As teachers, we all have to deal with mixed-ability groups. Ideally, mixed-ability groups should be small, so that the teacher can devote their time to all the students who need special support and individual attention, but in public or even private schools it is hardly ever possible.
It is clear to all of us that students who fall behind ought to get special treatment and although it is sometimes challenging, we take it for granted: weak students need help. And I agree.
But... what about the brilliant students? The ones who get bored easily, because they learn quicker than their classmates or because they already know what we cover in class (happens a lot in case of bilingual children). Very often, boredom leads to discipline problems or a total lack of interest in our classes. So, what can we do to make this problem go away?
To start with, let me say that I find this problem really difficult to solve, because if we happen to have both brilliant and very weak students in the same group, we will probably tend to focus more on the weak ones and feel somewhat guilty if we devote more attention to their more talented classmates who ''don't need our help as much''.
Bearing that in mind, I once did some research on the subject and came up with some simple and not time consuming solutions, which, I've been applying ever since:
TIPS involving preparation
- As I prepare extra worksheets for the students who fall behind, I always throw some extra ones with exercises for the fast goers. It works especially well with bilingual kids. They tend to excel in oral skills but they more often than not need to improve their spelling, extend their vocabulary and work on grammar. So, some additional worksheets always come in handy. I try to do it once per unit and gather material related to what their classmates are doing.
- Kids, whose level is far beyond what we do in class and if their motivation is high, get from me books in English to read at home. They have to prepare an oral or written summary of the book.
TIPS that don't involve preparation
- for students who finish their assignments in the activity book, I ask them to take out their notebooks and I assign some extra activities related to the subject (for example, I extend the vocabulary, ask some additional reading comprehension questions, etc)
- one of my favourite ways of engaging the best students is to ask them to come up with their own examples of what we do in class, especially when we work with the notebook. For instance, recently we have been working on articles. The assignment was to put expressions with clothes under ''a'' or ''no a'' category (green trousers but a purple hat). There were five of them on the board and I ask the students who finished early to prepare their own examples, which we later on added to the list. My students loved the activity and they came up with an almost endless list!
- as I have a small English library in each classroom and at least one picture dictionary per class, students who finish early can pick up a book or take the dictionary and read/study them.
- extra homework assignments (especially for bilingual kids whose parents are native speakers of English) From time to time, I ask the bilingual kids to prepare something extra at home. As we are doing now fruit and vegetables in the third grade, I ask one of the girls whose mother is English, to find out and then share with the class how to say in English certain vegetables that are very popular in Spain (but somehow are never covered by the coursebook, surprisingly).
These are only a few examples of how one can work with brilliant learners. It is essential to make the most of their talent and motivate them so that they can benefit from our classes even though the overall level of their classmates may be much lower than theirs. And it doesn't have to take a lot of time or effort, just a few tricks will do.