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April 2018 - Year 20; Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Working With Mixed Ability Adult Classes

Serafina Filice is Assistant Professor in English Language and Translation, University of Calabria. Her research interests embrace ESP/CLIL, plurilingualism/pluriculturalism, self-assessment, language teaching/ learning methodologies, textual analysis, and teacher training. She has given talks at international conferences and published numerous articles, among which: “Plurilingual Communication: A Polyglot Model for a Polyglot World”; “CLIL Dimensions: Multi-skilling for the Global Age”; “Integrated Learning for an Integrated World: Facing the Challenges of language education”; “Towards culturally relevant teaching”, “ESP and scientific terminololgy: a Eurolinguistic viewpoint”. She has published a self-assessment booklet for level A1-B1 entitled Testing English Basics. She is co-author and editor of Science in the News: authentic readings in English for students of Science and Pharmacy, editor of CLIL in progress. From theoretical issues to classroom practice, co-author of Ethnic Pasts, Modern Presents. Identy(ies) in transition, and co-director of the series Eurolinguistica nell’era della post-verità.

Working With Mixed Ability Adult Classes: Using Cooperative Practices that Reflect 21st Century Skills


Teaching mixed ability classes is a challenge and a reality for both the novice and the experienced teacher worldwide. Likewise, preparing graduates for the work force in the 21st century entails teaching certain skills that reflect the specific demands that will be placed upon employees in a complex, competitive, knowledge-based, technology-driven economy/society. One of these skills is the ability to work collaboratively in teams. This paper discusses an experience with an adult heterogeneous group based in Italy and suggests a practical approach that goes beyond the passive viewing of a film: the use of a cooperative pedagogical framework that yielded positive motivating results.


The current globalized and multilingual world scenario requires that university graduates be communicatively competent in a foreign language in order to succeed in their professional field (cfr. Atamanova and Bogomaz 2011: 102). Furthermore, among the basic skills that are required by prospective employees, besides the use of technology, we find People-related skills (such as communication, interpersonal, teamwork skills), Personal skills and attributes (such as being responsible, resourceful and flexible, being able to manage one’s own time, having self-esteem), Conceptual/thinking skills (such as collecting and organizing information, problem solving, planning and organizing, learning-to-learn skills, thinking innovatively and creatively)1. Likewise, among the Key Competencies used in the Australian National Training System, we also find skills such as collecting, analyzing and organizing information; communicating ideas and information; planning and organizing activities; working with others in teams; solving problems; and using technology. In addition, Brelade and Harman (2001: 12) acknowledge the following five skills (known as the ‘five Cs’) as indispensable for the knowledge worker:

  • Confidence—to take on new tasks and projects;
  • Curiosity—to understand and find things out;
  • Cooperativeness—to share information and ideas with others;
  • Commitment—to learning new skills and new information;
  • Creativity—to connect different ideas and experiences.

Communication, teamwork, leadership, responsibility for own learning and behavior and for making informed decisions are capabilities required for lifelong learning and future employability. Future employees will have to move in different contexts and develop a spirit of cooperation and participation at both a local and global level (cfr. Filice 2007: 124). Therefore, they must be skilled at interacting competently and respectfully with others.

Collaboration, as defined by National Education Association (NEA) P21, means demonstrating ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams; exercising flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal; assuming shared responsibility for collaborative work, and valuing the individual contributions made by each team member.

Even though in higher education (HE) settings, students are often required to work in small groups for a variety of curriculum-based activities such as seminars, presentations, study groups and research projects, the adult students in the present study had never had any experience working in groups during their University career. Student groupings provide a broadly social context, which is defined by a wide range of variables such as the nature of the task, the size of the group, and the range of abilities within the group. These variables inevitably influence a group’s learning effectiveness. This paper considers the role of one such variable “team skill”, the skill to work collaboratively together in order that group-based activities enhance rather than impede learning.

An overview of Cooperative Learning

The origins of Cooperative Learning (CL) go back to the works of Kurt Lewin (1935) on group dynamics underlining that the essence of a group is interdependence among its members so that the group becomes a ‘dynamic whole’. Furthermore, Vygotsky states that cognitive development stems from social interactions (from guided learning within the zone of proximal development) as children and their partners co-construct knowledge (Eggen and Kauchak, 2013). In other words, cognitive development is a social process and the capacity to reason increases through interaction with peers and more knowledgeable others. In fact, the concept of the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. The more knowledgeable other is fairly self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. According to Vygotsky, “what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow” (Vygotsky 1934/1987: 211).

