How to deal with mixed level classes

Sooner or later, you’ll definitely come into contact with one of the biggest challenges of teaching English – mixed level classes.

In reality, this is something that will always happen. Language learning is such a unique process, and aptitudes, natural ability, and learner backgrounds all come together in a complex mix which affects how quickly people learn the language. It also affects what areas they excel at, and what areas they are weaker at. Unless we can always have one-on-one learning, there will likely never be a situation where we can devote all our time to identifying and catering to each students’ level optimally.

Many people may not like to admit this, but in a group of ‘intermediate’ learners, there will likely not be many people who are on the exact same level as one another, or if they are, then they will have different skills and strengths (e.g. one may be a stronger reader, one may be a stronger speaker).

And of course, there is always evidence to suggest that even if we could have one-on-one learning for every student, this wouldn’t be the optimal solution either. One-on-one learning is good in many ways, but as language is primarily a social activity, there are a number of advantages to being in a classroom atmosphere, including building relationships, interactive games, listening and speaking to a wide number of participants, and of course learners learning from one another, and mimicking a more natural approach to language use.

So we can say confidently that it’s good to have classes, as long as they aren’t too big and we have enough time and resources to spend on each learner. We can also safely assume that learners will seldom, if ever, be at exactly the same level as one another (there are levels, then there are levels…and so on). The question then becomes, what do we do to ensure that we mitigate the challenges of having a class where there are larger level discrepancies than normal? And what are these challenges anyway?

Risk 1: Lower level students feeling overstimulated
Solution 1: Graded activities

It’s a difficult situation when you’re trying to stick to a lesson plan that you’ve created around a syllabus, coursebook, or other resource which has been dedicated to the class, but one or two learners simply cannot keep up. The challenge here is to ensrue that they are continuing to learn, without being left out of their depth and unsure what to do.

At its worst, having this situation means that these students may end up dropping the class, and severely damaging their self-confidence.

The solution to this, as imperfect as it may be, is to try graded activities, which range from easier up to more difficult. This can take more time, but it allows learners to work incrementally upward. As an example, when creating a reading activity, you could begin with simpler comprehension questions before moving onto higher level questions and longer-form answers.

Similarly, instead of doing a single writing task, add in tasks that begin with a single sentence answer or single word answer, and then move upward. This is one potential way to give your lower-level learners an ‘easy win’ in each class and help build up their confidence.

Another way is to have the higher level learners work with the lower level learners, as ‘helpers’ in a way. This brings us onto Risk 2.

Risk 2: Higher level students feeling bored
Solution 2: Appointing class helpers

If you end up spending too much time catering to your lower level and weaker learners, then it doesn’t take a genius to work out what happens to those at the other end of the spectrum. Many of us have had an experience when we’ve been in a classroom thinking ‘I know this, why do I have to be here?’ This ends up tiring us out, leaving us unfocused, bored, and squandering valuable learning time.

What’s the solution? Well one strategy is to empower the higher level learners by discussing this with them, and explaining that you’re going to look to them to ‘lead’ the class and set an example. These learners can be ‘helpers’, ‘prefects’ or whatever. This can help take learners from the ‘bored’ zone to seeing themselves as having a more collaborative and supportive role in the class.

However, you want to be careful not to disregard the higher level learners using this approach. It’d be easy to let them help the weaker students for the whole lesson, but that disadvantages the higher level learners by not offering them something that challenges them too. How can you combat this? Perhaps by giving a high-level activity to one of the stronger students, and have them work through it collaboratively with a lower level learner. Or, set aside a time for individual activities and ensure you have something that will challenge your higher level learners.

Risk 3: Activities which throw off your lesson planning
Solution 3: Contingency planning and trying new methods

There’s little worse than finding an activity that you’ve planned falls flat – and the reason is that the learners are of such mixed ability that some will finish it in minutes, and others will agonise over it. Hopefully your class isn’t that extreme, but even a small amount of different abilities drastically affects how well an activity in the classroom works.

One thing experienced EFL teachers know is that you always need at least a Plan B, if not a Plan C or D. Having contingency plans, ‘back-ups’ and alternative activities is always a good plan. This could be something you’ve prepared formally, or it could be one of your trusted ‘fall-back’ games, exercises, or projects. Either way, there’s no reason not to try new or more complex activities, but be prepared to switch gears if due to the mixed levels, it doesn’t work as you hoped.

Risk 4: Spending teaching time unwisely
Solution 4: Self-observation and reflective practice

Teaching time is valuable, and limited. Getting the best out of your learners means maximising the value of that time, especially if they may only be speaking and practising English for a couple of hours a week.

The biggest risk of mixed level classes is that you end up ‘putting out fires’, i.e. setting up an activity or exercise, then rushing around to ensure that each group, pair, or individual are doing it correctly and aren’t out of their depth, or bored with the easiness of the task. Sometimes we end up doing this out of habit, and it becomes the norm.

This is the reason that for all its negatives, observation is one of the key ways in which teaching can be improved and these situations can be avoided. Make sure that when you’re observed, if it’s a mixed-level class, that you get feedback on how you’ve used your time, and whether you’ve devoted too much or too little to one learner or group of learners. This is an excellent way of making sure that you don’t fall into the bad habit traps of teaching a mixed ability class.

Risk 5: Suboptimal learning outcomes
Solution 5: Tackling the problems head-on with a positive attitude

The overall biggest risk of a mixed level class is simple: the learning is no good. This is the final outcome if the levels are too mixed, and unfortunately, it can disadvantage all involved if it’s not well-managed by a teacher.

The truth is though, that if you’re an excellent teacher, take steps to identify and tackle the problems, and maintain a positive attitude in providing the best teaching you can, you’ll be able to at least minimise many of these negative outcomes.