Using High Level Students As Teaching Assistants In A Mixed Ability Classroom
University of Ashiya, Japan
In private and public teaching institutions, with students from all levels and backgrounds, a common problem faced by teachers is the often unavoidable mixed ability class. In this paper I will be offering a possible part solution to this problem, based on a research investigation conducted with a group of Japanese learners who represent a wide range of abilities. Though not designed as a panacea for all classes of this type, it is my hope that readers may seek to adopt the basic premise in their own working environments, that high level students may be a valuable and exploitable resource, oft-overlooked in the mixed ability language classroom.
The world of English language teaching (ELT) literature presents a great number of ideas and concepts, expounding a vast assortment of styles, models and techniques, but often makes a general assumption on the make-up of actual classes in which such teaching methods are to be employed. In an ideal teaching environment, we might all wish for energetic, highly-motivated and able students coupled with a limitless supply of time and resources, but the reality that many of us have to face is far from ideal. For a variety of restrictive reasons there is a need for teachers to make the best use of what is available and to do so in the most productive way that one's personal teaching methodology might allow.
One such limitation is that of teaching in a mixed level class and the problems that this can pose for successful language teaching though, as Richards (1998, p. 1), remarks: "Every class we ever teach is mixed ability", and Rinvolucri states, "We do not teach a group, but thirty separate people. Because of this, the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and it is the idea of teaching a unitary lesson that seems odd" (1986, p. 17).
When faced with an acute range of abilities within the same group, an obvious approach to the predicament would be to create separate classes based on learners' levels but, when this is not feasible, the teacher is faced with a well-known dilemma: should one address the less able students at the risk of boring the more advanced learners, or risk alienating the lower level students by focusing on their more able peers? [-1-]
The question, therefore, is: What strategies are available to teachers to help them to find a more accommodating middle ground? In this paper, I will propose that advanced learners are a valuable resource who may actively serve as teaching assistants, rather than remain largely overlooked or ignored, in a mixed level group.
The group under investigation comprises a total of twelve students, (male and female), of which eight might be described as hard core and the other four as floaters whose attendance is erratic. The students are referred to in this paper in an abbreviated form: S1, S2 . . . etc, the lower numbers representing beginning level students and the higher numbers representing the more advanced learners.
The students are employed by a large financial institution in Osaka, Japan for a subsidiary company whose main area of business is to provide small loans to private individuals. The students reflect a broad spectrum of staff within the company, ranging from senior management to general office clerks. The class meets weekly, in the evening, at the company's headquarters for a period of ninety minutes.
The students exhibit a wide range of English language ability. A simple biography, completed upon registration to join the class, shows one student only having experienced English language instruction to junior high school level, seven to high school level, four have completed studies in English at university including a single member who has spent two years living in America. In order to deal with the problems posed by such a diverse classroom composition, I have had to adapt my own methodology in an attempt to better meet my learners' needs.
From its outset in 1996, the class was originally specified by the company's administration as an Eikaiwa class. The literal translation of the Japanese word 'Eikaiwa' is 'English Conversation,' but this rather simplistic definition warrants further elaboration. As a general definition it suffices, but pedagogically it is both vague and imprecise. Conversation clearly serves a purpose--to communicate, but the assumption should not be that all communication is the same. What is taught is needs-driven, effectively subdividing the generic term 'English Conversation' into areas such as English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for General Purposes (EGP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP) or English for No Apparent Purpose (ENAP), among others.
In this setting of a once-weekly general English class, long-term needs maybe unknown or not specifiable, a situation falling somewhere between the realms of EGP and ENAP. Although it is also possible to argue that all ELT is, to a degree, ESP of some form. Under such classifications, English Conversation for General Purposes (ECGP) would seem a more suitable designation for Eikaiwa. As Widdowson says, "[EGP] is essentially an educational operation which seeks to provide learners with a general capacity to enable them to cope with undefined eventualities in the future" (1983, p. 6). This is in contrast with ESP, which seeks to fulfill a "training function" requiring "restricted competence" organized around clearly defined discourse goals. [-2-]
However, in more recent times, the company was taken over by a larger American financial multinational corporation, resulting in an increased need for the Japanese staff to communicate with their American parent company in English. Although the class was not explicitly redefined as ESP in the strictest sense, at the students' behest, an emphasis of curricular content evolved gradually towards English for Business Purposes (EBP) and away from EGP.
