Teaching mixed ability classes 1

Gareth Rees, teacher/teacher trainer, London Metropolitan University, UK

You may often be teaching a class which has students who are clearly of different levels. They may have different starting levels of English or they may learn at very different speeds – for any number of reasons. There are several strategies that a teacher can use to deal with this situation. This is the first of two articles on the topic.

The second article covers…

Range of tasks

Extra work / Homework

Student nomination

Supporting the weaker students

Error correction

This first article deals with the following strategies.

* Discussion and needs analysis

* Student self-awareness

* Work groupings

Discussion and needs analysis

It is easy for students to get frustrated in a class of mixed ability. Stronger students may feel held back, weaker students may feel pressured. The teacher may feel stressed. The best solution to this is to have an open class discussion about the classroom situation – to ensure the best for everyoneit is better to acknowledge the situation and for everyone to agree how to deal with it. It is probably best to stage and structure the discussion.

* Needs Analysis

Use a needs analysis to prompt the students to reflect upon their learning style, learning strategies, language needs, learning enjoyment, motivation, language strengths and weaknesses. Questions that might be included are :

o What kinds of class activities do you enjoy / benefit from?

o Which language skill do you most wish to develop?

o Do you prefer working individually or with a partner?

o Would you rather sit and listen to the teacher all lesson or participate in group work?

Students compare their answers in pairs or small groups. You should collect the information and prepare a statistical representation of the key questions and answers. This will help to develop the sense of shared community in the class.

* Explain and discuss

Explain the mixed level situation to the students and give a list of possible approaches to the teaching and learning. In pairs, the students rank the approaches/ideas according to their suitability for the situation.

Following feedback, you should highlight the strategies you plan to use.

* A student contract

Developing with the students, or perhaps writing it yourself, a contract of behaviour for activities is a useful device. ‘I will help and support my activity partner.’ ‘I will participate in group work.’

* Tell them what you are going to do

If you think your students are not mature enough to carry out this kind of reflection, explain the situation to the class and tell them what strategies you will be using. If students know what to expect, you can hope that they will cooperate.

All of the above work could be done in the mother tongue, although I feel it is best done primarily in the target language (as it draws attention to the fact that this is a learning language issue.)

Student self-awareness

Encourage students to develop an awareness of their own language abilities and learning needs. What are their strengths and weaknesses, and how can they focus on these? How can they measure their own progress?

This may take the form of a learner’s diary, regular self-assessment, keeping records of mistakes, keeping a record of things learnt.

Work groupings

Varying the way students work in the class will help meet the variety of levels in the class.

* Pair work

You can pair strong with strong, weak with weak, or strong with weak. Perhaps in a very controlled activity, the strong with weak will work well. In a freer activity, perhaps strong with strong will be of benefit. Variety in the pairings is the key here – and you should also be sensitive to the general relationships between different students, and learn to note who works well with whom.

* Group work

These groups could be of mixed levels or similar ones. The hope is that in a smaller group, the weaker student will feel more able to contribute. Also, if the group is working with a set of information, divide the information between the students, forcing them to work together.

You may consider dividing your class into groups by level for the whole lesson, enabling you to give a different level or number of tasks to each group. Discussion of this strategy with the class should help prevent stigmatisation.

* Whole class – mingles

This is a favoured strategy of mine. A mingle activity involves students talking or interacting with many different members of the class in a short period of time in order to achieve a task. This means that any one student will work with students at different levels – experiencing stronger and weaker levels of communication. This supports the weaker students and provides opportunities for the stronger ones.

A classic activity is a ‘Find someone who…’

o In this activity the student has to survey the class to find people who…(for example)

*have got something – Do you have a CD player? Or…

*have done something – Have you eaten fish and chips? Or…

*like something – Do you like tennis?

If a student answers yes to a question, then the other student should ask for more information. If a student answers no, then the other should find a new person to ask, and may come back to the first student with another question later on.

