'Q & A from Agnes Orosz’s webinar on teaching mixed-level groups' By Agnes Orosz

25th February 2017

On 4th February 2017, Agnes Orosz presented the following IATEFL webinar:


A few years ago I was teaching in a private high school in Ecuador. In my Year 9 group, I had 25 students; most of them in the lower intermediate range, but I also had five complete beginners as well as three or four upper intermediate students and one native speaker; a boy who had lived all of his 13 years in Miami and had just returned to his family’s country of origin. It was a challenge to say the least. I often felt like a large proportion of the class had learned very little if anything; either because the material was too difficult or because they already knew it all and were bored during the lesson. To make matters worse, both these groups of students displayed disruptive behaviour which in turn affected even those students’ learning for whom the material was roughly of the right level.

This experience got me thinking about how I could improve my teaching so that more students would make progress in my lessons. In most schools, students get lumped together by age rather than stage for their English lessons. This means that my experience is probably typical of many classrooms around the world. Even when we are lucky enough to teach in an establishment where students are streamed according to level, there will still usually be a wide range of ability among the class.

This webinar will explore the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions to this problem by going through a number of practical ideas and activities for EFL teachers to try in their own classrooms.

Thank you to all those who attended, and those listed below who asked questions. If you would like to watch the recording, you need to be a member of IATEFL (find out how to join), but you can read Agnes’s answers to the questions below.

What was it like to give a webinar?

I was really pleased and honoured to have been asked to do a webinar for IATEFL, but it was also an intimidating and daunting prospect. IATEFL is such a well-known organisation, previous webinar speakers include a number of EFL celebrities (like Penny Ur and Scott Thornbury) whose books line my bookshelves, and the last IATEFL webinar I attended had 300 participants! So I planned and prepared for well over a week and had mild heart palpitations every time we encountered technical glitches with the webinar software a few days before the webinar date.

Once the webinar was underway I was fine, and I think it went well. For me the best part was seeing the astonishing number of different countries participants joined in from; from Azerbaijan to Uruguay and everywhere in between. The major challenge for me during the webinar was exactly what I had anticipated it would be; not being able to see participants’ faces. I have 17 years’ teaching experience, during which time I’ve taught countless lessons and held various talks and workshops and presentations. I rarely get nervous about them, even though some (like a 3-hour presentation I held for Ecuadorian English teachers on the new national curriculum for English) had a very large audience. However, I’ve always been able to see my audience or students, and their facial expressions (e.g. nodding, nodding off, furrowed brows etc.) provide me with vital information and feedback about how I’m doing during my lesson or talk. Not having this constant channel of communication during the webinar threw me off sometimes and left me wondering whether I was making any sense at all, so if you watch the webinar you’ll see me a number of times asking a question I rarely need to ask in class: “Does that make sense?”

Another issue was that during the setting-up phase (when we were trying out the video / microphone / handouts etc. with Mercedes, the host), for about half an hour before the webinar I didn’t realise that those participants who had already joined in could hear me. I found this a little embarrassing when I realised they’d been listening in all along!

How I became interested in the topic: differentiation and teaching mixed-level groups

As well as teaching English and teacher training in various settings, I also taught Philosophy A Level in mainstream education in the UK on and off for about 6 years in total. This exposed me to a number of currents in secondary education that were less popular in EFL. One of these was differentiation – the practice of planning and delivering lessons where different students do activities that are in some way matched to their level / ability / preferences or individual needs. Differentiation is a basic requirement of teachers in secondary education in the UK. When the dreaded Ofsted comes to inspect a school, teachers cannot obtain an “outstanding” or “good” grade for their observed lesson unless they demonstrate that they have differentiated their lesson to meet the various needs of their students. This seems to me to be a somewhat neglected area in EFL, my CELTA course didn’t mention it, and during my Delta when I tried to plan observed lessons involving differentiated activities, one of my tutors even discouraged me from doing so! I believe that differentiation – when done effectively – can have a huge impact on students’ progress, motivation and enjoyment of English lessons, and for that reason I believe it is an important area for EFL teachers to focus on more.

Q & A (unanswered from the webinar)

General Questions

When differentiating, I find that the main difficulty is in giving feedback. Any general principles? Tips?

Yes, this gets tricky when students are working on different tasks. I think the only general principle is to try to choreograph feedback such that students receive useful input at their own level. For example, when doing listening tasks, like a song, you can use a video of the lyrics and elicit the song line by line from the students and compare it to the video. This way no matter how many gaps their worksheet had, or where those gaps were, they all learn from whole-class feedback. For other types of listening, you could consider giving them the transcript. For other skills, if students are working in homogeneous groups, you can give them an answer sheet which they can use to check their own answers, and as you circulate you could answer queries at their level. It may even happen that students at all levels ask you a specific question, or struggle with a similar issue which you can then deal with in whole class feedback.

In mixed groups, how can you encourage lower-level students to participate in speaking activities?

