A new semester is about to begin and after a long summer of work and play, I’m starting to think about new personal and professional goals. One issue that has been nagging me for some time has been improving differentiated instruction and teaching mixed level classrooms.
Most of my classes involve an emphasis on speaking and listening for university students but in class, I try to provide some practice in reading and writing as well. This can be a major challenge because I will often have students who vary to extreme degrees in all four skill sets. So what’s a teacher to do? How can one maximize student engagement when faced with such a diverse array of learners? The following are some ideas that I’ve come across while mulling over the challenge.
- Mixed-level groups: Grouping students of different skill levels is something I’ve tried in modest fashion previously but it produces mixed results. Advanced students might get bored or frustrated. Students with low level English abilities might rely too much on their more advanced peers. Still, mixed-level groups is worth a try and can work very well.
- Multiple Assessments: Assessing students and creating activities in a variety of skill sets is a crucial way to find where each student shines. A student might struggle with speaking but excel in writing. In that case, I’ll try to appoint them “secretary” for their team when playing a game. This can help a student’s self esteem and improve willingness to participate in all aspects of class.
- Informal assessment: Assessments aren’t just for midterms and finals. It’s important to informally assess students throughout the semester. Make sure that you get to know your students well and keep track of their progress. I usually do this by making marks on my attendance sheet. Note their strengths, areas for improvement, what activities they like and the ones they dislike.
- Pictures, pictures, pictures: I use a lot of pictures with my presentations to help students understand vocabulary and directions. The key is to find engaging pictures relevant to the task or vocabulary at hand. Note that pictures are also a good way to spark conversations at the beginning of class. Asking students to describe and talk about an interesting picture gets students talking and engaged.
- Native language: Small doses of L1 are helpful for vocabulary retention and perhaps giving complex directions for a task or game. Using L1 is a good way to quickly level the playing field between students who can easily retain vocabulary and those who need an extra nudge. But remember to use the native language in small, concentrated and practical doses.
Differentiated instruction is a challenge for language teachers and their students all over the world. It’s an issue that can make or break a classroom. This is by no means an exhaustive list for teachers but I hope that it can help you think about the challenges you face in your mixed level classrooms. Enjoy the new semester and good luck!
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