The potential for this is endless. It is a great way to provide practice of a particular language structure/area (10 questions all using the past simple) and provides controlled practice as well as the opportunity for further freer discussion. It also creates a lively classroom dynamic.

Mingles can take many forms – students may have to find the person who has a matching word to theirs, or the second half of a split sentence. The students may all have the same or different questions, or a mixture. The key is the general principle of an information gap or communicative need.

Overall, variety in the types of working groups, and an open discussion of the class situation will help to deal with some of the diffculties that are present in mixed ability classes. The aim of these strategies is to create a positive working environment, which is all part of ensuring better learning.


The reading material consists of bubbles, short dialogues, longer conversations, passages of various lengths, leaflets, brochures, timetables, menus, tickets, signs, travel programmes, ads and notices. This wide range of reading materials aims at an absolute exposure to authentic text-types.  The aim of this variety is developing reading strategies and skills. So the ultimate objective is that you will be able to read and understand a text either at school or in your daily life.
At school, Reading is about reading a text (of any type mentioned above) to answer questions related to the text or what we call Reading Comprehension. And understand its meaning and the way of dealing with it.
There are many activities that can be dealt with during the reading comprehension such as:

  1. Skimming (identifying main ideas).
  2. Scanning (locating specific information).
  3. Understanding vocabulary in context, finding synonyms and opposites.
  4. Discovering the organization of a text (introduction, conclusion, paragraphs, and linkers).
  5. Contextual reference (referring back to a word mentioned in the reading and understanding its referent).
  6. True / False statement either to justify or correct.
  7. Multiple choice alternatives (choose the right answer or alternative).
  8. Questions to answer.
  9. Scrambles paragraphs to rearrange.
  10. Completion of statements.
  11. Table completion.
  12. Word building (finding nouns/adjectives/verbs that have the same meaning as the ones indicated).

So where you read something for the sake of Reading (you read the text just for pleasure, you don’t have any purpose behind reading it), you don’t have to think about these activities (type of questions). But if you are reading a text for a purpose, then you will obliged to answer some of these questions in order to understand the text.

Test Writing

Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey
If you think taking tests is difficult then you should try writing them! Writing a good test is indeed quite a challenge and one that takes patience, experience and a degree of trial and error. There are many steps you can take to ensure that your test is more effective and that test writing becomes a learning experience.

  • The elements of a good test
  • Validity of a test
  • Reliability of a test
  • The affect of tests
  • Other features of a good test
  • Assessing difficulty
  • Conclusion

The elements of a good test
A good test will give us a more reliable indication of our students’ skills and it ensures that they don’t suffer unfairly because of a poor question. How can we be sure that we have produced a good test?

  • One way is very simply to think about how we feel about it afterwards. Do the results reflect what we had previously thought about the skills of the students? Another simple way is to ask the students for some feedback. They will soon tell you if they felt a question was unfair or if a task type was unfamiliar.

Validity of a test
A good test also needs to be valid. It must test what it is meant to test. A listening test that has very complicated questions afterwards can be as much of a test of reading as listening. Also a test that relies on cultural knowledge cannot measure a student’s ability to read and comprehend a passage.
Reliability of a test
A test should also be reliable. This means that it should produce consistent results at different times. If the test conditions stay the same, different groups of students at a particular level of ability should get the same result each time.

  • A writing test may not be reliable as the marking may be inconsistent and extremely subjective, especially if there are a number of different markers. Thus to try and ensure the test is more reliable it is essential to have clear descriptors of what constitutes each grade.
  • In an oral interview it is important to ensure that the examiner maintains the same attitude with all the candidates. The test will be less reliable if he is friendly with some candidates but stern with others. You should try to ensure that the test conditions are as consistent as possible.

The affect of tests
We must also bear in mind the affect of our tests. Has the test caused too much anxiety in the students? Are the students familiar with the test types in the exam?

  • If a student has never seen a cloze passage before she may not be able to write a test that reflects her true ability. The solution to this is to try and reduce the negative effects by using familiar test types and making the test as non-threatening as possible.

