Mixed ability as used in ELT usually refers to the differences that exist in a group in terms of different levels of language proficiency. The differences which cause problems in heterogeneous classes are in language learning ability, learning experience, mother tongue, cultural background, preferred learning style, motivation and others. Even though students are grouped according to their placement test scores, their progress rates are bound to be at different levels. Due to the mentioned differences students react to the teaching material and teaching methods individually. It is difficult to find activities that involve all the students without some getting bored and others being confused, insecure or discouraged. Weaker students not being able to follow the pace, to understand information or to express their ideas and stronger students not being tolerant to them may result in classroom management problems. Thus, teachers need to have a range of strategies for managing mixed ability classes.
There is a temptation for the educator to focus on the more advanced students. Actually, whole-class instructions and standards as well as a single interpretation of ideas are common in a traditional classroom. On the contrary, in differentiated teaching we need to offer multi-level approach by adjusting the amount or type of input, by altering timing and type of teacher’s help, by varying support materials and by adapting the expected outcomes. In a differentiated class, the teacher uses a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, a variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to understand and “own” information and ideas, and a variety of options through which students can demonstrate what they have learned.
Teaching the students separately is not a way out as far as we intend to build the sense of community in the classroom. Putting learners of different linguistic levels together for some activities, and apart for others is a possible strategy as it is assumed that heterogeneous grouping provides pupils access to more learning opportunities. Both weaker and stronger students benefit from cooperation in pair/group activities. When a strong student works with weaker students, the student can be a source of language knowledge in the group as well as peer-correction. So, learners of higher linguistic ability benefit from providing explanations enhancing their fluency while lower ability students are guided to reach higher levels of performance. Dealing with the same challenges, high and low ability students are supposed to work at the highest possible level. The participants are sharing and producing richer work than they might have done on their own such as: brainstorming (making sure that everybody’s contributed ideas are valued), prediction, completing sentences. Within collaboration students are supported by the variation of skills and abilities of their peers throughout the learning process.
Pairs or groups can be formed in different ways:
by matching questions and answers,
pictures and titles,
categories of the currently studied vocabulary (learners/educators, countries/capitals, authors/works, devices/inventors, etc.).
Ability grouping, on the other hand, is a possible way to differentiate activities. Groups of weaker and stronger students separated from each other are given different tasks. So the stronger and quicker students work with more complicated tasks, whereas the weaker students deal with a simpler task or work with the teacher as a group member supporting them and providing additional instruction and guidance. The teacher would then give each group a series of questions, based on each group’s appropriate level of linguistic readiness, related to the objectives of the lesson. Another way to group the students could be based on the students’ learning styles. The technique of working through group assignments, therefore, becomes a very important weapon in the armory of the teacher of a mixed ability class.
The ways to help weaker students are:
to give clear instructions using gestures,
to make sure they understand the task, otherwise ask stronger students explain it in their mother tongue,
to allow thinking time and making notes before speaking activities,
to reduce the word limit in productive activities,
to give examples as model before writing activities,
to pre-teach vocabulary using visual aids,
to provide a rich variety of language and visual stimulants,
to allow using dictionaries within reading comprehension tasks,
to give a tape script while completing listening comprehension task,
not to overcorrect their mistakes to avoid discourage.
It is essential for teachers to monitor students by observing/conducting surveys/talking to them to reach their needs in a variety of ways and consequently to achieve effective teaching. Students’ involvement in the process of the establishing whole-class and individual goals makes these goals more attractive. It is important to give students the opportunity to express their ideas, feelings and experiences by personalizing the tasks. Though they may lack confidence or enough language knowledge, students have an area of strong interest that can be made the focus of their program. Making interest-based learning choice obviously promotes the comfort and confidence of the students and enables a learner to explore some area in depth and in ways that uniquely interest him/her. Actually, such a comprehensive discovery oriented project can be a useful option when any student wants to learn a great deal more about a topic. Knowing students’ personalities helps the teacher to prepare and adapt materials based on a meaningful context for all learners in order to make them relevant to students as individuals, which adds variety to the classroom environment and establishes a positive atmosphere.
