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Humanising Language Teaching
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Humanising Language Teaching

Strategies of Accommodating Mixed Ability Classes in EFL Settings: Teachers’ Armour in an Ongoing Battle

Maria Xanthou and Pavlos Pavlou, Cyprus

Maria Xanthou hold a BA in Education from Athens University, and an MA in Education (Educational Management) from Bath University. She also obtained Adv Cert TESOL & Applied Linguistics from Leicester University and an MA in Applied Linguistics from University of Cyprus. Currently she is a PhD candidate. She has been an EFL teacher since 1991. Since 2002 she has been the co-ordinator of EFL teaching in Primary schools of Cyprus. E-mail:

Pavlos Pavlou holds a BA in Linguistics, M.A. in Applied Linguistics and Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics. In 1991-1992 he was a research Assistant at the Center for Applied Linguistics (USA) in the Foreign Language Testing Division, then in 1992-1993) he was an instructor of Introductory Linguistics at Georgetown University and in 1994-1996 a senior Lecturer and coordinator of the foreign languages programme at Intercollege, Cyprus. Since 1997 he has been an assistant Professor at Department of English Studies, University of Cyprus. E-mail:


Active learning
Homogeneous grouping
Heterogeneous grouping - Cooperative learning
Open-ended tasks – Communicative based learning
Language games and stories
Differentiating students’ work in mixed ability EFL classes
The study
Implications – Discussion
Limitations - Directions in future research


In many EFL settings English instruction is provided both by the public and the private sector, and in some cases, such as Cyprus, many children start learning English in private schools before they attend English classes in state schools. This practice is an additional factor in the creation of mixed ability classes in state schools.

The current study focuses on how teachers deal with mixed ability classes, especially with regard to students who come to the class with certain pre-knowledge of English because of private language lessons. The findings show that the use of mixed and same ability groups in the class as well as cooperative and communicative activities, together with word games and task differentiation may accommodate sufficiently the mixed ability class situation.


Every learner has his own learning style, linguistic background knowledge or individual pace of learning and developing. Hence, the majority of foreign language classes involve students of varying abilities (Richards, 1998). In EFL settings of state funded schools, beginners’ classes in English are geared towards students with no prior knowledge of English, i.e. learners who are true beginners having almost no structural and lexical knowledge of the foreign language (L2), they may not recognise the Roman alphabet or differentiate among different languages. However, a great number of students among these presumably beginners can be classified as false beginners or even as learners with substantial knowledge of English. This is the case as they have already been exposed to English for various reasons; first of all, they may have followed English language courses at a private language school, or they may have English speaking relatives, neighbours or friends, or they may they learned a few things in English through listening to English on radio or television (see Davy and Pavlou, 2001). This situation is likely to create a dilemma for the teacher to cope with, either to focus on the more advanced students ignoring the rest or address the less able learners at the risk of boring the more able ones as it seems difficult to deal effectively with this situation.

This paper sets out to explore potential teaching methods aiming to reach an appropriate solution to the mixed ability class problem. This study describes mixed ability classes in terms of students’ pre existing linguistic knowledge mainly coming from private tuition and discusses proper instructional processes of coping with this knowledge and ability heterogeneity such as forming mixed or same ability groups in the class and using cooperative and communicative learning as well as language games and task differentiation.

Previous research (Xanthou and Pavlou, in press) showed that the results of grammar and vocabulary tests among beginners in Cyprus indicate great variability in competency in the EFL public primary school classes. The one-way ANOVA revealed a significant effect (p= .00) of private EFL classes on grammar and vocabulary scores. A close examination of a textbook frequently adopted by several private language schools (stage: A) revealed that it involved all word categories that are included in the book ‘English for Communication’ (level: 1), which is the textbook produced by the state to be used in the state funded primary sector. This inevitably led to higher scores among children with one year private tuition on the vocabulary test. The present study aimed to elicit information about how teachers deal with class heterogeneity and suggest ways they could employ to cope with MAC.

