II Всеукраинская научно-практическая конференция «Актуальные проблемы преподавания иностранных языков для профессионального общения». Том 3

Kirakosyan A.

Oles Honchar National University of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine


In many school systems across the world, the existence of ‘mixed abilities’ classrooms has recently become much more significant. The introduction of English into primary schools and the abolition of selective entry into different types of secondary schools have in many places created a situation where teachers now find apparently enormous variations in ability in their classrooms – sometimes students who may be almost fluent in English can be found sitting in the same class as students who appear to know next to nothing. Such a situation can indeed seem almost impossible to manage, and certainly there are no quick and easy solutions. There may be many different ways to manage the situation, but in this short article I want to concentrate on one particular factor which is perhaps often neglected. This is how students think about themselves, how they see themselves as ‘language learners’ and the impact this can have on their abilities in English. I will also show how the Cambridge English for Schools series of books can contribute to improving students’ images of themselves.

According to a Cambridge Methodist Andrew Littlejohn we should consider the basic facts about human psychology. We can start with a very simple, but nonetheless true fact about ourselves as human beings. That is – that in general we like what we do well, and we dislike what we don't do well. If we do something well, we are inclined to do it again, and in doing it again we improve still further. This basic fact is often called ‘achievement motivation’ – the motivation that comes from simply achieving. Unfortunately, however, for many learners the reverse is also true. If they find that they don’t do something well, they will usually try to avoid doing it again. In consequence, they generally get worse, not better, over time as they avoid repeating the experience of failure. One very common phenomena in many classrooms is that while the students may appear to start, for example, a beginners course apparently ‘equal’ in their lack of knowledge, in a very short time gaps appear in the class, with some students noticeably stronger than others in the foreign language. Over time, these gaps appear to get wider, not narrower, with the stronger students getting better and the weaker students apparently getting worse. If we think about the role of achievement motivation we can understand why this may be happening – for while some students are on an upward spiral in which achievement stimulates their motivation, other students are on a downward spiral in which previous failure demotivates them.

We cannot deny that differences in personal ability exist but this way of thinking about student motivation, with upward and downward spirals, points to the fact that many causes of variation in student ability may actually have their origin in the way that the class is being conducted. Specifically, while some students learn to see themselves as ‘successes’, other students quickly learn to see themselves as ‘failures’. Classroom research shows that even from a very early age, students monitor, for example, the feedback that teachers give other students in the classroom and they learn to see themselves comparatively – as among ‘the best’, ‘the middle’ or ‘the weakest’ in the class. These self-images can have a direct impact on the amount of effort the student puts into learning a language. What is the point of working harder, if you think that you won't learn anyway?

There is always a dilemma for teaching. The link between the students’ perception of themselves and the impact this had on their motivation to learn places us in a particularly difficult situation. On the one hand, different students need different tasks suited to their level of ability. Many teachers therefore divide their classes into different groups and give each group a different talk to do. Similarly, some schools divide a ‘year’ up into different ‘bands’ (A, B, C, D, etc.), with the ‘top band’ perhaps using a ‘more difficult’ course-book than the ‘lower bands’. We can see the reasoning behind this – to provide work appropriate to the level of ability of the students. On the other hand, however, establishing and fixing difference in this way can itself cause such difference to persist. For the students in Class A, for example, their ‘A’ label is undoubtedly very good for them – the very fact of having made it to the top will probably motivate them to work hard enough to stay there. Unfortunately, Class A’s increase in motivation may be achieved directly at the expense of Class D’s motivation. Class A in fact needs Class D in order to continue to achieve. Given this contradiction, what then is the best way to proceed?

The basic problem we think is that many approaches to dealing with mixed abilities in classrooms are based on the idea of exclusion and establishing difference. That is, of excluding some students from work that is ‘difficult’, and of fixing these differences almost in stone. Students, for example, who are continually given ‘easier’ controlled tasks to do have now way of demonstrating that they can work at more difficult levels, that their abilities may in fact vary in relation to the kind of task they are given, the topic they are working on, who they are working with, the time they have available and so on. What we need therefore is an approach to mixed ability teaching that is based on inclusion whilst still allowing for differences.

Let us now dwell upon such terms as inclusion and allowing for difference in a classroom. We want to show how these two ideas of inclusion and allowing for difference in mixed ability classes can be developed, firstly in terms of a year group and secondly in the classroom. One of the distinctive features of English for Schools is the way in which the course is divided into different themes. Each theme has within it five different units. The main language syllabus is carried through the first two units in each theme, with the remaining three units providing development or extension work in culture, social language, whole tasks and revision work. This division can be seen very clearly by looking at the map at the front of the book. The language syllabus is carried out by the units on the left of the map. The Topic Unit teachers mainly vocabulary, while the Language Focus unit provides grammar related work. The Units listed in the right-hand side of the map provide the development and extension work. This division allows us to provide opportunities for inclusion of all students across a year group, and to allow for differences in abilities where the students have been streamed. In this way, all classes across the year may work from the same text. Some classes may be able to cover all or most of the units in the course. Other classes, however, may devote more time to working on the Units on the left-hand side of the map, using the photocopiable worksheets and extra ideas provided in the Teacher’s Book to provide more practice. Other classes might use a mixture of both – covering all the Units on the left-hand side of the map and dipping into the Units on the right-hand side. No strict separation needs to be established. A teacher might find for example that students respond particularly enthusiastically to some themes and are eager to do more work on them. The key point in this case is that as far as possible all classes across the year need to cover a minimum the first two unit in each theme. In this way, all classes will cover the same basic language syllabus. The advantage of working in this way is that it allows classes the possibility to demonstrate that they are able to do more than perhaps the teacher expected. It also gives all students the feeling that they ‘belong’ to a coherent year group – and that they are all using the same text.

Brainstorming, working collaboratively, and sharing personal reactions to a topic are also ways of generating a feeling of inclusion. This aim of inclusion is also behind the extra support for mixed ability classes that you can find in the Teacher’s Book. for all of the ‘key’ tasks in each Unit, there are tinted grey panels in the unit notes. These panels give ideas about how a particular task can be made more challenging or how more support can be given. The key point about these ideas is that they are intended to make it possible for all the students to feel that they are keeping up with the work of the class.

In this short article, we hope that we have been able to show that there is a psychology of mixed ability teaching. Planning classroom work to include all students in such a way that we can allow for differences between them can have an immediate beneficial effect on their self-image and consequently on the amount of effort that they have put into their studies. Giving the students the feeling they are ‘in’ not ‘out’ is an important first step in establishing an upward spiral of achievement.