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Process of teaching in mixed ability classes

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Artykuł dotyczy nauczania uczniów w grupach o zróżnicowanym poziomie umiejętności.

The issue of mixed ability classes is very frequent in schools. Although the division of large classes was implemented as obligatory a few years ago, very often the most important factor that influences this division is a matter of organisational arrangements or economical reasons, not skills of learners. Lack of proper streaming causes that teachers have to deal with groups of students on different levels of proficiency

Working out of effective strategies and techniques for mixed ability classes requires understanding of the nature of a group and the psychological aspects of language learning.

Background of the problem.

All classes are made up of individuals who differ in a number of ways. Learners usually have a various rather than uniform linguistic competence. Distinctions can be made between specified levels of ability and between different skills: phonology, structure and vocabulary, or between discourse and communication. Besides, all learners bring into the classroom a whole complex of personal characteristic which influence their approach to the acquisition of a foreign language.

Learner variables involved in the development of second-language skills depend on several factors.

Psychological conditioning of mixed ability learners.

The students' achievements depend mostly on their psychological conditioning. Their emotions, attitudes and personalities affect their reasoning processes as well as willingness to learn and succeed.

Cognitive style refers to the predispositions individuals have for using their intellect in specific ways to learn. Some students prefer oral learning which includes listening and speaking, while others base on their visual memory and prefer reading and writing. Learners who are able to work with roughly-tuned material and don't get lost in the face of new evidence or situations are called sharpeners. Levellers are those who are unable to discover things for themselves and require finely-tuned material.

Individual approach to learning relates also to personality. Introverts are centred on themselves, they tend to be shy and reticent. They are conscientious and dedicated to the task. Extroverts are more outgoing and aggressive. They participate more actively in class with less fear of risk-taking.

Aptitude for language learning is referred as an "ear" for languages. Some students have no problems with grammar or phonetics. Others suffer from language-learning disability. Despite great effort they put in learning they can't achieve satisfactory results. These different capabilities are mentally conditioned by personal traits that handicap language-learning but they don't mirror intelligence. A bright student who receives good grades in other subjects can do poorly in language classes. However, children with high intelligence are generally superior to less gifted ones, they learn faster and better.

Students who hold themselves and their abilities in high esteem are more likely to make the effort and to overcome the negative effects of risk-taking activities, such as oral participation. Learners who lack self-confidence are not willing to prepare and participate in lessons. They tend to adopt defensive procedures to protect themselves from the discomfort and failure.

The study of second language requires a sustained commitment. Skills that are developed at one level must be retained for all subsequent study and use of the language. Students have to be systematic in building their skills because any arrears or neglects are difficult to make up and affect further education.

Students may feel that learning a language is impossible or that it prevents them from devoting time to a more interesting subject. They will be full of apprehension and hostility. Positive classroom experiences can change their attitudes, however it will not happen spontaneously.

Motivation is strictly connected with interests and needs of students. They arrive in class with a variety of attitudes about language, the people who speak it, and their culture. A high regard for them as well as belief that knowing the language will be beneficial in the future make learners expend the time and energy to develop communication skills. Students who think about their future professional careers know that ability to communicate is a predicament nowadays.

They learn more and tend to remember longer the material that relates most closely to their interests. Besides, they try to increase their knowledge outside the school and attempt to use it whenever possible.

Valid objectives for some learners are good grades. They give the class their serious attention not because they like to learn the language, but because they want to be good at all subjects. Sometimes it is connected with expectations of their parents and willingness to satisfy them.

Finally, learners are likely to have certain attitudes about the teacher and the class. Their willingness to cooperate or not is based on rumours about the teacher, his (her) expectations and requirements. The pressure of peers very often influences the motivation of students and their views. The desire to succeed can be changed into negative attitude towards the subject and vice versa.

External conditioning.

The progress in studies of learners largely depends on their surroundings. All teachers and their professionalism, parents and their support, but also economic situation are of a considerable importance. Students' approach is conditioned by these factors directly or indirectly.

General knowledge that students already possess has an impact on the process of learning. Students who have had experience learning second languages have an advantage over other students. Learners who reached certain level in developing skills in their native language are likely to have less problems in acquiring those skills in other languages.