Other features of a good test
Other features of a good test are that there is a variety of test types and that it is as interesting as possible.

  • A variety of test types will ensure that the students have to stay focused and minimise the tiredness and boredom you can feel during a repetitive test.
  • Finding reading passages that are actually interesting to read can also help to maintain motivation during a test. A test should also be as objective as possible, providing a marking key and descriptors can help with this.

Assessing difficulty
Another important feature of a good test is that it is set at an appropriate level. You can only really find this out by giving the test and studying the results. Basically if everyone gets above 90% you know it is too easy or if everyone gets less than 10% it is obviously too difficult. For tests that aren’t so extreme you will need to do some analysis of your test. You can do this by analysing the individual items for difficulty.

  • In order to do this mark all of the tests and divide them into three equal groups, high, middle and low.
  • Make a note for each item of how many candidates got the answer correct from the high and the low group (leave aside the middle group). To find the level of difficulty you need to do a quick calculation.
    • Take one question and add the number of students from the high group who have the correct answer to the number from the low group.
    • Then divide this by the total number of people from both groups (high and low). It is thought that if over 90% of candidates get the answer right it is too easy. If fewer than 30% get it right it is too difficult.
  • Also bear in mind that if most of the answers are in the 30’s and 40’s it would be best to rewrite the test. It’s the same if most of the answers are in the 80’s and 90’s.
  • The final step is to reject the items that are too easy or difficult.

Always bear in mind though that the difficulty of an item may relate to whether it has been covered in class or it may give an indication of how well it was understood. Such test analysis can give us information about how effective our teaching has been as well as actually evaluating the test. Evaluating tests carefully can ensure that the test improves after it is taken and can give us feedback on improving our test writing.
Below is a suggested procedure for writing a test.

  • Decide what kind of test it is going to be (achievement, proficiency)
  • Write a list of what the test is going to cover
  • Think about the length, layout and the format
  • Find appropriate texts
  • Weight the sections according to importance/time spent etc.
  • Write the questions
  • Write the instructions and examples
  • Decide on the marks
  • Make a key
  • Write a marking scheme for less objective questions
  • Pilot the test
  • Review and revise the test and key
  • After the test has been taken, analyse the results and decide what can be kept / rejected.

Testing and Assessment

Article 1

Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey

I will always remember the horror of receiving my chemistry result when I was thirteen years old. I knew it wasn’t going to be high, but to come bottom of the class was very upsetting. It was all made worse by the fact that the chemistry teacher read the results to the whole class, from first to last place. My humiliation was complete. Students can have very negative reactions towards tests and it’s no surprise when they too may have had experiences like this.

* Why testing doesn’t work

* Reasons for testing

* Making testing more productive

* Learning from tests

* Alternatives to testing

* Conclusions

Why testing doesn’t work

There are many arguments against using tests as a form of assessment:

* Some students become so nervous that they can’t perform and don’t give a true account of their knowledge or ability

* Other students can do well with last minute cramming despite not having worked throughout the course

* Once the test has finished, students can just forget all that they had learned

* Students become focused on passing tests rather than learning to improve their language skills.

Reasons for testing

Testing is certainly not the only way to assess students, but there are many good reasons for including a test in your language course.

* A test can give the teacher valuable information about where the students are in their learning and can affect what the teacher will cover next. They will help a teacher to decide if her teaching has been effective and help to highlight what needs to be reviewed. Testing can be as much an assessment of the teaching as the learning

* Tests can give students a sense of accomplishment as well as information about what they know and what they need to review.

o In the 1970’s students in an intensive EFL program were taught in an unstructured conversation course. They complained that even though they had a lot of time to practise communicating, they felt as if they hadn’t learned anything. Not long afterwards a testing system was introduced and helped to give them a sense of satisfaction that they were accomplishing things. Tests can be extremely motivating and give students a sense of progress. They can highlight areas for students to work on and tell them what has and hasn’t been effective in their learning.

