5 ways to deal with mixed ability students in secondary classes

Anna Roslaniec
Anna Roslaniec
A teacher stood in front of a classroom of students sat at their desks

No two teenagers are the same. Within all of our classes there tends to be not only a range of English proficiency levels, but also general learning styles, maturity, motivation, and personalities. This diversity can bring some challenges, but also opportunities to vary your classroom activities and teaching methodology.

Here are some ways to help deal with mixed-ability classes and ensure all your students experience success in their language learning journeys.


Privacy and cookies

By watching, you agree Pearson can share your viewership data for marketing and analytics for one year, revocable by deleting your cookies.

1. Invest time in getting to know your students 

The first class with your secondary students is an excellent opportunity to get to know them personally. The quicker you build rapport, the easier your job will be. Take the time to ask questions about their strengths, weaknesses, interests and objectives.

A simple questionnaire can provide all the information you need to understand their needs and serve as a fun pair work activity or icebreaker after the holiday break.

Here are some example questions to get you started:

  • Why are you learning English and how will it help you in the future?
  • Do you prefer working individually, in pairs or a larger group?
  • What activities do you like doing in class? For example, role plays, making videos, and using songs.
  • What was the best thing about your previous English lessons? What didn’t you like about it?
  • Have you taken any official exams before? Would you like to?
  • How would you rank these skills in order of strongest to weakest: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, speaking, listening, writing, and reading.
  • What things do you like to do outside of school?
  • What topic would you choose if you had to talk about something for a minute in English?

Teenagers are social and curious creatures - make your needs analysis more interactive by having them interview each other and then write a short report outlining what they discovered about their new classmate. Not only will you find out their interests and they’ll get to know each other, but you’ll also get a writing sample.

By allowing the students to voice their ideas, you demonstrate that you are inclusive of different personalities and receptive to new teaching ideas. You’ll also know exactly what activities and themes your students will respond well to and keep them motivated and focused on personal development.

Note that if your student’s English level is low, this kind of questionnaire will be more effective in their native language.

2. Personalize your aims and objectives

Now you have more of an idea about your learners' strengths and weaknesses - vary your aims in each class to suit the needs of each individual. Start your lesson by explaining your main objective - for example, "learning holiday vocabulary”. Then ask your students to set their own objectives - for example: “How many new words do you want to learn today? Their answers will act as their personal language aims.

As a English teacher and a person who understands their students well, you can also act as a motivator. If you think they are aiming too low, you can give them a much-needed push; if they aim high, you can praise their enthusiasm. But don’t forget to reassure them that it’s OK to have different aims and objectives, as everyone is different.

At the end of the class, have a quiz or game to assess their progress. If they exceed their own objectives, praise them. If they fail, acknowledge their efforts and show them how to succeed next time.

Reducing the pressure imposed on them in this way should keep them motivated and enjoying learning the language.

3. Allow students’ first language (L1)

Occasionally allowing L1 in monolingual classes are becoming more accepted in ELT nowadays, and this can be a great way to help mixed-ability students in the classroom.

Slower students in your class may benefit from access to dictionaries or online translators. This will help them complete certain activities and allow them to keep up with their faster classmates.

L1 also can be used to give weaker students the confidence to express any doubts they may have accurately, and can motivate the stronger ones to consolidate their understanding too.

Moreover, L1 can also be used more actively in class, in translation activities. For example:

Students can work together to write a tourist phrasebook for visitors to their town or city. In this activity, students must brainstorm around 15 phrases in their L1 that would be helpful for visitors and then translate them into English.

  • The activity could then be extended into a fun role-play activity or used as part of a class on tourism and sightseeing.
  • Students can write subtitles in English to a video clip that was originally in their L1 and even extend the script into a play or news story.
  • Students can read a story, watch a video or do some research in their L1 and present their findings in L2.

Bringing the L1 into activities can be fun and motivating, and will help save a lot of time in the planning and research stages. However, remember for many students you are their only source of English and the L1 should not be overused.

4. Vary tasks between individual, group, and pair work

Every classroom will have a range of personalities and this is especially true when it comes to teenagers. Some students will be more confident, while others will be shyer. Unfortunately, quieter students are often labeled as being less able - which is often not the case.

Allowing your students to do frequent pair or group work can help them feel less nervous as they won’t be speaking in front of an entire class. It also allows learners to use more conversational English and be freer when speaking it, which is key to developing confidence in any new language.

Moreover, pair and group work allows students to take on roles and responsibilities, be more accountable for their actions, and experience success as a team. Teamwork can also help students develop different 21st-century skills - such as collaboration, negotiation and creativity.

Depending on the task, learners can be paired with others at a similar level to allow for fluent and comfortable exchanges, or in mixed-ability groups to encourage peer teaching.

5. Fast finishers and extension activities

Having some extra activities lined up for those who finish quickly is always a good idea. It will help keep them focused and allow the rest of the class time to finish the task.

Having engaging extension activities prepared which the students want to be able to move onto is important, so they don’t feel like they’re being punished with mundane exercises for finishing first. If the activities are really fun, it might even motivate those slower students to work a little faster.

Try things like:

  • Writing funny stories or songs using the language from the lesson
  • Creating an audio or video dictionary on their phones with all the new vocabulary they’ve learned
  • Making a quiz using apps like Kahoot to review the language from the class
  • Playing games like Lyrics training
  • Keeping a journal in their books or using an app like Penzu

More blogs from Pearson

  • How to make the most of AI in the classroom

    By Pearson Languages
    Reading time: 5 minutes

    Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer a futuristic concept confined to science fiction. It has become an integral part of various sectors, including education. As educators, integrating AI into your classroom practices can enhance teaching and learning experiences, making them more personalized, efficient and engaging. Here’s how you can make the most of AI in your classroom.