Many parents want their children to have contact with second language as soon as possible. That is why they send them to private courses or find a private teacher. When children begin their education at school they have already had a certain fund of knowledge.

What is more, primary schools in Poland are not standardised as far as foreign languages are concerned. This is the reason why teachers in secondary schools deal with students on different levels of ability: beginners mixed together with pre-intermediate learners.

Thanks to wide access to foreign languages in mass media students have contact with native speakers. Cable and satellite TV, radio, but also many available books and magazines provide learners with authentic language and help them master it.

Problems in mixed ability classes.

The variety and discrepancy of individual expectations lead to many problems connected with teaching process. Meeting the needs of slow learners, and at the same time bright learners and reaching the objectives successfully seems almost impossible.


Slow learners can be divided into two groups. The first group are students who do not learn successfully due to general socio-cultural problems, frustrating former language classroom experiences, inadequate use of strategies, or lack of interest. The second type of slow learners are students formally diagnosed as "learning-disabled" by specialists in child psychology.

Slow learners often lack self-esteem. They are also very sensitive to exaggerated or artificial praise. They require individual attention and recognition for any work they do.

The weaker students reflect deficient learning skills and strategies. They use rote memory rather than reasoning. That is why they need many repetitions. They show difficulties in perception, concentrating simultaneously on a very limited number of tasks. They tend to ignore details and go for overall comprehension and production. Some of these problems are also present in their L1. Difficulty in transferring knowledge from one area to another influences their lack of fluency, clarity and precision in using language. The weakest skills of slow learners are generally writing and reading. Therefore they tend to disturb the class and misbehave whenever these skills are emphasised.

Bright students are complete opposite. They can learn a language faster than the average ones. Such students have a tremendous memory for vocabulary, which they seem to be able to pick up in class merely by paying attention. They have a sound understanding of the structures of the language and very quickly develop the ability to use them in a great variety of patterns. They express themselves at a much higher level than the average students, who simply follows the given pattern. Moreover, they imitate new sounds quickly and correctly.

Students of this sort find it frustrating to limit themselves to a given context, and they try to break out of it. Most are highly competitive. There is the danger that they will lose interest or patience when slowed down by peers who cannot learn as quickly, or when there are too many repetitions of the material they have already learned. They may try to manipulate class proceedings in order to get most of the teacher's attention. They are very sensitive and tend to be embarrassed when corrected.


Discipline problems can be divided into two major categories. The first one includes problems involving too much undesirable behaviour, e.g. physical aggression, challenging the teacher's authority, muttering and mumbling, attention seeking. The second group refers to students demonstrating too little desirable behaviour, e.g. lack of attention and interest in work, failure to follow rules about attendance and promptness, lack of cooperation during pair or group work.

Desirable behaviour is especially difficult to maintain in mixed ability groups. Students perform their tasks in a different pace. Slower and unmotivated learners often refuse to take part in activities explaining that they do not understand instructions. On the other hand, bright students are reluctant to work and complain that tasks are too easy.

Organisational aspects of teaching.

One of the most common problems of mixed ability classes is cohesion. It does not depend only on the content of the lesson, but also on the way the content is presented and practised. Classroom management affects an environment in which students are expected to learn. It refers to social relationships and conditions that exist in the class. It shapes the dynamics of mixed ability lessons and influences their integration.


The learners differ in concentration span and the speed in which they are likely to apply their knowledge. That is why the teacher should not plan to do too much in a lesson, but prepare "extra" materials e.g. an anecdote, joke or game. Throughout the lesson the students should be aware how much time they have for each activity, so that they would be able to complete the task. The sense of rhythm and shape of the lesson can be gained by alternate arrangement of short, light activities with long and more intense ones.

The use of L1

There are no hard rules concerning the use of L1. The most important principles are to make the students comprehend the target language, raise their self-esteem, help them to personalise their learning and acquire a new language of self-expression.

It is important that the students can learn a lot from hearing instructions and explanations in FL, as the main objective is to expose them to as much FL as possible. However, it frequently evokes strain and difficulties in understanding, especially among the slower learners. Therefore, the teacher must be consistent in the usage of management language, reinforcing the meaning of that language through the use of mime, gesture or visuals. It is useful to say in L1 what has already been said in FL. Moreover, L1 can provide support and security for the less confident learners when explaining grammatical rules, abstract vocabulary items and concepts.

