Lesson Planning Tips for Mixed Ability Classes

Teachers are extremely busy and because of this it is so easy to get into a rut. In this article we’ll try and guide you with teaching tips for those of you who are trying to find different ways to educate your students that are on all different levels. Hopefully these ideas can help you in a classroom with mixed ability students.

What are mixed ability classes? 

Mixed ability classes is a term used to describe classes made up of students of different levels of abilities. All classes are to some degree made up of learners who differ in many ways. They may have different strengths, weaknesses and approaches to learning. They may respond differently to various teaching methods and classroom situations.  There are a number of advantages to teaching mixed ability classes.

  • Mixed ability classes provide a rich pool of human resources (Ur, 1991). Learners come to class with different knowledge, experiences, opinions, ideas and interests which can be drawn on to provide interesting, varied student-centered lessons (Hess, 2001). Such diverse classes are interesting to teach and provide greater opportunity for innovation and creativity.
  • There is ‘educational value’ in mixed ability classrooms, as through their interaction, students can help and learn from each other (Ur, 1991:305).
  • Learner autonomy is developed in these types of learning environments, as teachers may not be able to always tend to the individual, learners help or teach each other, work together or individually.
  • Another great benefit is that mixed ability classes provide an opportunity for teachers to develop themselves professionally, as teachers need to adopt a problem solving approach to the difficulties they face and experiment with a range of teaching approaches. Tomlinson (1999:28) aptly stated that ‘A secure teacher comes away from today with important questions to puzzle about overnight and the belief that today contains insights necessary for a more effective tomorrow.’

Let’s look at some of challenges of teaching mixed ability classes and then move on to the strategies and lesson planning tips you can use to get the most of a mixed ability class while minimizing your stress.

Potential problems teachers may face

Teachers may encounter a number of problems when teaching a mixed ability class. These are some comments made by teachers about their experiences of teaching mixed ability classes from Richmond Publishing:

“Half the students have finished an exercise when the other half have only just begun.”

“The stronger students get bored if I spend time explaining to the weaker ones.”

“We’ve got a syllabus to get through but most of the students are already behind.”

“The stronger students dominate.”

“The weaker students sit at the back and start disrupting the lesson.”

“The weaker students don’t even try.”

“I don’t know where to pitch my lesson.”

“The weaker students are always asking me things in their own language and want everything explained in it.”

“Some of the weaker students try so hard but they still get bad grades.”

According to Ur (1991: 303), some of the challenges teachers of mixed ability classes may face include:

  • Discipline – Teachers may find their mixed ability classes are chaotic or difficult to control. Discipline problems happen when learners feel frustrated, lose concentration, get bored, or behave in a disruptive manner. Some reasons why mixed ability classes may be more difficult to control may be because different learners may find the subject matter easier or more difficult to grasp, while weaker learners may require more assistance from the teacher, or more advanced learners may dominate aspects of the lessons.
  • Interest – Learners may differ in their learning styles, motivation and interests. Teachers of mixed ability classes may find it difficult to provide content and activities that are motivating and interesting to all learners in a class.
  • Effective learning for all – In mixed ability classes it is difficult to provide effective learning for all learners. The content or activities in a lesson may be too easy for some and too difficult for others.
  • Materials – Materials are usually rigidly aimed at a certain kind of learner and may not offer teachers options or flexibility.
  • Individual awareness – Teachers may find it difficult to get to know and follow the progress of all learners in a class. In classes where there are many differences, teachers are not able to devote time and attention equally to all learners (Šimanová, 2010).
  • Participation – In mixed ability classes, more advanced learners tend to participate more actively than weaker learners. Lack of participation or attention from the teacher, may further affect weaker learners proficiency in the subject.

