Teaching mixed ability classes. Some Tips
One of my previous articles dealt with the advantages and problems we have with mixed ability groups. Here are some ideas you may want to implement in your classes with these groups.
First of all your own attitude towards your class will make a big difference. If your learners feel that they are part of a safe, supportive and positive environment their attitude is more likely to be positive in class. You can’t expect a group of people to be engaged in activities if you are not yourself completely convinced about the purpose of these activities.
The second important thing is to be extremely organized. You should have a lesson plan highlighting the different activities and time and you should also have all your resources ready to use.
In terms of behavior management it is important to know your students well to identify their strengths, weaknesses, know if they have any learning disabilities, know about their interests etc. This first step is crucial to ensure that your students will be involved as much as possible in the lessons. When you are clear about their needs, you can start pairing them up or grouping them according to their learning styles for example.
To personalize learning try to have a whole range of activities and topics that will challenge kinesthetic, visual and auditory learners. Instead of using your workbook, which may even be outdated, be creative and have also your students to create their own activities. For example instead of using the survey that you have in your workbook, why don’t you ask students to create their own? Students should have their word to say in their learning and if they have some ideas to bring more interesting materials to the lessons that should be used! When we teach mixed ability classes we need to be extremely flexible and ready to adapt our planning. Of course we have a syllabus to follow but there are millions of ways to adapt it for our learners and to make it more relevant for them. If you are not sure on how to adapt the workbook have a look on the multitude of resources available online. You may want to incorporate a word search at the beginning of your lesson to warm your students up; you may want to include some PowerPoint activities, a group project, some online games, interviews etc. The possibilities are limitless and if you have a range of activities and topics you will be more likely to motivate them.
Try also to personalize the learning by providing your students with targets to achieve. You should have a common goal for your whole group but it doesn’t mean that you can’t be more specific in the targets you want each of them to reach. Make sure you turn the target setting into a habit so that your students can feel responsible for their own learning. Setting and reviewing targets every day will give your students some kind of autonomy and responsibility for their learning. It may seem time consuming and it’s true that at start target setting and target reviewing can be tricky but if you teach your students how to do it and if you encourage their parents to check these targets on a regular basis that should be fruitful. Remember that we are teaching students to become independent learners so instead of spoon-feeding them give your students a sense of responsibility. Through the use of targets you should be able to monitor their progress efficiently.
Dealing with mixed groups also means dealing with different pace. A lesson shouldn’t be either too slow or too quick as it may lead to frustration or boredom. Thepace should be varied and you should be aware of the fact that some students will need more time to complete an activity. That is not a problem as long as you have some extension ready for the ones who are quick. This extension shouldn’t be however a mere repetition of the activity but rather a different activity that will challenge their minds and where they will need to gather their knowledge. By using this method then you should be able to manage time more efficiently and challenge everyone.
The collaborative aspect in teaching mixed ability groups is also an important feature that shouldn’t be underestimated. You should try to vary the groups often to avoid boredom or frustration and so that students get different opportunities of learning.
What we call mixed ability classes or heterogeneous classes are classes within which students have different levels of ability and proficiency. As a teacher, our aim is to unlock all of our students’ potential. However, every student has a different way of learning, and learns and progresses at different pace. Moreover, although it is quite tough for us to know about each student and to follow what each one has performed during the lessons, it is our role to monitor each and every individual and to reach their needs.
Students will differ in many ways in terms of learning ways, strengths and weaknesses. They will be different because of their age, gender, learning styles, language skills, motivation, cultural background etc. My article here aims at showing the advantages and problems that can be met with mixed ability classes. We all are confronted to mixed ability classes but if we view the positive things about it and try to implement strategies and techniques to teach our mixed groups then it can become a considerably better experience.
Dealing with mixed ability classes is not always easy. Some students will have finished an activity while others will just have started it, most able students will tend to dominate while weaker students will sit at the back and get distracted, and able ones will get bored quickly if their mind is not challenged enough. And as for material, textbooks are mostly designed for ideal homogeneous groups, which does not reflect the reality of teaching. These are just some of the few examples of problems teachers can come across when teaching mixed ability classes.
Here are the questions we should ask when teaching mixed ability classes:
- How can we find ways to control a class with mixed ability students to avoid chaos?
- How do we find content and activities that will suit our learners in terms of motivation?
- How can we personalize learning and manage time in a class where there are many different learners?
- How can we monitor effectively our learners’ progress?
- How can we make sure that our students get equal learning opportunities?
However there are all also great benefits when teaching mixed ability groups. The first advantage I would say is that we have a rich group consisting of varied experiences, opinions and interests and that makes our teaching practice even more interesting. Mixed ability groups generate more collaborative, creative and innovative projects. It also helps us as teachers to change our habits and grow professionally by experimenting new teaching strategies. With mixed groups our learners’ autonomy is also enhanced and students develop more social skills.
So even if your classes do not seem the ideal perfect classes with a high level of proficiency, keep in mind that you have individuals in front of you who are capable of bringing a lot to your teaching practice and who are expecting you to find the ways to unlock their potential.