Cross -checking.

Attention in the class can be focused and held if the teacher involves the students in what the others are saying. This is especially useful when particular students are trying to express themselves, and the rest of the class have stopped listening. Reporting back the answers their peers have given can reduce discipline problems and encourage the students to be more responsive to the content of other learners' presentations.

Pair-work and group-work.

The amount of practice that students get is greatly increased by the use of pair-work and group-work. It provides the opportunity for natural communication between the students when they are less restrained in expressing themselves. In mixed ability groups it may prove particularly valuable as a way of sharing the knowledge between the learners. Although there are some risks such as lack of discipline or not sticking to instructions they can be combated by setting clear objectives of the activity, sufficient explanations and models understandable for everybody, setting a time-limit and appointing group-leaders. Requiring feedback in English is a way of motivating the students to use the target language to carry out the task.

It is useful to change the pairs or groups of students for every activity, but they should be ones of well-distributed ability levels. The teacher can employ various methods of division which contribute to the attractiveness of lessons. The class becomes more dynamic and closely knit. The students are more familiar with each other and willing to help with any difficulties.

Teaching material.

Although modern textbooks contain topics and vocabulary that are of greater interest of contemporary students, it seems justifiable to introduce authentic sources. The teacher should prepare extra materials that satisfy different demands and expectations. Audio and video recordings, articles from magazines and newspapers usually evoke enthusiasm and relieve the monotony of lessons. Being attracted and more involved in the target language environment the students are more aware of its culture and different aspects of life. Diversified classes can encourage and stimulate even the most passive students.


The students' different motivations, abilities and level of proficiency create the necessity to self-study. As the teacher cannot teach the students everything during lessons he/she has to train them to teach themselves and take charge of their own learning. The learners should develop personal learning strategies that are effective for them. They achieve more when they make most of their own resources. The basic dictionary skills and the understanding of meta-language enable them to expand their knowledge. Working on their own the students select structures, expressions and vocabulary that they feel they will use in the future. That is why whatever they learn in the process of self-education constitutes more active part in their minds.

The learners can be involved in self-study from the very beginning of the course. It should not be confined only to advanced students. Even young children can prepare simple projects which require the minimum of the language knowledge. They become accustomed to self-dependence and responsibility for their education.


In mixed ability classes students work in a different pace and with various effectiveness.

That is why special emphasis should be put on tasks which do not require immediate and identical responses. Setting activities that challenge all learners intellectually is essential. They can be tasks with graded level of difficulty: easier, less complicated activities for slower learners and more demanding for more advanced. All the students are able to complete them at the same time.

During project work students focus on presenting information on a subject relevant to themselves, work at their own pace in an uncompetitive environment. It brings the feeling of success and appreciation as every student is able to contribute in some way to the completion of the task.

Grading difficulties combined with pair-work or group-work make it possible to maintain a high level of interest and cooperation.


The main aim of evaluation is not only to test students' knowledge but also to raise their motivation through emphasising their achievements in the language. It includes informal subjective estimates of student work and formalised testing procedures. Both of them are components of the total picture of classroom performance.

The crucial factor in the entire evaluation process is the daily classroom work. It often has the effect of increasing class participation. The teacher can base on students' participation during lessons and progress in course. The grade should reflect their work considering their personal factors. Informal subjective evaluation may be more fundamental and important for learning, than formal evaluation.

The tests should contain graded items from the easiest which most students should be able to do fairy easily to more difficult ones. It helps to strengthen their confidence and provides specific guidelines to recall the knowledge they possess.

Slower students should not be expected to complete all items if they do not feel capable of doing them. Faster students may be given extra credit items, which will keep them occupied while the others finish their tests. The teacher should mark answers from the point of view of what the learners do know rather than reject all but prefect responses.

Both forms of evaluation are valid but they are used in different ways. Informal subjective evaluation of student performance in the classroom serves primarily as feedback to the teacher. It enable to make adjustments that will improve weaknesses in teaching procedures but also provides students with immediate feedback on their progress in the class. Test results, on the other hand, give statistics upon which grades are based. They also show students' strength and arrears in the language. Good grade on a test is a positive reinforcement and an incentive to work harder.


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  • Agnieszka Kubiszewska

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