Active learning

The quality of teaching is considered to be critical to success for students being exposed to poor out-of school environments (Shankweiler and Fowler, 2004). Therefore, EFL teachers need to use instructional styles which promote active learning in order to cope with the MAC situation effectively, maximizing academic performance of all students (Epstein, 1985) otherwise the use of direct teaching styles may exacerbate the problems in MAC (Koole, 2003, Mets and Van den Hauwe, 2003). Students without prior knowledge of English (PKE) are discouraged from getting involved in the lesson. In what follows some proper instructional styles for the MAC will be discussed such as: homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping (Slavin, 1987, Johnson and Johnson,1987), communicative tasks (Ellis, 2001, Spada,1997), language games and stories and task differentiation (Hess, 1999).

Homogeneous grouping

Homogeneous grouping (HG) has been proposed and implemented as a potential solution to meet the needs of the mixed ability classes, suggesting that students of different background and abilities can be gathered in groups of same ability thereby facilitating instruction (Slavin, 1987). This kind of grouping is based on the pedagogical principle that the teacher has the advantage of focusing instruction at the level of all the students in the particular group (Ansalone, 2000).

It is assumed that teachers of MAC can increase the pace and raise instruction level for high achievers whereas low level students can enjoy individual attention. So, advanced pupils are taught more difficult concepts while low achievers deal with simple and fewer things. Proponents of HG opine that it is an excellent means of individualizing instruction. Achievement is considered to increase as teachers adjust the pace of instruction to students’ needs.

Kulik and Kulik (1982) and Slavin (1987) carried out meta-analyses of studies at the elementary school level, finding benefits of within-class ability grouping. Both low ability students and more advanced ones placed in separate groups, benefited from instruction addressed to their level. More recently, Mulkey et al (2005) found that same ability grouping has persistent instructional benefits for both high and low level students. Marsh (1987) supports HG as a way of coping with mixed ability classes assuming that grouping children homogeneously enables those in lower ability groups to profit with respect to self-evaluation by being isolated from advanced peers. Furthermore, Allan (1991) supports that pupils model their behaviour after the behaviour of similar ability children who are coping well with their school work. The supporters of homogeneous grouping conclude that research fails to support that homogeneous grouping doesn’t accomplish anything (Loveless, 1998).

Although teachers of MAC seem to have positive attitudes towards homogeneous grouping (Scherer, 1993, Mulkey et al, 2005), the last quarter of the 20th century witnessed severe criticism of ability grouping. It has been declared that this type of grouping stigmatizes lower ability students, offering them inferior instruction. Several researchers argue that HG does not guarantee that all advanced or all weak students are alike. Matthews (1997) conducted a relevant research with students in grades 6 through 8 finding that gifted students are considerably more diverse than they are homogeneous. They vary in their degrees of advancement, their abilities, their learning styles and interests, their test-taking skills, and their social/emotional development. So, gathering advanced children of the MAC together in one group may not be the wisest solution to the problem.

Ability grouping may decrease the self-esteem and aspirations of low ability children and therefore decelarate their academic progress. Welner and Mickelson (2000) carried out quite an extensive research review finding that low ability children are exposed to lowered expectations, reduced resources and rote learning. Children’s self-concept is affected and expectations are internalized (Ireson and Hallam, 1999, Gamoran, 1987). This implies that students of low ability in mixed ability classes are provided with low expectations if placed in same ability groups causing them feelings of inferiority. This is confirmed by Ansalone (2001) and Hallinan (1994) who demonstrated that children assigned to lower ability groups, are exposed to less and more simplified versions of the curriculum whereas high ability groups have broader and more challenging material covered. In this sense, Oakes (1992) and Wheelock (2005) support that educational benefits in mixed ability settings are not provided by homogeneous grouping but rather by a challenging curriculum and high expectations.
Research has accumulated evidence indicating that schooling tends to increase individual differences (Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991). Homogeneous grouping (HG) seems to add more opportunities to advanced learners who are usually middle-class or upper-middle-class children, depriving pupils who already suffer from socio-economic segregation, or those who are learning less fast. Kozo seems to agree that homogeneous grouping damages not only low but also high-ability students as the latter who are usually the affluent children are not given any opportunities to learn the virtues of helping others or learning about unselfishness (Scherer, 1993). It is inferred that grouping students homogeneously for instruction on the MAC is one more advantage conferred on those who already enjoy many. HG seems to enhance social reproduction in society, creating academic elites, and this turns against democratic ideals (Slavin, 1987). Since the drawbacks of HG outweigh the benefits, it is likely that forming mixed-ability pairs or groups may offer more benefits to all learners in the classroom.

