Not all students are equal – they have different experiences, abilities, skills, and learning preferences, which makes teaching each student uniquely very challenging for teachers, especially when there are many students in a class. So, how do we teach mixed-level classes, and how can teachers use differentiation to improve classroom instruction?
Debunking a Popular Teaching Practice
Let’s look at an example of four differently skilled students:
Sally – Advanced. Jack and Jenny – Intermediate and Billy, a low-level student.
If we teach the same lesson to all four students, it won’t be effective. If the lesson is too easy, Sally won’t be challenged. Billy won’t understand if it’s too hard.
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?”
“Use the buddy system, place the weaker student with a stronger partner,” is the general advice.
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.
- Why is teaching Sally’s responsibility? She isn’t being paid to do your job and babysit her classmate.
- Sally is spending her time teaching, which means she isn’t learning anything new. Sally isn’t improving.
- Sally might not be a good teacher, or she and Billy might not get along.
- Billy becomes dependent on Sally, and that crutch destroys his confidence and development.
Pair students of equal strength
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 at a similar level to them so they can get through the work together. Plus, they get a sense of accomplishment because they have to work hard at it.
So, how can teachers deal with mixed-level classes?
Well, you have two 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 in a syllabus, which means that they may not be able to select the appropriate lesson material that is suitable for all the students, which brings us to differentiation.
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 of learning material to your lesson that suit the levels of the students in such a mixed class.
For example – You do a lesson about cars: Lower level students make basic sentences about cars: Simple vocabulary, short sentences. From medium-level students you expect more: So, get them to talk about a trip they went on with a car, using more advanced vocabulary. From students on an advanced level, you expect them to talk about electric cars vs fuel (gasoline or petrol) cars, the history of cars, etc.
This means that you have the same lesson, but provide the learners with distinct challenges in learning.
This might sound difficult and like a lot of additional work, but ultimately, you will improve as a teacher and 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, rather embrace it and your total approach to education will evolve for the better.
How to Differentiate Content, Process, Product
Content is what you are teaching.
Process is how students learn it, the activities.
Product is how they show what they have learned.
Add different levels of knowledge that students have to acquire.
Have different activities for students to achieve mastery of the skills.
Give the students multiple opportunities to prove their mastery.
How to Differentiate the Content
Determine what you want the students to learn for the class. What knowledge and objectives do you want them to achieve? Write that down. That is your base. The average student in the 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 weaker students. How can you make the base knowledge more manageable for them? They should not be overwhelmed but 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’re teaching them to their own lives, experiences, or interests. That way, they will have more connections they can attach their learning to.
How to Differentiate the Process
Teach the content in various ways. Talk about it, write the vocabulary on the board, and show them examples or videos. 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. Give them an example that brings out 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 from 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-level students can give basic expressions. More advanced learners can give full sentences. Establish more connections!
Write down the activities the medium-level 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 more difficult, for example, compare their own life to that of their grandparents. Let lower-level learners make basic sentences about what they did yesterday.
It’s the same for other activities – have a baseline of what you expect them to do, challenge more advanced learners and support lower-level learners.
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, for example at station one they have to change a sentence into the past tense. At station two they have to watch a short video and write what happens in the past tense and over at station three, they have to pick an item from a box and tell a story about it in the past tense. You can leave instructions at each station or get students to take turns being station leader to instruct or help their classmates with the activity at their stations. In this way, everybody is involved.
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 make learning exciting and get the most out of our students.
How to Differentiate Outcomes
How can students show what they have learned? Allow them to prove it in ways that suit them. Give them multiple options or set different standards for what they need to create.
If they have to do dialogue. For medium-level students, it could be a conversation with a friend, for lower-level learners it could be something like putting simple sentences together, while advanced students 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 understands the process behind differentiation. It is not difficult; it is just another way of thinking as a teacher.
Practice differentiation in a class and it will become second nature. Students will love your classes because it challenges them and allow them to grow at their own pace.