When the aforementioned takeover occurred in 1998, there was a sudden influx of students who wished to join the class, peaking at a total of about thirty. It was my intention at this time to separate the students into two or more classes based on language ability or, possibly, rank. As Ainslie (1994, p. 7), advises:
In courses for industry it is usually not a good idea to put people at different levels in the hierarchy of a company in the same group, as those at a lower level in the hierarchy may turn out to be better linguists. If the office junior makes more rapid progress than the managing director, or a middle manager is more able than a senior executive, it can be embarrassing for everyone and may result in some course members dropping out.
However, the company's administration was adamant in their wish that there should be just a single weekly class. Following a staff reorganization, the class was reduced to approximately twelve members.
The class is now in its third stage of evolution. In the beginning, I tried to conduct each lesson in the traditional teacher-fronted format. However, trying to choose and prepare material suitable for both the higher and lower level students successfully proved to be difficult. However, one positive outcome of this situation was the interchange that has since followed between the students and myself. McCoy (1979, p. 187) refers to such discussions as "cognitive restructuring," conducive to the establishment of trust between students and the teacher--essential for the success of any kind of co-operative methodological objectives.
The frustration that the above circumstances created prompted the students themselves to request a modification to the class format. After further discussion, it was decided by mutual consent that we might try splitting the class into two groups, (one high level and one low level) and that I would conduct my lessons going back and forth between each group, combining activities where practicable. As Johnson and Johnson (1982) note, lack of sufficient time is a constraining factor in the effectiveness of group work and, after conducting a trial and some discussion of the two group format, the students concluded that they were not altogether happy with their ninety minute lesson being effectively diluted into a forty-five minute period. [-3-]
The final phase of this evolution is the topic of consideration: I requested that my advanced level learners act as teaching assistants in the class, to be actively employed as helpers for the lower level students. In simple terms, these newly designated Teaching Assistants were explicitly called upon by myself to offer explanations or translations when situations dictated that additional help was required. As time progressed, the assistants took it more upon themselves, using their own initiative, to intervene when they considered such actions to be beneficial. Culturally speaking, the introduction of this more collaborative learning environment is a simple reflection of the existing Japanese school system in which juniors, (kohai), are encouraged to take guidance from their seniors, (sempai). In the following sections, I will present and discuss the effectiveness of this approach.
Over a period of three weeks, the students were asked to consider the current classroom situation and to reflect on the changes that had occurred since the introduction of the teaching assistants. Initially this took the form of a classroom discussion, the contents of which were recorded on cassette tape (with the permission of the students; see Appendix D for sample transcriptions of responses). Additionally, students were given one week to respond to anonymous questionnaires. The questionnaires were provided in two separate formats, one for the advanced level students (Appendix A), and a bilingual version for the lower level students, (Appendices B and C). The students were given explicit instructions to be open and honest in formulating their responses.
Lower level students were encouraged to write their answers in Japanese where necessary, with the assurance that I would have their work translated faithfully. At this early stage, I was careful not to allow any element of bias to influence the proceedings, and I declined to offer any of my own opinions on any of the questions under consideration until all of the questionnaires had been handed in. Upon completion, the questionnaires themselves became the topic of a second round of classroom discussion, which was again recorded for later dissemination and transcription.
It is important to note that at this level of investigation, I was not looking for empirical evidence of increased language learning. The question was whether there was group consensus on the advantages/disadvantages of teacher plus peer tutor fronted lessons, or if separate perspectives were emerging based on learners' roles within the group. A third perspective, my own, would also provide an equally important insight into the possible constraints and benefits of managing a mixed ability class in this way.
My original intention was to present three perspectives based on student feedback: lower level students' response, higher level students' response, and teacher response. However, the data I collected and collated forced me to abandon this approach as too simplistic. My research effectively separated the learners into three camps, and not the two that I had earlier envisioned.
