Edmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Ed joins us to discuss mixed-ability teaching and setting learning goals for language learners of differing levels of skill.
What do we mean by mixed-ability?
Mixed-ability classes are the norm, rather than the exception. Whether or not a class has been streamed according to language level, there are still likely to be big differences between individual learners in every group. I’ll be exploring some of these differences in the webinar.
What about differentiated learning?
Differentiating the learning activities in class is a good way to make a language more accessible to learners at different levels – without losing a sense of togetherness.
Here are three ways that classroom activities can be differentiated:
Differentiating the input
For a reading comprehension activity, create two alternative versions of the text beside the original: one version adapted to make it more accessible, and another version made more challenging. Learners each tackle one of the three texts and then answer the same comprehension questions.
Differentiating the process
Alternatively, provide students with identical input (e.g. a set of questions) and then choose one of a number of options for finding out the answers (e.g. by reading a text, by doing individual research, or by completing a spoken information-gap activity.)
Differentiating the output
Open-ended questions can turn a narrow activity into something more accessible and flexible. Students all get the same prompt, but can respond in their own way. For a writing task, provide a ‘menu’ of prompt questions from which learners can choose the one they find most interesting. And why not set a time limit instead of a word limit? Then students write as much as they can within the allotted time.
How can we set appropriate learning goals?
A successful learning environment is one that is goal-oriented, but we should remember that setting ill-conceived or unrealistic goals is counter-productive. Achievable and desirable goals, on the other hand, lead to a healthy learning environment where students’ efforts are rewarded – triggering further motivation.
It’s not all about language – identifying personal goals and groups goals that are not related to language can have a beneficial effect on the group dynamic and individual achievement. Examples might be remembering to switch off phones in class, or finding a different partner to work with for every pairwork activity.
Grouping learners within lessons
When learners in mixed-ability groups are given activities to tackle in small groups and pairs there are more opportunities for personalized learning than in frontal teaching.
Pair work and group work also offer greater variety within activities, allowing individual students to work together with a number of different classmates in the same lesson and, over the course of a term, with everyone in the class.
There are many techniques for grouping learners and a number of different criteria that can be applied.
Managing the mixed-ability classroom
Managing the classroom is the responsibility of the teacher – but that does not mean that students should be completely excluded from the process. In fact, there are many ways that we can involve students meaningfully in the day-to-day running of the classroom by finding a variety of appropriate, self-affirming and constructive roles for them to perform