Mixed Ability Classes

Those of us who are involved with teaching mixed-ability classes are probably well aware of some of the problems and difficulties that can arise when trying to organise differentiated work in such a setting. In this post, however, I want to concentrate on some of the advantages of differentiation for learners within mixed-ability classes and suggest some ways to optimise the classroom for this style of teaching. In future blog posts, we will look in more detail at methods to differentiate instructions and tasks.

‘Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment.’

Glossary Of Education Reform 

Why should there be differentiation within the classroom?

For social, economic, cultural and educational reasons mixed-ability classes are becoming the norm in more and more settings. Most, if not all, teachers will be increasingly likely to conduct their lessons in mixed ability situations.

Studies have shown that the learners who are most likely to suffer in more traditional streamed classes without differentiation are those with lower ability in the subject. Professor John Jerrim who works for PISA noted that “Those who are least likely to benefit, and most likely to suffer negative effects (in more traditional ‘streamed’ groups and sets), are low-achieving disadvantaged pupils who get placed together in the bottom group/set.” Meanwhile, various institutions such as the Education Endowment Fund have consistently published studies showing that higher ability students are unlikely to be significantly held back in mixed ability settings. Thus, while it might sometimes be more difficult to organise; differentiation within a mixed ability setting is likely to benefit more learners without impeding the progress of those with higher ability.

What are the characteristics of a differentiated approach?

  • There is an emphasis on collaborative learning and group work.
  • The pace of learning is flexible and progressive.
  • There is an ongoing assessment in which variable outcomes are possible and valid.
  • A wide range of media is used to give information and present results.
  • The teacher’s role is supportive.

Reality Check

In reality, all teachers are limited by time and by the syllabus and/or workbooks they are required to use. A fully differentiated program of work can be difficult and time-consuming to set up. However, it is possible to introduce elements of differentiation, bit by bit, topic by topic. The following suggestions are for English teachers who want to introduce more forms of differentiation in their classes. They don’t all have to be implemented at once but can be used as a target for a more differentiated approach.

How to organise and manage the English class for differentiation

Set a positive tone in which all learners feel valued. As you get to know the students, set tasks and activities in which students with different experiences, abilities and backgrounds can take turns in leading. Rotate emphasis on the four basic English skills; reading, writing, speaking and listening so that students with different strengths all have a chance to shine.

Instructions should be given in multiple formats; for example, a written worksheet backed up by oral instructions (which can be given to the whole class or individual students as and when they need it). You might also find or create videos to impart or reinforce some of the instructions; these will engage all the audio-visual senses and might include music, diagrams or pictures for learners who respond better to those kinds of inputs.  

Bear in mind the limits of working memory.  Related to the point above, remember that everyone’s working memory is limited. Try to keep instructions clear and concise, and don’t introduce too much new language at once. When giving spoken instructions or information, write up the key points on the whiteboard. This can act as a point of reference for students who may struggle with using short-term memory. It has been estimated that approximately 10% of students are likely to have some difficulty with working memory, so it’s a really good habit to acquire. If necessary, stage activities and instructions so that learners don’t have to remember too much at once.

Encourage questioning. Demonstrate and emphasise that intelligent questions are not a sign of weakness but a sign of a good learning strategy. Reward those who ask questions that clarify the task or activity for others. (These types of questions might often come from those who are generally regarded as having lower ability in the subject; phrasing those questions well offers a chance for these students to earn kudos within the group they are working with).

Get into the habit of using Concept Checking Questions yourself after providing information or giving instructions. This gives you a way of checking how well the class understands a particular topic or activity and helps to identify anybody who is struggling.

Keep a notebook handy to quickly record who is doing particularly well and who is having problems with particular activities. Refer back to the notebook regularly to adjust tasks for specific learners (to stretch those with higher ability and support those who seem to be having difficulty).

Groupwork is key to successful differentiation. This is a subject we will look at in more detail in future posts. As a starting point get the learners used to the idea that groups will be changed regularly depending on the task at hand. With your knowledge of the students, you can tweak groups according to the type of task or activity in order to give different learners the chance to demonstrate the value of their own knowledge, skills and experience. While you may sometimes want to place higher ability students together with lower ability students in order that the stronger ones can help the weaker ones, don’t let this become the only way in which groups are organised.

As an alternative to using ability as the main factor in deciding groups, you might want to organise group work according to their preferred learning style. This helps students to engage with concepts and demonstrate their understanding in the style that comes most naturally to them. The VARK Model proposes that there are four main sensory modalities that students use to learn information: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and kinaesthetic. Whilst there is no good evidence that students learn best using their preferred learning style, grouping students with similar learning preferences together and providing materials that match that style may help improve their motivation. This is where referring to your notebook will come in useful. Over time you will notice which types of learning individual learners prefer, and will you be able to take that into account when assigning them to groups for specific tasks.

Adjust the layout of desks in the classroom to facilitate learning. In general nests of desks for group work will often be the best way to fully implement differentiated learning. However, there may still be some tasks in which you want students to work alone in rows of desks facing the board. At other times a horse-shoe ring of desks might be the most democratic and convenient way to facilitate a particular activity. The key thing is to not become habituated to one way of organising the desks. Get the students used to the idea that the geography of the classroom is not fixed and can be changed depending on the activity you want them to participate in.

In any activity where students are required to do some of their own research make sure materials and resources are available at different levels either in the classroom or school library. Try to also keep the VARK model in your mind so that different learning preferences are catered for. (Some students might respond better to pictures or diagrams than to texts. Others might find it easier to remember what they hear rather than what they read).

The internet and modern technology are well suited to differentiated and independent learning. Learners will be attracted to programmes and sites which appeal to their interests and levels. However, they do need to be encouraged to experiment and push themselves beyond their comfort zone from time to time. In English lessons, it is all too easy for learners to copy and paste text from popular sites such as Wikipedia without fully understanding it. The teacher needs to be ready with some comprehension checking questions before the students commit anything to their finished piece of work. Learners also need to be frequently reminded that internet translation sites are notoriously bad at translating grammar correctly.

Students should be able to demonstrate their learning in multiple formats. Some may excel in oral presentations while others might do better in written work. Particular students might have low confidence in writing or speaking but may still be able to demonstrate what they have learned by using posters, graphs or illustrations. As teachers, we need to be clear about what the main teaching points of any activity or scheme of work are supposed to be and give students every opportunity to show whether they have understood that or not. Some students might be overwhelmed by shyness when speaking and might have problems caused by dyslexia when writing, yet they could still have a very good understanding of why we use the Present Perfect to talk about life experiences. Differentiated tasks in which students can present their learning in a variety of formats gives the teacher a much better insight into what the students really know and what they don’t.

Revision and recycling: We transfer information from our short-term memory to our long-term memory by processing the concepts and the language through meaningful activities, and by revising and reviewing regularly to aid retrieval. As students build their knowledge, they will find it easier to assimilate new content and concepts, because we learn by making connections with what we know already. Regularly use distributed (spaced) or interleaved practise to reinforce learning. You may also want to use short informal tests to help students revise and retain information. Revision and recycling will help all students, but in particular lower-level students, as they gradually build their knowledge and skills, making future learning less arduous.

And finally…

We will look in more detail at some aspects of differentiation such as giving instructions and organising group work in future posts. Below you can find a quick checklist that may help to focus your thoughts the next time you are setting up a differentiated program of work.

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