* Tests can also have a positive effect in that they encourage students to review material covered on the course.

o At university I experienced this first hand, I always learned the most before an exam. Tests can encourage students to consolidate and extend their knowledge.

* Tests are also a learning opportunity after they have been taken. The feedback after a test can be invaluable in helping a student to understand something she couldn’t do during the test. Thus the test is a review in itself.

Making testing more productive

Despite all of these strong arguments for testing, it is very important to bear in mind the negative aspects we looked at first and to try and minimise the effects.

* Try to make the test a less intimidating experience by explaining to the students the purpose for the test and stress the positive effects it will have. Many may have very negative feelings left over from previous bad experiences.

* Give the students plenty of notice and teach some revision classes beforehand.

* Tell the students that you will take into account their work on the course as well as the test result.

* Be sensitive when you hand out the results. I usually go through the answers fairly quickly, highlight any specific areas of difficulty and give the students their results on slips of paper.

* Emphasise that an individual should compare their results with their own previous scores not with others in the class.

Learning from tests

Finally, it is very important to remember that tests also give teachers valuable information on how to improve the process of evaluation. Questions such as:

o “Were the instructions clear?”

o “Are the test results consistent with the work that the students have done on the course. Why/why not?”

o “Did I manage to create a non-threatening atmosphere?”

All of this will help the teacher to improve the evaluative process for next time.

Alternatives to testing

Using only tests as a basis for assessment has obvious drawbacks. They are ‘one-off’ events that do not necessarily give an entirely fair account of a student’s proficiency. As we have already mentioned, some people are more suited to them than others. There are other alternatives that can be used instead of or alongside tests.

* Continuous assessment

Teachers give grades for a number of assignments over a period of time. A final grade is decided on a combination of assignments.

* Portfolio

A student collects a number of assignments and projects and presents them in a file. The file is then used as a basis for evaluation.

* Self-assessment

The students evaluate themselves. The criteria must be carefully decided upon beforehand.

* Teacher’s assessment

The teacher gives an assessment of the learner for work done throughout the course including classroom contributions.


Overall, I think that all the above methods have strengths and limitations and that tests have an important function for both students and teachers. By trying to limit the negative effects of tests we can try to ensure that they are as effective as possible. I don’t think that tests should be the only criteria for assessment, but that they are one of many tools that we can use. I feel that choosing a combination of methods of assessment is the fairest and most logical approach.

Aritcle 2

Test question types

Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey

In my previous article Test writing I looked at some of the difficulties of writing good tests and how to make tests more reliable and useful. I will now go on to look at testing and elicitation and in particular some different question types and their functions, advantages and disadvantages.

* Types of test

* Types of task

o Multiple choice

o Transformation

o Gap-filling

o Matching

o Cloze

o True / False

o Open questions

o Error correction

* Other techniques

Types of test

Before writing a test it is vital to think about what it is you want to test and what its purpose is. We must make a distinction here between proficiency tests, achievement tests, diagnostic tests and prognostic tests.

* A proficiency test is one that measures a candidates overall ability in a language, it isn’t related to a specific course.

* An achievement test on the other hand tests the students’ knowledge of the material that has been taught on a course.

* A diagnostic test highlights the strong and weak points that a learner may have in a particular area.

* A prognostic test attempts to predict how a student will perform on a course.

There are of course many other types of tests. It is important to choose elicitation techniques carefully when you prepare one of the aforementioned tests.

Types of task

There are many elicitation techniques that can be used when writing a test. Below are some widely-used types with some guidance on their strengths and weaknesses. Using the right kind of question at the right time can be enormously important in giving us a clear understanding of our students’ abilities, but we must also be aware of the limitations of each of these task or question types so that we use each on appropriately.

Multiple choice

Choose the correct word to complete the sentence.

