Mixed Ability Young Learner Classes
by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)
From time to time in any teaching situation you will come across mixed-ability classes. People learn at different rates and develop different skills, so in any class you’ll have some people who are better at speaking, some which are better at listening, others at acquiring and understanding form and structure etc. Consider yourself and your peers, do you feel particularly less confident when discussing grammar compared to devising games for your learners, alternatively you may feel adept at organising your lessons and activities but just can’t get to grips with teaching pronunciation? – This doesn’t imply that any teacher is better than another it means that we acquire skills and information differently. This situation is the same for our learners, which can be frustrating both for them and the teacher.
With young learners of English the effects of mixed ability classes may be more pronounced as they may have started learning at different ages, some may receive more parental support and exposure to English than others, some may have better state school English support and materials, and of course young learners are developing at very different rates. More importantly with young learners is the effect of motivation. A learner’s aptitude may be affected by how they perceive the lessons; we tend to excel in lessons where the teacher made the learning experience fun.
Very young learner mixed-ability classes are relatively easy to manage as these learners require much more repetition of language and skills, so there’s no harm in going over language several times (albeit through different activities). It is important with very young learners to develop and maintain a rhythm of learning. Early learning is made efficient because teachers establish routines and vary the pace of activities very early on. If I anticipate what the teacher wants me to do my success at that task will be greater. This is why, on a greater scale, we establish a syllabus with infant learners very early on. On a micro-scale we can do the same thing in the language classroom. Start with a physical activity (a song) then move to a sedentary one (a card game) then on to a skills based activity (shape drawing or TPR) then back to a physical activity and so on. While the contents of the activities will vary from lesson to lesson the routine and rhythm are established early on, the learner’s attention and motivation is determined by how enjoyable and accessible those activities are.
Higher Elementary to Junior High School learners however are more difficult as the differences in their abilities and attitudes are more pronounced. Essentially all learners in these lessons are able to acquire language at the same rate however the rate of acquisition is affected by development of the part of the brain that controls rational processes. While our brains reach 90% of its full size by the age of 6 it is not fully developed until the age of 20. The parts of our brain which affect memory and therefore learning are the last to be fully developed. These are the hippocampus, affected by estrogens, which helps retain factual information, language structures and so on, and the
amygdala, which is in charge of emotional memories. While adults are able to make rational decisions and choices those of the teenager are affected by hormones and emotions, therefore we have to ensure that classroom activities are emotionally engaging and non-‘threatening’ (reduced pressure). Teenagers are also driven by the hippocampus to seek immediate gratification and results so learning activities should have clear, meaningful and accessible goals.
Mixed ability teenage classes then are usually the result of either intrinsic motivation, some are not emotionally connecting with the subject or hormonal development which will affect how teenagers react to structures and words. Interestingly as estrogens are more prevalent in teenage girls they are better at retaining language forms and structures. Another feature of mixed ability classes is the sleepy or distracted teenager. Typically teenagers need between 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night to have an alert brain and retain information from the previous day, however they rarely get this much sleep!!
So mixed ability teenage classes aren’t mixed ability at all, rather they are classes where the learners are developing at different rates.
Ideas for Activities:
• Wake up the learners! As with younger learners teenagers would benefit with some physical activity at the start of the lesson to help them focus better and feel more at ease. Stretching, movement or a simple relay activity, will activate them. Using music at the stage will also help them release stress and make any movement activities more effective.
• Use ‘familiar’ songs (Beatles etc.) as gap fills and encourage learners to ‘sing’ the missing words.
• Kinaesthetic learning is very effective for teenagers but often we shy away from it. TPR or physical associations with language help with memorising language.
• Categorise words and phrases – put the language from your text on to pieces of paper – physically manipulating words will help your students focus better.
• Comprehension tasks for readings and listening activities should be done as team quizzes rather than as book centred activities. Make reading ‘physical’ by issuing a comprehension task (e.g. true / false) to pairs of learners. Place the ‘text’ around various parts of the classroom so learners have to move to answer the questions.
• Reduce stress – allow choice in classroom activities. When assigning homework make sure learners have a choice of topics of activities. When checking comprehension of something instead of asking students to complete 8 questions ask them to choose the questions they want to answer.
• Instead of awarding points for team games try cheering together as a reward – this will acknowledge a team’s strengths without focussing on the other team’s weaknesses.
• Make sure learners know their strengths – praise learners by displaying their work around the classroom.
• Try an inductive approach to learning structures and words. Allow learners to discover patterns for themselves (for example, if teaching word categories give all the words to learners and see if they can recognise patterns so they can remember them more easily.
• Have matching activities where learners must find a partner to complete a structure or phrase. This will develop the use of intuition and help memorisation.