Mixed Ability of the Learners: Challenge for ELT Teachers

Mandira Adhikari

Most of us teach large classes. One of the unavoidable challenges of having many students in the same class is that there will be a wide range of language proficiency levels in the class and it is hard for us to adjust our lesson plans to fit the learning needs of all the individual students. In this article, I want to share a few ideas about how to address that problem, additionally challenging the conventional wisdom that large classes only have drawbacks by showing that there are also benefits to large classes with mixed levels of ability.

In most of the schools of our country, whether private or public, there are more than 35 students in the same class. It is the duty of the single teacher to control them and to deliver the lesson plan effectively.  I used to teach two different classes of the same grade in one of the schools. In one section, students were arranged in terms of their ability; average students were in a section and mixed students in another section. I used to prepare one lesson plan and teach in both the sections. There was no problem in the section where there were average students, but there was always problem in the class having mixed ability because some of them used to understand before I taught, but some of them didn’t understand even if I taught the same thing five times. Thus, the situation was really challenging for me.

Benefits of having mixed ability classes

Before I elaborate the challenges of mixed ability classrooms, let me quickly note that contrary to conventional wisdom, mixed level or multi-level classrooms can also have some benefits if teachers know how to make use of the difference as a positive asset.

Hess (2001) has presented some of the advantages in a mixed level classroom are as follows:

  • There are always enough students for interaction,
  • We get a rich variety of human resources,
  • The teacher is not only pedagogue ,
  • We are never bored,
  • Professional development occurs naturally (p. 2-4).

When there are students having mixed ability in the same classroom, each individual can bring different and new ideas. They may be from different cultural backgrounds having different world-views and values, which mean many different experiences and many styles of learning. If they share the same experiences with their friends the poor students can be benefitted as well as it will be helpful for the teachers as well. This ability of the students help the teacher to apply different student- centered methods inside the same classroom. So, students don’t need to depend only on the teachers for learning.

Mixed ability classes are really challenging. So while facing those problems, we need to develop new ideas and while dealing with such problems teacher also becomes creative in teaching which is interesting and it directly helps us to develop our professional skills because these types of situations provide opportunity to develop skill of facing problems, we sometimes can get new idea from our learners as well.  Now let us look at the challenges.

Challenges of having mixed ability students in the ELT classroom

I have found most of the teachers are worried about having mixed ability students in the same classroom. It is because if there is variety in the classroom, it is very difficult for the teachers to implement their lesson plan because teachers need to take care of each student equally. It is difficult even for the students because those who understand easily feel bored with more explanation, but it is necessary for other students. Hess (2001) has presented some of the challenges that a teacher need to face in a mixed level classroom such as:

  • We often feel out of control
  • In large class we sometimes feel trapped in the problems
  • It is difficult to provide for individual learning style
  • Activating the quiet student is difficult (p. 4-6).

Thus, as Hess indicates, in a multilevel classroom teacher often feels out of control. In such classroom management becomes a formidable obstacle. In large multilevel classroom it is very difficult for the teacher to take his/her lesson ahead because some of them have better understanding than others. The most challenging job for ELT teachers in such classroom is to guide students according to their pace. The most difficult task in the mixed level class is the problem of managing the class and checking the home assignments. I have often found that in such classes active students are always active, whereas passive remains passive if the teacher doesn’t pay attention to them equally. As there are mixed abilities of the learners only one method isn’t suitable for all and it is again the challenge for ELT teachers to provide different techniques as their individual need and it is somehow impractical in practice.

Possible strategies to cope with the problem

As I have already mentioned there are a few benefits of having mixed level students in a classroom alongside more challenges of it. Let me now describe some of the strategies to cope with such problems. In order to handle such situations, teachers have to think in a different way. They need to find such strategies which will be helpful for all types of learners of the classroom. For example, audio- visual materials will be equally helpful for all the learners. Copur, in his article entitled ‘Coping with the problems of mixed ability classes has provided some points that are useful for ELT teachers to deal with mixed ability classes. They are: appeal to all senses, contingency plans, in-class activity, open ended plans, personalizing the tasks, games, competitions and dramatization, extra homework, portfolios, group-work activities, Self -access centers.

Therefore, to cope with mixed ability class, teacher has to think about such strategies so that it will be helpful for all the learners. Teacher can divide the whole class into different groups and different student centered methods can be very helpful such as: In-class activity, game competition and dramatization extra homework can be very helpful. Similarly, teacher can ask students to make their portfolios as well as self access centers will be very helpful for the learners to improve their study and motivate them towards learning.