Heterogeneous grouping - Cooperative learning

Heterogeneous grouping (HeG), that is gathering children of varying abilities in same groups has been proposed by many researchers as an effective strategy to promote academic development of students having diverse background knowledge and abilities. Brimfield, Masci and Defiore (2002) believe that ‘all students deserve an academically challenging curriculum’ (p.15). So, our goal is to find a way to engage all pupils of the mixed ability classroom in the lesson irrespective of their abilities. The authors point out that by creating mixed-ability groups, we send the compelling message that everybody is expected to work at the highest possible level as high and low ability students deal with the same challenges. Disadvantaged pupils are at reduced risk of being stigmatized and exposed to a ‘dumped-down’ curriculum in a mixed-ability setting. Teachers’ expectations for all pupils are maintained at higher levels and less able students have opportunities to be assisted by more able peers.

It is assumed that heterogeneous grouping provides pupils access to more learning opportunities. Johnson and Johnson (1987) recommend assigning children of high, medium, and low abilities in the same group maximizing the heterogeneous make up of each group. Such ability diversity within the same group creates an effective learning environment (Manlove and Baker, 1995) providing learning opportunities for low-level students as well as opportunities to more advanced children to provide explanations to others revising, consolidating and using some things they have encountered before.The teachers can use cooperative tasks among high and low achievers of mixed ability groups or pairs in order to promote task engagement of all students in the mixed ability class as advanced children can provide explanations and guidance in carrying out a task.

Cooperative tasks among high and low achievers are valued by the sociocultural theory of Vygotsky (1978). Pupils of mixed ability classes (MAC) differ at their competence level and prior linguistic experiences. Vygotsky supports that children who are exposed to books and other out-of-school factors which contribute to linguistic development i.e .prior knowledge of English (PKE) from private institutional instruction, are expected to have already run through a large part of their ZPD. On the other hand, pupils with poor literacy opportunities i.e. without PKE may possess a larger ZPD (Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991). So, they may benefit greatly from peer interactions which are likely to help low level students reach higher levels of performance.

In this framework, Lyle (1999) showed that both low and high achieving students value the opportunity to work together as all pupils believed that they benefited. It was concluded that peer interactions can facilitate literacy development especially of low ability students. In this vein, Guralnick (1992) points out that social competence acquired in group work affects the elaboration of all students’ cognitive competencies, implying that both low and advanced learners of mixed ability classes may gain from such settings.

The role of peer learning as contributing to language development has also been emphasized by Mize, Ladd and Price (1985) Webb (1989), Jacob et al (1996) and Slavin (1996). Rogoff (1993) refers to children’s social sharing of their cognition through interaction. When pupils participate in collective activities, they guide each other’s efforts. According to Tudge and Winterhoff (1993) advanced children give constant feedback through conversation forcing peers to strive for reaching higher levels of performance.

Various studies have indicated a positive correlation between cooperative learning (CL) and achievement in MAC. For example, Walters (2000) asserts that cooperative learning is suitable for teachers dealing with increasingly diverse classrooms as it easily accommodates individual differences in achievement. Accordingly, Fulk and King (2001) support that ‘classwide peer tutoring’ improves all students’ learning. They add that serving in the role of tutor seems to be particularly beneficial for improving the self-esteem of students with low achievement while they may, for example, grade their partner’s reading. Therefore, it appears that CL may satisfy the needs of a mixed ability class.

