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It’s all in the Mix by James Maloney

Mixed Level Classes – Outline for trainers

The Challenge

Many classes contain participants of differing levels. How can we manage this to
ensure effective learning takes place?

What are mixed levels?

It is easy to subjectively state that one learner is better than another;
however this is a very simplistic way of looking at things.

Mixed levels can be split in many ways for example:

1. Differentiation in language production – some learners are simply more
confident at producing speech.

2. Differentiation in accuracy. One learner may be confident at production but
inaccurate, similarly a seemingly quieter learner may produce less but is
accurate and effective at conveying thoughts, opinions and statements.

3. Differentiation in pronunciation and intonation. Some learners have a very
clear accent which does not hinder understanding, yet some despite being
seemingly more fluent can be difficult to follow.

4. Differentiation in speed of language acquisition. Some learners have an
aptitude to acquire language quickly and efficiently without conscious
study, some are slower.

5. Differentiation in ‘ability to cope with the knowledge gap’. Some learners
become very inhibited by the stronger participants in the group. As a
result they have differing attitudes towards language production in front
of other learners and as such appear much weaker than they really are.
Similarly the stronger ones may become impatient with the ‘apparent’ weaker
ones.

These points should be considered 3 or 4 sessions into a course and an
assessment made to what degree the group is actually mixed level and in what
areas. The weakest learner is unlikely to be at the bottom of all the above
categories. Many trainers have experience of the learner who produces little
speech but has a very developed awareness of grammatical accuracy compared to
the learner who never stops talking yet makes numerous structural errors. Which
is the weaker learner?

As such, mixed level classes should be redefined as mixed ability classes.

How to deal with the various differentiations

1. It is necessary to discuss the mixed ability issue within the first 3
sessions of a course. The learners should be made aware that differences
are normal and should be expected. The aim is to encourage a common group
mentality and that we are here to learn not just as individuals but as a
whole group.

2. Often the essence of language learning and acquisition within the
classroom environment is the quality of feedback or error correction given
by the trainer. The key is to ensure each learner takes away extra
knowledge. The danger within mixed ability classes is that the lower level
learner could be swamped by new information while the stronger learner
makes no progress other than reaffirming what they already know.

Allowing error correction to be undertaken by the learners themselves (peer
training) could be a solution. It is an ESL mantra that learners learn as much
from each other as they do from the trainer. By pairing the stronger learner
with the weaker during error correction we create a virtuous circle. This type
of micro teaching empowers the stronger learner into feeling they have mastered
the target language whilst facilitating the weaker learner. This forms a
‘trusting group dynamic’ and learners build an awareness that they can all
improve if they ‘pull together’ as a unit.

3. During plenary error correction allow the weaker learner more time to
self-correct; it can be so easy for the trainer or stronger learner to
‘blurt’ out the answer with a sense of impatience feeling the rest of the
group is being held up. Often the learner is taking time to ‘self-negotiate’ the correct response and will have a better chance of retaining
the newly acquired language if allowed to do so. If self-correction is not
forthcoming allow the stronger learners to scaffold the answer on your
behalf.

4. When giving overall feedback towards the end of a course ask learners to
compare themselves to themselves and not to use others as a benchmark.
Using the strongest participant as a point of reference can be an easy trap
to fall into for both trainer and learner alike.

5. When stronger learners have completed a task before the others, ask them
to write a vocabulary or grammar question, similar to those found in
Spotlight Magazine and put them in a box at the front of the room to be
read out either towards the end of the session or at a later date. This is
a great empowering way to get the learner to think about the language.

6. Multi-level activities can produce the same or similar results for all
learners leading to whole class feedback. An excellent example of this is
the weekly news lesson feature on onestopenglish.com

A news article is usually split into three levels:

1. Elementary
2. Intermediate
3. Advanced

The article reading and vocabulary exercises provide a rich source of
preparatory work. At the end of each worksheet is a discussion question which is
usually common to each level. This discussion question can be used in the
classroom environment with each learner having already become familiar with the
topic at their level of learning. Each learner is therefore able to contribute
in plenary. Target language is produced; learners have the chance to use
authentic rather than restricted practice giving the trainer a valuable
opportunity for effective error correction and feedback.

Summary

Ultimately learning is about co-operation not competition, a learning atmosphere
should be created to avoid a feeling of isolation for the weaker learners. Use
the best participants as a teaching aid to ensure the weaker learners contribute
wherever possible and don’t forget those in the middle!

James Maloney