Similarly, Sharma (2006) in her article entitled “Ways of effective language teaching in heterogeneous class” has presented some of the points to manage effective classes in heterogeneous classes or classes having mixed level learners. They are: planning, teacher’s leadership, communication, the well managed classroom, voice, effective presentation, pause and pacing, chunking, verbal aspect, visual, student’s participation, positioning, posturing and movement, movements, eye contact, gestures , use of teaching aids, and evaluation. Thus, above points are also helpful to deal with mixed level classroom because the planning and the leadership of the teachers are very helpful to deal with the situation. If ELT teachers are able to bring variety in the class, the chance of being out of track in the classroom decreases. Using different teaching aids in the classroom helps to motivate all the learners. Continuous evaluation of the learners helps teacher to identify poor learners so that they can improve them accordingly.

Conclusion

Mixed ability of the learners is universal and we find mixed ability students in almost all classes. There are challenges for the teachers to deal with such classes because there is variety and teacher feels out of control in such cases. But if we try to apply the benefit of such classes and apply learner centered methods inside the classroom it can be the easiest way to deal with stronger as well as weaker students. Teacher can apply different strategies for teaching four skills of the language, especially by specifying the different task for stronger as well as weaker students.


References

Hess, N. (2002). Teaching large multilevel classes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Negi, J.S. (2010) “Teaching English to Multilevel EFL learners in Large Classroom: A Pedagogical Discussion.” Paper presented at the 15th international conference of NELTA, Kathmandu, Nepal, 19-21 February 2010.

Sharma H.M. (2006) “Ways of effective language teaching in heterogeneous class. Journal of NELTA , 11(2), 115-118. 

13 comments

  • Aadesh Bhetwal

    Mandira belongs to KU not TU by the way and she has done great job. She is really hard working. Her article is useful for not only ELT teachers but every subject who has mixed ability students, her ideas of handling those kinds of students are interesting.

    • Aadeshji, The error has been fixed. You are right that the article is relevant to teachers of any subject. Please share the link with anyone who might benefit to read the article.

  • Lokendra Bahadur Basnet

    our colleague Mandira has done admireable job that not only for us(KU ELT group), it is also pride for who enrolled in teaching profession. when i went through the article, it is really informative as well as applicable one.

  • Nibedita Sharma

    Mandira’s writing is informative as well as quite interesting to read. She is good at initiating research and writing good articles, one of which this one is a good example. Good job Mandira, keep it up!

    • Nibeditaji, readers could tell what you said by reading the article itself 🙂 The rest of us would appreciate your comment even more if it focused on the issue and added to the conversation. We are all hungry and thirsty people here–and making the conversation relevant to the rest of us would be the best kind of compliment to the writer anyway.

  • Manoj Adhikari

    It has reflected the truth of our Nepalese classes!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • AR Bhattarai

    It is certailny the useful for the teachers teaching in the secondary and higher level. The teachers teaching in the these levels will be, in need, benefited by this article. But the teachers teaching in the early grades having more than 50 children in the classroom will be in dilemma. Anyway, the article is usefule for the teachers.

  • In my reading, Mandira’s writing is clearly not intended to focus on the primary level, so I didn’t understand Bhattarai sir’s comment. Maybe you are adding a new question to the conversation: How can teachers at the primary level deal with mixed ability students? That would be a great question for our further discussion.

  • Mandira Adhikari

    I am thankful to the readers and those who commented on this article. However, i want the readers to comment on the issue i raised rather than how the article looks like. i am waiting for such comments to listen from the readers which will be helpful for me to think on other issues in our classroom.

  • We Nepalese teachers often have our classes filled with the learners of mixed abilities. Dealing with such diverse range of learners in the classroom has become daily realities of teachers in Nepal. In the course of dealing with such students, the teachers have developed their own tactics to overcome the challenges as necessity is the mother of invention. However, we need to explore what the teachers here have been doing to cope with the classroom obstacles. I have found one of my colleagues forming the groups to solve the problems. He also made the talent students check the homework of the poor students or teach the contents.

    I don’t agree that Mandira’s article has focused to secondary or higher classes only as she has not mentioned where it can be applied. The article has generally mentioned some of the ways to face the challenges with the learners of mixed ability.

    One size doesn’t fit all. Therefore, the strategies suggested by foreign authors or researchers or scholars might not be applicable to Nepalese context. The large class in Nepal also contains more than a hundred students (I myself studied in grade ten having 108 students). The benches we have in Nepal that are used for sitting students might not be in other countries like Japan, United States. Almost all our classes are fixed with blackboard where the teachers use chalk while outside the country, white board and markers are found to be used. The classes in the UK and other developed countries are equipped with the devices of modern information communication technology such as laptops, multimedia projector, TV, etc. whereas we lack them. Therefore, I think when we are talking about the classes of Nepal, we must think of the setting. It would have been better for the author to visit some of the classes in Nepal inclusively in both urban and rural sites and collect the strategies that are really followed by our teachers to put additional values to the tips suggested.

  • Mandira Adhikari

    Thank you Praveen Ji. I will do this kind of survey in my next article.

  • Dipak Bashyal

    dear,
    not to get the language learning strategies materials written by Rebecca OXFORD
    i need this book if possible any of you.
    dipak

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