Studies conducted by Pica and Doughty (1985), Porter (1986), and Cotterall (1990) indicate that learners of different abilities produce more in mixed ability pair and group work by helping one another to overcome cognitive obstacles. This conclusion is consistent with Urzua’s (1987) finding that the mixed ability children in the observational study conducted, appeared to have developed a sense of power in language through the process of working with trusted peers i.e. writing and revising.
The benefits of cooperative learning (CL) are more tangible when it comes to written work. O’Donnell et al (1985) found that involvement in cooperative dyads can improve the quality of students’ performance on a written task. Weak students of MAC can use advanced learners as sources of information, commenting on and critiquing each other’s drafts in both oral and written formats (Liu and Hansen, 2002). Rollinson (2005:25) attributes this phenomenon to the possibility that ‘peer audiences are more sympathetic than the more distant teacher audience’. Peer review groups are also favoured by Huot (2002) and Inoue (2005) and Cotterall and Cohen (2003) who showed the positive effects of scaffolding in mixed ability settings

To conclude, cooperative activities such as group investigation are likely to encourage shy and low performance students since they have the advantage of requiring the participation of all group or pair members to carry out a task, allowing each member to do something according to one’s abilities.

Open-ended tasks – Communicative based learning

Although open-endedness allows minimal preparation by the teacher, it may achieve the maximum involvement of all kinds of learners within the MAC (Prodromou, 1995). This is due to its advantage to allow learners at all levels to work on the same task but at their own pace. Hence, the mixed ability class is perceived as a unified whole rather than a mixture of different parts. On the contrary, closed exercises such as Yes/No questions may exclude the weak learner from participating in the activity as there is one correct or wrong answer, distinguishing low and advanced level learners. Children with PKE usually get the answer right, feeling satisfied. On the other hand, pupils with poor linguistic background often get the answer wrong, feeling disappointed. When the fear of failure is maximized, then silence is preferred by the weak learner. Hence, educators need to provide exercises which permit the learner to construct on their poor knowledge and have the advantage to be at least partly right. In this way, the low level learner is provided with attainable tasks while the more advanced one tests his own syntactic knowledge. A wider range of answers is elicited if the children are further prompted ‘What else …?’. While pupils with PKE are allowed room to act, students of lower ability can still say little things. Finally, if the teacher turns a question into a personal one, e.g. ‘What do you have for breakfast?’, then anything can be elicited, from monosyllabic answers to whole paragraphs allowing an effective tool in the hands of the mixed ability EFL teacher.

Unlike traditional comprehension exercises which might cause anxiety to the weak student, open-ended tasks such as predictions on the content or the language which will possibly occur in a text seem to provide more space for all learners to move as there need not be one answer. Prediction from titles and pictures stimulates low, medium and advanced level students to draw on their language knowledge as well as their world knowledge. In the case where children without PKE provide a word in the mother tongue, the teacher needs to be encouraging, supplying the right word in English.

Open-ended tasks are associated with communicative methodology (Prodromou, 1995) as they provide choice to all students of the MAC. High, medium and low level learners can process and use the target structures in meaningful situations making them part of their interlanguage system. Halliday (1978), Pica (1987) and Fotos and Ellis (1991) consider communicative interaction as fundamental to language acquisition, so this interaction may need to be sought in the MAC. Students of all levels are likely to learn a foreign language when dealing with meaningful activities. Meaning raises the need for communication to the learners and simultaneously their level of motivation. So, if target language is presented in meaningful context, it has more possibilities to be learned by students without PKE and be retained by children with PKE who already have met this target vocabulary and structures. Hughes and McCarthy (1998) stress that the learner ‘needs long stretches of written and spoken text to make full sense of the grammar’ (p.275), while Collentine and Freed (2004) mention that communicative contexts force learners of all proficiency levels in the class to ‘use the L2 as a tool for participating in interpersonal functions’ (p.155). They suggest that if teaching avoids placing target language in conversational contexts, this may mislead learners especially the advanced ones which have been exposed to private tuition that they know something without realizing its appropriateness and context.

Providing the mixed ability class with communicative activities which force all students to communicate with either the teacher or their classmates in order to give and receive missing information can be helpful for learners at all linguistic levels. True beginners can give short answers and false beginners with prior knowledge of English are given the opportunity to test, practice and strengthen their syntactic knowledge using the target language meaningfully satisfying their need for communication.

Language games and stories

Although students in MAC exhibit differences in prior knowledge and ability they seem to share a great similarity: they all value pleasure (Prodromou, 1995). Games and quizzes are some ways that could satisfy learners’ need to find pleasure in EFL learning. Language games are enjoyable but purposeful activities that are governed by linguistic rules, are goal-oriented and they execution leads to further learning. A relaxing learning atmosphere is created when games are used in the classroom (Uberman, 1998) so students with poor linguistic background have the opportunity to report whatever they know or the teacher has taught them in a non-stressful way. While playing, attention is focused on the message instead of the correctness of linguistic forms therefore the fear of negative evaluation which according to Horwitz et al (1986) makes language learners avoid using the target language in public, is eliminated.