Good question. Again, I think this is tricky, because lower-level students will tend to shy away from speaking out; they worry it will take too long to say what they want to, or that they’ll say it wrong and look foolish in front of their more competent classmates, and as we know higher-level students have a tendency to just take over. I think one very powerful tool is to use the relationships and personalities you have in your classroom to pair or group students together who can overcome this dynamic. I mean pair the weakest / shiest student with the most nurturing higher- (or medium-) level student(s). Be aware of friendship (and animosity) groups. Make your expectations of equal speaking time clear. You could even have a little form they have to fill out at the end of the activity reflecting on the percentage of speaking time of each group member. Another strategy is to organize speaking tasks in such a way that the lower-level students simply have to speak, because otherwise the task cannot be performed. For example, a pair questionnaire where each student will have to report back to the class about their partner.

What is your experience with making groups of students with similar proficiency?

Very positive actually. I work at a university where groups receive English according to how far along they are in their degree course rather than their actual level of English, so the result is very mixed-level classrooms. I often teach these groups in 3 levels where the students of similar levels sit together and work together on tasks appropriate to their level. Sometimes I allocate students to these levels, other times I let them choose their challenge level for a particular activity or skills-based work. Some of my students are better listeners than speakers for example, so they might choose level 2 for listening, but level 1 for a speaking class. I find that, in general, students enjoy this way of learning, as higher-level students feel stretched, and lower-level students feel supported.

Questions about the Movie Project

[Note: The project was described during the webinar, which you can watch the recording of if you’re an IATEFL member. If you’re not, find out how to join.]

How scaffolded or structured was the movie project?

Students had a timeframe to work to and tasks they had to complete by internal deadlines within the timeframe, e.g. for handing in the final draft of their script, for submitting their final edited film, etc. Apart from that they were pretty much left to their own devices. During class time I was monitoring the groups closely and floating around in case they needed me, and would provide the help they needed as and when they necessary. As a lead-in to the project, we read a class reader aloud together with students playing various roles, so they began to get the idea of a script, and we read a movie review. I also encouraged them to look at excerpts from film scripts and to watch Oscars acceptance speeches by their favourite actors.

How did you assess the project?

There were grading criteria for each task, mainly related to language use and effort. In the end they received an individual grade based on things like accurate use of grammar and vocabulary, clear pronunciation etc. and a group grade that was made up of more general criteria relating to the whole project, which included how well they worked as a team, how effective their storyline was, and whether or not they were nominated for awards and whether they won any.

Do they do it at home or in groups at school?

They had a certain amount of class hours dedicated to the project and the rest they had to do at home. The filming took place almost entirely outside of class hours.

How long were the movies?

5-15 minutes long

How much did they use L1 while working on this project in class?

To be honest, they used a lot of L1. It was a monolingual group of Ecuadorian teenagers around 13-14 years of age, so when they were working in groups making decisions about how to organize themselves and each part of the task, this went on almost exclusively in L1. Clearly in a multilingual group or if I had insisted on it, these negotiation tasks would be a very rich environment for language development, but I didn’t feel it was worth the trouble in this case partly because it would have been near impossible to enforce and partly because I felt they had so many opportunities to practice their English at various stages of the task: first, they had to write the script in English, almost all groups went through various drafts of the script before they decided on their final version, then they had to learn their lines including the correct pronunciation and intonation and repeat their lines various times in rehearsals and during filming, then they had to watch all the films in English, then they had to nominate winners for the Oscars, then write their acceptance speeches in case they won an award, and then deliver their acceptance speeches if they won. It is of course up to you how far you feel your group will respond to being asked to work in English. I felt that with this particular group it would have been a losing battle, which may have even been counterproductive in that it might have taken the wind out of their sails a bit. The level of motivation, engagement and enjoyment I saw from this group was higher during this task than any other I did with them before or since.

Questions about assessment and evaluation

Many of the questions I received had to do with assessment, perhaps because I didn’t talk about it in my webinar, and thanks to these questions I can see that this was an oversight. Indeed, these are important questions; if students are doing not only different work, but work of different levels, how is it possible to evaluate them?

Should every student in a group get the same mark?

It depends. I think each task needs fresh evaluation criteria, and for some tasks a group grade will be fair and sufficient and for other tasks it will not. I often have students work together in groups, but give them individual grades, or have an individual component. I also often include a peer-assessment and self-assessment element in a final grade, so it isn’t only my judgement that counts. I have also found it helpful to ask group members to declare what percentage of the work they feel they did: did they pull their weight or not? Many students are surprisingly honest about this.

Do you have different assessment criteria for stronger – medium – weaker students?

Again it depends on the task, but generally yes. When tasks or worksheets are differentiated, it is fairly straightforward to evaluate what the student has managed to achieve within their level.

At my university recently I was teaching a mixed-level group that I regularly taught in 3 differentiated levels at the same time, and the final exam itself had 3 different levels. I let each student know which exam I was intending to enter them into and those that were borderline between two levels could decide whether they wanted to go for the harder exam or the easier one. Some, predictably, chose the easier exam, but a surprising number took the challenge and went for the harder exam.

Agnes Orosz is a Cambridge Delta qualified English teacher, teacher trainer and researcher currently teaching at the National University for Education in Ecuador. She has also worked and volunteered in Haiti, Malaysia, Greece and the UK.