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Tips for teaching mixed-ability English classes

Not all English classes are made equal. It’s a lesson learned by virtually every teacher who steps into an EFL school. Different learning styles, aptitude for language learning, varying use of tech, and student engagement are all reasons you might find some students are scoring straight A’s while others are still pondering their past tenses. It’s just a reality of life – one that makes part of the challenge of good TEFL getting to grips with teaching mixed-ability English classes. Some pointers, tips, and insights to help are below.


mixed-ability English classes
Classroom and teacher | © NeONBRAND/Unsplash


Group work and pair worked in mixed ability


A lot has been written about the power of mingling lower- and higher-ability workers in the same group. The idea about its effectiveness is based around peer-fuelled learning – essentially relying on the understanding of some pupils to encourage and aid the understanding of others. This tends to work better with some aspects of teaching mixed-ability English classes, though. It might be good not to leave the intricate grammar introductions to your class, for example. However, vocabulary sharing and writing tasks are often spot on.


Isolate different abilities


The opposite of the above can also be a useful tool, but most folk agree that it should be used rarely and in moderation when teaching mixed-ability English classes. Rather than putting struggling students with high-fliers for the lesson, you match those with similar abilities together. The way to look at this is that you’re effectively creating individual classes within a single class. It makes it easier for you to focus tasks to specific levels with ease, and to really home in on the things the folk at the bottom are having trouble with, all while still nurturing the greater demands of your whiz kids.


mixed-ability English classes
Group work in a class | © rawpixel/Unsplash


Use a variety of media


The question of mixed ability goes beyond the specific skills of individual students. It’s also a question of what media and tools the teacher uses. Some kids might react to and engage with audio tracks, while others might remember vocab faster from visual prompts or videos. The upshot is that effective teaching often relies on using a very wide range of materials. That makes lesson preparation and curriculum all important, because you’ll need to ensure you plan sessions that lend themselves to all sorts of people across the whole term.


Self-assessment is key


To understand how varied your mixed-ability English class is, you first have to get an appraisal on what those mixed abilities are. One great way to approach this with both older and younger learners is to require everyone to keep a running learning diary. This way, you can drop into a self-written summary of where each student feels they are and compare it to where you know each student actually is. It can throw some enlightening insight on the state of the group you’re running and reveal what particular areas need extra focus.
A child works on a project | © pan xiaozhen/Unsplash


Stick to target language


Even when it comes to teaching mixed-ability English classes, most people agree that switching to the mother language of your learners should be a last resort. You might need to realign expectations on what sort of immersion can be expected from the group, but that doesn’t mean you need to aim your native speaking to the lowest level. In fact, it’s best not to, because you’ll find that students who don’t quite understand will quickly adapt and come up to pace with a class where others around them do.



Of course, this piece just touched the surface of the sea of intricacies that arises when teaching mixed-ability English classes. Experienced teachers might have something to add in the comments below that will help. Meanwhile, those interested in learning more can consider our online or offline TEFL courses.

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