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Teaching Mixed-level English Classes: Five Top Tips

Updated: Jan 18

Teaching Mixed-level English Classes: Five Top Tips
Teaching mixed levels doesn't need to be a pain!

In a dream world, every student in a class is exactly the same level - they all know the same words as each other, they are all equally strong in similar areas, they all need the same amount of help to learn new things. But this dream world doesn't exist. All classes with more than one student in them have a mixture of abilities and knowledge in them and the bigger the range, the trickier this can be to plan for, but the reality is that this is something every teacher will come across and something we all have to be ready for.

Here are some tips you can use if you do end up having a mixed ability class:

  1. Consider how you group students: it can be a good idea to have stronger students working with stronger students and weaker with weaker. Then the students will be able to go at the same pace as their peers and will not feel uncomfortable or embarrassed if they feel their partner knows a lot more than them. It can also be boring for a student who finds themselves working with someone a lot slower or less capable than they are. Of course, there are also times when it's a good idea to pair students with someone of a different level and then students can benefit by helping each other - this can be a very positive dynamic, because a stronger student can learn by teaching and feel a sense of accomplishment and a weaker student can use the stronger student as a resource without having to constantly turn to the teacher, but you need to be sure to manage a dynamic like this sensitively.

  2. Think about fast finishers: Part of planning for a mixed-level group is having extras up your sleeve for fast finishers. If a student is better than their peers and is always the first to finish every exercise, it can be very boring to have to sit there while everyone else finishes up, so the teachers needs some extra tasks ready. These can be as simple as helping a weaker peer (if the dynamics are appropriate for this), or it can be an entirely different task (but make sure it's still relevant to the theme/topic of the lesson and not something completely random!)

  3. Think about slow finishers: You will probably want to pace the lesson around the speed of the 'middle' of the class, i.e. not as fast as the fastest student, but not as slow as the slowest student. This means that sometimes a student won't have finished a task when you're doing feedback. For this reason, it's important to make sure they're involved in feedback, that you're making eye contact with them, that they get a chance to contribute the correct answers they do have and that they get clear feedback on every answer - this means written feedback for written tasks. If a student found the task so hard that they didn't manage to finish it as quickly as their peers and then the teachers flies through the answers without writing anything down, they're going to be very lost at the end of the lesson - make sure to give written feedback to written tasks, and consider giving students answer keys, explanations and scripts of listenings to take home so that they don't feel they're not getting as much out of the lesson as their stronger classmates.

  4. Modify your monitoring: When a student is significantly better or worse than their classmates, it's not a great idea to always point that out in front of everyone else. Instead, you can deal with differentiation while you monitor. If one student is struggling with a grammar point, don't give a long explanation in open class targeted at this one student while everyone else rolls their eyes impatiently. Instead, wait until the students are working on a practice task and while everyone is engaged, then go and help the student who wasn't following earlier. Similarly, is a student has questions about something complex that no one else can follow, then you can answer that question while monitoring pairwork and not while everyone is staring uncomprehendingly at you and the student.

  5. Make sure there are some activities that work for everyone: Even if you might have to differentiate a grammar task for different levels of ability in a class, there should still be things you can do together. Speaking tasks, mingles, classroom games and competitions can all be set up in a way that can include students of different abilities equally, and if we make sure to include these in every lesson, you'll be a more inclusive teacher.

There's lots more advice out there, but in the end of the day, what's most important is to recognise that if students have different abilities or levels, you need to work with those differences and not against, and hopefully these five hints will help with this.

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.


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