SOME MORE REFLECTIONS ON MIXED ABILITY TEACHING
Large, mixed ability classes are and will long be a reality whatever we may think about it. There are two simple reasons why this can't be changed quickly - the financial situation of schools and the shortage of English teachers in Poland. Of course, the simplest solution to this painful problem would be to divide large classes into smaller groups according to the students' level of English. As we cannot do this we have to share experience and try to find ways which would make teaching mixed classes easier. Hence, the teacher advisors' role is very important, we should support teachers by talking to them individually, or by organising open lessons in co-operation with experienced teachers in the area who manage to cope with the problem.
It is important that we "think positive" that we don't complain or say we can't see any sensible solutions. There are teachers who worked out their own techniques and procedures to work with large, mixed ability classes. Why don' t we organise "caring and sharing" sessions in the area, where by brainstorming and discussion we could at least help them to feel more confident and, to present activities which work with large classes, to discuss some psychological aspects of dealing with different, learners. look at classroom conflicts etc.
When I think of my own teaching experience in a secondary school and of lesson observations as a teacher trainer, the following ideas, views, contemplations come to my mind and I would like to share them with you ... about learners, about teachers, and about materials.
1) They come to a classroom on September 1st with their previous learning experiences, with their talents, expectations, fears - do we bother to learn anything about it ? It is impossible to talk to all of them individually, but we could design a question- naire, perhaps in Polish, doing some small scale research about our students. Knowing the students interests, strengths and weaknesses helps a lot to prepare extra activities and design our own syllabus for different classes.
2) Both primary and secondary pupils hate school as an institution. Why ? Because they are treated as a crowd, an anonymous mob. They are not treated seriously. Very few teachers ask them to express their views. However students are groups of individuals and we could make teaching more relevant personally. Why not use a variety of extra materials to satisfy different demands and expectations ? It is much easier now to get audio and video recordings, English newspapers, to bring in leaflets and adverts to practice vocabulary and discuss different aspects of modern life.
3) Our students often come unmotivated and bored - but we can motivate them by running well prepared, lively, interesting lessons.
4) Learners often do not possess basic social skills to work together, to accept each other. It is our task to teach them co-operation. We are not only teachers of English we are pedagogues. Organising pair and group work is challenging because we assume they know how to behave in groups. We can do it slowly, gradually, step by step. Nothing in education happens immed- iately. It requires patience and systematic work.
5) They need praising, good not only bad marks. It is much easier to work with learners if we point out their talents, show that they are making progress. I often hear teachers saying - "This 1B Class, they are so stupid and lazy, nothing can be done about it" There is nothing worse we can do. I was a form teacher of the "Worst" class in a secondary school in Warsaw.They often came unprepared, they got bad marks. But I always stressed even the smallest positive change, and gave them good grades, because I believe we can do much more by being positive
6) We tend not to inform learners why we are doing some activities, what we want to achieve. Let's have clear objectives of the English course in general, and of each single lesson - but let's inform our students about it as well.
7) Large , mixed ability classes are not easy to control, hence VOICE PROJECTION is extremely important. We should be aware of the fact that when we speak quietly we immediately encourage trouble makers to start their "Class games". I circle around the classroom, speak sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly, change the pace.
8) Teachers love speaking, lecturing, preaching, telling jokes and the students slowly fall asleep! Students also want to speak, to tell jokes to say something original. Let's give them a chance. Limiting Teacher Talking Time as a general policy gives a chance to advanced do develop their speaking skills, and to the slower ones, they listen to their peers they get used to the fact that they will also start speaking one day.
9) Teachers should always be prepared, but planning each lesson carefully is really a vital issue when we teach mixed ability classes. Starting each lesson in a slightly different way, using quizzes, asking volunteers to prepare a 5 minute activity will challenge them intellectually.
10) Both teachers and students should be able to give each other feedback in a non-judgmental way.. There is no tradition of student evaluation in our system of education. But even very simple feedback after every few lessons is a precious indication for the teacher on what might be changed or improved. An example of learners feedback:
After today's lesson:
- I learned that ..............................
- I liked .....................................
- I didn't understand...........................
- I need more practice in.....
11) Build up files with magazine pictures. Each folder can be given a title: "sports", "holidays", "famous people", "customs and traditions", etc., and can contain a collection of pictures presenting different aspects of life. I have found this extremely useful and attractive for students. It always helped me to stimulate even the most passive learners. Pictures appeal to imagination and constitute an element of surprise which increases learners' motivation.
12) Setting up an English corner creates an English environment. We can present our students productions - poems, letters, compositions, group projects. Students appreciate being praised even if the first reaction is not positive.
13) A collection of audio and video recordings is indispensable these days. It is only a matter of time and our initiative. We can have access to radio and TV news, pop songs interviews with interesting people. Using authentic recordings is one of the ways to satisfy more demanding students.
14) Having bilingual and monolingual dictionaries will also make the teacher's life much easier, and lessons less monotonous.The students need basic dictionary skills to be able to work on their own. This enables the teacher to give extra tasks to more advanced ones so that they can work independently.
15) Asking individual students or groups of students to prepare a 15 minute activity, for example, a classroom quiz, a brief on new trends in youth movements, questions to the teacher - and if you feel confident, group discussion on a controversial topic.
No single, easy-to-implement solution on teaching mixed ability classes exists - let's be honest and say it openly. However there are teachers who manage to work with such classes. Why can't we share these positive solutions? It is not difficult to organise "caring and sharing" sessions for those who are interested in the problem. More experienced teachers could invite colleagues to their lessons.
Using video recordings of successful lessons with large classes as training material in sessions organised by teacher advisors could mean and help more than a thousand words ! We can really do it instead of complaining and being frustrated. A teachers work is not easy - but it is fascinating, providing we are open to new ideas, and we share our problems and successes with others. You will always find some solutions to your problems if you like teaching!