Who’s afraid of mixed-level classes?

DSC_0141In one of the recent FB updates I expressed my growing temptation to try giving my first talk at a conference. The responses were extremely encouraging and kind. And to my doubt about being truly up to it, Ann simply answered that as long as you present something close to your heart, as long as it is a topic you feel passionate about, it is bound to be successful. Combining the positive feedback and my own gradually intensifying temptation, I will very likely give it a go. I do, however, still have time to gather my thoughts, hone my skills and clarify my message. And thus I will share my thoughts here with you on a topic that is not only all prevailing in my daily teaching life but which has captured my heart and mind because of the challenges it poses. So yes, here it comes … drums …. mixed-level classes!

Two years ago I sent out a cry for help. I wrote to all the major publishing houses inquiring whether they had any theoretical or hands-on books on mixed level classes. It got me nowhere!

Then, a couple of months after that fruitless search, I sat in on a lesson as part of my teacher training course. The young teacher who gave the lesson seemed completely oblivious to the notion of mixed levels or tackling them in a classroom. For her it was simply that some students were stronger and thus bored and consequently prone to churn up trouble. During the follow-up discussion I shared some of my techniques and suggested possible ways of action. Her eyes lit up and she seemed to have a real heureka moment. As if a new door had been opened for her, a door behind which exciting things were happening.

And because the introduction is still not long enough …

a little more than a year ago I met Ceri 🙂 I was extremely excited when I read she was giving a talk at a conference here in Switzerland. But things got even better! I gathered all my courage and went up to her and then we had coffee and then we talked and then it was really great 🙂 Anyway, I told her how I was struggling with the mixed levels and what I had already done to manage the surreal mixture of my students’ English skills. Ceri asked me to write a guest post for her blog on the said topic. And I guess, considering how much I admire Ceri, that was the first time I felt I had something to share, something that might be of some value and help for other teachers too.

It has been said over and over again that homogeneous classes do not exist. Who can argue, right!? Students do not only differ in their previous knowledge, their motivation, their preferred learning style, but also in their character, in their world view. When I talk about mixed-level classes, however, I focus on language lessons, and more precisely still, on my students’ level of English, on the skills they already master or lack, on the vocabulary they have or not. So I guess it is absolutely “legal” to call some language learners’ groups as more homogeneous than others. However, there are groups where continuous graded learning is not only called for, it is the only viable solution.

I started teaching in my current school five years ago. The headmaster did mention mixed levels during the interview, but I interpreted it as different students, different styles. The reality, however,  kicked in right in the first lesson. I had students who could hold a fluent conversation with me and others who struggled with their first complete sentences in English. Since that first painful realization five years ago I have been on the continuous lookout for ways to not only make some sense in my classes but to help everyone learn, improve and if possible, have fun too! I have tried and tested things which turned out to be a disaster. I’ll write more soon! I have worked my socks off preparing lessons that would cater for everyone’s needs and then cried myself to sleep because students simply didn’t care.

Fortunately, after these first five years of trial I have been able to find some techniques which work. I keep adapting them to different classes and topics while at the same time looking for new ways of approaching this mushy bog land of mixed levels.

But before I share one of the most recent activities, here are a some of my beliefs about mixed-level classes …

  • I don’t believe in continuous work in sections. It does help sometimes and I do use that, but breaking the class into smaller level units means that we lose something valuable. We lose the chance of learning from peers, of sharing and of creating class dynamics.
  • Students with lower levels of English ( I NEVER call them weaker students because it has nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with what stage they have already reached in their language learning) NEED time. They need to feel secure and not stressed. Thus, it is important to make sure that all the students have the time to finish their tasks.
  • Students with more advanced levels should be challenged continuously. But not only. A teacher could work herself into a madhouse if she / he did everything on her / his own. So I guess, before starting to cater for everyone’s needs, it is important to talk about learning. It is vital for a mixed-level class that every student acts responsibly and gets into the habit of pushing her / his own limits.

I could, of course, go on and on about my beliefs and build a tall theory tower. But this is not what is needed. This is not what I would look for in a book on mixed-level classes. What all the teachers who struggle with these mushy bog lands need, is activities! So here’s one of my most recent mini projects.

Group: 16 students

Levels: A1 – B2

Topic: comparative & superlative

Lessons 1: Half of the class was already familiar with this grammar. However, a pure revision was not an option as the other half had only an inkling (or none) how to form comparatives in English. To allot the time needed to learn the grammar, yet make sure no one’s boredom would disrupt the lesson, I decided to break the group up for one lesson. As the next topic was travel and tourism, I asked students with higher level of English to use the class time to prepare an advertisement for a holiday destination. They had to find pictures and then write short paragraphs describing their destination (cost, accommodation, special features etc) In the meantime, I worked with the other half of the class on how to make comparative and superlative forms in English.

