How to teach Mixed-level classes | Differentiation in the classroom

How to teach mixed level classes

Not all students are equal – they have different experiences, abilities and skills which makes teaching these unique students very challenging for us teachers. Today I want to talk about how we can teach mixed level classes and how to use differentiation to improve classroom instruction.

Let’s say we have 4 students:

Sally – Advanced. Jack and Jenny – Intermediate and Billy, a low-level student.

If we teach the same lesson to all the students it won’t be effective. Make it too easy, and Sally isn’t challenged. Make it too difficult, and Billy won’t understand.

So we have to find a way to reach all of these students to make sure they reach their potential.

But first, let’s debunk a common practice or advice many teachers give: When asked “How should I deal with mixed-level classes, many people say:

“Use the The buddy system” Place a weaker student with a stronger partner.

In theory, if you place Sally with Billy she would help him while it leaves you free to deal with the rest of the class.

Also, by teaching the content, Sally will actually be mastering the content.

FALSE! In most cases this is the wrong method.

  1. Why is teaching Sally’s responsibility? She isn’t being paid to do your job and babysit her classmate.
  2. Sally is using her time teaching which means she isn’t learning anything new. – She isn’t improving.
  3. She might not be a good teacher or they might not get along.
  4. Billy becomes dependent on Sally and that crutch destroys his own confidence and development.

Here’s a tip if you do want to pair students up:

What you could do is place the students in groups or with a partner that is a similar level to them so they can get through the work together. Plus, they get a sense of accomplishment because they had to work hard at it.

So Eric, how do I deal with mixed-level classes:

Well, you have 2 options. Find the middle ground and teach that or differentiate your classes.

The middle ground route isn’t always very effective, because Sally might not be challenged enough or Billy will find it too difficult.

Also, teachers are expected to cover certain work syllabus which means that they might not be able to select the perfect work to cover that is suitable for all the students.

That brings us to differentiation. You have probably heard this word a lot.

What is differentiation?

 “Differentiated teaching occurs when a teacher plans a lesson that adjusts either the content being discussed, the process used to learn or the product expected from students to ensure that learners at different starting points can receive the instruction they need to grow and succeed.”

What does this mean? You have to add different levels to your lesson that can suit the levels of the mixed classes.

For example – You do a lesson about cars: Lower level can making basic sentences about cars. Simple vocabulary, short sentences. At Medium you expect more, Talking about a trip they went on with a car, deeper vocabulary. And at advanced they can look at electric cars vs gas cars. The history of cars, ect.

You have the same lesson, but provide the learners different options in learning.

This might sound difficult and like a lot of additional work. But ultimately, you will improve as a teacher, you will have better classes, students will learn and enjoy your classes AND… if you repeatedly use this mindset, it will become second nature to you.

Do not resist change because it seems difficult, embrace it and your whole approach to education will evolve for the better.

Differentiation: How do you do it?

Content, Process and Product

Content is what you are teaching.

Process is how they will learn it, the activities.

And Product is how they show what they have learned.

Add different levels of knowledge they have to acquire

Have different activities for students to achieve mastery of the skills

Give the students multiple opportunities to prove their mastery


Determine what you want the to learn for the class. What knowledge and objectives would you like them to achieve. Write that down. That is your base, the average student in class should achieve that.

Then, write down what you want advanced learners to learn. How can you challenge them to achieve even more. – Remember that word, challenge.

Then, think about the lowest level students. How can you make the base knowledge more manageable for them. They should not be overwhelmed, but they should feel a sense of accomplishment after achieving the outcome.

That is how you differentiate the content. – Also remember to align the content of what you teaching them to their own lives, experiences or interests. That way they will have more connections they can attach their learning to.

Differentiate the Process.

Teach the content in various ways. Tell students, write vocabulary on the board, show them examples or video. The more connections they can form, the easier it is for them to understand. Don’t overlook how important this part is for learners at the start of learning. If they don’t understand the basics, you’ll lose them and struggle to regain their attention for the rest of the lesson.

A good way to start is by telling a story – Giving them an example that brings our their experience and makes them use their imagination. Like if you’re teaching the past tense you’ll start by telling the students a story form your past weekend or experience using the past tense. You can ask students for some verbs of what they did then write them on the board. For lower students they can give basic expressions. More advanced learners can give full sentences. ESTABLISH MORE CONNECTIONS!

For the base students write down what activities they should be able to perform at the end of the lesson. If it’s telling a story about a past experience. Then, have advanced learners do something even more difficult – Compare their own life to that of their grandparents. For lower levels make basic sentences about what they did yesterday.

It’s the same for other activities – Have a base of what you expect them to do, challenge more advanced learners and support lower levels. Easy right?

Remember to offer students options. They will feel empowered if they have a say in their education. You can also employ different stations in each class. At each station they do something different – Like here they change a sentence into the past tense. There they have to watch a short video and write down what happens in past tense and over there they pick up an item from a box, and tell a story about it in the past tense. You can leave instructions at a station or get students to take turns being a station leader. – That way everybody is involved.

Something I want to add is the use of games.

Games are a great way to include all levels of English learners. Even a game geared towards beginners can give advanced students a chance to practice speaking and listening. Make sure that there is active participation, meaning that every student gets a chance.

It’s fun if the game relies on a bit of luck by using dice or fun activities like tossing a ball. You could also place the students into mixed teams.

Fun activities get the most out of our students by making learning exciting.

Differentiate Outcomes

How can students demonstrate their learning. Allow them to prove it in a way that suits them. Give them multiple options or set different standards for what they need to create.

If they have to do a dialogue. The base or middle could be a conversation with a friend, for beginners it could be something simple like making simple sentences together and with advanced students they have to create a sketch or do a roleplay.

Make sure that there are multiple ways for students to prove that they have reached the outcomes for the lesson.

The reason we do so many activities in groups or pairs is so that the teacher can walk around the room and give personal attention to students. Definitely reach out to beginners and students that require more attention, and support the advanced students to help them achieve mastery.

I hope everyone understand the process behind differentiation. It is not difficult, it is just another way of thinking as a teacher.

Differentiate Content, Process and Product.

Practice doing it in a class and it will become second nature. Students will love your classes because it challenges them and allows them to grow at their own pace.

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