Two of these "groups" contain just a single member, (representing two extremes at either end of the ability scale), the remaining members forming a core consensus:
All of the students responded similarly and with no great variation to questions one, two and three of the questionnaires: personal goals were simply to improve ability in English and none of them used English much at work or studied to any significant degree outside of class, (Appendices). I was hoping that there may have been a correlation between the answers to these three questions and the learners' position within the group, but this was not established. [-4-]I. Lowest level response:
S1 has the least experience of English language instruction, (junior high school level), but she is a highly motivated class member, exhibiting a clear willingness to learn under quite difficult circumstances. The alienation that she feels within the group is perhaps best articulated in her own words (Appendix E), a written response that she made of her own volition to supplement her feedback. Her responses to the questionnaire and the classroom discussions echoed a general feeling of guilt. Whereas S1 prefers a "slower" lesson, she is reluctant to make demands within the class and fears that by continually asking for help from the more advanced students and me that she will be responsible for monopolizing too much of the time. She states: "I'll feel much better or even motivated if there is at least one student like me" , is understandable, in that if there were other students of comparable ability within the class they would be able to talk/negotiate together in an attempt to resolve problems or at least to take it in turns in asking questions.
Her answers to the questions about advanced learners helping in the classroom were all positive, e.g."They can all help me and I can study with more teachers . . . I like to listen to Mio, (S9), and Nao, (S10), even if I cannot understand everything," though it should also be noted that she is aware of what she perceives as S12's irritation with her lack of English ability, which undoubtedly reinforces her low self-esteem within the group.II. Highest level response:
S12 has studied English to university level and has spent two years living in the US. He has a very dominant personality and often seeks to lead the class. He is aware (as are all the students), that we have little choice but to have a mixed ability class, but he is the only one in the group who openly expresses his displeasure at the situation: "I don't like mixed level class...I just want to take my lesson directly from you...I just want from you almost private" . He was also the only member who responded to question ten of the questionnaire that it was important to him that the roles of student and teacher were clearly defined and separate within the classroom. However, these responses run somewhat contrary to the position he takes within the class, which is very much the role of teaching assistant. In his response to question six of the questionnaire (Do you find it useful when you help the teacher in class?), he says, "To help teaching English is a good lesson for my speaking and to help you (the teacher), gives me the opportunity to speak English," and to question seven (In what ways do you think that you contribute, or fail to contribute, to the lower level students' understanding of the lessons?), he answers, "I contribute to the lower level students for their understanding of many things."
These opposing views might suggest that S12 is a reluctant assistant, a role he would not seek to adopt should circumstances allow: "If we were not having mixed level class, I don't need to be teacher."III. Combined response:
S2 to S11 formed a consensus of opinion in both their responses to the questionnaires and in the classroom discussions. Within this group, the lower level students were happy to have the advanced learners helping them in the class and the advanced learners, in turn, were pleased to be able to afford their assistance. The problem of a mixed level class was acknowledged by all when asked to cite the disadvantages of such an arrangement, notably that the class sometimes had to move slowly when things were explained to the lower level students, but the general consensus was that the advantages far outweighed this. As S11 comments: "I could get excitement studying with mixed level students...with mixed level students we have lots of different points of view so lessons are more interesting and more fun." [-5-]
S8 makes a similar, though more specific observation, evidencing the importance of the transfer of knowledge between students, irrespective of their real, or apparent, differences in ability:
I know a lot of vocabulary but I do not know many grammar and Nao, (S10), knows a lot of grammar so he can help me too. Not only can help low level students, but each other high level students too. Each one student higher and lower knows different things.
The lower level students said that they found it useful when they were helped in vocabulary, grammar, explanations of nuance, and even in pronunciation. The higher level students, in the role of assistants, were pleased with the greater opportunity this role gave them to speak in the class and to be corrected or questioned by their peers using English. None of the lower level students was perturbed when the helpers were occasionally forced to use Japanese, commenting that this often saved valuable time. As Richards (1998, p. 1), observes: "I am not suggesting that mother tongue be introduced into the classroom in any significant way . . . I do believe that it can be used to help with clarification and as a check of understanding, providing an occasional shortcut for the teacher." Ainslie proposes a similar strategy for incorporating L1 in the classroom, encouraging students to occasionally work problems through between themselves in their own language: "Some language course members may have already come across the new language . . . Use them as models; ask them to take over your role with the class for a time" (1994, p. 42).
