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A System For Keeping Mixed Skill Classes Engaged

ESL teachers are often thrust into mixed skill classes. It can be difficult to find the balance between catering to the strongest students without leaving the weakest behind. Unfortunately, teachers often choose a side and inevitably leave some students frustrated. Today I want to talk about my method for dealing with this struggle.

Star Difficulty Method For Mixed Skill Classes: Quick Summary

In this method, the students are given a number to reach. This number relates to stars that are collected during the class or homework. Easy things are worth one star whereas difficult things are three stars. The number the students are trying to reach is what you have deemed the average of the class. Every star they get above the average they are rewarded for to encourage them to continue. I personally do not apply a penalty for not reaching the average. It does put the students that need the most help on the radar for you. You can use this system when teaching words, phrases, handing out assignments and more.

Step 1: Creating A Sliding Scale Of Difficulty

Create a Range of Difficulties for your mixed skill classroom

In order for this to work you need to incorporate a sliding scale of difficulty into your lesson plan. It makes sense for a mixed skill class to need a mixed skill lesson plan right? This can be quite a bit of extra work at times, but the results are worth the effort. The easiest way to add a sliding scale of difficulty is to give your students options. For example, when teaching vocabulary, try to think of some related words to the ones you want to teach. Then simply assign those words different amounts of stars.

Truthful, Honest, Sincere

Let your students know which words are worth more. Don’t tell them that those words are more difficult. You don’t want to accidentally discourage the weaker students. To keep them on their toes you don’t have to always assign the most difficult words three stars. Perhaps your two items have about the same difficulty, but one sounds slightly more proper:

I am Stephanie.
My name is Stephanie.

Can’t think of a synonym for the thing you are trying to teach? Try a related concept. For example, if you are teaching about jobs and the word doctor comes up, throw in hospital and clinic alongside it. If not that then use the opposite word to contrast against it. This is actually good for learning any language. Our brain loves connections and the more we have the easier it is for us to recall words.

Step 2: Correction Process

When creating a range of content keep in mind how you will correct it. Are you going to award different answers different amounts of points? Are you going to ask more questions and award points based on how many they get right? Sometimes it is better to work backwards from this step but either way, don’t dig yourself into a hole when building your plan.

Ideally, you want to create your content in such a way that students can use any of the range of answers they have learned. Synonyms are also good for showing off the subtle differences in how the words are used. If you are daring you can award students for using the best word for an example. Mary was a very honest girl rather than a very sincere girl. Careful not to get to caught up in details. Remember, the very first thing you want to teach them is how to communicate. Fine tuning can come later.

Remember when making your plans how much time you have. You have to be able to appropriately award stars to everyone within your time limit or the system will be thwarted. With this in mind, you can add an answer key to your PPT and have the students take down their own stars. The star system is largely for their benefit, but if you are worried about cheating have them correct each other.

Step 3: Rewarding The Exceptional Students

So I mentioned before that when your students score above average you should reward them. Personally, I use this alongside the ticket system I previously outlined. Every star above average means a ticket! Still, I can understand why you might not have the option to have physical prizes open to you. Instead, you can mark the student’s workbook or copybook with a ‘merit’. These merits indicate the student is doing above average in your class. They’re a real parent pleaser.

With older classes, you can get the students to plot a graph. This only works if you keep your average the same or easily scalable. It’s a nice way to show students their progress, especially if you plan to go over certain topics repeatedly. My point system is also applicable here, you can let students level up based on how often they scored above average.

Some Closing Advice

Colour code words in your PPT rather than putting stars next to each. It is a lot quicker and easier to read. Make sure to keep the colours consistent!

Get your students to create mind maps of the words as part of the lesson. I recommend keeping these separate from the actual notebook, perhaps in a folder. The mind map is useful for visually showing how words are related. As a class project, you can make a huge mind map for your classroom wall using photocopies of the students’ mind maps.

When applicable, let students draw pictures to represent the words they learn. For some students this will make a huge impact on remembering the words, for others, it is just a little bit of great fun.

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