7 Tips for Teaching Mixed-Ability ESL Classes

By Altiné Moumouni
With these seven tips for teaching mixed-ability ESL classes, you will create a favorable learning environment for all your students

Mixed-ability ESL classes are classes where you have students who can speak near-perfect English and students who can barely read or speak any English. 

And generally, in mixed-ability classes, you will have two things happening:

  1. the lower-level students get lost and left behind, and
  2. the top students get bored because they are not challenged enough

So, what do you as a TEFL teacher do? With these seven tips for teaching mixed-ability ESL classes, you will create a favorable learning environment for all your students.

1 Offer separate assignment options

Offering different assignment options and letting your students choose how they want to challenge themselves is an excellent way to teach mixed-ability classes.

The goal is to encourage individual achievement. I generally offer incentives, prizes, and recognition for:

  • Students who solve the most challenging questions
  • Students who make the most significant improvement

The key is to keep both low- and high-level students motivated to try harder. Every teaching activity I create has low ceilings and high floors (a mixture of easy and hard questions), and students only need to answer the easy ones to “pass”. At the same time, I keep the advanced students challenged. 

2 Group your students according to their abilities

Grouping students according to their abilities is another way to teach mixed-ability classes. The main goal is to get the higher-level ones to teach the struggling ones

But keep in mind that it does not mean that you shouldn’t teach and do your job as a teacher. Because no matter how advanced the kids are, they don’t know how to teach (you are the teacher).

Here’s what I usually do: I explain the key concepts and give practice questions to both levels.  And if some students still don’t understand, I ask high-level students to explain in Chinese to those with lower abilities. It generally works. 

In addition, I encourage and reward my students when they go out of their way to help others in the group.

Grouping helps, but sometimes the high kids get frustrated with “carrying” the lower-level students, and the lower group members get frustrated when things go too fast and the higher-level students leave them behind.

My advice is don’t focus specifically on any group; for example, I see some teachers focusing on the low-level groups who didn’t understand while leaving the high-level kids to do the work independently. It is really not a good way to teach mixed-ability classes. 

3 Provide teaching material in different ways: audio, video, written papers, and group activities

Help your students by providing teaching material in different ways, including audio, video, written papers, and group activities.

You can teach the same single concept in multiple different ways. For example, you verbally explain your grammarvocabulary, or writing lessons. Try to use lots of visuals, video, text, and encourage group activities. 

Before you begin each lesson, ensure you define the key terms along with examples to make sure all your students understand the basics. 

You can also give your students different ways and options to complete their assignments depending on their ability. 

4 Use cooperative quizzes (AKA group quizzes)

A lot of teachers I speak with find success with cooperative quizzes. The quizzes are excellent pedagogical devices. They will keep your students on their toes to continuously review. 

With cooperative quizzes, students are divided into groups. They are responsible for reaching a consensus on each answer, requiring them to discuss and debate the course material taught in class. 

The more advanced students get the chance to cement their knowledge by explaining (in their own words) the material to struggling students. And, the ones who are struggling get to hear the material explained by their classmates.  

Moreover, group quizzes create group cohesion since they are collaborative. And, as a bonus, group quizzes help you evaluate your class progress.  

5 Use verbal, written, and visual aids to differentiate how you teach a lesson

Every concept I teach has a core, challenge, super-challenge task. You can make your class like a scavenger hunt, where your students keep trying their best to get to the top. 

Remember you are teaching mixed-ability classes, so ensure you use different support materials to account for the difference in your students’ abilities. 

6 Give your availability to explain the key concept differently during your office hours

This one is my personal favorite; it encourages students to take the initiative to be in charge of their learning. I generally provide my students with one-on-one support, where I focus on each student’s specific challenges. 

When students first come to see me, we discuss their goals:

  • What do they think their weaknesses are?
  • What do they want to improve on? 
  • What grade would they like to get? 
  • University they wish to study at? 
  • The major they are planning to study? 
  • How I can specifically help as a teacher?
  • And, what steps they are committed to take to reach their goals?

Most importantly, it helps build relationships with your students, which keeps them motivated to study harder. 

7 Use non-technical language to avoid a knowledge barrier, especially with lower-ability students

Whenever you discuss key concepts, try to use non-technical language to avoid a knowledge barrier, especially with low-ability ESL students. 

Know your students and what works best for them. Use a combination of ways to teach: visual, audio, and many class activities. More importantly, knowing your students will help you prepare and focus on their weaknesses.

Written by Altiné Moumouni for Teflnet December 2021
Altiné is from Toronto, Canada, and currently teaches mathematics at a high school in Guangzhou, China. He has a master's degree in International Economics and Finance from Ryerson University in Canada and is passionate about helping people worldwide through his blogs. He writes about TEFL Teaching and Health and Fitness. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, running, traveling, and anything that allows him to experience the beauty of nature. You can find him at altinify.com.
© Teflnet

4 Comments

  • Altiné says:

    Thanks, Toni, I greatly appreciate your comment.

  • Altiné says:

    Hello Emile,

    Many thanks for your kind words. Here’s my email: altinify@gmail.com, let’s exchange.

    Altiné

  • Emile Boyo PARE says:

    Dear Altine,

    Thanks for this detailed information on teaching mixed-ability classes.
    I’m Emile, a retired teacher trainer of English teachers in my country, Burkina Faso.
    I wish I could exchange with you on this field, because we do face this situation in a developing country like mine.

  • Toni says:

    Thank you for the very helpful advice.

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