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Teaching guide: maximising mixed ability classes

This is a selection of suggested practical ideas and activities for new and experienced teachers to use in their lessons to enhance the experience of mixed ability students in the MFL classroom.

Students as masters of their own level of challenge

One of the most straightforward ways to cater to different levels in the classroom is to provide a selection of access points or traffic lights to a particular activity.

Some use easy, medium, hard or green, amber, red – you can modify the wording to suit your class. Each level is progressively more challenging for the student and they select which level they work at.

It’s important to really extend students by increasing the level of demand of the tasks to allow for genuine progression, rather than simply asking for more of the same of what is required at a lower level.

Example: ‘Expressing opinions about social media’ written task.

Green – Say what is your favourite type of social media and why (50 words)

Amber – Say which types of social media you like and dislike with reasons (75 words)

Red – Give your opinions on social media and predict future trends (100 words)

Same stimulus, different questions

Another quick way to challenge students in different ways is to work on the same listening or reading text with different access points. This could be student or teacher determined.

Example: Giving a reading/listening text with questions in English or the target language or with different sets of questions for higher and lower ability learners. There could be three points of access and this approach can be easily combined with the traffic light method.

In pairs students can be given two different, ability appropriate, texts and asked to create a set of questions for their partner to answer. The style of question (target language, true/false, multi-choice) can be specified by the teacher if necessary, to further practise exam skills.

A teacher can show a text to a group of students and it can be read through together. Key points can be noted pictorially, then as a second step, key words can be added to the pictures, finally progressing to short phrases and sentences.

More able learners could be expected to expand on the original basis of the text, whilst lower ability members could recreate the initial sentences unaided. The same initial text with words missing could be used as an effective speaking task.

Sentences could be cut up into halves and distributed; lower ability learners could match them up, whereas more able students could write the questions that could have elicited such responses.

Best of three

Rather than asking pupils to complete an exam style written/spoken question, provide them with three examples and ask them to identify strengths and weaknesses then rank them in order and explain why.

After collaborating as a group and identifying success criteria, they can move onto their own versions independently.

Sealed with a tip

A good response to cries of ‘I’m stuck’/’that was easy’ is to provide a challenge or a mystery to solve.

Give pupils an envelope with extra tips and hints in it, but they must only open it if they need to.

Returning the envelope unopened at the end gains extra points, but selecting an extra challenge envelope gains more points.

It’s important to discuss the value of the envelope at the end of the task.

  • How did it help?
  • Was the task too difficult without?
  • What could be done differently next time?

Role reversal

Students become teachers by correcting texts. Mistakes can either be already highlighted for students to correct or not for extra challenge.

Vocabulary tests

In a mixed ability setting, even the humble vocabulary test can lend itself to differentiation.

From a group of 20 words on the board or a worksheet or stuck around the classroom walls, students could aim for 10/15/20 as a Traffic Light approach, choosing which they translate.

Positive pair work

Don’t overlook one of the most valuable resources in classrooms – the students. Using pair work creatively and constructively can help students of all abilities make progress.

Pairing together higher/lower ability students for support

The less able student receives one-to-one support from their peer and the more able student galvanises their learning by being able to coach their partner.

Pairing two Foundation or two Higher students in a classroom situation can be a good way of stretching and challenging both tiers of learner with tasks, such as differentiated questions for a comprehension text and works well with the traffic light system.

Speaking clocks

This is a good activity to foster positive pair work and encourage spontaneous speaking.

Students stand in two equal numbered circles, one inside the other and face-to-face.

The circles take it in turns to move like a clock, asking a question stipulated on the board by the teacher or of their own choosing to the person facing them before moving on. When the time is up, it is the turn of the other circle to move.

Trapdoor reading

This is an excellent way to practise pronunciation and fluency when speaking, as well as offering a platform for independent written work. It can be done as a whole class activity to demonstrate and later completed in pairs.

The teacher starts with a text on the board or a worksheet in the target language, offering multiple choices before ‘dropping’ to the next level, as if through a trap door.

Students must find the correct ‘path’ through the text to successfully get from start to finish.

If they get a level wrong, they go back to the start and it is another student’s turn. Once the correct pathway has been found, students can use the template to create their own trapdoor activity for their partner to navigate.

For example:

Last week I donated 1/2/5 pounds to charity.

The charity I supported was for homeless people/dogs/children

and for my donation I received a badge/cake/pen.

To ‘prove’ which path is the one you prepared earlier it is a fun idea to record another member of staff saying the final version to play to students at the end.

Even better, if this is not a member of the MFL team, as it can double up as a pronunciation game too, with students spotting the errors.

Great group work

Many of the principles of positive pair work also apply to great group work.


The game ‘Consequences’ is a fun way to practise spontaneous written work in a group.

Each student has a piece of paper and answers a selection of questions revealed by the teacher one by one.

Each student writes their answer to the questions on their paper in their target language, folds it over and passes it on to the next person in the group.

At the end of the game, the paper is unraveled to reveal a story. Students can peer assess the writing using criteria specified by the teacher to further grammatical competence and then build on the story to create a piece of creative writing, suitable for their ability.

An example of a classic scenario could be:

He was called… 2. She was called… 3. They met… 4. They travelled by… 5. They were wearing… 6. He asked… 7. She replied… 8. The consequence was…

In grammatical terms, a simple and fun writing task like this practises past tense, third person verb forms, adjectival endings and agreement and asking and answering questions, as well as being differentiated by outcome and challenging comprehension skills.

Running dictation

This is a classic example of how group work can facilitate improved spelling and written skills, as students are grouped according to teacher preference and seated away from a text stuck on a wall or door some distance away.

The groups have a certain time limit to take turns to read a line of the text and bring it back to the team. When the time limit is up, the group with the most complete and accurate text wins the game.

This task facilitates peer correction and support, as well as accurate spelling and grammar.

Puzzle pieces

A reading game where a group of students are each given a part of a text and are required to create a visual representation of what they understand.

They interpret what they have understood pictorially on mini white boards and share it with other group members to find out the whole story.

For example: a description of a disastrous holiday with sections of text focused on accommodation, transport, weather and food. There could easily be a Foundation and Higher example, centred on the same main topic area.

Other suggestions

Finally, in a mixed ability environment it’s always worth considering:

  • scaffolding
  • writing frames
  • key vocabulary
  • sentence starters
  • mini whiteboards
  • different versions of texts
  • student speak criteria
  • true extension
  • peer support
  • guided groups
  • varied seating plans
  • feedback
  • higher order questions for more able students.