#AusELT chat summary: Managing mixed-ability classes (July 4, 2013)


The topic of ‘managing mixed ability classes’ was suggested by Jenny Kessel (@jenglishes) and proved very popular. You can see the original chat transcript here.

Karen Benson (@eslkazzyb) was an awesome moderator and somehow made sure the chat addressed 6 key areas in its fast-paced hour:

  • What do we mean by ‘mixed ability’?
  • Main challenges
  • Top tips
  • Useful tasks
  • Favourite extension tasks
  • Useful links/resources

What do we mean by ‘mixed ability’?

This question is knottier than at first it seems. Classes can be differentiated by level and by skill. But as @kathywa29798411 put it, it’s only a problem if ‘the differences make a difference.’

If we are talking about level differentiation, that is, overall ability, how do we judge that? @eslkazzyb pointed out: ‘Often stronger value attached to speaking. It is more noticeable. Is it more valued?’

If we are talking about skill differentiation, that is, for example, good writing but poor speaking and vice versa, the question arises of what skills are most prioritised on a given course. @andrea_rivett rightly pointed out that it depends on focus of the entry level test (or course). @MeredithMacAul1 was able to support this, tweeting ‘In my context, EAP, students are accepted based on IELTS score with an overall score and a minimum writing score.’ Nonetheless, there seemed to be general agreement that speaking is often what carries the day when deciding on a student’s class or ‘level’.

@sophiakhan4 thought that the hardest situation was when abroad and classes were grouped by things that had nothing to do with level OR ability (e.g., age). @eslkazzyb reminded us that study tours here are often like that also, but wondered if it was easier to satisfy kids than paying adults. @sophiakhan4 suggested kids might be happier with a ‘total’ learning experience rather than fulfilling ‘needs’, and @eslkazzyb agreed there were different expectations at work in this type of context.

Accepting that any class with an overall level still consists of students with different strengths and weaknesses, @eslkazzyb proposed that ‘in our ELICOS ‘streaming’ system, all classes are inherently mixed ability.’ @cioccas pointed out that it’s not necessarily an ELICOS phenomenon: ‘Happens everywhere I think. Except perhaps where you have huge numbers? In our evening classes, we only have one class at each level, so they are very mixed in ability – within students and across the class!’

@eslkazzyb agreed: ‘I should add our IELTS classes are mixed level too – Intermediate++.That is a challenge for the teacher!’ This sentiment was echoed by other chatters, and seems to be a familiar situation for IELTS teachers across the #AusELT community.

Main challenges in managing mixed-ability classes

  • Maintaining motivation: how to keep all students in the class motivated, interested and feeling like they are continuing to achieve.
  • Pitch: where to ‘aim’ your lesson so that lower level students don’t fall behind, and higher level students remain challenged.
  • Pace: managing the speed and pace of the lesson in such a way that higher level students don’t get bored and lower level students don’t feel rushed  (relates to the two points above)
  • Managing dominant students: students with strong speaking skills can easily dominate or disrupt a class – this may also be exacerbated if they also have low reading and writing skills, and don’t want to lose face.
  • Differentiated instruction: tailoring teaching to suit students with different educational backgrounds – for instance, general literacy and numeracy, academic literacy, grammatical background knowledge, etc.
  • Differentiated feedback: tailoring and focusing feedback to suit the individual’s level/ability, knowing when to praise and when/how far to push.

Despite these issues, it’s important to see the silver lining – as @cioccas wrote: ‘Lots of challenges, but also opportunities for getting students to help and support each other too.’

Top tips for managing mixed ability classes

Managing a mixed-ability class is not easy, and it requires a skilled teacher. As @cioccas says, ‘Sometimes you just have to teach them independently working on different skills, tasks, activities with different students, in groups if you’re lucky.’ Extra preparation and classroom-management strategies are essential for a teacher preparing to teach such a class. It may mean lots of extra planning, but also skill in thinking on your feet: ‘being nimble-footed in the classroom – ready to change direction at any time’ (@cioccas). However, you could argue that  this is true of any classroom: ‘difference not such an issue, just teacher challenging students’ (@eslkazzyb). Ultimately, as @Penultimate_K pointed out, ‘It hinges on knowing your students really well and directing the tasks accordingly.’ Below you will find a list of some of the strategies we came up with, as well some things to be careful of.

