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PROBLEMS AND PERSPECTIVES IN TEACHING ENGLISH IN

MIXED ABILITY CLASSROOMS


(M.SENTHILKUMAR,VMKV ENGINEERING COLLEGE,SALEM)

All children are born with potential and we cannot be sure of the learning limits of
any child (Robert Fisher, 2001:1)

Presently, the English language teachers throughout the world keep on buzzing a word
that their students are in mixed level. In the past teachers may well have said that the problem
was just that some students were cleverer or simply ‘better’ than others in the class. But we
now understand that the situation is more complex than that. Our students are indeed mixed in
many ways. They are different in terms of their levels of:Attention,Interest,Motivation,Learnin
g styles,Types of intelligences,Physiological needs,Speed, Maturity,World knowledge.

The above said attributes are the causes for mixed ability classrooms. The characteristics of
Mixed ability classes are:

• While some students follow the lesson and are able to answer questions and do well in
tests, others fall behind, don’t seem to understand and do badly in tests.

• While some students pay attention and are cooperative, others ‘misbehave’ and seem
disinterested.

• Teachers feel concerned that they are not challenging the high-achievers enough and at
the same time are not giving enough help to those who are not doing as well.

• Teachers find it hard to ‘pitch’ their lessons at a level where all students can be
engaged.

Teachers have faced the problems of mixed-ability classes since the times of one-
roomed schools with children who had not only different knowledge but also a different
age and were supposed to learn different things. The situation nowadays is a bit different,
but the problems of mixed ability classes remain.McKeown (2004) believes that many

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teachers see a mixed ability class as consisting of a group of average and able children with a
subset of children who have learning problems. Ireson & Hallam (2001) suggest that teachers
need to recognise that a class becomes mixed ability class because children have different
strengths and weaknesses and develop at different rates. They have different preferences for
learning and displaying their work. Mixed ability classes are a fact of not only language classes
but of all subjects.
It is important to make a clear distinction between mixed ability teaching and
mixed ability classes. Most teachers have to teach mixed ability groups but they may not
be using mixed ability teaching strategies.
Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences tells us that we all may learn
in different ways and we also have natural preferences to the way in which we enjoy
learning. If we only teach in one way many students will be disadvantaged. The teacher
should recognize that he is teaching to a group of different individuals not a single student
with 25 faces. The students are not less able than others; they just need a different kind of
stimulation. Fisher suggests that many children don’t achieve their potential because they
are told “to make a journey but they have no map.”
Children cannot overcome blocks to learning if they have not learnt how to learn.
Teachers should act as role models for learning and teach pupils how to become
independent and effective learners. Pupils will be more motivated if they understand the
aim of a lesson and have some input.
We, teachers, should understand ourselves whether we are addressing to all the
students in the class. Sometimes without being aware of it ourselves we are making the
difference between students greater by favouring some students and ignoring others. Consider
the questions below to reflect upon our own teaching and consider whether we are directing our
lesson to all the students in the class:

• Can all the students see you?

• Can you see all the students?

• Can all the students hear you?

• Do you know all the students’ names?

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• Do the weaker students sit at the back, where it’s more difficult for you to make
eye contact with them?

• Do you ask questions to the class and give everyone time to respond or do you
let the quick students call out the answers first, so that it’s always the same students who do the
answering?

• Are you fair and impartial?

• Do you encourage all the students?

• Are you patient?

• Are your instructions clear?

• Is your lesson well signposted? (i.e. do students know what they should be doing
at any given time? Do you give time limits for activities? Has everyone noticed that you want
to give some new instructions or explain something?)

• Are all the students comfortable? (If a student is too hot, in pain, hungry, upset,
preoccupied etc they are not in the right condition to learn.)

Problems in Mixed Ability Classes

Effective Learning
As a teacher, our aim is to reach all of our students. However, it is well known that
every student has a different way of learning, and learns and progresses at different speeds.
Thus, while some students may find the learning task very easy to deal with, others may find it
difficult to understand. Sometimes it is observed that a student is bright in schooldays whereas
he is dull in studies in the tertiary level, it happens vice-versa also.Besides, learning also
depends on the learners background as they may come from different family, different
environment and/or different place, different society may be an obstacle , which eventually
results in ineffective learning. Moreover, although it is quite difficult for the teacher to know
about each student and to follow what each one does during the lessons even in small classes, it

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is important for teachers to monitor each and every student and to reach their needs in a variety
of ways to achieve effective teaching.

