‘Recipe’ for Teaching Mixed-ability Language Learners
Erkin Mukhammedov, Uzbekistan
Erkin Mukhammedov is a lecturer at Westminster International University in Tashkent. He is interested in teacher training and continuing professional development of teachers. His current professional interests are testing and assessment in language teaching. He enjoys working with adult learners. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In this article the issue of teaching classes with mixed-ability students is addressed. After providing a definition for the term and reviewing some advantages of these classes, some relevant techniques are reviewed and finally suggestions are made for a more effective way of teaching in mixed-ability language classes.
It is very likely that many if not all of us as language teachers have experienced teaching a class whose students do not have the same level of language proficiency or have different learning styles. Sapon-Shevin rightly mentions “as educators, we must make decisions about how to respond to these differences in educationally and ethically appropriate ways” (2005, p. 37). This is sometimes quite challenging and at times intimidating for the teachers of those classes. Most of the students in Uzbekistan rely too much on the teacher at school and when they enter university or take lessons out of the routine school, they still hold the view that this is how learning should occur.
Gurgenidze defines mixed-ability classes as classes with “students who have different personalities, skills, interests, learning needs and are multi-level” (2012, p.56). Here we are particularly focusing on learners with different levels of English language proficiency studying together in a group. Throughout this article to refer to learners who have higher level of language proficiency and are usually quick in acquiring the relevant knowledge and skills, I have used the term ‘early-finishers’ and for those who are a little slower in learning the new language and have lower level of proficiency ‘late-finishers’. As Ur (1996) and Richards (1998) argue, any class that has more than one student is in fact a mixed-ability class as students have very different backgrounds and experiences.
Mixed ability classes offer several advantages. To begin with, for many teachers these classes create an opportunity for professional development. Sapon-Shevin asserts that “diversity is a positive force in children's and teachers' lives and should be embraced, rather than ignored or minimized” (2005, p.37). Mixed-ability classes are diverse, which require teachers to be skilful to deal with them. According to Rose (1997), mixed-ability language classes have different non-linguistic skills so each learner has something special to offer to the class, when handled successfully they will be quite rewarding for even those teachers who might feel intimidated by them. Gurgenidze, also, (2012, p.56) sees mixed-ability classes as a positive phenomenon from the perspective of a teacher. “It serves as a trigger for teachers’ professional growth and development” and gives the teachers the opportunity to use a “variety of approaches, teaching techniques, interaction patterns, and tasks.” Mixed-ability classes help teachers come out of the comfort zones and hone the skills by doing some professional development. And in Sapon-Shevin’s words in heterogeneous classes, “teachers recognize the value of teaching children to interact comfortably with a wide range of people and so work to create classrooms and practices that acknowledge differences among students in the classroom and respond to them thoughtfully and creatively” (2005, p.37). Many ELT experts such as Ur (1996) also consider teaching in mixed-ability language classes as an advantage as they can be “interesting” and provide “greater opportunity for creativity, innovation and general professional development” (p.305).
In an ideal world “Teaching should appeal to all senses, all learning styles and all intelligences” (Gurgenidze, 2012 p.58). However, as most teachers would also agree diversity in a class can be a challenge for the teacher. At times, even the thought of teaching in heterogeneous classes can simply become alarming for some teachers and this can sometimes lead to failure in teaching effectively and thus learning effectively. How diversity is perceived, though, depends on the context, the experience and the level of preparedness of the teacher.
Even when the teacher accepts that teaching in mixed-ability classes is most often unavoidable, the planning of lessons to cater the needs of diverse learners, learners with various learning styles and abilities becomes challenging. Tomlinson (2015) also mentions that “social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral needs are to be taken into account as teachers plan and carry out instruction, if the goal of schools is to truly educate the young people who are obliged to attend them” (p.204). This can especially be hard for young and inexperienced teachers (Ur, 1996; Gurgenidze, 2012; Hordiienko & Lomakina, 2015). Many language teachers, for example, turn to commercial language course-books published in the western and English speaking countries. They then face another challenge. As Gurgenidze (2012, p.57) puts it since most of these books are “designed for an ideal classroom environment, teachers always have to deal with the problem that students react to the textbook differently due to their individual differences”
The next pressing issue is that many teachers teach to average children. In other words, they concentrate on the whole class teaching and do not take advanced and struggling learners into account most of the time. Gamoran (2002) rightly mentions that schools which have mixed-ability classes must be providing early-finishers with a good level of challenge and late-finishers should be provided a high quality of instruction as well, which is of course not easy at all.
