meeting students’ needs in our diverse classrooms

There is no teacher who does not teach mixed classes. You are not going to find a group of students who are identical in their needs, strengths and interests. Every student is an individual made up of a complexity of characteristics. Students vary as to their – motivations, aptitude, background, confidence, exposure to English, family status, family attitudes to learning languages, physical challenges, speed, memory and feeling about school. And a lot of these features may vary from day to day and change as they get older, too. I believe the term ‘mixed ability’ is misleading as it suggests that students are either good or bad at learning a subject. Using terms like ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ to describe students is not just unhelpful but also dangerous as labels stick and can cause irreparable damage because not only those around the students accept these labels but students themselves do, too. Once you see yourself as a failure, it’s hard to move on.

But teachers need to consider how to face the challenges of teaching ‘mixed’ classes and these include:
·         It’s hard to pitch lesson
·         The perception that strong’ students dominate
·         Quicker students get bored
·         ‘Weaker’ students hold things up
·         Some students give up
·         And teachers need  to cover the course book within a specific period of time
·         And most worryingly the difference between students only seems to get greater as time goes by.

I would like to suggest the following four strategies to help solve these problems -
    • Vary teaching methods to suit different abilities, learning styles and interests
    • Use  ‘open-ended’ tasks
    • Create a collaborative classroom
    • Reflect on how we affect students

Vary teaching methods to suit different abilities, learning styles and interests

We accept that students are different, so why do similar tasks and activities every lesson? Why stick to the course book which follows a particular style and methodology?
It’s crucial to vary tasks and activities. A lot is said about Multiple Intelligence theory and it is generally accepted by teachers but to what extent do you plan a variety of tasks especially with Teens? Are they moving around? Is there music in the classroom?

Example task one – write the following letters on the board – B C R I E A D and ask students to work together to write as many words using those letters as they can in 150 seconds.
·         It’s a great way to activate vocabulary and practise spelling
·         Some students find individual words easier to work with than grammar
·         Many students have a strong visual memory of words and this taps into that
·         Collaboration is a popular mode of learning as students can not only support and encourage each other they can also teach each other
·         Giving a time limit means that you don’t have to wait for stragglers to finish and hold up the lesson

Example task two - What about doing a quiz like this?

Hip hop is not just music, it’s also
a. DJing
b. Breakdancing
c. Graffiti
d. All the above

Which one of these artists is not a rapper?
a. Madonna
b. Eminem
c. Kanye West

·         It doesn’t just rely on language knowledge but also on world knowledge
·         Some students know more about other subjects than English, like popular music
·         Making educated guesses is part of the skill
·         Knowing the ‘right’ answer is not so important but being motivated to find out is

There is such a huge focus in education on ‘knowing the answer’, yet in life surely the skill is to have questions, be keen to learn the answers and know where to look for them! We seem to have confused the journey that is education with the destination. Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi describes this almost magnetic pull that is learning thus: 
Human beings feel best in flow, when they are fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new.

Collaboration versus competition

When I was at primary school (many years ago) there were pieces of paper on the wall each with a student’ same on. Every time we did a piece of ‘good’ work a gold star was stuck next to our name. Looking back at this now, even though I had lots of gold stars, I feel it was a negative and unfair practice. How on earth did children (as young as five or six) get over seeing no stars next to their names? How motivating was it? Tell a child they are a failure, and they’ll believe it. Drive a competitive wedge between children in the same class and you’ll always have to deal with the worse effects of teaching a mixed class.
Collaborative learning seems to me to be real best practice. Every child succeeds in an environment of co-operation. There is no spotlight shining on individual children, under which they are expected to perform immediately to prove they know the answer. The stress of that is more than learners find comfortable or encouraging.
Vygotsy’s idea of the zone of proximal development simply put presents the idea that working alone a child can reach a certain level of attainment; with support she can reach a higher level. The difference between those levels is where learning takes place. Working together, students can not only help each other, but also create a nurturing environment.
As teachers, it’s our job to encourage children to ask questions and look for answers in a variety of situations. It’s not our job to expect them to know the answers and criticize them if they don’t.

How important is the role of the teacher?

Think back to when you were a child.
What characteristics do you attribute to a good teacher?
Are they any of these?

She noticed me.
She believed in me.
cheerful and friendly
organised and confident
authoritative but not authoritarian

But how many teachers may discourage their students without even noticing? Look at this typical classroom exchange. Have you ever said similar things? What’s wrong with it?

Teacher: You, what’s the answer to number five?
Student:  Um, um....
Teacher: Hurry up. We haven’t got all day.
Student:  Er, um, He don’t like playing tennis.
Teacher: Weren’t you paying attention? We did this yesterday in class. Maria, can you give us the right answer, please?
·         The teacher only uses the name of the ‘preferred’ student
·         The teacher assumes one student is better than the other
·         The tone of the teacher’s voice may also give the unnamed student the message that they are ‘useless’
·         The teacher rushes the student. Research shows that teachers typically wait less than a second for an answer to a question. This gives hardly any time for a student to consider an answer and gives the message that being quick to respond equates to being clever!

Increasing the wait time to 7 seconds results in an increase in 1) the length of student responses 2) the number of unsolicited responses 3) the frequency of student answers 4) the number of responses from less capable students 5) student-student interactions and 6) the incidence of speculative responses.
Akron Global Polymer Academy

As a teacher, am I giving all my students an equal chance to succeed? Here is a personal check list you can use.