Materials
Since most language textbooks are designed for an ideal homogeneous classroom
environment, teachers always have to deal with the problem that students react to the textbook
differently due to their individual differences. First of all, some students may find the textbook
boring and very hard, whereas some find it interesting or very easy. In addition, as language
teaching course materials are currently based on content-based or theme-based syllabi, some
students may find the topics dull, strange, or meaningless; whereas others find it enjoyable,
familiar or interesting. Therefore, it is usually necessary for the teacher to evaluate and adapt
the materials according to his/her class.

Participation
Since the classroom is the first and only environment for many foreign language
learners, they should use this chance as much as possible. However, some of the students find
it difficult to speak in the target language for many reasons ranging from interest to confidence,
from age to knowledge. Other students, however, would like to express everything they think
or feel by using the new language. As a result, some students may take many turns, while
others do not speak for the entire lesson.

Interests
Interest problems may arise due to the differences among students in terms of their
attitude towards the subject matter and/or the teacher; their knowledge of language; and their
personality. For instance, some students may find lessons boring, as the topic has no familiarity
with their own life or their interests. Furthermore, some of the students may not be interested in
the lesson, unless they do get the chance to express their own ideas since the teacher talks too
much during the lesson or the other students take many turns. Hence, teachers should be aware
of the different interests of the students to organize and to arrange activities accordingly.

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Discipline
Often the quicker students finish the tasks given before the other students. As a result,
they may misbehave while waiting for the others to finish. The weaker students, on the other
hand, cannot finish the tasks as quickly as the strong ones and may loose their confidence
and/or show ill-disciplined behaviour for a variety of reasons related to that. Consequently,
mixed abilities may result in classroom management problems.

How to Cope with the Problems


1. In order to solve the problems of mixed ability, teaching should appeal to all senses,
all learning styles and all intelligences. Moreover, it should be based on a meaningful context
for all learners. To exemplify, visuals are always useful for all age and proficiency levels, so
even using coloured chalk or board markers, pictures attract learners’ attention to the teaching
point. Hence, teachers can make use of visuals to grab students' attention and to motivate them
because even the most passive learners are often interested in colourful and interesting posters.
When presenting language use pictures to give new language context,e.g. use magazine pictures
of homes/houses to introduce the vocabulary of furniture.

2. It is advisable to have contingency plans for the early finishers in case they finish
the tasks earlier. This contingency plan might be an extra exercise, a
handout or a reading passage. Nevertheless, teachers are the ones who should
know which contingency plan works better after which activity in their class.

3. All students do not need to carry out an entire in-class activity. While every student
should do certain parts, only some of the students (weak ones or early finishers) do all of it (Ur
1996, 306). In relation to that, the tests could include optional questions: While every student
completes some parts of the test, some other parts may have options from which the students
choose. Furthermore, different tasks can be given to different learners according to their
language progress or interest, or optional tasks can be prepared from which students choose.
4. Open-ended tasks or questions (such as writing a letter, an ending of a
story/book/film, or a response to a picture) have a variety of possible correct answers instead of
a single answer. These tasks allow each learner to perform at his/her own level. Some of the
students may be good at understanding but might be weak in expressing themselves orally or in

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written work; thus, open-ended tasks give them the chance to express themselves without trying
to find the only correct answer.
5. It is important for teachers to give students the opportunity to express their ideas,
feelings and experiences, though they may lack confidence or enough language knowledge. By
personalising the tasks, all students can participate voluntarily. Knowing students’
personalities helps the teacher to prepare and adapt materials easily in order to make them
interesting or relevant to students, which adds variety to the classroom environment and establi
shes a positive atmosphere.
6. Teachers should kindle kinesthetic stimulation of students and therefore they
respond well to activities that require movement in class. They love games, competitions and
dramatisation, so these are ways of ensuring their interest in the lesson. Regardless of the
differences among the students in terms of language level and learning styles, they are
motivated to use the target language while they are playing a game or participating in a
completion or a role-play.
7. Group/Pair work activities are useful not only for the teacher to observe students
but also for the students to cooperate and to learn from each other. When a strong student
works with weaker students, the student can be a source of language/knowledge in the group.
The teacher, on the other hand, may form groups of weaker and stronger students separated
from each other, and she can give different tasks to these groups. So the stronger and quicker
students work with more complicated tasks, whereas the weaker students deal with a simpler
task or work with the teacher as a group member.
8. Extra homework always helps teachers of mixed ability classes. However,
considering the level and the interests of the students, extra work should be of something that
the students would enjoy doing. Therefore, a good way of dealing with mixed ability may be
individual and team projects. In addition, students would be more enthusiastic to work in such
projects if they can choose their topic such as preparing a poster on their favourite extreme spor
ts like cricket, football etc.,
9. Portfolios are another efficient way of dealing with mixed ability groups. Teachers
may ask students to keep all the things they have done during the term including the extra work
depending on their ability or needs. As a result, not only the teacher but also each student has a