Cook is ________________today for being one of Britain’s most famous explorers.

a) recommended b) reminded c) recognized d) remembered

In this question type there is a stem and various options to choose from. The advantages of this question type are that it is easy to mark and minimises guess work by having multiple distracters. The disadvantage is that it can be very time-consuming to create, effective multiple choice items are surprisingly difficult to write. Also it takes time for the candidate to process the information which leads to problems with the validity of the exam. If a low level candidate has to read through lots of complicated information before they can answer the question, you may find you are testing their reading skills more than their lexical knowledge.

* Multiple choice can be used to test most things such as grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening etc. but you must remember that it is still possible for students to just ‘guess’ without knowing the correct answer.


Complete the second sentence so that it has the same meaning as the first.

‘Do you know what the time is, John?’ asked Dave.

Dave asked John __________ (what) _______________ it was.

This time a candidate has to rewrite a sentence based on an instruction or a key word given. This type of task is fairly easy to mark, but the problem is that it doesn’t test understanding. A candidate may simply be able to rewrite sentences to a formula. The fact that a candidate has to paraphrase the whole meaning of the sentence in the example above however minimises this drawback.

* Transformations are particularly effective for testing grammar and understanding of form. This wouldn’t be an appropriate question type if you wanted to test skills such as reading or listening.


Complete the sentence.

Check the exchange ______________ to see how much your money is worth.

The candidate fills the gap to complete the sentence. A hint may sometimes be included such as a root verb that needs to be changed, or the first letter of the word etc. This usually tests grammar or vocabulary. Again this type of task is easy to mark and relatively easy to write. The teacher must bear in mind though that in some cases there may be many possible correct answers.

* Gap-fills can be used to test a variety of areas such as vocabulary, grammar and are very effective at testing listening for specific words.


Match the word on the left to the word with the opposite meaning.

fat old

young tall

dangerous thin

short safe

With this question type, the candidate must link items from the first column to items in the second. This could be individual words, words and definitions, parts of sentences, pictures to words etc. Whilst it is easy to mark, candidates can get the right answers without knowing the words, if she has most of the answers correct she knows the last one left must be right. To avoid this, have more words than is necessary.

* Matching exercises are most often used to test vocabulary.


Complete the text by adding a word to each gap.

This is the kind _____ test where a word _____ omitted from a passage every so often. The candidate must _____ the gaps, usually the first two lines are without gaps.

This kind of task type is much more integrative as candidates have to process the components of the language simultaneously. It has also been proved to be a good indicator of overall language proficiency. The teacher must be careful about multiple correct answers and students may need some practice of this type of task.

* Cloze tests can be very effective for testing grammar, vocabulary and intensive reading.

True / False

Decide if the statement is true or false.

England won the world cup in 1966.


Here the candidate must decide if a statement is true or false. Again this type is easy to mark but guessing can result in many correct answers. The best way to counteract this effect is to have a lot of items.

* This question type is mostly used to test listening and reading comprehension.

Open questions

Answer the questions.

Why did John steal the money?

Here the candidate must answer a simple questions after a reading or listening or as part of an oral interview. It can be used to test anything. If the answer is open-ended it will be more difficult and time consuming to mark and there may also be a an element of subjectivity involved in judging how ‘complete’ the answer is, but it may also be a more accurate test.

* These question types are very useful for testing any of the four skills, but less useful for testing grammar or vocabulary.

Error correction

Find the mistakes in the sentence and correct them.

Ipswich Town was the more better team on the night.

Errors must be found and corrected in a sentence or passage. It could be an extra word, mistakes with verb forms, words missed etc. One problem with this question type is that some errors can be corrected in more than one way.

* Error correction is useful for testing grammar and vocabulary as well as readings and listening.

Other Techniques

There are of course many other elicitation techniques such as translation, essays, dictations, ordering words/phrases into a sequence and sentence construction (He/go/school/yesterday).

It is important to ask yourself what exactly you are trying to test, which techniques suit this purpose best and to bear in mind the drawbacks of each technique. Awareness of this will help you to minimise the problems and produce a more effective test.