The term ‘mixed ability class’ is one that teachers often react to with an inward groan, but it’s a reality in most Australian classrooms. When I consider my Year 8 English class, there is a gap of around three years between the highest and lowest performing students, and I’m sure that this isn’t too unusual a situation. Teachers are generally expected to differentiate (another word that provokes an inward groan) but often struggle to know how to do so effectively — and no wonder, when this means that they need to teach to several different standards while also generally working towards common assessment. So how to best cater to the very broad range of abilities that teachers are likely to encounter in the English classroom?
My Year 8 class has recently started studying a new novel. There are varying levels of engagement with this text. Some students love it and have already read it multiple times. Others are struggling to get through it on their own, although they seem to be capable of summarising and analysing key plot events with support. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, students are working through a series of comprehension actives at their own pace. As they work, I give the class some general reminders about the need for detail in their responses, and then move around the room to check on their progress. Some students need to be reminded to write their responses in full sentences. Other students are asked to re-read the relevant passages and check the accuracy of their answers. I redirect my more capable students to be less concerned with forging ahead, and to take more care with adding sophistication to their written expression. In one corner of the room, we have an impromptu tutorial on nominalisation for those students who would really benefit from being a little more thoughtful with their word choices. Others are asked to focus on analysing why a character behaves in a particular way, rather than just describing what takes place. In this way, students are able to work on a common task, but develop their reading and writing skills individually. The range of abilities in the room is broad, but everyone has the opportunity to improve these abilities no matter where they lie.
This kind of differentiation is nothing new. Many English teachers will do this naturally, without giving it too much thought. But at the end of the lesson an additional challenge is thrown my way. Two of my most capable students excitedly show me that they have completed all of the work I’ve set. They love the novel and have both read it twice. Their answers are detailed and well-written. I’m thrilled that they are so engaged and motivated, but also a little surprised — I know that the majority of the class will need at least another period to finish this work, and I don’t want to worry the weaker students who really need to focus on reading carefully and writing well-constructed sentences, rather than hurrying through the task. I start to think about how I can extend my fast finishers without disadvantaging the rest of the cohort, and my thoughts turn to the VCE Study Design for English. While it may seem a bit unusual to be guided by VCE curriculum when teaching Year 8, I realise that the ‘Reading and Creating’ Outcome in Units 1 and 3 can help me create a challenge for my capable students that will allow them to consolidate their text knowledge without leaving the rest of the class behind.
I enter the classroom the next day armed with some freshly-designed activities. Students are told to continue with the work from the previous day, and then move on to new activities when ready. One activity is designed to consolidate their knowledge of the plot of the entire novel, while the second is a creative response task that gives them the option of writing from a variety of different characters’ perspectives. I set some expectations in terms of what must be completed by the end of the lesson, and what is optional, and they get to work. Once again, I move around the room and give students personalised feedback on their work while also checking on progress and explaining the new tasks. There’s a definite energy in the room — my more capable students are pushing themselves to get ahead to the ‘fun’ creative tasks, and some students who have generally struggled with comprehension tasks seem to pick up the pace as they notice those around them moving on to different work. At the end of the lesson, the two students who inspired me to create the additional tasks present me with completed creative responses and tell me how much they enjoyed the task. Counter to my expectations, some of my less able students have also attempted the creative tasks and proudly ask me to read their work.
When I think about teaching mixed abilities after this lesson, I’m less inclined to groan about it. My students have definitely benefitted from having access to a range of tasks, and I’ve discovered the value of presenting a challenge above and beyond what might be expected, not only for my students, but also myself.
Rachel Williams is co-author of the ‘My English’ series, which offers a differentiated solution to teaching language skills from Years 7-9.
Oxford MyEnglish 7 to 9 Victorian Curriculum has been shortlisted in the Student Resource – Junior – English/Humanities/Languages/Arts/Technologies/Health and Physical Education category of the Educational Publishing Awards Australia. The winners will be announced in September.