Are all the students involved?
Do weaker kids always sit at the back?
Do I nominate ‘brighter’ kids to answer questions?
Do I monitor all the kids?
Do I use all their names?
Am I set in patterns that ensure kids get left behind or left out?
Do I encourage everyone to participate equally?
Do I praise all contributions from students equally?
Am I audible and visible to all the kids?
Is my language clear and well graded or confusing?
Can everybody understand?
Is it clear when I want to get everyone’s attention? What marker expressions do I use?
It’s not easy giving all students what they need in lessons, but self-awareness can go a long way to helping ensure that all students are fairly treated and encouraged equally. Most importantly for us, as teachers, is that we believe in our students’ potential to learn and develop and that we don’t dismiss them, even subconsciously, as failures.

Creative Writing

Creative Writing
Why include creative writing in the EFL classroom?
Consider the three quotes below:
Educating people entirely through left-brain activities of the academic curriculum is like training somebody for a race by exercising only one leg while leaving the muscles of the other leg to atrophy.
James Hemmings, The Betrayal of Youth, Marion Boyars, 1980

To solve complex problems in changing circumstances requires the activity of both cerebral hemispheres.
Carl Sagan,The Dragons of Eden, Coronet, 1978
Imagination is an essential part of human intelligence. Creativity is applied imagination.
Ken Robinson, Out Of Our Minds, Capstone, 2001
Education has become very academic (or maybe has always tended to be). The capacity for remembering and recalling information and logico-deductive reasoning are highly regarded. Over the years in the UK, with the ‘need’ to reduce costs, schools have seen subjects like drama and music disappearing. Yet, employers want people with imagination, creativity and soft skills. I believe that developing creativity in young minds is an essential part of the teacher’s job.

In the English language classroom, I see a role for creative writing for these reasons:
}  To allow for personalised responses
Students need to be free to play with ideas and language in their own way. Not everyone has the same ideas and emotions in relation to a stimulus. Each student has a right to express themselves as individuals and to be respected as individuals.
}  To accommodate mixed (ability) students
Students can write how much, how little, however simply or complexly they wish.  
}  To focus on meaning over form
There is too much focus in many EL classrooms on grammar – on the mechanical manipulation of the form of language, often, I believe, at the expense of meaning. Language begins and ends with meaning. Students should have plenty of opportunities to express themselves using whatever language they have available. This also allows them to tap that dormant language within, because they really search for ways to express themselves.
}  To motivate students
Dropouts don’t leave school because we don’t give them enough facts, but because they don’t find any meaning in them.
Gertrude Moskowitz, 1978

Some practical classroom ideas:
Starting with a frame will help students, especially those unused to creative writing. Unfortunately although creativity is as natural to children at birth as breathing, it gets stifled early and needs coaxing and encouraging. Children quickly learn, usually at school, that a ‘correct’ answer is required of them, one that the teacher is already aware of and it’s wasting time to offer something from outside the box in class.

Example 1:
Once upon a time there was a ....................  girl who lived in a .................... village.  Her mother and father were very .................. She liked to play in the ................... with her ..................... friend, who was called .......................
One day they found a ........................... and they took it to the police station. The policeman was very ......................... and told them they could keep it. They were very ..................................
Give children a gapped story like this (depending on age and level) and ask them to work in pairs or small groups to fill in the gaps. Reassure them that there is no one ‘right’ answer and that they can make their story as funny / scary / silly as they want.

Example 2:
Pictures – with speech balloons to fill are not overwhelming as students can see that they don’t need to write a lot and can then therefore think more about quality than quantity of words. There are may you can find online.


From reading to writing
Linking reading for pleasure with writing is a great idea. Students will have models and inspiration for their own writing and be reassured that they don’t have to write a lot to create something powerful and / or beautiful.
Here are some examples:
An old pond!
A frog jumps in-
The sound of water

An elderly man called Keith
Mislaid his set of false teeth -
 They'd been laid on a chair,
He'd forgot they were there,
Sat down, and was bitten beneath.


Crouching, ready to pounce on a bird
Always running, scratching, purring
That’s Tommy my cat

What’s purple?
My sister’s eyeshadow
my father’s car
the cover of my diary
my new jeans
and the dye
I’m not allowed to use
on my hair.

All right
they are my parents
but I don’t want them to come into
my room without asking,
I don’t want them to read my letters,
I don’t want them to laugh
at my friends,
I don’t want them to check my homework.
All I want is to live my own life.

Writing for the paper
fodey.com is a great easy-to-use website where students (and teachers) can see their articles take shape and look like authentic newspapers.
I start by creating my own for students to read. We do spend some time focussing on the use of passive voice in class. This is where passive is used naturally and effectively. Students can then write their own articles (collaboratively, if they prefer) and then we use the website to work the magic. It makes for a great display – as students can add photographs, too.

Other ideas:
  •       Play three different pieces of instrumental music . Students each have three pieces of paper. As they listen they write down whatever comes to mind while listening to the music on each piece of paper. Students read each other’s writing and guess which music inspired each text. In pairs students choose one of their texts and expand on the writing – turning it into a poem, story, song etc.
  •  ·     The above can also be done with three pictures. It’s easy to find paintings online to show in class.
  •  ·     Use songs to inspire writing. E.g. after listening to ‘She’s leaving home’ by the Beatles, students discuss the events in the song, then in pairs write the note that the girl leaves for her parents, create a missing poster for the girl, write a letter from one of the parents to the girl etc etc.

The books below have a wealth of fabulous ideas for encouraging creative thinking and writing:
Writing Simple Poems, Vicki L. Holmes & Margaret R. Moulton, Cambridge University Press
Once Upon a Time, John Morgan & Mario Rinvolucri, Cambridge University Press
Creative Poetry Writing, Jane Spiro, Oxford University Press
Storybuilding, Jane Spiro, Oxford University Press
Images, Jamie Keddie, Oxford University Press