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Mixed Ability ESL Classes

October 04, 2005

In reading comments on this blog, my heart went out to the teacher who has such a difficult mixture of levels in one class, from beginners up.

Hello friends,

In the case of ESL classes with mixed levels of achievement, we see the reality of what actually happens as opposed to what ought to happen. We all know that it makes sense to have groups of roughly similar level but in practical terms this often doesn't happen. Well, it seems to me that rather than train teachers to handle single-level groups, we should be helping them understand how to deal with mixed ability groups.

Clearly the teacher cannot treat the class as a single group: sub-groups will be needed. Extra planning is required as the sub-groups will need different exercises. To help reduce the planning load, the teacher can select a single topic and then devise exercises of varying difficulty around it.

One point to bear in mind is that students will have different abilities in the different skills: those who speak better than they read or write, or vice versa. This is important because it allows the teacher to vary the groups. It is not healthy if the same groups work together all the time. So there might be one set of groups for oral activities and a different set for reading and writing.

Classroom management is inevitably more complex and the teacher needs to do a certain amount of learner training from the outset. Students need to know why they have to work in groups and how the groups work. They have to understand that different instructions will be given to the groups, so they have to listen extra carefully and the teacher needs to check that all instructions have been understood.

Once at work, the groups can then benefit from the teacher's help as he or she circulates and monitors progress. In order not to lose entirely the sense of a whole class, the opening and closing activities should be for the full group. Thes activities will need to be the kinds of language games that everyone can join in.To sum up, the teacher has to be able to orchestrate groups within the class and devise materials and activities suitable for each ability level. The students have to understand why they work in this way and the benefits of doing so.

Cordially,

Patricia

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