Teaching Mixed Ability Groups : A Solution

One of the hardest types of course to deal with is one where the students are of mixed levels, of mixed learning ability, or even both. The teacher has to find a balance between catering for the faster, or higher level students, and losing the rest.

Not finding this balance can lead to problems :

  • the stronger learners may feel they are being held back and get bored and frustrated with the content and progress of the course. At the same time, the weaker group may feel intimidated and over-stretched This can lead to a poor classroom dynamic and low motivation in both groups.
  • whatever materials are being used, stronger learners will tend to work through them more quickly than weaker learners. if these "fast finishers" are left with nothing to do at the end of the activity, side conversations may break out in the L1, or they may start messing around with their mobile phones or getting involved in other off-task activities.
  • one solution to this problem is to pair the learners weak/strong. However, this strategy may creates problem of its own : the stronger learners may simply dominate, doing all the work while the weaker learners remain passive. Or they may resent being put in the role of "teacher".

A different solution is to abandon lockstep teaching (1) for at least parts of the lesson, so that the teacher can work intensively with a sub-group of the class while the others work autonomously. This, of course means that suitable materials for autonomous study need to be available. These can be in any format, but if computers are available in the classroom, the easiest solution is undoubtedly the use of on-line materials.

The most radical way of using the materials would be to make them the sole basis of the lessons. Each student would spend the lesson working through a course at his/her own level while the teacher circulated – monitoring and giving individual help , explanation and practice as necessary. With some groups, containing students of widely differing levels, this may well be the best solution. But with others, where the difference is not too extreme, it’s also possible to incorporate the autonomous work into the regular class lessons.

Let’s take the example of a mixed level group containing students from upper-elementary to mid-intermediate levels. The next area to be covered in the syllabus is the present perfect for past to present events – for example, I’ve lived here for ten years. For the upper-elementary students this is completely new. They’re going to need not only a full presentation but also a lot of controlled practice before they can go on to using the structure. For the mid-intermediate students however, the lesson is only revision and consolidation.

Here is a possible outline for the lesson :

  • Stage One

    The lesson starts with a warm-up activity consolidating the simple past, which all students have met previously.

  • Stage Two

    The class then divides. The elementary and weaker intermediate students, who the teacher thinks need a full structured presentation of the present perfect, remain with the teacher while the stronger intermediate students work autonomously on a second simple past consolidation activity – maybe a short listening or reading activity with answers that they can check for themselves.

  • Stage Three
    After the teacher has completed the presentation, the class comes back together and completes a receptive practice activity which asks them to distinguish between the two verb forms – for instance the first activity mentioned in the article Receptive Practice Activities. This has the aim of checking whether all the students understand the use of the form. If the teacher finds that any of the higher level students in fact don’t, s/he can ask the lower level students to explain. This a) checks that the students who heard the presentation really understand, and b) aids motivation : one of the problems of a mixed ability group is that it is always the same, weaker or lower level students who “don’t know/can’t do”. This activity gives them the chance to be the ones who do know.

  • Stage Four

    The class then splits again. This stronger students go back to the computer (or other materials) and work on consolidation activities for the present perfect at their own level. These may be grammar practice activities, a listening consolidation, or whatever the teacher thinks the students need. Meanwhile the lower level students remain with the teacher for some controlled practice work.

  • Stage Five

    The groups then swap. The stronger students meet the teacher for some semi-controlled or freer practice, while the weaker ones work autonomously at their own level – which may or may not mean working on the same activities that the stronger students did in stage four.

  • Stage Six
    The group comes back into lockstep and works on a final activity in which either a) students are paired high/low level with the stronger student having a more demanding role, b) students are again paired high/low and work on an activity in which the strong students help the weaker students or c) students are paired high/high, low/low and work on an activity at their own level.

This constant switching between lockstep and ability group work has various advantages :

a) Most importantly, the lockstep allows the students to develop a single group identity and collaborative working dynamic. However, this will only happen if the lockstep stages are productive and non-threatening for everyone. The split group stages ensure that when the students do come together they are all able to work on an activity which is the correct level of challenge for all members of the group. No-one needs to feel they’re wasting time waiting for the others or that they are “out of their depth” in comparison to other members of the group.
b) The lesson format also has the practical advantage, if you are using on-line courses, that you don’t need an enormous number of computers. Only half the group will be at the computers at any one time. If they work in pairs that means that three computers would be sufficient for a group of twelve.

Why though should you choose on-line materials over any other type of materials? They have two practical advantages:

a) firstly, they are specifically designed for autonomous study and staged accordingly, whilst “ordinary” materials tend to be designed for teacher-led classes and may not be suitable for students working alone.
b) putting together a sequence of activities taken from various sources, plus supplementing them with answers, explanations etc to make them suitable for autonomous study means a considerable amount of preparation for the teacher and can be very time consuming. A coherent on-line course will already have done most of the work for you – preparation is confined to familiarising yourself with the materials and choosing which activities you want each group to do at which point of the lesson.


1. If a class is working “in lockstep”, all the students are doing the same thing at the same time.

Further Reading ...

Roberts, R.  Simple ways to differentiate materials for mixed level classes

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