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Classes of mixed ability Students learning a language in the
Students learning a language in the same class level will most likely still differ in maturity levels, motivation, occupations, cultural backgrounds and personalities. However, in classes of mixed-ability students there is a considerable distinction as students will have varying needs, rates of learning, and abilities. As a result, the teaching method should be specific to this type of class to ensure all students are making progress whilst learning together.
A mixed-ability class requires the teacher to be highly organized, to thoroughly plan all lessons, and to have a great deal of personal attention to ensure the each student's needs are being met. It may be necessary to have multiple lesson plans for a single lesson to accommodate the various groups of students. This is clearly a more demanding and challenging role for the teacher compared to dealing with a single-level class. But according to Hubbard, Jones, Thornton & Wheeler, through the teacher's attitude, their willingness to create 'a sense of community in class and a genuine desire to help, there can be progress at all levels' (Hubbard, Jones, Thornton & Wheeler 1983, p.318).
Christopher Corbel states the importance of the teacher getting to know their students in the mixed-ability class as early as possible at the start of the course. The teacher will not only be able to assess the students' knowledge and abilities, but also get know what they are interested in so that suitable material or topics can be selected for future lessons (corbel 1989, p.2). Corbel goes on to say, 'It also goes deeper than this. It also means their preferred method of learning, their concept of themselves as learners, their motivation, and their level of commitment. In other words, how they view themselves learning another language. This is a formidable task and yet is essential for successful teaching to take place' (Corbel 1989, p.2).
It is also important for the teacher to make the most out of teaching materials so that it can be used accordingly for the various levels as this will save additional preparation. Corbel states, 'Because the planning and preparation stage is so important and time-consuming, it is best to make materials as versatile as possible. Develop materials that can be used in many different ways and can be offered to a variety of levels' (Corbel 1989, p.34). By using similar material for various divided groups within a class, the entire group can come together at particular stages and it also allows all students to feel part of the group.
According to Natalie Hess, there are many benefits from the teacher's perspective in teaching mixed-ability classes. In these types of classes, there are many opportunities for student interaction which creates an interesting, stimulating, and high energy learning environment for students (Hess 2001, p.3). There is also 'a rich variety of human resources' as there are many varying opinions, cultural backgrounds, personalities, experiences, and styles of learning (Hess 2001, p.3). By encouraging student involvement in class, the teacher can use the students' input to create lessons that are exciting, fun, and also challenging. This will help students to be more engaged and motivated throughout their course.
As Hess states, 'The teacher is not the only pedagogue. Since there are so many levels of language ability, it is only natural that the more able students quickly assume the role of teacher-assistants. In such classes, students can learn as much from one another as they learn from the teacher' (Hess 2001, p.3). This is another great benefit for teaching multi-level classes, as the single teacher cannot possibly give equal attention to the various groups or individual students throughout the lesson. Students can also benefit in this circumstance. A lower-level student who is confused about a particular language point or idea, may quickly gain an understanding if it is explained or clarified by a higher-level student. The 'teacher-assistants' will also benefit as they, too, will learn new things by teaching their fellow students.
As Corbel states, whilst teaching mixed-ability classes the teacher's 'professional development occurs naturally. Work in the large multilevel class truly forces us to invent and develop new ways of organizing material. These are the classes that compel us to find better ways of setting up routine tasks. There are the classes that make us think, create, and grow as teacher' (Corbel 1989, p. 4).
Corbel, C (Editor) 1989, Options in Teaching English to Adult Speakers of Other Languages, Deakin University, Australia.
Hess, N 2001, Teaching Large Multilevel classes, Cambridge University Press, UK.
Hubbard, Jones, Thornton & Wheeler 1983, A Training Course for TEFL, Oxford University Press, UK.