Planning a lesson for Mixed-Ability learners: TESOL certification Facilitator, Binod Dhami

    1444830021414.jpg By Binod Dhami
    Planning a lesson for Mixed-Ability learners: TESOL certification Facilitator, Binod Dhami

    Oct 14, Kathmandu: Learners in the class are similar and at the same time they are different. They differ in terms of multiple aspects -- age, rate of learning, language proficiency level, socio-economic factor, family education and ability to learn language. The rate of learning among the students varies according to their ability to learn and their learning strategies. The distinction of the learners pertains to their ability to grab the things according to the speed they catch-up. In this pretext, it is really challenging for language teachers to deal with the context. The general concept which is in practice around the world is that a teacher goes to classroom with a single lesson plan and executes it through various activities.

    However, it strikes in the mind of few teachers that whether the lesson presented in language class was appropriate for every student or not. Since everyone has distinct ways of learning the activity, task or language lesson conducted in class may not be appropriate for everyone. They have their own strategies of learning and most importantly students have what psychologist Harward Gardner (1983) calls 'multiple intelligence' (MI).
    A language teacher cannot teach with a single-lesson plan in a class. The teachers need to prepare multiple plans to cater to students of different distinction. The teacher has to develop different activities and tasks which fit for every sort of students in a single lesson for effective teaching and learning. Apart from the mixed-ability classroom, multiple intelligence and differentiated instruction, we also need to know about some of the activities that suit to each multiple intelligence and techniques to address the individual learning differences.

    What is Mixed-Ability Classroom?
    Human minds don't work or grab things in a similar pattern. On the basis of students’ language proficiency level, some students are proficient language users and others are not. Therefore, mixed-ability classroom contains the students of varied abilities. Handling and planning for mixed-ability classroom has become a serious problem for language teachers.

    In this regard, Harmer (2008) mentions, “One of the biggest problems teachers face is classes where the students are at different levels -- some with quite competent English, some whose English is not very good and some whose English is just getting started. This is a case where different individuals are at different levels and have different abilities.”

    Similarly, American Institutes of Research Database (AIORD), 2006 says, “Not only do students come from different cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, but some also are formally or informally labeled gifted and talented, while others require individual education plans to address specific needs.”

    From the above-mentioned views, it can be said that mixed-ability classrooms consist of students who come up with different abilities and strategies to learning a language. The students in a class also have different socio-economic and educational background making them different from onde another.

    Differentiated Instruction
    Since a language classroom contains the students or language learners with multiple abilities, differentiated instruction helps teacher deal with almost all the students in the class. Tomlinson (1995) argues, “A differentiated classroom offers a variety learning options designed to tap into different readiness levels, interests and learning profiles. In a differentiated class, the teacher uses; a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to understand and own information and ideas and a variety of options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learnt.”
    Differentiated instruction is a strategy by which teachers adapt instruction to students’ varied learning needs (AIORD, 2006). So, differentiated instruction seeks the variations in planning the lessons, materials and methodologies. It also refers to variations in activities which fit for varied students.
    In response to what is not differentiated classroom, Tomlinson (idid) says, “A class is not differentiated when assignments are the same for all learners and the adjustments consist of varying the level of difficulty of questions for certain students, grading some students harder than others, or letting students who finish early play games for enrichment. It is not appropriate to have more advanced learners do extra math problems, extra book reports, or after completing their regular work be given extension assignments. Asking students to do more of what they already know is hollow. Asking them to do the regular work plus inevitably seems punitive to them.”

    Multiple Intelligence
    Multiple intelligence is the other aspect that makes the learners different from one another. Gardner (1983, 1999, 1993) brought the notion instructional diversification with the theory MI. The MI says, the learners in any classroom are both similar and different. An understanding of such similarities and differences help teachers determine what and how to teach them. The students in a classroom not only come from different socio-economic background, but they also vary in terms of abilities, moods and physical differences. Gardner categorizes multiple intelligences into different types:
    • Linguistic: The ability to learn languages in which writers, lawyers, editors, interpreters are good at
    • Logical-mathematical: Capacity to analyse problems logically, carry out  mathematical operations in which scientists, engineers, doctors are good at
    • Visual-spatial: The ability to learn mental modes of world in which painters, decorators, architects are good at
    • Musical: Skill in the performance, composition and appreciation of musical patterns as in singers, composers
    • Bodily-kinesthetic: Potential to use one’s whole body or parts of the body to solve the problems as of athletes, crafts persons
    • Interpersonal: Capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people in which teachers, sales persons or politicians are good at
    • Intrapersonal: Capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations and apply one’s talent successfully which leads to happy and well-adjusted life
    • Naturalistic: Able to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment
               Gardner (1991) cited in Beckman & Klinghammer (2006)
    The Activities That Fit to Each Type of Intelligence
    Linguistic-verbal: Note taking, story-telling, debates
    Logical-Mathematical: Puzzles and games, logical sequential presentations, clarifications and categorizations
    Visual-spatial: Charts and grids, videos, drawing
    Musical: Singing, playing music/jazz chants
    Bodily-kinesthetic: Field trips, hands on activities
    Interpersonal: Pair work, project work, group problem solving
    Intrapersonal:  Self-evaluation, journal keeping, options for homework
                                        Armstrong (1994) cited in Freeman (2007)

