5 ways to deal with mixed ability students in secondary classes

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Teaching mixed ability teenagers

No two teenagers are the same. Within all of our classes there tends to be not only a range of proficiency levels, but also general learning styles, maturity, motivation, and personalities. This diversity can bring some challenges, but also opportunities to vary your classroom activities and teaching methodology.

Sound familiar?

Here are some ways to help deal with mixed ability classes and ensure all your students experience success in their language learning journeys.

1. Invest time in getting to know your students 

The first class with your secondary students is a great opportunity to get to know them personally. The quicker you build rapport, the easier your job will be. Take the time to ask questions about their strengths, weaknesses, interests and objectives.

A simple questionnaire can provide all the information you need to understand their individual needs and can also serve as a fun pair work activity or icebreaker after the holiday break.

Here are some example questions to get you started:

  • Why are you learning English and how will it help you in the future?
  • Do you prefer working individually, in pairs or in a larger group?
  • What activities do you like doing in class? Role plays, making videos, using songs etc.
  • What was the best thing about your previous English class? What didn’t you like about it?
  • Have you taken any official exams before? Would you like to?
  • How would you rank these skills in order of strongest to weakest: Grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, speaking, listening, writing, and reading.
  • What things do you like to do outside of school?
  • What topic would you choose if you had to talk about something for a minute in English?

Teenagers are social and curious creatures – make your needs analysis more interactive by having them interview each other and then writing a short report outlining what they discovered about their new classmate. Not only will you find out their interests and they’ll get to know each other – you’ll get a writing sample too!

By allowing the students to voice their ideas, you demonstrate that you are inclusive of different personalities and receptive to new teaching ideas. You’ll also know exactly what activities and themes your students will respond well to, and keep them motivated and focused on personal development.

Note that if your students’ English level is low, this kind of questionnaire will be more effective in their native language.

2. Personalize your aims and objectives

Now you have more of an idea about your learners’ strengths and weaknesses – vary your aims in each class to suit the needs of each individual. Start your lesson by explaining your main objective – for example, it could be “learning holiday vocabulary”. Then ask your students to set their own objectives – for example: “How many new words do you want to learn today? Their answers will act as their personal language aims.

As teacher and a person who understands his or her students well, you can also act as a motivator. If you think they are aiming too low, you can give them a much needed push, if they aim high you can praise their enthusiasm. But don’t forget to reassure them that it’s OK to have different aims and objectives, as everyone is different.

At the end of the class, have a quiz or game to assess their progress. If they exceed their own objectives, praise them. If they fail, acknowledge their efforts and show them how to succeed next time.

Reducing the pressure imposed on them in this way should keep them motivated and enjoying learning the language.

3. Allow students’ first language (L1)

Occasionally allowing L1 in monolingual classrooms is becoming more accepted in ELT nowadays, and this can be a great way to help in mixed ability groups.

Slower students in your class may benefit from access to dictionaries or online translators. This will help them complete certain activities and will also allow them to keep up with their faster classmates.

L1 also can be used to give weaker students the confidence to be able to express any doubts they may have accurately, and can really motivate the stronger ones to consolidate their understanding too.

Moreover, L1 can also be used more actively in class, in translation activities. For example:

  • Students can work together to write a tourist phrasebook for visitors to their town or city. In this activity students must brainstorm around 15 phrases in their L1 that would be helpful for visitors, and then translate them to English. The activity could then be extended into a fun role play activity or used as part of a class on tourism and sightseeing.
  • Students can write subtitles in English to a video clip that was originally in their L1 and even extend the script into a play or news story.
  • Students can read a story, watch a video or do some research in their L1 and present their findings in L2.

Brining the L1 into activities can be fun and motivating, and will help save a lot of time in the planning and research stages. However, remember for many students you are their only source of English and the L1 should not be overused.

4. Vary tasks between individual, group, and pair work

Every classroom will have a range of personalities and this is especially true when it comes to teenagers. Some students will be more confident, while others will be shyer. Unfortunately, quieter students are often labelled as being less able – which is often not the case.

Giving your students the opportunity to do frequent pair or group work can help them feel less nervous as they won’t be speaking in front of an entire class. It also gives learners the opportunity to use more conversational language in English and be freer when speaking it, which is key to developing confidence in any new language.

What’s more, pair and group work allows students to take on roles and responsibilities, be more accountable for their actions, and experience success as a team. Teamwork can also help students develop different 21st century skills – such as collaboration, negotiation and creativity.

Depending on the task, learners can be paired with those who are a similar level to allow for fluent and comfortable exchanges, or in mixed ability groups to encourage peer teaching.

5. Fast finishers and extension activities

It’s always a good idea to have some extra activities lined up for those who finish quickly. It will help keep them focused and will allow the rest of the class the time to finish the task.

Having interesting extension activities prepared which the students want to be able to move onto is important, so they don’t feel like they’re being punished with mundane exercises for finishing first. If the activities are really fun it might even motivate those slower students to work a little faster.

Try things like:

  • Writing funny stories or songs using the language from the lesson
  • Creating an audio or video dictionary on their phones with all the new vocabulary they’ve learned
  • Making a quiz using Kahoot to review the language from the class
  • Playing games like Lyrics training
  • Keeping a journal in their books or using an app like Penzu

How GoGetter can help with your mixed ability groups

mixed ability go getter

The GoGetter series from Pearson and the BBC is aimed at teenagers and focuses on developing and inspiring young minds – especially those in mixed abilities groups.

Teachers can use this four-level course to plan an effective, personalized syllabus, with lots of opportunities for individual, pair and group work. And of course, it offers a wide variety of extra activities, extension ideas and a section for fast finishers.

GoGetter also provides ample opportunities for further vocabulary, grammar, or skills practice through their Workbook, Extra Online Practice, and MyEnglishLab – a digital platform to be used in class or at home.

Download a sample now.

Do you have any further ideas about dealing with mixed ability classes? Let us know in the comments below.

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