I’d like to invite you to do a simple visualization exercise. Imagine a field with only one type of flower, there are no other flowers or plants. Now close your eyes and see it and feel it. What is it like? What does it feel like?
Now, imagine a field of different kinds of flowers, all mixed, coming in various colours, shapes and sizes. Take a moment to see it. What does it feel like?
To me, the colourful field is indescribably more beautiful and enjoyable than the plain one, and I’m sure this is true for most of you too.
So, using this metaphor, successful classroom management means creating an environment where all learners can flourish, regardless of their abilities, interests, and characteristics, or in other words, turn into their best possible selves.
One thing all learners need to do to succeed in life is to believe in themselves. Belief is an essential ingredient for success in life, and it transcends age, occupation, and social status. Regardless of who we are, we all require this element. They should firmly believe that they can do the tasks set in the class to the best of their abilities and learn English to the best of their abilities.
The most important tool we have as teachers to develop and nurture this confidence is our own belief in our learners that they can do it. This attitude lies at the heart of all the successful classroom management strategies and techniques we use in a mixed-ability class.
Unsuccessful classroom management usually comes from tension created between a certain kind of expectation we have about a fixed outcome and the actual outcome our learners produce in the class. So, our openness and belief in our students are key to creating an environment where all learners can flourish.
If we truly believe in all our learners, we will seek appropriate strategies and here are 4 of them. We will:
- Tolerate not knowingwhat the outcome will be like, not expecting that all learners produce the same/expected answers. We give learners open-ended activities and maintain a genuinely curious attitude about our students and what they produce.
For example, here is an activity suitable for primary and secondary age groups from the elementary level and above. First, we can create a model dialogue using some keywords or expressions together as a class and then put learners in similar ability groups to create their own versions. Some versions may be very short, others a lot longer, but there can be additional differences in creativity, imagination, context, etc. used, which gives room for celebration.
- Celebrate and build on differences, as our learners are inevitably different in every single aspect.For example, get your learners to set their own concrete language and attitude goals for the year, about two-three goals per category. Then put learners in groups to identify commonalities in their goals and ways in which they can support each other in achieving their goals. First, learners do this in pairs, then in 4s, then 8s, and then as a whole class. Identify class goals together and revisit both class- and personal goals at the end of every term. This activity is suitable for upper primary age groups and above, from elementary and above. Beginners can also do this in their mother tongue.
- Have a ’participation is obligatory’ attitude which ensures that all learners will be on their toes throughout the lesson, and all learners will be engaged, as in the example below.
After a ‘correct/incorrect sentence’ activity involving present continuous the class is asked about their answers using thumbs up/down. Alternatively, learners may signal their answer using two different pieces of paper: ’correct’ and ’incorrect’. The teacher sees that a lot of learners gave incorrect answers immediately, and so moves on to a clarification activity. Then gives them another grammar activity to assess if their understanding of it has developed or not. In this activity, learners are asked to work in mixed pairs and justify their answers to each other. Nota bene: a similar technique of ABCD or True/False or Smiley face/Sad face cards can be used to make sure all learners are engaged in the feedback process. This is a formative assessment technique suitable for all age groups and all levels used with appropriate target language work.
- Use the ’No hand-ups unless you are asking a question technique.In this way, we avoid having the ‘strong’ students’ hands up in the air all the time, and basically getting answers to our questions from the same students. Instead, we ask a learner to answer, then invite a second learner to reflect on the answer, and then we can ask a third learner to ask a clarification question from one of them, and so in this process, learners construct their answers together.
If students ask a question, we can delay our response, using the same technique as described above, and encourage learners to do the thinking. This, again, is a formative assessment technique suitable for all age groups and all levels.
So here are some key questions to ask ourselves as teachers.
Do I really believe that all my learners can do the tasks I set?
How can I tweak or open up activities so that all learners are engaged?
How can I do feedback so that all learners learn from it depending on their needs?
Are there any other key questions we need to focus on, do you think, to manage mixed-ability classes successfully? Do add your questions in the comment section below.
For more tips and advice, click below to access our Focus Paper on Teaching Mixed Ability Classes.
Erika Osváth, MEd in Maths, DTEFLA, is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. Before becoming a freelance trainer in 2009, she worked for International House schools for 16 years in Eastern and Central Europe, where she worked as a YL co-ordinator, trainer on CELTA, LCCI,1-1, Business English, YL and VYL courses, and Director of Studies. She has extensive experience in teaching very young learners, young learners and teenagers.
Her main interests lie in these areas as well as making the best of technology in ELT. She regularly travels to different parts of Hungary and other parts of the world to teach demonstration lessons with local children, do workshops for teachers, and this is something she particularly enjoys doing as it allows her to delve into the human aspects of these experiences. Erika is co-author with Edmund Dudley of Mixed Ability Teaching (Into the Classroom series).