The students were unanimous in their preference for this type of class over the more traditional teacher-fronted lesson, saying that they considered it to be "a very positive thing" (S6). The lower level students were "inspired" (S3, S4 and S5) by listening to their more able peer tutors and the higher level students were experiencing, "a more level of responsibility in the class...we must try to be good teachers for them" (the lower level students; S9).
In response to question ten, all of the students in this group thought that it was unimportant that the roles of teacher and student were separate and clearly defined in the classroom:
"It is not important for me" (S10), "No I don't think so" (S6), and "No!" (S3).IV. Teacher response and evaluation:
Prior to receiving the students' feedback, I was in favor of streaming as the best way to overcome the problems of teaching a group of mixed ability learners. However, in light of the student responses, I am now forced to adopt something of a different position. As Richards (1998, p. 1) comments, "The idea of having the students help each other in the class can seem radical to some students and teachers," though "radical," in my experience, did not mean unwelcome or unacceptable. On the contrary, my students welcomed the introduction of teaching assistants and their feedback has encouraged me to continue to develop this approach.
The two students (S1 and S12) who took somewhat polarized positions (see below) have given me most cause for reflection. S1's wish for at least one more student of her ability in the class as a way to cope with her feelings of alienation, would doubtless benefit her in other ways, too. As Thal (1997, p. 1), concludes: "The effects of ability grouping procedures on weak learners in an EFL classroom were examined . . . Results show that weak learners learned better with a peer of the same ability than with a better-abled peer tutor." [-6-]
To S1, the higher level students were intimidating, and their ability in English only served to reinforce her fears that she shouldn't have been in the class in the first place. Ainslie suggests: "Dominant class members may indeed have a demoralizing effect on the others, confirming their feelings of inadequacy . . . Self-image, self-confidence and self-belief can make a great difference to language learning success" (1994, p. 8).
However, another student, S10, takes the opposite view and talked of motivation when studying with more advanced students:
When I couldn't speak English not at all I was very . . . shocked by higher level students' English speaking and I was very angry about it. No, not angry, I mean ashamed. Then I tried to study to go up to them . . . the same level. So it is very important to have their enthusiasm to study English and for them to help us.
A recent study by the National Foundation of Educational Research, (NFER; 1998, n.p.) would support this observation: "Streaming and setting have been said to deprive low ability pupils of peer support and positive role models outside their own ability group."
At the opposite end of the scale, S12's frustration results in a different, though equally significant, kind of alienation. Though he is willing to assist in the lessons, he does not perceive this as his preferred role in a language class. The target language is invariably aimed below his level of competence, and above everyone else's, so he assumes that his abilities and skills are rarely challenged. His lack of peers within the group deprives him of role models, and this has led to an inflated self-esteem. When corrected on points of grammar or vocabulary by lower-level students he does not react in a positive way.
The main group endorsed the use of teaching assistants in the class, with the higher-level students appreciating any opportunity to make use of their expertise. Courtney (1996, p. 318, citing James, 1994), makes the observation: "One commonly held belief is that student-student interaction can only lead to the exchange and eventual fossilization of errors," and quotes from Johnson (1981, p. 5), "Real learning is only possible from student-teacher interaction". My own opinion of this is that when students are employed as teaching assistants, their interaction within the group can be beneficial to all. Certainly "fossilization" may be avoided when the class is carefully monitored and corrections are appropriately made. "Authenticity is in the eye of the participants" (Prodromou, 1996, p. 372), and as long as I am not continually interrupting my helpers in an obsessive pursuit of accuracy (errorphobia), their L2 speech is interpreted by the other students as being at best "authentic" and at least, an exposure to Comprehensible Input (CI) (Krashen, 1982), a necessary requirement in achieving communicative competence, (Hymes, 1971).
