5 ways to deal with mixed ability students in secondary classes

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.


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

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    Utility bills (electricity, gas, water, etc)


    Gym membership (university gym)


    Phone and internet


    Grocery shopping


    Bank fees


    Clothes and personal items


    Takeaway and eating out




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