Lesson 2: Students who had prepared holiday posters acted as travel agents. Their mission was to ‘sell’ their destination to possible customers. Students who had been learning grammar during the previous lesson, had to go up to three different agents and take notes on what they had to offer. Once they had listened to three different promotional talks, they had to fill in a form comparing all the three travel agencies. I made sure that the forms presented them with all the adjectives needed to go over the rules on comparatives (exciting, cheap, far etc) While these students were working in pairs writing their comparative and superlative sentences, the ‘travel agents’ worked in groups presenting to each other their works. In the end they had to summarize the works by comparing them.

This kind of work procedure can be, of course, adapted to many other grammar points and vocabulary. What is important here, is that lower-level students have time to get familiar with a new subject without the pressure from more advanced classmates. The more advanced students can push their own limits creating a poster they can then show to the rest of the class. And last but not least, there is the central come together activity which keeps the class unified, makes students share their work and enables lower level students to benefit from more advanced classmates language skills.

Before I call it a day here (and I will be back with more, no worries 😉 I would like to ask you one question –

I have only one hands-on book on mixed-level classes in my library, Dealing with Difficulties. L. Prodromou & L. Clandfield … what about you?

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9 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of mixed-level classes?

  1. Hi dear,
    thanks so much for this post. I have students within the same group who are total beginners mixed with A2 and few of them moving to B1. In some groups the language knowledge gap isn’t so great, but in some only one is a total beginner. Your post gives me some food for thought and ideas.

    P.s. I have lots of books and no one that deals in particular with this. So I try to keep some principles in mind, like collaboration, learning from each other, challenging and support where possible, enough time for lower levels, grading the task, but I hadn’t thought of doing something you described.

    Sometimes it is frustrating as I can clearly see that one side or the other didn’t benefit from the lesson. I’m still trying to learn on how to work with this group in a effective way for all of them.

    Maybe you should give a try on writing a book for us. 😉 I’ll be the first one in line to get a copy. Thanks again. 🙂
    Rose

    • Dear Rose,
      First of all, thank you so much for taking the time and leaving your thoughts here.
      You say that sometimes you feel dissatisfied with a lesson because not every student could profit from it. I think when it comes to mixed- level groups this is at times unavoidable. i don’t mean that we should feel okay about it, but I think it makes everyone’s life easier, especially ourr’s, if we learn to be more tolerant too. What is important is that more often than not every student can have his / her limits pushed, but it is not possible to do it every single time, hence – enormous importance of student responsibility, hence – the need to talk things over at some point in the beginning.

      As for the book 😉 ha-ha, it will probably be a co-operation between all the teachers who care!
      Big hugs

      • Thanks so much Sirja. Although I don’t pass the frustration to my students and I encourage them from day one to work collaboratively, working towards a community of learning, I know there are better ways of dealing/providing better learning opportunities. Your lesson example proves it. I will reflect on it further and try to come up with similar ideas. 🙂 REally really inspiring and a relief to read your experience Sirja. I have been striving and we are really in need of a pedagogy that can provide us more understanding on how to work with language knowledge gap.

  2. Hi, Sirja
    Like you, I also try to engage all my students, no matter what level their language competence is. And, like you, I spend hours preparing lessons they might find interesting but often fail, and find myself desperate because of the lack of enthusiasm on their part. And, like you, I wouldn’t give up. When I show my own children materials I have prepared for my students, they often say: “Why do you put yourself to trouble, they wouldn’t care anyway”. I reply that when I stop trying, I’d better look for a different job. Despite all disappointments I face at times, I love teaching and try to get better at it. I’m not giving up.
    As for the books on mixed-ability classes, I sometimes refer to ‘Timesaver 50 Mixed-ability grammar lessons, photocopiable, by Jane Rollason, Scholastic. It can be quite useful.
    Best regards,
    Gordana

    • Hi Gordana,
      Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. We definitely seem to be ticking along in the same rhythm. And it is wonderful to know teachers like you are out there.
      Thank you for the book tip as well. Will go and fill in the cart at amazon!
      Have a really good week full of motivated students and hope to see you here again very soon!
      Sirja

  3. Pingback: A Project for Mixed-Levels: Light, Camera & Action! | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

  4. Pingback: Light, Camera n Action: Dividing the group (HLLs n LLLs) | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

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