When the advanced level students use their L1 in the class to explain or to clarify, their overall effect on the group is one of consolidation, facilitating the creation of an alliance between the two groups. Hemingway stresses the role the L1 has in this respect:
Any strategy that enables the whole class to work together is useful . . . The use of the mother tongue may be an advantage, not a distraction, if it involves all students in the lesson, avoids frustrating misunderstandings, and encourages collaboration. (1986, p. 22) [-7-]
The gap between the students is not skill-specific, though individuals do perform better in some skills than in others, supporting the notion that learners usually have a variable rather than a uniform linguistic competence. But there is more to the learner than just language. Prodromou notes:
Every learner brings into the classroom a whole complex of personal characteristics which influence their approach to what is happening there. They carry with them a world of experience and knowledge, feeling and ideology, which may help or hinder, the acquisition of a foreign language. (1992, p. 7)
These "characteristics" form an inherent and fundamental part of any methodological equation. Prodromou again states, "It is difficult to talk about the mixed ability class without seeming to subscribe to a kind of fatalism about the abilities of the less confident, outspoken or high-achieving" (1992, p.1), and in doing so, there is always the danger of thinking about them in terms of their weaknesses rather than their strengths. My lower level students are aware of their limitations in L2 competence and performance, but this does not make them "bad" learners. The knowledge, experience and enthusiasm that they possess, coupled with the encouragement and assistance that they receive from the other class members, tends to unite the group rather than fragment it.
With the help of assistants, it has been possible to aim for middle ground strategies involving the group as a whole, and not to focus on any particular top-down/bottom up listening exercises, or distinct open, as opposed to closed, process rather than product, writing work. Whereas some students may have achieved Alderson's (1984, pp. 17-19), "Threshold level of competence" in reading, their positive effect as role models within the group goes some way to motivating the other members to seek to overcome the limitations imposed by Clarkes' "short circuit" (1980, p. 208). The final word goes to S1: "I want to read as well as Nao" (S10).
The majority of the students in this group were in favor of this modification to the class format. Their general consensus of opinion is that the assistants perform a valuable role in the lessons. I am inclined to concur.
However, this paper is just one sample study based on a number of unique variables particular to the personalities and perceptions of the group members. Further research is needed in this area before a more definitive conclusion may be reached concerning the effects of variables such as class size, composition, situation and the balance of abilities within the group. Certainly, additional investigation and data would be required to provide clear evidence of increased language learning.
When resources are limited it is important to make the best use of what is readily accessible in order to utilize the full classroom potential. Should circumstances permit, the role of "teacher's ally" may be one that other teachers might seek to develop in creating a more successful methodological approach to their mixed level classes.
At the very least, it would seem that classroom harmony might be better achieved in groups of motivated students who seek successful integration based on a willingness to participate and cooperate, and not on ability alone. When advanced level students are eager to act as a bridge to help facilitate the learning process it is equally important that their lower level classmates exhibit a willingness to cross that bridge.
Sean Maddelena a full-time English teacher, having spent the past twelve years living and working in Japan. He has a first degree in Law from Bournemouth University and an MSc in TESOL from Aston University, both in the UK. His specific area of interest lies in Corpus Linguistics and an ongoing quest to incorporate Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) into classes of General English at all levels. [-8-]
Alderson, J.C. , & Urquhart, A.H. (1984). Reading in a foreign language: A reading problem or a language problem. London: Longman.
Ainslie, S. (1994). Mixed-Ability Teaching: Meeting Learners' Needs. London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.
Clarke, M. (1980). The short circuit hypothesis of ESL reading- or when language competence interferes with reading performance. Modern Language Journal, 64, 203-209.
Courtney, M. (1996). Talking to Learn: Selecting and using peer group oral tasks. ELT Journal, 50/4, 318-325.
Hemingway, P. (1986). Teaching a Mixed-Level Class. Practical English Teaching, 7/1, 22.
Hymes, D. (1971). On communicative competence. In Brumfit and Johnson (Eds.), The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. (pp. 5-26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
James, G. (1994). Oral testing at tertiary level, In Boyle J. & Falvey P. (Eds.), English Language Testing in Hong-Kong. (pp. 183-196). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.
Johnson, D.W. (1981). Student-student interaction: the neglected variable in education. Educational Researcher, 10/1, 5-10.
Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, F.P. (1982). Joining Together. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press
McCoy, I. (1979). Means to overcome the anxieties of second language learners. Foreign Language Annals, 12, 185-9.
