What’s the best way to boost the motivation of learners in mixed-ability groups?
Teachers sometimes feel that it is their job to animate the class. They need to do more, work harder, and monitor each and every student. Such attempts often end in failure, however. The harder teachers work, the more passive the class can become. Why? Well, with mixed-ability groups, boosting learners’ motivation involves turning the classroom from a place where teaching happens to a place where learning happens. Let’s look at three simple ways that this can be done in practice.
1. Listening tasks – let’s open them up
One great way to make listening tasks more engaging and manageable for students of different levels is to open them up by providing options and choices.
Tell the students you are going to play them a recording. Provide them with some context and perhaps pre-teach some useful vocabulary. Then, instead of looking at comprehension questions, play the recording and ask students “What was going on there?” or “How much of that did you catch?”
Comprehension questions change the way that students listen, making them more likely to listen out for the answers. In a mixed-ability class, different students will understand different things. This approach acts as a kind of differentiation, allowing students to listen to the best of their ability, and to notice whatever they can. This is a much more effective approach than asking all students to find the same answers to the same questions.
Alternatively, give students control over how they listen by making the recording available to all students instead of controlling the playback yourself. This gives students the chance to pause, review and repeat the listening as many times as they need.
2. Try again – peer feedback for mixed-ability groups
What has the biggest impact on improved student performance in speaking tasks: is it teacher correction, or repeated attempts?
The answer is repeated attempts.
Outside school, when our students are playing video games or learning skateboard tricks, there is no teacher in sight. The learning comes through repeated practice. The same principle applies to speaking. When doing speaking tasks with mixed-ability groups there is no need to try to monitor and correct all students all the time. What they really need is the chance to practise.
Classroom tasks which have a repetition of turns embedded in them work extremely well. One example of this is a paired speaking task. When students have finished their turn, simply ask them to do it again with a new partner, or get each pair to join with another pair to make a four. You will find that students’ confidence and performance improve with every new opportunity to repeat their part. Just like in the skateboard park, mastery through multiple attempts is the key to improvement.
3. Time limits, not word limits
Try time limits instead of word limits for in-class writing tasks. Asking all students to write as much as they can in 10 minutes is an equitable and effective alternative to demanding that all students satisfy a word limit.
This is an example of applying principles of differentiation to student output, rather than to teacher input. As well as being easy to implement and agreeable to students, it also requires no preparation for the teacher.
Ultimately, two things need to be in place for students in mixed-ability groups to feel motivated. Firstly, students need to feel that they are valued for who they are and what their current capabilities are. Secondly, lesson tasks need to be flexible and formative, helping learners find their way forward, assisted by tasks which give opportunities to practise within a supportive and learning-oriented classroom environment.
What are the main problems you encounter when teaching mixed-ability groups?
Let us know in the comments, or join the Oxford Teachers’ Club to access all the teaching resources we have to support mixed-ability classes.
Ed Dudley is a professional development manager for Oxford University Press where he works on developing the Oxford Teachers’ Academy courses. He has extensive experience in training, teaching and materials writing. He is the co-author of Mixed-Ability Teaching (OUP, 2016) and the author of ETpedia Teenagers (Pavilion Publishing, 2018).