Friday, 14 March 2014

Teaching Mixed Level Groups

Three students, beginner level – an easy class? 
In many ways, it is. I have plenty of time to give the students individual attention, they are making good progress (and have a good sense of their progress) and the lesson content is fun (lots of personalisation, spelling games, looking at numbers, talking about families). However, one of the students is a complete beginner (no numbers, letters or any of the classroom language that I need to teach the class in English). The other two are false beginners (and have all of the above).  I also don’t speak Arabic, the mother tongue of two of the students and so have no linguistic tools of my own to help. 

So, how did I manage my class of false beginner & real beginners? 

First of all, I established routines and now start every class with ‘What’s the date?’, ‘What time is it?’ and ‘What did you do at the weekend / yesterday?’ Yes, I am aware that we haven’t ‘reached’ the past tense or the time yet in the normal sequence of things but it is natural for me to ask all my students about their weekends / the day before and it is natural for them to want to share this information with me / other students. We treat this language as vocabulary and, while the false beginners are now able to give quite detailed information (I went to.. / I saw… / I ate… / I liked…), my complete beginner is still able to answer the question with a simple ‘I went to’.

Similarly, to end the class, I ask the students what they are going to do this evening / this weekend as well as tell them what their homework is. Slowly but surely, they are all building up a bank of useful expressions and, hopefully, when we come across ‘going to’ (as well as the past tense and the time) as a structure to be taught), the students will make the connection and feel more comfortable with the language. 

At Anglolang, we have a negotiated syllabus which lends itself well to this way of teaching.

Secondly, we did a basic matching exercise with classroom language followed by a worksheet in order to help the students communicate what they needed from me / each other in the classroom. Once again, by treating the language as vocabulary and encouraging the students to use the complete expression just expands their bank of language and helps with general communication despite the mixed levels.

Thirdly, we build on grammatical structures with differentiated vocabulary. For example, we looked at the structure ‘there is / are’ as an extension of classroom language. The students wanted to know how to say different items in the classroom (stapler / hole punch / folder / pencil case) and so we worked on producing the complete sentence - ‘there is a hole punch’. While the complete beginner student was working on this language (using a dictionary to check meaning, recording the vocabulary, writing complete sentences), the stronger students had moved onto the house (in the living room, there is a sofa / rug / an armchair). I simply provided the sentence frame ‘In the __________, there is a(n) ___________ ‘ 

Fourthly, we personalised a lot of the different activities: looking at maps (where are you from? Where is that? Can you show me?), asking questions about the students’ countries and about the UK. Hopefully, the students (and I) have learnt something about each other’s culture. I, for example, knew nothing about Riad and, while I knew it was hot, I didn't know that the temperature reaches 55 degrees in August!

Finally, I give the students time to work individually and to assimilate the information at their own speed. Four hours is a long time to be in class so I also try to incorporate ‘chat’ time with simple questions: ‘Is England different to Saudi Arabia / Italy?’, ‘How many brothers and sisters have you got?’ The answers may not be grammatically perfect but we do manage to understand each other and the students enjoy being able to talk about ‘real’ things. 

While I have been referring to a beginners’ class, I do feel that this blog could apply to any group of mixed ability students. My students are now working together in the same class and we have been able to take away the additional classroom support we initially offered the absolute beginner. Things are getting better. 

Do you have any other suggestions for dealing with mixed ability classes?

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