Among the many definitions given by leaders of CL, Johnson et al (1993: 9) offer the following definition: “instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning”. A CL framework can be synthesized as having the following key components2:

  1. positive interdependence,
  2. individual accountability,
  3. face-to-face promotive interaction,
  4. social skills,
  5. group processing.

“Positive interdependence is linking students together so one cannot succeed unless all group members succeed” (Johnson et al. op. cit. Chapter 4: 7). Individual accountability requires that every teammate is accountable for completing a particular part of the work and students should know that their contribution to teamwork could be individually identified and assessed. Promotive interaction refers to students’ facilitating each other’s success through supportive group processing, involves students reflecting on their learning experience and discussing what actions should be maintained or changed to improve the effectiveness of the cooperative group.

The members of the group depend on one another (positive group interdependence) to reach the task objectives. If one member does not fulfill his/her role, all members suffer the consequences, hence each member individually feels responsible both for his/her own preparation and for the learning of the others. Thus, they all work for a common goal, while developing intrinsic motivation and reaching higher levels of reasoning and critical capacity, creating team spirit, developing social competences while respecting diversity, as well as fostering psychological well-being (self-esteem, a sense of self-efficacy, and better capacity to deal with difficulties and stress).

Framing the experience

The following experience was embedded within a post-degree training project promoted by CIES (Centro di Ingegneria Economica e Sociale) together with IAL (Innovazione Apprendimento Lavoro) CISL. Its aim was to train and form experts in advanced computer applications, professional profiles required by the labor market, in areas such as businesses, public administrations, social services and consulting firms. The main objective of this program against intellectual unemployment, hence the title of the project “From weak degrees to strong professions”3, consisted in identifying a formative approach that valorizes and does not disperse social and individual investment sustained over the years in university preparation by young people who obtained the so-called ‘weak degrees’. In such a perspective, falls the purpose of the project: imparting knowledge in English and in computer technology in order to upgrade the candidates’ professional CVs. In fact, the organizers deemed it essential to aim at a strategy of empowerment that integrated the wealth of knowledge already acquired and considered a founding professional element, with a new system of competences and, above all, with a new mission for personal development.

Educational scenario

The group was composed of 20 adults between the ages of 26-32 all of whom had already obtained a degree. The 60-hour course was organized in three-hour blocks, three afternoons a week, for a total of seven weeks. The actual physical setting of the classroom had a U-shaped configuration with tables instead of traditional desks. This naturally fostered integration amongst the learners and encouraged a learner-centered environment. The budget of the project contemplated on providing each student with a Personal Computer. This turned out to be an added value for the language course.

The introductory lesson involved both oral and written assessment of the group’s target language preparation, student needs and course expectations. The initial teacher-student oral interview/discussion in English had primarily a two-fold aim: a) introducing and getting to know each other within the group and b) finding out their English background knowledge. This proved to be very useful in that it revealed a very heterogeneous group of learners with different University degrees thus coming from a wide range of educational backgrounds (i.e. law, languages, economics, business administration, psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, political science). A written entry test was administered which further revealed a mixed ability group with language levels that ranged from beginners to B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference. Figure 1 below illustrates more in detail how many students were at each language level and in which disciplines they had obtained a degree. It is important to underline that after the initial oral and written test, two-thirds of the students (the lower proficiency students A2 and under) felt uncomfortable, insecure and not capable or ready to follow the English course.

Figure 1: Profile of the Learners

Defining ‘mixed ability’

This leads us to clarify what characterizes mixed ability groups. Clearly, mixed ability does not refer only to the student’s competence in the target language. It involves a broader description. Ur (1996: 304) specifies these differences as follows: “language learning ability, language knowledge, cultural background, learning style, attitude to the language, mother tongue, intelligence, world knowledge, learning experience, knowledge of other languages, age or maturity, gender, personality, confidence, motivation, interests, independence, self-discipline, educational level”. Tice (1997: 5) posits that every group of individuals is to some extent different in terms of their knowledge and ability. She says that mixed ability is characterized by a clear difference in language level, learning style, speed and aptitude, background knowledge, world knowledge, skills and talents (linked to age, sex, maturity, interests and so on), and levels of motivation (positive/negative attitudes towards learning English). The learners in this project were diverse in age, and, consequently, had different learning styles and pace of learning; also, given their educational background, that is, degrees in different subject areas, their interests and levels of motivation vary. Furthermore, since they came from different geographic areas in southern Italy4, they did not know each other. Their socio-economic and socio-cultural realities also varied to some extent. The main features of this mixed ability group can thus be summed up in figure 2. It is important to underline that such a varied classroom context reflects real world work-place environments.