    What Makes Mixed-Ability Classroom?
    1. Age and gender
    2. Personality traits and cognitive ability
    3. Cognitive development stage and motivation
    4. Socio-economic status and educational background
    5. Preferred learning styles and strengths
    6. Language proficiency level           
    What if students are all at different levels?
    Harmer (2008) suggests following strategies for dealing with mixed-ability groups where different individuals are at different levels and have different abilities.
    i) Use Different Materials/Technology
    When the teachers know who the good and less good students are, they can form different groups. While one group is working on a piece of language study (e. g. the past continuous) the other group might be reading a story or doing internet-based research. Later, while the better group or groups are discussing the topic, the weaker group or groups might be doing parallel, writing exercises, or listening to an audio track.
    ii) Do Different Task with the Same Materials/Technology
    Differential can still take place by using same materials with all the students. This can be done by encouraging students to do different task depending on their abilities. A reading text can have sets of questions at three different levels.
    iii) Ignore the Problem
    Within heterogeneous groups, students will find their own level. In speaking and writing activities, the better students probably are more daring. In reading and listening, they will understand more completely and more quickly.
    vi) Use the Students
    Some teachers adopt a strategy of peer help and teaching so that better students can help weaker ones. They can work in pairs or groups. When the teachers put students in groups, they can ensure that weak and strong students are put together.

    Similarly, Tomlinson (1995) says, among instructional strategies that can help teachers manage differentiation and help students find a good learning ‘fit’ are:
    • Use of multiple texts and supplementary materials
    • Use of computer programs
    • Internet centers
    • Learning contracts
    • Compacting
    • Tiered sense-making activities and tiered products
    • Tasks and products designed with a multiple intelligence orientation
    • Independent learning contracts
    • Complex instruction
    • Group investigation
    • Product criteria negotiated jointly by student and teacher
    • Graduated task and products rubrics
    American Institute of Research Database (2006) also notes that, the following questions are just a sample of those that can help teachers evaluate the appropriateness of their instruction for the diverse learners in their classrooms.
    Diagnostic Assessment
    • How can I assess the range of student skills, interests, learning needs in this class?
    • Have I been informed of any students’ special needs?
    • How many distinct levels exist in this class and by what measures?
    • Does this assessment accurately gauge student preparation, skill sets and content knowledge?
    Curricular Content
    • Are the nature and scope of content appropriate for all the students in this class?
    • How can content be adapted to engage all students?
    • What recourses strategies are available?
    Instructional Practices
    • What points of entry can I offer to engage students initially?
    • Do my instructional plans advance each student’s understanding to a new level?
    • Am I still holding all students to high expectations?

    Student Products
    • Do I allow for a range of student products to demonstrate mastery?
    • What type of products will best demonstrate subject mastery of each subject, while still holding all students to high expectations of new content knowledge?
    • Am I facilitating and assessing all development in addition to testing content comprehension?
    Differentiated instruction is one of the best ways of dealing with the mix-ability learners. A class contains different students with different abilities and multiple intelligence. The language teacher cannot address all students’ needs and interests if he or she takes only one instructional planning in a classroom. This demands the selection of multiple methodologies along with varied activities and tasks. It’s the teacher who analyzes the classroom needs and develops teaching methods and techniques for diverse students because all the students may not learn in the same way.
    For example, some students are auditory, some are visual and some other may be kinesthetic. The learners have different intelligence. There are different activities that language teachers can develop on the basis of multiple intelligences for their learners. To make the instruction differentiated, the teacher has to make variations in his or her teaching methods, instruction, and lesson planning.

    Though learning to differentiate the instruction takes time. It needs rigorous planning and hard-working. For example, if a language teacher wants to teach poetry in language class, he or she can differentiate the instruction by developing at least three sorts of activities on the basis of same poetry. The teacher can develop activities separately for slow, fast and average learners. According to their level, the activities can also get optional with simple, challenging and medium. Learning to differentiate instruction takes time and practice, and teachers should not be discoursed. Success may or may not be achieved at the beginning, but of course, it will come at hand if teacher continues to differentiate the instruction.

    The Author Binod Singh Dhami is an M.Phil scholar at Kathmandu University and TESOL trainer and TESOL certification facilitator in Nepal.

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