How to teach a whole class of mixed abilities?

This is one question that is at the forefront of educator’s minds when creating their curriculum particularly in primary. Whole school decisions need to be made- does the school go down the route of ‘setting’ where all the children of one ability band are taught together or do they stay in their mixed ability classes.

There is not really a right or wrong answer, it really depends on the ethos of the school and what feels right for the children in the school. There are advocates on both sides of the discussion and the final decision will always be that of the individual school.

Setting

In the case of ‘setting’ the simplest method is to ‘test’ the children prior to the lessons beginning. For reading they could have snippets of text that gradually get harder, for maths they could have a test of all the basic maths areas from the previous term. These can then be assessed, and children could be grouped according to how they scored. It is important to note that these groups would need to be fluid- as the term and year progress children may move from one to another. Popular schemes including Read Write Inc use this kind of system, children are reassessed every 6-8 weeks and groups are rearranged appropriately.

The basis for setting was originally because it was thought to be the best way to teach children. The higher set can have lessons provided with challenges and higher-level teaching whilst the lower ability classes could work at a slightly slower pace to enable the children to grasp any concepts they may be lacking.

However, there has been research on the notion of setting to suggest that it does not work for all children. A prominent finding was that although setting works well for children who are considered high attainers it has no long-term benefits for the children in the lower attaining groups. It was also found that there was not much movement between the sets.

Mary Myatt an education consultant says the problem with setting is that the lower sets are often provided with a different academic diet to the higher groups. Their activities are often scaffolded and do not offer enough challenge thus the children get further behind their peers. She goes on to argue that children know which set/group they are in whatever the table or class is called.

Myatt argues that children in higher groups may well struggle if after the next ‘assessment’ they are placed in a different group. Whereas those in the lower groups may become too dependent on the scaffolds and support and never push themselves to become more independent.

“Virtually all students would benefit from the kind of curriculum and instruction we have often reserved for advanced learners—that is, curriculum and instruction designed to engage students, with a focus on meaning making, problem solving, logical thinking, and transfer of learning.”  Tomlinson & Javius (2012)

During my teaching career I have experienced teaching both maths and English in my class and in sets. Both ways have their challenges. In maths I can see why some schools go down the setting route as it makes the lesson planning more straightforward. In my opinion, setting does make planning and resourcing maths more manageable, but I wonder if the children in the less able groups can ever catch up with their peers. In a mixed ability class even if they were not completing the exact same activity, they would be exposed to similar mathematical language appropriate to their year group.

Mixed-ability

The new curriculum has been designed so that children never get left behind (in theory). In your class you teach everyone the same principle then differentiate the activity by support, or alter the teaching to enable all to access it. The idea is that all the children are taught the same from the outset.  Children who are struggling will be noticed more quickly. Then interventions or support can be given to keep them up to speed with the rest of the cohort. The slimming down of the curriculum has also given this extra breathing space to allow revisits of tricky parts.

Myatt argues that teaching to the top and then having additional support for some children is a good way to teach in a mixed-ability class. This then gives the children who are ready a chance to reach ‘mastery’ whilst the teacher can support those finding the concept trickier. It also ensures that the children have the same curriculum.

Beth Budden (assessment lead, John Ball Primary, London) advocates that mixed-ability teaching and learning works best when children are given more control. She argues that sitting beside a peer who is at a different point in their learning can allow children to support each other. Peers can explain concepts to each other and once they are used to the process children will take charge of their learning. Budden believes that the tasks should be ranked not the children.

In the case of reading, Carol Ann Tomlinson (Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2017.) How to Differentiate Instruction: Twenty Years and Counting. [Webinar]) believes that children can be taught in mixed-ability classes. The author suggests that for children with dyslexic tendencies the text can be modified- space between lines, different colour of paper or different font are some easy changes. She also suggests that children who struggle with reading fluency will benefit from having the text read to them to help them understand how reading should sound. These supports are, she points out readily available and can make a huge difference for children’s comprehension.

Similarly, Shepard et al think that texts should not be levelled because this leads to some students not being exposed to the more complex texts that the year group should be using. Such scaffolds could include word banks of the unfamiliar words with their definitions, sentence starters- or setting the text out in chunks whish refer to the questions you intend to ask. In this way the children can use the same text as the rest of the class with some subtle supports to help them access it.

“There is substantial evidence that […] at any given achievement level, students who are “tracked up” or who are exposed to a more rigorous curriculum learn more than same-ability students who are “tracked down” or offered a less challenging course of study.” (Shepard, L., Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Rust, F.  (2005). Assessment. In L. Darling-Hamond and J. Bransford (Eds), Preparing Teachers for a Changing World (pp. 275-326). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.)

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