Games can be a powerful language learning tool. Competitions provide children opportunities to communicate using the target language, practicing the learned linguistic knowledge in a meaningful and vivid context, promoting fluency.
Language games e.g. card games may solve problems related to mixed ability classes as they allow flexibility which is crucial in a class with many proficiency levels. The teacher can give cards with easier items assigning easiest tasks to true beginners while more difficult things can be given to more advanced children.

Quizzes involving general knowledge might prove useful in mixed ability classes as they are based on learners’ general experience and personality rather than linguistic knowledge therefore participation is encouraged to a greater extent. A certain amount of questions need to involve simple vocabulary and structures giving a chance to true beginners to get involved allowing fluent language production. Medium and higher linguistic levels need to be considered too.

Stories such as fairy tales, short stories and newspaper reports, have a magic that is able to attract all students’ interest and their great advantage is that they do not require learners to speak before they feel ready. Therefore, low level students’ anxiety is reduced while advanced level students’ interest is captured. Learners should be allowed to respond to the story at their own linguistic level e.g. they can be given cards with easy and more difficult incomplete sentences from the story to complete, or choose words from a list to prepare statements about the story. In the latter case, children without a strong linguistic background may find it easier to work with nouns rather than adverbs etc. Integration of skills can be allowed in order to satisfy all learning styles of the MAC. For example, the teacher can stop at certain points of the story and require students to write down what they think happens next and then report orally. (Prodromou, 1995).

Differentiating students’ work in mixed ability EFL classes

Hess (1999) points out that differentiated instruction can raise the bar for all learners of the MAC. This kind of instruction should aim to direct all students toward essential understandings using a variety of processes and products to get there. When teachers assign the same exercises for all learners and then let fast finishers play games for enrichment, they are not differentiating their teaching to satisfy all linguistic levels of a MAC. Asking advanced students to do extra assignments i.e. book reports, after completing their regular work is not appropriate. This could be seen as punitive for them (Tomlinson, 1995). Instead, various other strategies could help to manage differentiation of material content. Providing children with a number of options instead of loading additional work to the more advanced students seems to be a key issue. For example, the teacher can use multiple texts- reading materials to suit varying readability levels to present the new structure. Various computer programs can be used by low proficiency level students to complete tasks requiring less knowledge and by more advanced learners to produce more complex activities.

The process of teaching can be differentiated if activities move from simple and basic to complex in order to satisfy all linguistic levels of the MAC. Linguistically advanced students are likely to benefit from tasks that are more complex in research, resources, problems or goals than less advanced peers. Tasks need to be designed with a multiple intelligence orientation. Therefore, activities should be presented through auditory, visual and kinesthetic means in order to satisfy all learning styles. Interest centers could also be set up in the classroom to cater for all students’ interests regardless of their proficiency level.

Students’ products in a MAC can also be differentiated. For example, learners can be offered many options to prove they have learned something e.g. by creating a puppet show, writing a letter or creating their own product assignments containing the required target lexis and structure. The purpose of the current study is to explore the mixed ability EFL classes issue by examining the teachers’ experiences and views on how to cope with this situation and compare findings with in-class observation data.

The study


One hundred and fourteen teachers were questioned about the current situation in mixed ability EFL classes being called to report ways of dealing with it. Observational data has been employed in order to ensure triangulation of data provided by the various sources (Sanger, 1996: 45). Moreover, the EFL textbook used in State Primary Schools (Tziortzis et al, 1996) was compared to the textbook used by many private EFL institutions for level 1 learners (Mead, A. & Atkins, B., 2003).


The study elicited the experiences and views of 114 urban EFL teachers on EFL mixed ability classes so as to highlight important issues in the area.


It was hypothesized that flexible grouping (mixed and same ability groups), cooperative and communicative activities, word games and task differentiation may accommodate sufficiently the mixed ability class situation.