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record of his/her progress during the term. This record also shows the needs
of the student for further progress.

Activities that involve all Students in Mixed Ability Class

Students are put off when they are not doing well in a subject. Remember –
success breeds success. Activities that allow them to use their outside knowledge can increase
their confidence in class. Consider activities like these, which all the students can do, but can
be as done at different levels as the students choose:

Try a general knowledge game like this: Choose a letter of the alphabet and ask students
to write the following beginning with that letter in English:

• a country
• a woman’s first name
• a sport
• a fruit or vegetable
• a politician
• a musician or composer
• a part of the body

e.g. with the letter M = Malaysia, Mary, motor racing, mango, Margaret Thatcher,
Mozart, mouth

Diaries

Students regularly write in a diary or journal. They can write about whatever they wish
and however much they want. The focus is on fluency. Teachers can read and respond to the
content. Students can also illustrate these diaries and/or include pictures or text from magazines
/internet etc. This creates a real and personal communication between the student and the
teacher.

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Surveys
Students design questionnaires for the class and decide how to present their findings.
Weaker students can choose just a few simple questions to ask e.g.
What is your favourite sport? And then present their findings using charts, posters or
oral presentations.
Brainstorming
Doing any work on a given topic allows time for students to think of language they
already know on the topic. You can do this as a class with teacher writing suggestions on the
board or with students working in groups on big pieces of paper. For example:

Bank Robbery

Gun Robber Scream


Money Manager
Getaway
Customer Police
car
Fear Mask
Arrest

All students can contribute, even if it is only single words.

To enrich vocabulary, the teacher can give one word to the class and ask the students to
suggest other correlated words. Example: Hospital: doctor, surgery, medicine, nurse,
ambulance, diagnose, ward, etc,

Teach through telling stories

You can tell a story and ask the students to suggest the morals, ideas and vocabulary.
The teacher can construct a story in collaboration with students.

For example:
One day – what kind of day was it?
Students make suggestions and you incorporate them into the story.

OK, it was a sunny, hot, boring day. A man – what did he look like? etc.

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Don’t compare students to others, but praise them for what they have managed to do,
regardless of what others around them have produced. We all need to know that our
contributions are of value.

Problem solving

Such exercises encourage students to use their scientific, geographical and practical
knowledge to practise their English. It engages students as it’s a realistic problem that needs to
be solved rather than merely a language problem such as a grammar exercise.

You have been washed up alone on a desert island after your ship sank. The island is
very small and has no water and only a few trees. You have seen some birds but no other
animals. There is a small lifeboat containing some useful things two miles from your island. It
is also sinking. You have enough time and energy left to swim to it and remove five items
(only) and bring them to your island. With your partner(s) decide which five you want to take
and give reasons for your choices.
20 metres of rope,20 litres of fresh water, a radio,20 tins of food, a box of matches, a
torch, a gun, a knife, a first aid kit, a bottle of kerosene, signal flares, warm clothes, a mobile
phone, a small dog, a book about the fish in this area, 6 bars of chocolate.

Bibliography

Fisher,RTeaching Children to Learn.Cheltenhom,Nelson Thomas Ltd, 2001


Mckeown, S.Meeting SEN in the Curriculam:Modern Foreign Languages
London : David Fulton Publishers,2004
Ireson,J.,& Hallam,S Ability grouping in Education, London,Paul Chapman
Publishing,2001
Salli-Copur, Deniz. Coping with the Problem of Mixed Ability Classes.
The internet TESL journal. <iteslj.org/Techniques/Salli- Copur- MixedAbility.html. 18
Nov. 2006