Classes with mixed levels are a difficulty many teachers face from time to time. No two students are alike, of course. Some have stronger skills in speaking, while others struggle with it. Other students are more like novice grammarians, while others focus on fluency and communication. However, what can a teacher do when portion of the class is much lower overall, say a group of beginners mixed in with a class of intermediate students? Or how about a class with beginners, intermediates, and advanced students all together?
This article will look at several ideas to address the problem of mixed-level classes.
It's Not Your Fault
First and foremost, it's important to realize that a class of mixed levels requires more preparation time. Equally important, the teacher must realize that no matter the time and energy put into the class, it may not be as enjoyable or as satisfying to teach. The students may similarly find less enjoyment. Don't write the class off, of course. Continue to prepare interesting lessons, work to move students up the skills' ladder, and provide help whenever possible. Yet you should also realize that you can only make the best of an unfortunate situation. This may sound like common sense, but it's also hard to keep this point in mind while in the middle of the problem.
Teach to the Intended Level of the Class
You must consider the level of the students, as well as individual learning styles and specific learning objectives. However, you should teach to the intended level of the class. In other words, have you or the school offered/advertised the class to beginners, intermediates, or advanced students? If the class is for intermediates, for example, then all the materials and activities should primarily focus on their needs.
Let's look at this point in more detail. The example class has been billed for intermediate students, so all lesson plans and materials should target this level. If beginner students happen to enroll as well, then it's quite unfair for the students in the correct class to suddenly find a less challenging curriculum. The same holds true for advanced students enrolled in the intermediate course. It would be unfair to the correctly placed students to struggle with materials too difficult for their level.
One effective solution comes in the form of individual work done outside of the class. Assignments can be given to all students in the form of essays, mini-presentations, additional research, or even short articles for further reading. Students may be required to participate in a discussion forum or group online. They may be required to listen to an online lecture, podcast, or similar material. This allows students to work on the same theme or topic, yet do so at their level of ability.
...it's important to realize that a class of mixed levels requires more preparation time
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Another solution can come from outside tutoring for the weaker students, as well as additional assignments that are more challenging for the stronger students. However, this only works when you speak with the misplaced students to explain the situation. You must also explain that the class won't be adjusted for the weaker/stronger levels. These points must be made clear, else the weaker/stronger students could become disruptive or discouraged. They may wonder why the class is too difficult, too easy, or just boring, all of which results in unfair finger-pointing directed at you, the teacher.
A Word about Pairs and Groups
You may be tempted to divide the class, with lower-level and upper-level students working separately on a majority of the activities. However, this isn't always the best course of action, as it fails to create a unified classroom. What's more, pairs and groups of mixed ability have some benefit for both the stronger and weaker students, so placing them together does have benefits.
When stronger students work with weaker students, then the latter can see what's attainable with more study and work. Mastery of the language (or at least the next step in their studies) feels more tangible, because it's a peer who possesses the improved ability/skill. As for the stronger student, he now has the chance to teach the weaker student. This means monitoring for mistakes, offering advice, and even providing brief explanations on grammar, vocabulary, or other points. The stronger student better solidifies his knowledge and understanding of the language.
However, such pairs and groups work best when limited. A stronger student usually doesn't mind helping a weaker peer, provided he only does so for a short activity or two. He will grow bored and frustrated if forced to spend an hour together. The weaker student will immediately sense the frustration and boredom as well, and he could very likely feel self-conscious of his poorer ability as a result. The weaker student isn't singularly focused on the target material, and the stronger student cannot expand beyond the focus of the language. Retention of the target material and overall improvement are hindered for both the weaker and the stronger students.
There are instances when large groups can work together, as on a project or a large assignment. Writing a story, creating a dialogue or role play, or even giving a group presentation can all be accomplished with students of mixed levels. Each person will have a specifically assigned task, allowing him to effectively contribute to the assignment and to the group. These assignments can take the form of in-class activities, or as outside work and projects.
What to Teach
In many lessons, the purpose or target focuses on how the language can be applied. Grammar may provide support, but other times it may not be covered at all. These lessons work better in classes of mixed ability. Let's look at an example to highlight this important point.
In the intermediate class mentioned earlier, you decide to focus on plans for the upcoming summer break. Students should be able to talk about their plans by the end of the lesson. As such, you may need to introduce some vocabulary useful for the topic, as well as some grammar needed to successfully talk about the break.
...pairs and groups of mixed ability have some benefit for both the stronger and weaker students
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As in any lesson, you present the information, practice it, and then provide opportunities to apply the target language in free(r) activities. Although the stronger students may find some of the early activities easy, they can always expand their answers. They can also work with weaker students as a guide/tutor, which presents different challenges. Later in the lesson, the stronger students can then work together and, during their discussions, further expand on the material with richer grammar and vocabulary. The stronger students may even receive extra challenges or tasks, such as to speak for ten minutes with a partner rather than change partners every few minutes. This results in an entire class able to work to their full potential, and do so together in a supportive environment.
When a class focuses on grammar, vocabulary, and communicative ability, then you must struggle with what sort of target language to teach, how to practice the material, and how to best arrange students into pairs and groups, just to name a few points. There's also boredom and frustration to contend with by all the students present. The myriad of problems really goes on and on. Yet applying the techniques above improves the chances for a more enjoyable and more successful lesson for all involved.