A questionnaire was then administered to one hundred and fourteen EFL State primary school teachers (Appendix I). A pilot study in the form of semi-structured interview provided the items of the questionnaire (Bell, 1999).
In-class observation data were held twice a week for six 40 minute lessons taken place in October 2005. The particular class being observed was a level 1 (9-year olds) EFL class of an urban public primary school, including 25 children of mixed abilities. Data were related to mixed and same ability grouping, cooperative, communicative activities/open-ended tasks, language games/stories and task differentiation. Data were taken in the form of written notes (Appendix II). A participant observation was carried out as the teacher who was teaching the lesson also took the notes. This type of data aims to explore the MAC issue in a more natural environment than that in which a survey is conducted (Bailey, 1975).


Results of the questionnaire are compared with in-class observation data. The textbook used in public schools is examined and compared to that used in many private EFL classes. Teachers reported some ways that prior knowledge of English is used for the benefit of the mixed ability class. Figure 1 shows that the majority of the teachers use advanced children to provide feedback (47.36% very often and 11.40% always) and model activities (51.75% very often and 4.38% always). Observation data indicate that low ability students do benefit from peer feedback e.g. providing information on the structural correctness of a sentence such as using plural instead of singular form or placing ‘Is’ at the beginning of the sentence when asking something. Modelling activities by advanced learners seems successful too, e.g. a pupil with prior knowledge deals with a group work information gap activity while others watch first and then carry on the task themselves (lesson 6-activity 4).

Figure 1: Teachers’ evaluation on how students with PKE are used as an asset in the class

Teachers were further asked to express their views on how prior knowledge could be used positively in the class. Their views indicate that teachers value the importance of peer tutoring. For example, 72.80% agree and 12.28% totally agree in peer help in reading. Providing feedback in writing is favoured even more (75.43% agree and 15.78% totally agree) while group-work is strongly preferred by most teachers (59.64% agree and 37.71% totally agree) – Figure 2. Resorting to mixed ability group work seems to be an effective practice in MAC as it is confirmed by class observation data.

Figure 2: Teachers’ opinions on how PKE can be used as an asset in the class

Figure 3 shows that most teachers try to cope with class heterogeneity by modifying their teaching.

Figure 3: Teaching modification in order to deal with class heterogeneity

Teachers use ways in order to cope with mixed ability classes. Some of them are illustrated in figure 4. While the vast majority of teachers usually form mixed ability groups, a considerable percentage (43.85%) totally avoids same ability groups as a way to facilitate teaching in the MAC. Teachers may not want to risk having low and average ability children being exposed to low expectations as this may cause low self-esteem to these children. Open-ended tasks are often used and the communicative approach is preferred for dealing with MAC. Cooperative activities are also used very often, even always by 14.91% of the teachers. Word games/stories are the most preferred technique, and observation has shown its positive outcomes. Activities for all learning styles are also used very often by 38.59% of the teachers, as well as role-playing and variety of reading activities. Surprisingly, computers are seldom used by 40.35% of the teachers as they may lack sufficient training, although observation shows positive attitude of children towards technology. Self-access corners as well as English library are never used by 24.56% and 36.84% of the teachers respectively. However, both can serve well a MAC as shown by EFL class observation data. Students without PKE worked to fill in missing words from short passages while students with PKE dealt with longer passages with more missing words. The reason why these techniques are not very widely used is lack of time. Two 40 minute teaching periods a weak are not enough to provide a rich variety of language stimulants to all levels of students. Teachers do not share the same attitude towards differentiating homework as 26.31% seldom differentiate homework whereas 23.68% of them differentiate very often. However, observation shows that children feel happier when having to do something according to their linguistic knowledge such as differentiating homework tasks.

Figure 4: Teaching techniques for coping with MAC

An attempt was made to uncover teachers’ perceptions on how to deal effectively with MAC (Figure 5). Clearly, the vast majority of teachers support the use of mixed ability groups as a classroom arrangement in MAC. Observation shows that it is a successful technique for MAC. In one case, while students were practicing the interrogative they produced the following exchange in their effort to find out who the persons on the photos were:

Student A: ‘She is mother?’.
Student B: ‘your mother’,
Student A: ‘She is your mother?’
Student B: ‘Is she…’
Student A: ‘Is she your mother?’
Student B: ‘Yes, she is’.