Having discussed the challenges related to mixed-ability classes one expects or at least hopes to learn about a ‘recipe’ to help effectively manage these classes. The problem is no possible universal solution that would give crystal clear instructions on how mixed-ability classes should be handled seems to exist. This is due to the fact that each context, class and learner is unique and should be treated individually. Despite this still several suggestions exist on how to better handle these classes. Some of them seem to have many critiques though. Here we will discuss some of them. The techniques discussed below have been quite popular in language teaching classes as well.
On technique that appeals to many scholars is grouping students according to their academic abilities also known as streaming. Gamoran (2002) states that “by grouping students of similar achievement levels together, teachers can effectively target instruction to students’ needs,” (2002, p.2). This has been criticised by Bremner (2008) who argues that streaming is not “a very inclusive approach” as it “makes very transparent the differences in the academic ability of pupils” (p.1). Grouping the students according to their abilities, she believes may lower self-esteem of the weaker students. Moreover, in low level classes, where all late-finishers are in, teachers have to deal with more interruptions and student-misbehaviour (Gamoran, 2002).
Even though streaming is still used in many schools and language classes, the learning styles and habits of the students seem to differentiate them; and therefore, streaming does not seem to be as effective as some might have hoped.
The next technique suggested by some scholars and teachers recommend for teaching mixed-ability classes is differentiated instruction. Tomlinson (2015, p.203) defines the differentiated instruction as “a research- based model of classroom practice intended to support teachers in developing curriculum and instruction likely to maximise the capacity of a diverse group of learners”. She believes that this model accommodates a wide range of learners and gives everybody equal opportunities. Thus different teaching and learning techniques are used to reach all the learners. The one drawback may be that teachers must be very skillful and resourceful to use this model and if some techniques do not work, they must be ready to change it immediately to benefit their learners. This means that a huge load is on teachers’ shoulders.
Another proposed measure to help learners with different levels of proficiency is varying the difficulty level of tasks. This means that early-finishers will be doing more difficult tasks; while late-finishers will be given easier tasks and the average students will fall somewhere in the middle. Does it work then? It usually does; however, it has a major drawback. Tomlinson (2001) believes that it is like punishing the advanced students for being good as teachers are giving them many more activities than the rest of the class. In addition, again preparing the material is very time- consuming for teachers.
To remedy this Bremner (2008) believes students should be set an open and creative task that can help them to learn at their own pace. Project work is one example of open tasks as it caters the needs of diverse learners.
Teachers are usually encouraged to use flexible pairing and grouping options in mixed-ability classes. Teachers then should be aware of the activities where early-finishers and late-finishers can be paired or grouped together and also when it is best to group them separately. Hess believes that “cross-ability grouping allows the more able learners to improve their language skills by honing their ability to explain, to state clearly, and to give effective examples, while it provides the less able with considerable support” (2001, p.3). This can be a good example of peer tutoring as well. However, it has already been discussed that this should not be done all the time as early- finishers may be disappointed and do not try to stretch to improve their abilities. Bremner (2008, p.2) believes that “teaching a mixed-ability class will work if all pupils are allowed to experience success and to learn as individuals”. I believe that all learners must have equal opportunities irrespective of their ability, background, gender, race and nationality.
A different solution
So far different techniques to teach in mixed-ability classes have been discussed. Some ways seem to be better than others; however, still each has its own shortcomings. Remembering that mixed-ability classes are the realities of almost all classes, a teacher can only hope to find a ‘recipe’.
Having been a language teacher for several years working in a context that teacher is usually seen as the center of the class, I was desperate to find a solution. I had tried most of the techniques discussed above. Most of them worked at times, but I was still looking for something more effective and long-term. Then there came the idea of autonomous learning. There is a widely known English saying: “you can bring the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink”. Then is it worth bringing it to the river if you are not sure you can help it? Perhaps what should be done first is to teach ‘the horse’ to take advantage of the opportunity. This is exactly the same for teachers and learners. Teachers’ job is to help learners be autonomous. In other words, teachers should help learners notice their needs and then encourage them to try to fulfil them. This does not happen in many classes. At times, learners are asked “to make a journey” without a map (Fisher 2001, p.1). The ‘map’ is equal to the necessary skills to study. And helping students gain these skills is what the teachers should do.