Usually behavior patterns can be learned and if you are consistent when using the following techniques, the general atmosphere in your classroom should change for the best. If you face persistent misbehavior however, you should move to the next level. This doesn´t mean however that you can allow yourself to lose your temper. You still need to keep calm and explain the situation to your student. Explain to the student the consequences of their continued misbehavior. Try to always offer them a choice and explain their misbehavior in terms of choice. If you choose to continue to … then you are choosing to be taken to ….. (Consequence)
If the student refuses the choices you have provided, then you need to move to delivering the consequence. Always remember that a consequence must be fair, reasonable and related to the actions and attitudes of the student. Once the consequence has been delivered, you need to allow the student to make amends – therefore you may need to smile or praise later work.
It goes without saying that any school has a behavior policy where it integrates guidelines for teachers about rewards and consequences. This behavior policy is a very important document to ensure consistency among the whole school. It should aim at giving clear and detailed information about the types of sanctions and the different progressive procedures to follow. You need to adapt the consequence to the importance of the misconduct. You can start from removing the child from his normal sit and then give him a detention or for more serious behavior issues you may need to send him to referral to the Head of your department or to a senior member of staff. Rewards and sanctions-also called consequences in a more positive language- are key features in a school but also within your classroom as they will allow you to reinforce good behavior at all times. However there have been many debates about behavior policies and these questions are more than relevant ones when you deal with behavioral issues.
One of them is about praising work that is at the appropriate level. The tendency shows that by praising too often work that is not beyond expectations we don’t develop the abilities of our students as much as we should. Another criticism is linked to the use of rewards. In some schools students are given points to celebrate their achievement without considering the type of achievement and these rewards are clearly seen as bribes both by children, teachers and parents. Instead of developing a sense of responsibility for their learning, students link work to reward and don´t work for knowledge in itself but for the discounts they will get in shops through the reward point system. Likewise the merit systems found in some secondary school can be interesting and relevant for younger students but once they reach the critical 15-16 age, this merit system is no longer relevant to praise their work. The last but not least of the critics is about the direction of praise and rewards. Because we want our learners to improve and because we want to modify the attitude of some them we are inclined to discrimination. Indeed we will have the tendency to direct our rewards to previously misbehaving students while we are forgetting about the rest of the group.
This behavior policy is a very important document to ensure consistency among the whole school.
Sometimes our students are not self-aware of their attitude. For that reason it is very important to give them time to understand that they need to modify their attitude. Instead of standing in front of them and showing them your disappointment, give your instruction and move away allowing time for your student to take into account your request. For example you could say “ John could you please open your book and start work? I’m going to see Will to help him and I will come back in two minutes to see if you need any help as well. ”
Redirect their attention by using a positive directional language. Try avoiding any involvement in discussion about what your student do wrong. Instead try to center their attention on the task. Your instruction has to be clear and short. “ Okay Kate and Mary, you should be ready now. We are looking at the task p. 35 ”
Give them choice. We always like being given a choice. So do our students. Make things clear to them that they are responsible for their learning and attitude and if they don’t follow the established rules in the classroom they will have to accept the consequences. Having a classroom behavior display is always good so that you can point at it and remind them of sanctions. Here are some ideas on how to implement this technique:
“ Sophia, you can either work quietly with your friend or you can come up and sit with me to do the task. The choice is yours”
“ Tom, you can do the task as I told you to or get a detention as I warned you earlier. It’s completely up to you.”
Another variation to the Choice technique is the Partial agreement technique. While you listen to your students’ concerns it deflects confrontation and avoids any escalation in the issue. For example you could say.
“ I completely understand that you didn’t have time to do your homework. Yes, you had some unexpected family members visiting you yesterday. However, I gave you this task a while ago and you need to learn to organize yourself, right?”
Consider the following situation:
– Student: “It wasn’t me, I swear I didn’t do anything”
-Teacher: “Maybe not – but we know what the rules are about and next time I’d like you to help me reinforcing this, thanks. ”
Another trick that works really well is called “tactical ignoring”. You will find out that some students are looking for attention. They may want to show –off in front of their friends often because they have low self-esteem. Don’t focus your attention on this attention-seeking attitude. Instead praise nearby students who do the work really well. At some point the misbehaving student will start understanding that if he behaves better he can as well receive praise.
Using a routine is also a great tool to redirect behaviors. If you constantly give your students some habits like greeting them at the door when they arrive, using the same routine phrases like a broken-record, using the same signals like clapping in your hands for the end an activity or counting down after a pair-work you will notice that your students will be less-off task. They will recognize the gestures you use and they will respond to them. Having one spot where you stand for praise, one spot for help and one spot for disagreement can also be powerful in some cases:
Using a routine is also a great tool to redirect behaviors.
Treat your students as grown-ups. When you want to defuse a situation, try to engage a discussion with them maybe at the end of the class to avoid any peer pressure.
Don´t underestimate the use of humor. Using humor will allow avoiding situations to escalate. However you need to be cautious with the words you use as sarcasm is not an effective tool, it will have the tendency to make the situation worse.