In this example we see how a high competent student serves as a model for a lower competent student who eventually appropriates his class mate’s correct utterance. Although 43.85% of the teachers never use same ability groups, 27.21% would like to use them as a way of dealing with heterogeneity. Observation shows that HA students need some more complex activities and LA students some direct teaching of target structures. Children of low proficiency level feel pleased when having the opportunity to practice the target structure and vocabulary, asking for clarifications and receiving answers by the teacher. However, same ability grouping seems to create a competitive spirit to children with PKE as they are anxious about what their neighbor has produced which may hurt their self-esteem. Communicative and cooperative activities as well as word games/stories are also viewed positively as considerably more teachers would like to use them to a greater extent. Observational data focusing on guessing games and story telling illustrates that these teaching techniques may accommodate successfully the MAC. Therefore, they could form potential solutions to the MAC problem.

Figure 5: Teachers views on how to deal with class heterogeneity

Implications – Discussion

EFL teachers of public primary schools in Cyprus have to face a great challenge. On the one hand, they need to help children without PKE start from the beginning and learn a great deal of things until the end of the school year. On the other hand, teachers have to cope with the fact that a great number of students start the EFL course in the public school having already encountered all vocabulary and grammar targets in private tuition. Hence, educators need to be armed with a specific repertoire of teaching strategies in order to deal successfully with the MAC situation.
The findings of this study support the hypothesis that flexible grouping (mixed and same ability groups), cooperative and communicative activities, word games and task differentiation may prove effective weapons in the hands of the mixed ability class EFL teacher.

Several aspects of the results warrant emphasis. As regards teaching techniques for coping with class heterogeneity, the majority of teachers seem to realize that the direct whole-class teaching does not address the needs of individual children as there is a danger that the high proficiency learner will become bored, while low ability children feel frustrated and experience a sense of failure (Edwards and Woodhead, 1996). It is noteworthy that same ability groups are never used by almost half of the teachers (43.85%) and are not viewed positively by more than half of the teachers (55.25%) indicating that they may fear damaging the self-concept of both low and high proficiency level students. The first group of students may feel inferior to the other groups whereas a group of advanced pupils may feel threatened by their competitors and this can lower their self-concept (Marsh and Craven, 1997). The vast majority of teachers (94.74%) resort to mixed ability groups in order to give students opportunities to interact. However, mixed ability groups may provide opportunities mostly to high and low achieving pupils as they do more by explaining and asking respectively. So, middle level children may miss out as they neither seek not give help (Askew and William, 1995). Therefore, communicative tasks as well as word games (94.73%) and homework differentiation (64.02%) are also used to facilitate involvement of all students’ levels. Technology is not yet used extensively in the foreign language classroom implying that teachers may need to be exposed to proper training whilst time seems to be insufficient for including an English library or a self access corner in the class. Both mixed ability and same ability groups to a less extent are considered as possible ways of dealing with heterogeneity. Teachers would like to use co-operative, communicative activities as well as word games to a greater extent than they already do as they seem to believe in their positive outcomes on MAC.

Searching for an answer to the mixed ability class issue which is made greater by students’ prior knowledge as shown by the present study, literature and teachers’ views on this issue highlight the need to form occasionally mixed ability groups in the class to allow modelling language. A number of teachers assume that homogeneous grouping might prove useful at certain times when some clarifications or extra exercises need to be given to a specific group of children (Mulkey et al, 2005). This accords well with some observation data of this study. On balance, Tomlinson (1995) suggests flexible grouping so that all learners can work with a variety of peers. Students may need to have the opportunity to work occasionally with like-readiness peers, sometimes with mixed-readiness groups, sometimes with students who have similar interests or even randomly.