  • Strong + weak student pairing. Be careful to: ensure no one is losing face; ensure stronger students feel they are learning enough and not just supporting ‘weaker’ students; mix this up with other ways of pairing/grouping (see below).
  • Vary the grouping. i.e., high/high, low/low, high/low, depending on the task. Be careful to: give strong students the opportunity to work together sometimes.
  • Use students with higher ability in a skill as models, assistants, or even teachers (e.g., they can teach some of the target vocab). Be careful to:  make sure everyone gets a chance to shine (see below).
  • Make sure everyone gets a chance to shine. Even weak students, if they have been monitored and supported during the task, can ‘shine’ in feedback by sharing the correct answer with the class. ‘Everyone can be the “expert” depending on the focus/skill,’ says @andrea_rivett.
  • Use a range of graded or extension tasks. For example, jigsaws readings/listenings with more challenging or detailed tasks for stronger students, or with extra extension tasks for those who finish early. Be careful to: think about how feedback would work with different tasks (it may be easier to conduct feedback in groups rather than with the whole class).
  • Encourage students to value each other’s strengths. For example, X speaks well but Y has great grammar, etc.
  • Encourage weaker students to prepare the next lesson topic in advance. ‘Like a “half-flipped” class (@andrea_rivett).

These are all excellent ideas for trying to keep everyone happy, but @MeredithMacAul1 also made the important point that sometimes we have to focus on the overall aims and expected level of the course, despite having weaker students: ‘In my context, though, must continue forward and weaker or less motivated students must be strongly encouraged to do work outside of class, too.’

Useful tasks with mixed-ability classes

  • ‘Any ability’ or open-ended tasks: for example, ‘listen and note what you hear’ (with careful feedback). Click here to see a handy little list of open-ended tasks from p.13 of Teaching large multilevel classes by Natalie Hess (Cambridge University Press), forwarded by @eslkazzyb.
  • Graded tasks: same reading/listening text, but questions available in three levels of difficulty (easy, medium, hard); different levels of scaffolding/modelling available for speaking tasks (e.g., weaker students can use notes, higher level students can’t); etc.
  • Reduced tasks:  halve the number of questions for weaker students. This means less pressure on them, while stronger students still feel challenged.
  • Extension tasks: for students who finish early. For example, everyone does the same reading/listening text with the ‘easy’ questions, and the harder level questions are extension tasks; students who finish early can make a vocab quiz for the next day’s review; etc. (more ideas in next section!)
  • Jigsaw: students explore different reading/listening texts in groups, then report back to others (texts could be graded)
  • Work stations: setting up different tasks around the room, so students can pick what they want/need to work on (great for independent learning and teacher can monitor and help as necessary). @cioccas said ‘My ideal classroom would allow easy rearrangement of furniture and have a mix of desks & PCs/tablets so can have several diff activities simultaneously.’
  • Task-based learning (TBL) and project-based learning (PBL): this is great for mixed levels as the sense of task achievement is still there for everyone.

Favourite extension tasks

  • Extra tasks posted online or on a noticeboard (self-paced, self-checked)
  • Summaries
  • Highlighting new vocab
  • Highlighting strong and weak forms and practising this
  • Reflections
  • Using new vocab from the lesson in a paragraph
  • Writing answers on the board
  • Making vocab gapfill or comprehension questions for a review or quiz
  • Making vocab cards for the class to use the next day/end of week
  • Making a board game, quiz questions or challenges for review purposes
  • Using the ‘class vocab notebook’ or ‘vocab box’ – adding things, testing each other, review games . . .
  • Prepare for tomorrow: stronger students have to do more, e.g., bring collocations/sentence to ‘teach’.
  • ‘Word/phrase of the day’ – different students teach one each day – this can be from a list given at the start of the week, or they can simply find their own.

Useful links/resources for mixed-ability classes


  • Teaching large multilevel classes by Natalie Hess (Cambridge University Press). Recommended by @eslkazzyb.
  • Classroom Management Techniques by Jim Scrivener (Cambridge University Press) has a chapter on mixed levels. Recommended by @thesmylers.


Let us know if you would recommend any other links/resources – and thanks to all participants for another brilliant chat  🙂

This post by @sophiakhan4

4 thoughts on “#AusELT chat summary: Managing mixed-ability classes (July 4, 2013)

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