  • A woman walking around outdoors with a camera

    The benefits of taking part in foreign exchange programs

    By Charlotte Guest
    Reading time: 4 minutes

    If you are a student or one considering a gap year, the option of foreign exchange programs may have crossed your mind or been mentioned to you. More and more young people are taking advantage of exchange programs and reaping the transformative benefits that come with it.

    Let's have a look at some of the reasons why taking part in an exchange program can be a life-changing experience and how it can help you more than you think.

    What is a foreign exchange program?

    A foreign exchange program is an educational initiative where students have the opportunity to study abroad and immerse themselves in a different culture for a specified period, typically ranging from a few weeks to an entire academic year. These programs facilitate cultural exchange by allowing students to attend foreign schools or universities, live with host families or in dormitories, and engage in activities that foster intercultural understanding and personal growth.

    The primary aim of a foreign exchange program is to provide students with a global perspective, enhance their language skills, and expose them to different educational systems and cultural practices. By stepping out of their comfort zones, students can develop independence, adaptability and a deeper appreciation for diversity.

    What are the benefits of a foreign exchange program?

    1. Cultural immersion and global perspective

    Embracing diversity

    One of the most immediate benefits of an exchange program is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture. Experiencing new customs, traditions and ways of life firsthand fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of global diversity. This cultural immersion helps break down stereotypes and broadens your worldview, making you more open-minded and adaptable.

    Develop cultural understanding

    Living in a foreign country teaches you how to navigate and respect different cultural norms and practices. This cultural competence is increasingly valued in our interconnected world, enhancing your ability to work effectively in diverse environments and making you a more attractive candidate in the global job market.

    2. Language proficiency

    Enhanced language skills

    For language learners, an exchange program is an opportunity to achieve fluency. Experiencing a language firsthand is one of the best ways to learn a new language. Being surrounded by fluent speakers provides constant practice and exposure, accelerating your language acquisition in ways that classroom learning alone cannot match. You'll develop better pronunciation, expand your vocabulary and gain confidence in your speaking abilities.

    Real-world communication

    Using a new language in everyday situations—whether it's ordering food, asking for directions, or making new friends—helps solidify your language skills in a practical context. This real-world communication practice is invaluable, ensuring that your language proficiency extends beyond textbooks and exams to actual, meaningful interactions.

    3. Academic and professional growth

    Academic enrichment

    Exchange programs often provide access to unique academic resources and teaching methods that differ from those in your home country. Exposure to new perspectives and approaches can deepen your understanding of your field of study and inspire new areas of interest. Additionally, studying abroad can enhance your academic credentials, making your CV stand out to future employers or academic institutions.

    Career opportunities

    Experience abroad signals to employers that you possess qualities like independence, adaptability and cross-cultural communication skills. These attributes are highly sought after in today’s job market. Moreover, the networking opportunities during your exchange can open doors to international internships, job placements and collaborations that might not have been available otherwise.

    4. Personal development

    Building independence and resilience

    Living away from home in a completely new environment challenges you to become more self-reliant and adaptable. You'll develop problem-solving skills, resilience and the ability to thrive outside of your comfort zone. These experiences build character and prepare you for future challenges, both personally and professionally.

    Forming lifelong connections

    The friendships and connections you make during your exchange program can last a lifetime. You'll meet people from various backgrounds, creating a global network of peers and mentors. These relationships can provide support, inspiration and opportunities long after your exchange program ends.

    Boosting confidence

    Successfully navigating life in a foreign country, mastering a new language, and achieving academic success abroad can significantly boost your confidence. This newfound self-assurance can positively impact all areas of your life, giving you the courage to pursue further opportunities and take on new challenges.

    5. Engaging with the local community

    Volunteer and community projects

    Many exchange programs encourage participants to engage with their host communities through volunteer work or community projects. This engagement allows you to give back to your host country, gain a deeper understanding of local issues, and develop a sense of global citizenship. It's a rewarding experience that fosters empathy and reinforces the importance of contributing to the wider world.

    Gaining valuable work experience

    Participating in volunteer and community projects during your exchange program can provide significant work experience that is highly attractive to future employers. These projects often involve teamwork, problem-solving and project management, all of which are essential skills in any professional setting.

    By contributing to local initiatives, you can demonstrate your ability to adapt to new environments, work with diverse teams, and handle responsibility. Furthermore, these experiences can fill gaps in your CV, showcasing your proactive approach to skill-building and community involvement. Engaging in meaningful projects not only supports your personal growth but also highlights your commitment to making a positive impact, a quality greatly valued in any career field.

    Where can I sign up for exchange programs?

    There are many organizations and programs that offer exchange opportunities for students and language learners. Some popular options include:

    • Study abroad programs through universities or colleges, which often have partnerships with foreign institutions. Check with your institution.
    • Government-sponsored programs such as Fulbright or Erasmus, (depending on your location).
    • Check non-profit organizations in your country, they may also offer exchange programs.


    Taking part in an exchange program is a life-changing adventure that offers myriad benefits for students and language learners alike. From enhancing language proficiency and cultural awareness to boosting academic and career prospects, the experiences gained through an exchange program are invaluable. By stepping out of your comfort zone and into a new world, you open yourself up to endless possibilities, personal growth and a broader, more inclusive perspective on life.

    If you're a student or language learner considering an exchange program, seize the opportunity. The world awaits, and the benefits are boundless.

  • Friends studying together around one big table

    8 things you should try to avoid when learning English

    By Charlotte Guest
    Reading time: 4 minutes

    Learning a new language is an exciting and rewarding journey, but it can also come with its fair share of challenges. As English learners, it's important to recognize and overcome the common pitfalls that could hinder your progress. Here, we provide advice and guidance on what not to do to make your English learning experience as smooth and successful as possible.