In general, in light of this survey, it seems fair to suggest students need to be provided with opportunities to communicate in order to exchange information for accomplishing a task motivating all students to speak according to their level. Moreover, teachers need to construct an environment that facilitates peer collaboration as research indicates that students being involved in collaborative learning situations showed educationally important increases in performance (Graves, 1983, Harris and Silva, 1993, Bryan, 1996, Lomangino et al, 1999). Working with peers enables learners to add to their knowledge. Children of higher linguistic ability benefit from providing explanations enhancing their fluency while lower ability students are guided to reach higher levels of performance. An ideal teaching-learning context in mixed ability EFL classes is when students assist each other in activities, working in the Zone of Proximal Development. Further, using open-ended tasks, language games and stories in the classroom is likely to create a stress free atmosphere, offer a variety of options and stimulate all types of learners.

EFL teaching methodology may need to engage students in communicative tasks which provide meaningful situations where pupils can use the target structures thereby enhancing their deep processing. Language games and task differentiation could help high ability students use the target structures to a greater extent. An increase in the teaching time of EFL would clearly allow the teacher use time-consuming collaborative and communicative approaches that bring positive outcomes. More time may also give more opportunities to the children to use the self-access corners and English libraries which provide for task differentiation meeting the needs of a MAC.

The findings of this survey can be useful for future planning, particularly in the field of teacher training either pre-service or in-service as well as curriculum design as it seems that an increase in EFL teaching hours is likely to have beneficial outcomes for all learners of the MAC by providing more exposure to the foreign language. The EFL course in public schools may need to start from an earlier age in order to start providing exposure to L2 students at the same age (Xanthou and Pavlou, in press).

Limitations - Directions in future research

This study is limited by the small samples used in the surveys. Further research with larger samples is needed to reveal appropriate solutions to the mixed abilities EFL classes phenomenon. Undoubtedly, the issue of L2 learning in mixed ability classes is a fertile ground for further research. For example, more rigorous research is required on the effect of same and mixed ability grouping, communicative and collaborative learning on the performance of all students in the mixed ability EFL class. Hence, more qualitative data such as case studies in this context are desirable.


In most EFL primary school classrooms, some learners perform greater beyond grade-level expectations, others struggle with target language, while another great part of the class falls somewhere in between. In their effort to meet the needs of such a diverse student population, educators need to assign pair and group work with students of different ability levels finding ways to involve all students in the lesson. Such ways could include communicative and cooperative tasks to allow scaffolding of less advanced children. In this classroom environment advanced level students act as a bridge to facilitate the learning process and lower level classmates exhibit a willingness to cross that bridge (Sean, 2002) in a learning environment which stimulates meaningful communication and provides opportunities for language games and differentiation of activities providing benefits to all kinds of learners. As a general rule, it would seem reasonable to suggest that classroom harmony might better be achieved in a group of motivated students who are allowed to participate and cooperate. Teachers need to promote a lively, language rich environment attracting active participation of all linguistic levels in the mixed ability EFL class.


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  1. In what ways are students with PKE an asset for your classroom?
    (never, seldom, often, very often, always)
    1. Teachers can use them as models to show an activity involving new grammatical structure
    2. They provide feedback to low achievers in oral pair work
    3. Other…………………………
  2. Can you think of some ways that PKE could be an asset for the classroom?
    (Totally disagree, disagree, no opinion, agree, totally agree)
    1. Students with PKE can do model reading while the peer listens and repeats
    2. They may provide feedback in workbook activities
    3. They could be placed in mixed ability groups in order to provide explanations
    4. Other…………………………
  3. Do you modify your teaching in order to cope with the heterogeneity of your class?
    (never, seldom, often, very often, always)
  4. How do you modify your teaching in order to cope with the heterogeneity of your class?
    (never, seldom, often, very often, always)
    1. Mixed ability groups
    2. Same ability groups
    3. Open-ended tasks e.g. predicting describing a picture, finishing a story
    4. Communicative activities – children talk to each other
    5. Co-operative activities
    6. Word games and guessing games - children try to discover something - stories
    7. Activities for all learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic
    8. Role playing
    9. Reading drills with various levels of difficulty
    10. CALL activities
    11. Self –access centres
    12. Reporting on english books (library activities)
    13. Differentiating homework optional activities
    14. Other……………………..
  5. What other possible ways could you think of dealing with heterogeneity?
    (Totally disagree, no opinion, agree, totally agree, disagree)
    1. Mixed ability group work
    2. Same ability groups
    3. Communicative activities
    4. Co-operative activities
    5. Word games and stories
    6. Other…………………………


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