 Strategies and tips for teaching mixed ability classes

Some useful strategies for managing mixed ability classes (Šimanová, 2010, Bremner, 2008) are listed below:

  • Classroom management – By managing classes effectively, teachers can ensure that learners will be involved as much as possible in the lesson. Classroom management techniques include organizing the classroom layout for maximum learning potential, involving all students, learning and using learners’ names, teachers cultivating a positive attitude through their own attitude to the class, praise and encouragement, grading and using relevant teacher talk, using the board effectively and managing learning activities by giving good instructions, asking concept checking questions, using pair and group work, setting time limits, monitoring the activity and including feedback on the activity.
  • Interest – Teachers need to make the lessons interesting in terms of content, topic and activities. To find out what interests the learners, teachers could find out what interests the learners outside the classroom, allow learners to share their interests with the class through project work and personalization activities, such as ‘show and tell’, or allow learners to choose the content, topics or activities for lessons, where appropriate.
  • Supportive learning environment – It is important to create a supportive learning environment in the classroom, where learners feel confident and able to perform to the best of their ability.
  • Learning to learn – Teach learners about different learning styles and the different learning strategies for these learning styles which include visual, aural, verbal, kinesthetic, logical, social and solitary. Teach learners how to be resourceful so that they know where to find help if they get stuck. Provide learners with the goal for the lesson and encourage learners to review and assess whether they have achieved the goal by the end of the lesson.
  • Variety – Vary topics, methods of teaching, focus, materials and activities. Variety will generate learner interest and motivation; and lessons will accommodate different learners’ levels, abilities and learning styles.
  • Grouping – Use a range of interaction patterns in class. Learners should work in groups, pairs and individually. Groupings should be changed often, thereby giving learners an opportunity to work with different learners.
  • Pace – Teachers must be mindful of the pace of their lessons. Teaching a class too slowly or too quickly may lead to boredom or frustration. A teacher must be aware of his/her learners’ abilities and pitch the pace of the lesson accordingly.
  • Collaboration – Getting learners to work together and cooperating has a number of benefits for the learners and teacher. Learners develop their learner autonomy and learn from their peers, rather than always being reliant on the teacher. Learners who collaborate on tasks learn how to compromise and negotiate which means that they develop self-evaluation skills. Collaboration tasks can involve project work as well as pair or group activities.
  • Individualization – Hess (2001:12) describes individualization as ‘providing opportunities for students to work at their own pace, in their own style and of topics of their choosing’. Individualization can be promoted in the classroom through portfolios, self-access centers, individualized writing or personalized dictionaries.
  • Personalization – Ur (2001:306) suggests including activities which allow learners to respond personally. These types of tasks increase learners’ motivation and interest as they are based on something the learners have experienced and can relate to.
  • Open-endedness – Open-ended activities allow learners to respond to tasks and questions which have a variety of possible answers rather than one correct answer. Open-ended tasks allow learners to perform at their level of ability. Such tasks include sentence completion activities, story completion activities, brainstorming, writing their own definitions for words, and answering questions in a number of different ways.
  • Compulsory plus optional tasks – Ur (2001) suggests learners are assigned compulsory tasks with additional materials should they finish the core tasks. By setting compulsory plus core tasks, all learners are engaged and can feel a sense of achievement when completing a task.
  • Adapting materials – Course books are designed for a particular language level and do not offer much flexibility. As a result teachers may need to adapt the materials to make them easier or more challenging.
  • Homework – Homework is an excellent tool to provide learners of all levels and abilities with an opportunity to review and consolidate the material covered in class.

In reality, every class can be described as a mixed ability class as it is made up of learners who are different in terms of their knowledge and ability. Studies have shown that teachers who view their learners’ differences in a positive way and embrace new tips and strategies for teaching mixed ability classes are better equipped to teach in mixed ability classroom contexts.

How do you manage your mixed ability class? Do you have any other tips to share?

Bremner, S. (2008) Teaching a Mixed Ability Class. http://www.languageswithoutlimits.co.uk/resources/SBremner.pdf
Hess, N. (2001) Teaching Large Multilevel Classes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Šimanová, A. (2010) Dealing with Mixed Ability Classes. http://is.muni.cz/th/104237/pedf_m/?lang=en;id=183114
Richmond Publishing, Teaching a mixed ability class.
Tomlinson, C. (1999) The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria: ASCD.
Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.