Figure 2: ‘Mixed ability’ features of this group

Pedagogical process

In the initial qualitative investigation, the students were asked what type of activities they preferred to include in the course. Viewing a film was suggested as one of the main activities to include in the program and they specifically chose the film “Pretty Woman”. Clearly, the interests of the students constituted a ‘point de départ’ for the methodology used (cfr. Caon 2016: 139). The English instructor decided to adopt a learner-centered task-based approach while integrating cooperative learning techniques in the course. Furthermore, involving the students in decision-making regarding what activities they preferred, allowed them to become active participants in the learning process. Regarding active learning, it has been declared that the most effective and efficient learning takes place when learners are actively involved in the learning process (Lee 2005; Warschauer and Meskill 2000), whether participating themselves or learning from each other.

CL is understood as a goal structure in which students work in mixed-ability groups of 4-6 members and cooperate with one another to learn academic materials and are rewarded on the basis of the success of the group. In fact, the students were asked to organize themselves in five groups of four components each. The only restriction given was that each group had to include one component from a higher language ability level (i.e. level B) and one from a lower language ability level (i.e. A1 or lower). Vygotsky (1978) claimed that working with a more capable person is pertinent to personal development. Accordingly then, they formed their own groups, and based on their interests and potentials chose their task amongst a list they were provided with (see figure 3). The tasks chosen by the groups were as follows: a magazine advertisement, an interview to the Hotel Manager, a film critique, a TV advert, a synopsis of the storyline. They also organized their own work within the group, i.e. ‘who did what’. Consequently, they were totally responsible for their final product and hence defined the what (content) and the how (format). Within each group, one person was responsible for the choice of lexis (dictionary), someone else for structuring the contents, a third person was in charge of reporting everyone’s decisions on a text file on the computer, and a fourth was accountable for orally reporting to the class. In the group that chose a TV advert, one student who was good at working with audio files and power point took on the role of technician in the group combining background music and a group member’s voice (with good pronunciation) as narrator of the advertising. By capitalizing on their strengths and weaknesses, each student felt free to internalize language structures and lexis, different concepts and procedures starting from their real communicative competence and through the strategy that is more suited to their style (cfr. Caon 2008: 67).

Figure 3: The task

The language practitioner therefore, tried to create a context in which all learners felt valuable and had the space and confidence to get involved. In so doing, the instructor always kept in mind the main objectives of cooperative learning theories:

  • promoting academic cooperation amongst students,
  • encouraging positive group relations,
  • developing student self-esteem,
  • improving academic achievement.

As expected, this meant a shift in student and teacher roles. The students became knowledge builders, active participants, actors in the learning process and resource persons. At the same time, the teacher took on the role of expert consultant, coach, guide, mediator and facilitator clarifying any confusion or doubts that arose along the way, a sort of support system. This falls in line with social constructivist educational theories in that the group was encouraged to co-construct knowledge together (for example, they reciprocally taught each other using cognitive strategies such as questioning, summarizing and clarifying) rather than passively absorbing knowledge transmitted in traditional mode by the teacher. This naturally created a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in which the students increasingly assumed more responsibility for their task and through collaboration, they forged group expectations for higher-level thinking and acquired skills vital for learning and for success in everyday life.

Findings and discussion

This experience has shown that through group work techniques the learners complemented their own styles, strengths and weaknesses. The use of flexibility, variety and working with both weak and strong students within heterogeneous groups falls in line with the Venetian school of glottodidactics (see Caon 2006, 2008). The participants were able to express their own creativity based on their interests and language level through types of tasks that involved cognitive styles and types of intelligences. Positive interdependence was reinforced as they developed the structuring of the task, through interconnection of their roles and the distribution of information resource tools.

