While it can be frustrating for both teachers and students, mixed-ability classes are an inevitable part of EFL teaching. Since we can’t prevent them, we need effective strategies for teaching mixed-ability classes. Here are some tips from a veteran English teacher.

In a previous article on mixed-ability classes, we looked at what mixed-ability classes are, the factors that affect the ‘mixed-ability-ness’ of, the problems that ESL teachers typically face in these classrooms, and the advantages of teaching heterogeneous students in one class. In this article, we will cover tips and strategies for ESL teachers teaching very mixed-ability classes.

Differentiating Tasks

There are basically three ways in which you can differentiate classroom activities for students in a mixed-ability class.

1. Differentiate the input.

For a reading comprehension, for example, you can make two different versions of the reading text in addition to the original version. One version is easier and the other more challenging. The students then read one of the three texts and have to answer the same comprehension questions.

2. Differentiate the process.

In differentiating the process, the students each are provided with identical input (for example, a question set) and then have to choose one of a number of ways to find the answers (for example, by completing individual research or a spoken information gap activity or reading a text).

3. Differentiate the outcome.

To differentiate the outcome, you can easily make use of open-ended questions, which has the ability to make a narrow exercise more flexible. Furthermore, open-ended exercises allow students to perform at their ability level. Students all receive the same prompt, but they can respond in their own way. For a writing task, for example, give the students options of prompt questions and they can choose which one they find most interesting. You can then also set a time limit rather than a word limit so that they can write as much as they can in the given time. 

Differentiating Tasks: More Examples

Further to the above, you have the option of adapting or extending tasks for class and/or homework. In some cases, you can even do both depending on the aims of the class, time available, etc. The main aim of adapting tasks is to provide more support for the less advanced students and the purpose of extending tasks for the higher-level learners.

Adapting Tasks

An example of how to adapt an exercise:

Original: The woman is wearing __________.

Adapted: The woman is wearing a blue skirt/ long pants. (Circle the correct option)

By taking into consideration how challenging the original task is and the strengths and weaknesses of the students in your class, you can choose to make the original task either more or less challenging. The students can then also choose which version they’d like to do, and the advanced students can even complete both for extra practice.

Extending Tasks

To deal with early finishers, you should try to extend activities, so that for the advanced students, it takes them as long to complete as the less advanced students takes to complete the original, unextended version.

An example of how to extend an activity: The students need to mingle in class and ask each other 4 of the 8 questions. For those who finish early, have them ask the remaining questions to others who have also finished, or they can then sit down and make their own questions.

More examples

For reading activities:

Advanced Students Less Advanced Students
Write the new vocabulary words on the board once they have finished with their activity and use this for review. Pre-teach difficult vocabulary words and leave these up on the board as a guide. Make use of visuals where possible.
Rewrite a part or the whole of the text in a different tense. Set the scene before diving into the reading activity. Look at any pictures, the heading, etc.
Write a short summary of the reading text or write a paragraph or two giving their opinion on the piece Break up the text and give them the option of only reading part(s) of the text if necessary.

For listening activities:

Advanced Students Less Advanced Students
For any true/false questions, follow up by asking ‘why?’ or ‘why not?’ Pre-teach vocabulary and use visual prompts where possible.
Focus on accents or intonation and have the students copy it. Also, focus on the why of the intonation where needed. Give the students time to discuss the answers with a peer before feeding back.
Give out a script of the exercise and have the students pick out and find definitions/meanings for tricky words. When it is time to listen for a second time, give the students a script to follow along with.

For writing tasks:

Advanced Students Less Advanced Students
Provide creative tasks so that students can complete it at their own ability level. Correct the draft with the student before they rewrite it neatly.
Let the students self-correct by using correction codes (SP – spelling, etc.) Reduce the word limit or increase the time limit.
Let them write more or write within a certain time limit. Provide an example piece of writing before the actual activity starts or provide scaffolding.

For speaking activities:

Advanced Students Less Advanced Students
Students should justify or defend their opinions. Provide students time to gather their ideas before role-playing or discussing.
Ban easy words or certain words (use synonyms). Allow students to make notes as part of their thinking time.
Students should record their speaking, playback and self-correction. Pair an advanced and a less advanced student together.

For additional activities for your lesson, check out our full listing of teaching tips.

Encourage Cooperation

For this, you need tasks that require the students to work together to achieve the outcome. Examples could be:

  • Students creating quizzes in groups, with each individual student in the group having to contribute questions. Two or more groups can then test each other.
  • Students working in pairs, with one student being advanced and the other less advanced, to compile a questionnaire about things they’d like to know about the students in the class. They can then, either in their pair or individually, ask these questions in a mingling activity and write the names of the people down on paper (like a normal Find Someone Who activity).

Set Appropriate Learning Goals

A goal-oriented environment in most often one that is successful, and it is worthwhile to remember that unrealistic ones are almost counterproductive. Achievable goals, and ones that are desirable results in healthy learning environments where efforts from students are rewarded, which, in turn, can lead to even more motivation and effort on their part.


Putting students in small mixed-ability groups creates more opportunities for them to do some personalised learning. Students can learn from their peers and develop their learner autonomy rather than also being dependent on the teacher for their learning. According to Georgina Ma, by collaborating on tasks, students “learn how to compromise, negotiate meaning and develop self-evaluation skills.”


These are just some tips and strategies to help ESL teachers deal with mixed-ability classes; however, the best way to conquer teaching these classes is through

  • experimentation – see what works best and what does not work,
  • planning – extend or alter activities to cater for advanced and less advanced students, and
  • adaptation – find alternative teaching methodologies to suit mixed-ability classes and students with different learning styles.

About the Author

Denine Walters is currently a freelance writer, editor/proofreader and ESL teacher. Previously, she taught online English lessons to students from all around the world and, before that, she lived and taught English to young learners in Taiwan. In her free time, she likes to read, do scrapbooking and grammar quizzes, and travel. For her educational background, she has an MA in Politics, with a dissertation written on post-conflict peacebuilding, a BA Journalism degree, a TEFL and CELTA certificate, and also a few certificates in various other short courses.

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