Another Way To Look At Mixed Ability Classes

Mixed ability classes. Most of us have taught them and most of us know that every class will have “mixed ability” simply because people are not clones with the exact same learning history, strengths and weaknesses. There are some excellent and detailed strategies for this currently up at An ELT Notebook, including utilizing on-line materials – and if you’re teaching a mixed ability group, I’d highly recommend taking these tips into consideration.

This post though is about taking an alternative look at mixed ability classes.

In my experience, and in the context of private language schools, it makes sense to clarify exactly what the issue is before you start looking for a solution. Certainly there will always be some difference in level, certainly teachers need to make an effort to adjust the class level to the needs and interests of students…but teachers aren’t the only ones with a responsibility in this scenario. In a situation where a student seems to be in the wrong level, your efforts may be better directed at approaching the administration about this and finding out why than trying to devoting your time to adapting to one student. I’m often less than sympathetic (to the administration) when a student is in the wrong level basically because the right level is full and they’d like an additional client. This puts the students (both the one in the wrong level and those in the same group at the right level) and the teacher all at a disadvantage.

If there is no other class – the student should know the situation, i.e. this level is not the correct one for him though it is for the others, and I personally think the teacher should have a say in the matter as well. Again, while a certain amount of a teacher’s job most definitely includes adapting to student needs, there are limits to this and classes have designated levels and generally curricula for a reason. In some cases students at the wrong level – either lower or higher than the others – can impact the whole group; this is especially frustrating when the school seems to be benefiting financially at the expense of students and teachers both.

Granted, sometimes it is probably a financial reality and it just happens, and I’m sure that not every mixed ability class is an evil attempt to squeeze the last penny out of everyone. I can of course also envision scenarios where all involved are more or less advised of the challenges and decide to proceed anyhow, perhaps in the context of in company classes. But I think it’s important to know that one option is for a school to inform the student that they don’t have an appropriate class at that time.

The Cutting Edge/Longman teaching tips section has recommendations about homework, namely adapting the level of homework and perhaps letting students pick one of two tasks, and following this in class. In theory this is not bad at all, except that not all class activities will have practical ways to be adjusted. And in my experience it is unrealistic that students will fall neatly into two groups of lower and higher or something – and even if they do, they may not be particularly willing to accept these divisions.

To some extent, all groups are mixed-ability groups, and teachers generally just need to deal with this – and I don’t have any specifically innovative tips for how. But keep an eye on the bigger picture if the situation seems extreme.