What emerged from this experience is a humanistic vision of glottodidactics that sets the foundation for significative learning (cfr. Caon 2008; Novak 1998; Rogers 1973) characterized by focusing on relational dynamics present in the class, uniqueness of learners, cooperation and active listening (cfr. Caon 2016: 141). The components of the group worked interactively, and in so doing, they benefited from teaching/helping each other (i.e. scaffolding function). This engendered reciprocal help and exchange of information, reciprocal feedback, trust and stimulus for a high quality outcome, while at the same time helping to lower anxiety. More importantly, the low self-esteem and negative frame of mind, which they had initially manifested, completely changed by the end of the course and they felt good about themselves and for having accomplished something in the target language. They now had a positive outlook regarding their knowledge of English. It is worth remembering that within the ZPD, when interacting with a MKO, the learner is able to carry out activities that he would not be able to carry it out on his own, appropriating himself of strategies that he does not yet possess and that are internalized and subsequently learned (cfr. Caon 2016:145).

For a cooperative group to function successfully it needs to enhance soft skills, such as, creating positive group atmosphere, practicing time management skills, and solving conflicts in interpersonal relationships. In fact, in this experience the instructor noted a significant increase in group cohesion, thus confirming the findings of other studies in educational contexts that have found improvements in affective measures when students work together collaboratively (Gillies 2004; Slavin 1995). In addition, the teacher engaged in fostering a safe and non-threatening learning atmosphere in order to alleviate language anxiety and encourage risk taking in using English. The instructor also found that the students stretched their skills to adapt to the changing needs of the group as they found solutions to problems, whether linguistic or technical in nature (for example, the use of audio with ppt presentation) or related to organization of their work during the task. It was also found that the integration of verbal and non-verbal channels of communication provided by the film and the task types adopted proved to be an advantage for the weaker students (cfr. Caon 2016: 151).

Furthermore, both self- and peer assessment involved recognition of teamwork and individual efforts emphasizing the finished product (both written and oral—getting the message across) and, in most cases, the results matched those of the teacher’s. The marking criteria for the evaluation of the activity (as this was not an exam) was based on a Global Achievement Scale, i.e. focusing on the overall effectiveness of performance of the task while taking into consideration effort, originality and communication (did they achieve communicative interaction--oral and written, quality of message, fluency, range of vocabulary, correct linguistic and grammatical forms, appropriate style and clear pronunciation). Essentially, what was important was that the utterances were conveyed effectively and understood with little strain on the listener/reader. These evaluation practices/procedures enable learners to reflect on their learning experiences and are integral parts of group processing. They enhance students’ academic and social development, facilitate high-order thinking, and can create a favorable learning atmosphere of democracy and equality (Johnson et al. op.cit.).

Effective group work offers students more opportunities for language production thus enhancing fluency and effectiveness in communication. In their previous language learning experiences, these students were exposed to teacher-dominated classrooms in which learner autonomy and willingness to communicate were limited. Although teacher-centered direct instruction still plays a central role in Italian education systems, these adult students expressed a strong preference for teaching styles that foster peer interaction and collaboration.

Integrating CL into second language classrooms facilitates development of a learner’s ability to communicate in the target language because it provides opportunities for comprehensible input, real-life experience of language use, and positive peer interaction (Holt 1993; Jacobs and McCafferty 2006; Jacobs and Goh 2007). In this experience, peer interaction proved valuable in that it created an opportunity for meaningful communication, which highly motivated the learners. Recently, researchers have reported positive effects of using CL in foreign language classroom teaching on students’ language proficiency, learning motivation, and cooperation skills (McCafferty, et al 2006).

According to Brown (2008: 1), student-centered practice is demonstrated when “the planning, teaching, and assessment revolve around the needs and abilities of the students”. The teacher used strategies that minimized the use of the more traditional approaches to teaching (teacher-centered) and maximized approaches that encouraged student “voice,” while promoting student knowledge and interests in the classroom as well as their capacity to create and reflect on meaning (student-centered). Lai (2011: 40) reports “collaboration can have powerful effects on student learning, particularly for low-achieving students” and says that “collaboration is linked to a number of important educational outcomes, including critical thinking, metacognition, and motivation” (2011: 40).