Language teachers are no exception. Those who wish to encourage autonomy need to constantly reflect on their teaching. They may seek to answer questions such as the following about their teaching:
Do I …
- help my learners with learning (language learning) strategies?
- help them identify their learning styles?
- help them self-assess and self-correct?
- discuss how to use dictionaries/references effectively?
- discuss how to effectively listen?
- discuss how to read critically?
- help them with time management?
- talk about what resources are available around for them to use?
- discuss the role of technology and opportunities and benefits it may bring to learners? etc.
I have worked and still work with young adults and adults who are not autonomous learners. I believe an effective way to deal with mixed-ability language classes is exploring questions such as the ones mentioned above and teachers’ ultimate goal should be helping learners to be autonomous in their learning. Then dealing with mixed-ability classes will be much easier and as teachers, we help bring up lifelong learners.
To this point, I have argued that the best approach in teaching mixed-ability classes is to convince teachers to help students become autonomous. Assuming that the language teacher is convinced, still the question is then what can be done. There are several activities and practical tasks that can help learners become autonomous and here I will provide a few examples of the ones I have used in my classes. They all revolve around helping students use a dictionary. One of the basic skills that learners should be equipped with is to be able to use dictionaries effectively. In many cases when learners come across an unknown word, they immediately seek teacher’s help. Therefore, enabling learners to effectively use a dictionary would be one of the initial steps towards learner autonomy.
Activity 1 A dictionary entry
Look at the entry taken from Macmillan dictionary and see how it is organized. Then do the task.
Activity 2 Parts of speech
Look at the following words. In pairs, decide if each word is a noun, an adjective, adverb, preposition, or verb:
Also, you can draw learners’ attention to multiple meanings of the words and give some exercises. A good activity is to provide learners with several statements in which words with multiple meanings are used. You can ask learners to find the right meaning of the word.
Activity 3 Internet sites
There are many internet sites which help students improve their writing skills and get free feedback. One good example of such sites is the ‘Write & Improve’. This site belongs to Cambridge English. Students need to have an account and then they will be able to use this free service. Once students submit their short piece of writing, they receive instant feedback. Initially teachers should help students understand the obtained feedback. Then students will be able to use it independently.
Mixed-ability classes are not the phenomenon of the 21st century. They have existed before and will exist in the future as long as learners, their background, the level of understanding, the pace of learning, learning styles are different. This article attempted to explore some aspects of mixed-ability classes, their advantages, their challenges and some ways to deal with them. It has been emphasized that learner autonomy is a key point in managing mixed-ability classes in general and mixed-ability language classes in particular.
Bremner, S. (2008). Some thoughts on teaching a mixed-ability class. Scottish Languages Review (18), 1-10.
Fisher, R. (2001). Teaching Children to Learn. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes Ltd
Gamoran, A. (2002). Standards, Inequality & Ability Grouping in Schools. Retrieved 9 December 2015, from http://www.ces.ed.ac.uk/publications/briefings.htm
Gurgenidze, M. (2012). Methodology: teaching mixed-ability classes. GESJ: Education Science and Psychology, 1(20), 56-63.
Hess, N. (2001). Teaching large multilevel classes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hordiienko, N., & Lomakina, L. (2015). Teaching EFL to mixed-ability classes: strategies, challenges, solutions. Advanced Education, 3, 39-43.
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Rose, J. (1997). Mixed-ability an inclusive classroom. English Teaching Professional, 3, 3-5.
Sapon-Shevin, M. (2005). Ability Differences in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning in Inclusive Classrooms. In Byrnes, D. and Kiger, G., Eds. Common Bonds: Anti-Bias Teaching in a Diverse Society, 3rd. ed. Association for Childhood Education International.
Thousand, R., Villa A., and Nevin. A (2002). Creativity and collaborative learning: A practical guide to empowering students, teachers and families. 2nd ed., (pp. 209-222). Baltimore: Paul Brookes.
Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. 2nd ed. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Tomlinson, C. (2015). Teaching for Excellence in Academically Diverse Classrooms (pp. 203-209). New York: Springer Science +Business Media.
Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
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