level students who may not have been able to complete all the answers. They are often conducted in a ‘ping-pong’ style, where questions are aimed at individual students one at a time, putting people on the spot and often resulting in one or two stronger students dominating. Instead, you could display the answers on the board and get students to check in pairs, taking off the pressure to need to know all the answers and boosting everyone’s confidence.
Secondly, consider the style of your classes in general. How much variation is there? This could mean variation in the demands you place on students: level, pace and amount of work. How about your classroom organisation? Is it very teacher-fronted (ie. teacher stands at the board all the time, communicating that you are the only source of knowledge?) Activities can be organised in different ways as well- a balance between group work, pair work and individual work is beneficial as different learners work best under different circumstances.
Individualisation could mean giving learners a choice– a choice of how fast to work, where to start, when to speak and when to listen. Often we teach in a way that shows we expect all students to work at the same speed, pace and level. Rather than telling students to complete the answers one by one, why not allow them to begin where they like and complete the questions they know the answers to? And in place of setting a certain amount of work to be completed, you could set a time limit, meaning each student can achieve as much as they are capable of.
A mixed group of students provides so much scope for peer learning! You can maximise on this by allowing students to work together, in groups and pairs. Collaboration lends itself well to activities that involve recalling/brainstorming. For example, if you want to revise vocabulary related to a particular topic that you taught previously, put students into groups of 3 and ask them to see how many words they can remember together (add a time limit to make this more competitive!) Working together removes the feeling of a hierarchy which may be off-putting or discouraging.
The style of activities can also be adapted to suit mixed classes. Closed activities (ie. where there is only one correct answer) are suitable for only one level. Open-ended activities, on the other hand, leave room for students to be creative and to show what they know, rather than what they don’t know. For example, instead of ‘Lucy ______ (leave) for the party’, ask ‘Lucy left ___________’. Simply tweaking the format of questions can make the whole activity more applicable to a range of levels and leaves students feeling confident in their own abilities.
We all work at a different pace. In order to make sure that everyone is being pushed to achieve as much as they can, try using expressions like ‘if you have time, then do…’, ‘do at least…’. Not only does this stretch higher ability learners, but it also takes the pressure off those who have a lower level.
Teaching groups with mixed abilities can be a real challenge but it also comes with great rewards! You have an incredibly rich pool of ‘human resources’ at your fingertips, as each student brings to the class their individual experiences, expectations, world views, interests, personalities and more! This should not be overlooked or underestimated. Our task as teachers is to learn how to channel these varied abilities and to ensure that each and every student is appreciated, invested in and gains confidence in speaking English.
For more teaching tips and training, watch Penny Ur’s original seminar at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFOaVExWo6A
NB: We know it can sometimes be overwhelming knowing where to begin when faced with lots of new ideas like this. Why not choose just one of them and try implementing it in your next lesson? If you work with other teachers, how about sharing this article with them in an email? Or even better, you could discuss it at your next staff meeting and each agree on suggestions to experiment with in your upcoming lessons!