Adapting CL methods for ELT tends to generate more language output than whole-class lecturing (Jacobs and McCafferty, op. cit.). In this case, the ultimate purpose of the teamwork design was to generate more peer interaction and meaningful negotiation in the process of completing designated tasks. More emphasis was placed on communicative fluency, getting the meaning across instead of focusing on accuracy of language forms. However, to ensure the successful outcome of CL, this experience generated some recommendations: the teacher must program the group experience with care, monitor the process of the group during the task, and evaluate the completed experience. It is also worth pointing out that risks do exist in group work: higher ability students may feel unchallenged by the less able peers, hence, become bored or could even end up doing most of the work. Another danger is that they may employ strategies to enhance their group product, such as getting the most able member to complete the task on behalf of the group, and, as a consequence, fail to enhance their individual learning.


Group work techniques should not be underestimated especially with adult students who in real life will have to deal with this strategy as active members of the work force. Employers look for employees who can effectively work as part of a team. This means “sometimes being a leader, sometimes being a good follower, monitoring the progress, meeting deadlines and working with others across the organization to achieve a common goal,” says Lynne Sarikas (as reported in Buhl 2016), the MBA Career Center Director at Northeastern University.

Learners need the opportunity to work with many different classmates in many different situations. Students should be grouped according to specific social skills, for example, leaders and followers should be put together in heterogeneous groups so that all group members have different skills. Thus, by working together to complete a task, students function in different roles, and learn different roles from one another. Heterogeneously grouped classes can become social microcosms of the real world they live in. As teachers, it is our duty to build a sense of community, getting students to know and appreciate each other as learners and as individuals.

In cooperative teamwork, creating group cohesion becomes significantly important. This may be done by establishing shared objectives, encouraging confidence in the group, seeking and focusing on the challenge. Furthermore, in order to foster group identity it is important to: solicit ideas, suggestions and comments from all students; acknowledge and value everyone’s opinion and contribution; teach students to recognize the special talents and strengths everyone possesses and, in so doing, account for different learning styles. Indeed, the outcome of this experience saw the students strengthening their linguistic and communicative abilities, social and relational abilities, cultural and intercultural competences, metacognitive and meta-emotive competences.

Collaboration is essential in our classrooms because it is inherent in the nature of how work is achieved in our civic and workforce lives. Perhaps, fifty years ago, a lot of work was accomplished by individuals working alone, but not today. Much of all significant work is achieved in teams, and in many cases, global teams. Surowiecki (2005) underlines the importance of collaboration by stating “...a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled ‘decision maker’”. Collaborative efforts create more holistic results than individual efforts resulting in the creation of more knowledge for a greater number of people.

CL has been shown to result in improved learning (Slavin 1995), and more importantly, “Learner-centered activities allow students a fair amount of self-expression in an attempt to guide them towards autonomous learning in the target language” (Filice 2002: 12). One of the main goals of language teachers is to direct students to become autonomous language learners so that they are able to “understand their own learning process and…take charge of their own learning from the very start” (Stryker and Leaver 1993: 286) thus be adequately skilled for the global job market. Hence as educators, we should explore combinations of strategies, skills, tools and resources to meet the challenge of offering the right balance of skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviors for the complex world of work.

Overall, collaborative teaching, collaborative learning, meaningful work projects, action learning and blended delivery mode provide the flexible learning environments, which have the potential to meet the needs of the current workplace, one that has outgrown to some extent our current approaches to training and education. We look forward to responsible global citizens and life-long learners who connect learning with life experiences to make informed choices and embrace the lifelong journey of interacting socially, politically and economically in efforts to meet local and global challenges. Finally, the findings from this study suggest that integrating collaborative teamwork activities in language classes supports individual learning and provides, as Kohonen (2007: 6) states, “a supportive affective environment for the development of belonging and new understandings”.


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1 For a complete list of key skills, see Gibb, 2004: 8.

2 For further insights, see Kagan, 1994; Slavin 1995; Johnson et al. op.cit.

3 Project “Da Lauree Deboli a Professioni Forti”, Avviso 3/01 MLPS, organized by CIES, Centro di Ingegneria Economica e Sociale, Unical.

4 more specifically, from Calabria, Sicily, Campania, Basilicata, and Puglia. ---

Please check the Assessment for the 21st Century English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the 21st Century thinking Skills course at Pilgrims website.

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