Prodromou, L. (1992). Mixed Ability Classes. London: Macmillan.
Prodromou, L. (1996). From Luke Prodromou. ELT Journal, 50/4, 372.
Richards, S. (1998). ELT Spectrum, 6. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rinvolucri, M. (1986). Strategies for a mixed ability group. Practical English Teaching, 7/1, 17.
Sukhnandan, L. & Lee, B. (1998). Streaming, Setting and Grouping by Ability. National Foundation for Educational Research. United Kingdom.
Thal, R. (1997). Same-Ability vs. Mixed-Ability Pair Work for the Development of Vocabulary Learning Skills in the Weak Learner. Unpublished master's dissertation, University of Surrey.
Widdowson, H. G. (1983). Learning purpose and language use. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [-9-]
|01||So in your question I can say clearly (2.0) I can say answer to you clearly question|
|02||num:ber ten (2.0) I understand about question num:ber ten (.) I think (hhh) without us|
|03||((Japanese)) (1.5) (S1) or (S2), they need help from us (.) because at the moment their|
|04||level is so low they almost couldn't understand what you say (.) maybe they are boring|
|05||every week (1.0) just write from white board and just say from us (.) I don't know it is|
|06||good to help them (.) or >I don't know it is good or bad to help them<but they need help|
|01||But teacher is just only you (.) right? ((Teacher nods in the affirmative))|
|02||(1.5) If we can get take a lesson from se:pa:rate (.) I think the teacher have to(.) teacher|
|03||needs two person (.) easy class and ( ) advantage class (0.5) but we can't do|
|01||The time is reduced to for:ty-five from ninety (.) it's true (.) right? they worry about it|
|02||(1.0) only one class they pay ((Japanese)) three thousands yen|
|01||If lower level students trying to understand lessons and ad:vanced level students trying|
|02||hard to understand them (.) it will be very inter:est:ing and very fun|
|01||Our class maybe fail to be a success mixed level class because (.) ad:vanced level|
|02||stu:dents didn't take care of lower level students and didn't think highly of|
|03||their problem (1.5) We thought of our sa:tis:fac:tion only (.) Lower level students feel|
|04||alone because ( ) cannot understanding some things|
|01||I could get excite:ment studying with mixed level students (.) We could help each|
|02||other and we could improve our English level|
|01||I find it useful when I help you ((the teacher)) (.) because we are all Japanese (.) so for|
|02||us it is easy to communi:cate easily (1.5) We are working at the same company so we|
|03||are well known to each other and we can see in what ways the students are|
|01||Sometimes (.) if a student cannot understand all of the teacher's meaning (.) she or he|
|02||will be confused and stop listening (1.0) Then ( ) it is a good time for us to help|
|(.)||a dot in brackets indicates a microsecond|
|(0.5)||a number in brackets indicates a pause timed to the nearest tenth of a second|
|yes||underlining indicates emphasis in an utterance|
|((Laughing))||words in double brackets indicate 'descriptions' rather than transcribed utterances|
|>you know<||a passage of speech delivered more quickly than surrounding talk|
|( )||empty brackets indicate an inaudible or unintelligible utterance|
|:||a colon indicates an extension of a sound or syllable|
|?||a question mark indicates a rising intonation|
|!||an exclamation mark indicates an animated tone|
The English course held on Thursday night seems to be suitable for someone who studied hard or did very well in school. For someone like me, who may want to take a chance what she was not good at when she was in school, it is getting hard to catch up. By being alone and with someone so smart, I even feel this class will be much better without me. To be left out, it is painful just to be in class. I'll feel much better or even motivated if there is at least one student like me.
Can you imagine how easy it is "to quit" when we are not obligated to study and allowed to make own decision. When we are left alone to accomplish something, it is sometimes hard to overcome our weakness. It is a reason why I sometimes feel like dropping out.
Once I asked Mio and Naohiko, "Would it be okay if I make you wait until I understand, the class will not cover as much as you would prefer". They said, "I'll help you out", but it makes me I am worried. Although I decided to try my best...for a while sometimes I am afraid of hating something I love so much, the English Conversation Class!
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