A mixed ability class should offer all the students an appropriate challenge to help them to progress in their own terms. It is usually necessary for the educator to evaluate and adapt the materials providing activities to respond to the diverse student needs. The intent in doing so during some parts of a lesson is to make a task more achievable. Activities applying to different levels can be assigned at the beginning of a lesson, during group activities, or during individual assessment. Adapting activities to two or three different levels of linguistic difficulty enables the student to choose a more or less challenging version at which he/she can function so that they perform to their maximum potential. These are some ideas how we can differentiate assignments:
(stronger students – weaker students )
Filling gaps - multiple choice
Writing a letter – filling missing words into a letter
Describing pictures – pictures accompanied by a wordlist
Guessing the word according to its transcription – matching the word to its transcription
Persuasive writing - Informative writing
Unprepared speaking – prepared speaking
Spelling words – filling missing letters
Free writing – modeled writing,
Sentence transformation – word ordering, etc.
In order to solve the problems of mixed ability, teaching should appeal to all senses, all learning styles and all intelligences (linguistic, logical, visual, kinesthetic, rhythmic, intrapersonal, interpersonal and natural), developed by an American psychologist, Howard Gardner. To examine the cognitive styles in order to choose teaching methods and learning material it is advisable to fulfill a test (the one of those suitable is provided on-line: www.edutopia.org/multiple-intellegence-learning-styles-quiz). The variety and mixture of learning styles require the teacher to make use of a multi-sensory approach to choosing tasks in the classroom so the needs of each learner are met. Most of the assignments can be prepared appealing to all kinds of intelligences. The same activity might suppose multiple intelligences including creating with words, classifying, manipulating objects, listening, expressing feelings, discussing and referring to the surroundings. To exemplify, an academic investigation in the Internet to find answers to the set problem might involve sorting the material, debating as a process and an illustrated poster, a written work or an oral presentation as well as a movie or drama as a possible final product. It is commonplace that visuals are useful for all age and proficiency levels since learners are often interested in realia and visual aids like colorful images which can be used to stimulate speaking and writing. Thus, adjusting assignments to those specific needs will take into account students’ certain strengths and weaknesses.
Open-ended tasks or questions happen to be a powerful language learning tool. In contrast with traditional comprehension exercises they have a variety of possible correct responses instead of a single answer predetermined as being correct by the teacher. Unlike closed exercises such as Yes/No questions, these tasks allow each learner to perform at his/her own level and give them the chance to express themselves.
ESL teachers can choose from a wide range of open-ended activities:
writing a letter,
ending a story,
response to a picture,
prediction from titles,
- finishing sentences with a certain grammatical base,
- brainstorming, etc.
Games, talk shows, quizzes, competitions, debates, drama hold an important role in ensuring learners’ interest in the lesson. Regardless of the differences among the students in terms of language level, they are motivated to use the target language while they are playing a game or participating in a role-play. While playing/debating/competing, attention is focused on the message and fluency instead of the language accuracy, correctness of linguistic forms, so the fear of failure is minimized. Besides, 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 in order to ensure fluent language production. This can offer students different ways to learn new content as well as help enhance a student’s motivation and skills.
It is also beneficial to encourage students to reflect on their own abilities by self-assessment. Portfolios/“can-do” record sheets/diaries/self-check pages are efficient way of dealing with mixed ability groups. The teacher may ask students to keep all the things they have done during the term including the extracurricular work and self-study. This record also shows the needs of the student for further progress. As a result, each student has a record of his/her progress during the term. Portfolios follow the student’s success rather than his failure and therefore add to the learning motivation. It means appreciating their good points, while helping them to improve on their weaker points. These papers based on syllabus criteria help learners record their achievements, reflect on difficulties and find ways of overcoming them. It might also make them improve their time management. This flexible learning tool supports their long-term efforts, increases their confidence about their abilities to learn language and the ways they learn it so they develop strategies to become more competent learners.
Thus, modifying the content, the process, and the product of the basic curriculum is supposed to respond to the diversity of academic needs within mixed ability classes. Variety in the type of working groups, taking into consideration a learner’s intelligence preference, leveled materials, choice in presentation formats are differentiated teaching strategies that will make a classroom a welcoming and encouraging place to motivate English language learners, involve all students in the lesson and ensure their progress.
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- Montgomery County Public Schools. (2005) Instructional and Management Strategies. Retrieved March 16, 2009. – [Электронный ресурс] – Режим доступа: http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/curriculum/enriched/giftedprograms/instructionalstrategy.shtm
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