Elements of Successful Mixed-Ability Courses


The calls and duties of teachers are many; diverse, multifold, and demanding.

The practice of teaching English grows so overwhelmingly that one might miss to experience the lesson from the learners’ standpoint.

A mixed-ability classroom is a group of learners with extraordinarily inhomogeneous abilities, life and academic experiences, and needs. The descriptor “extraordinarily” serves to emphasize that learners’ diversity in mixed-ability groups exceed the expected level of inhomogeneity of all human communities.

Text by: Marina Siskou

The reason for the diversity of people uptaking the learning of English as a Foreign Language is attributed to their needs in contemporary society. Students endeavor English learning as they are encouraged, persuaded, requested or motivated by their unique, yet similar reasons: English as a Lingua Franca.

David Crystal (2003) reveals that, [i]n 1950, any notion of English as a true world English Language was but a dim, shadowy, theoretical possibility surrounded by the political uncertainties of the Cold War and lacking any clear definition or sense of direction. [Roughly seventy] years on, World English exists as a political and cultural reality (Crustal, 2003).

Learners, all different members of out society, coming from their diverse backgrounds are met in the point of “English Language Fluency” qualification need.

Language teachers secretly know that a class of mixed ability learners is not one class.

The Elements of Successful Mixed-Ability Courses

Teachers responsible for English Language Teaching in mixed-ability groups skillfully practice flexibility, continuous informal assessment, practice differentiation and know how to adjust curriculum to the present needs and learning goals.

The elements that make mixed ability classes shine are:

  • Group-based work: Teachers of English encourage group cooperation and decision-making. They understand that mixed ability groups hold the unique advantage of diversity. They connect learners with English in life and work and they clarify early on that communication success or collapse lies in their own hands.
  • Task-Based Learning: Task based learning is organically linked to the previous dimension. They assign tasks serving communicative function. At the same time, they intend to use the outcomes of the assigned Task as a form of formative or summative assessment to advance learners’ progress.
  • Teacher monitor of progress: Autonomous learning is reliably the most effective means of knowledge acquisition. The brain develops the wiring for the specific function only when learners try to find their way independently. Still, autonomous for this specific kind of approach might be a misnomer, as, for its success, the teacher has been preparing a thorough plan of the course. The teacher has staged the course to its finest details but the performance is handed over to the students. Teacher monitors the course of the activity, orients and adjusts during autonomous learning.
  • Grammar input in absorbable chunks: The erratic English grammar is delivered in meaningful and digestible chunks, followed up by hands-on communicative activities. Students realize then the beauty of creating meaning without resort to personality reduction -i.e., when the speaker of a foreign language is limited to a range of topics they can talk about, because they don’t have the means -grammar and vocabulary. In this case, speakers of English would end up talking about the weather, when, in fact they’d really want to talk about other topics.
  • Learners’ cooperation: Learner’s cooperation is a gift in mixed-ability classes. As mixed ability is a term covering international students, migrants, special educational needs students, adult classes, the teacher is conscious that people with different life experiences have the power to make a casual lesson plan…take off.
  • Personalized plan of learners’ goals: Teachers know beforehand that mixed ability classes have different destinations. They plan the course accordingly, including a variety of activities, ranging from achievable to challenging. They integrate differentiation where learners advance according to their potential at the specific time.
  • Building common ground at critical points of the course (e.g., during the consolidation activity, a filler): At the same time, the teacher of mixed -ability groups recognize that the lesson plan is expected to be built upon common ground. Learners will write on the same topic, but some of them will generate a dialogue (more attainable) whereas other will be asked to write an argumentative essay. Everyone in class will be instructed the direct and indirect speech, but a part of the students will be able to identify it in discourse, whereas others will master the complexities of its use in all situations.

Challenges as Opportunities  

A challenge, Kramsch has penned (1997), is a test of strength, as potential measure of oneself against a more powerful obstacle. It is predicated on an adversial view of humans versus nature or things perceived as natural, and the conviction that humans will eventually overcome the obstacles set by nature […]. A challenge is also an opportunity to show what one can really do (Kramsch, 1997). Calling it a challenge emphasizes the fact that solutions can be found, even though it might require hard work and perseverance (Kramsch, 1997). This meaning of the term includes […] an ‘appeal to action’, mostly of the individual kind, an incentive for personal ingenuity and resourcefulness to remove or overcome the obstacle (Kramsch, 1997). Mixed-ability groups are among the scarce teaching experiences that generously provide with the insight of human perception, equip with the means to understand learning, cognition and build readiness to respond to it.