Binod Dhami

Differentiating instruction for mixed-ability classrooms

*Binod Singh Dhami

English language learners are similar and at the same time different. They are different in terms of many aspects, for example, rate of learning, age, language proficiency level, socioeconomic factor, family education, ability to learn a language and so on. The rate of learning among the students varies according to their ability to learn and their learning styles and strategies. Some are fast learners, some are slow, and others are average. It is really challenging for language teachers to deal with this context. The general concept in practice around the world is that a teacher goes to a class with a single lesson plan and delivers the lessons. The teacher, however, often times forgets to reflect and evaluate if the lesson presented was appropriate for every student. The activity, task or language lesson may not be appropriate for everybody in the class because students have different ways of learning. They have their own learning strategies, and, importantly, what Gardner (1983) calls multiple intelligences (MI).

In most situations, a language teacher cannot teach with a single lesson plan. The teacher would find it beneficial to prepare a modified version of the lesson plan for mixed-ability students without letting them know. The teacher would have to develop different activities and tasks to suit different groups of students for more effective language learning.

In this paper, I will discuss what a mixed-ability classroom is, what multiple intelligences are, and what differentiated instruction is. I will also discuss some activities that are most suitable for each type of the multiple intelligences as well as some techniques to address individual learning differences.

What is a Mixed-Ability Classroom?

Students in language classes are not the same. On the basis of language proficiency, some students are proficient language users and others are not. A mixed-ability classroom contains students of varied ability levels. Handling and planning for such a classroom has become a serious problem for many language teachers. In this regard, Harmer (2008) mentions, “One of the biggest problems teachers face is classes where the students are at different levels– some with quite competent English, some whose English is not very good, and some whose English is just getting started. This is a case where different individuals are at different levels and have different abilities.” Similarly, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2006) believes, “Not only do students come from different cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, but some also are formally or informally labeled gifted and talented, while others require individual education plans to address specific needs.”

Based on the above mentioned views, it can be said that mixed-ability classrooms consist of students who have different abilities and strategies to learn a language. In addition, the students have different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, which make them different from one another.

Differentiated Instruction

Since a language classroom contains learners with multiple abilities, who are different from one another, differentiated instruction helps a teacher deal with this situation effectively. Tomlinson (1995) argues, “A differentiated classroom offers a variety of learning options designed to tap into different readiness levels, interests and learning profiles. In a differentiated class, the teacher uses a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to understand and own information and ideas and a variety of options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learnt.” Differentiated instruction is a strategy by which teachers adapt instruction to students’ varied learning needs (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2006). It seeks variations in lesson planning, material development, and methodology adaptation. It also refers to variations in activities which fit varied students. With regard to what is not differentiated classroom, Tomlinson says, “a differentiated classroom offers a variety of learning options designed to tap into different readiness levels, interests and learning profiles. In a differentiated class, the teacher uses; a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, a variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to understand and own information and ideas and a variety options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learned (1995, para.3).

Multiple Intelligences

Multiple intelligences is another aspect which makes learners different from one another. Gardner (1983, 1999, 1993) popularizes the notion of instructional diversification with the MI theory, which suggests that learners in any classroom are both similar and different. An understanding of such similarities and differences helps teachers determine what to teach and how to teach it. Students in a class may come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Some may find language learning easy, but others find it difficult, some may feel happy most of the time, some are unhappy. Students may have special needs, such as hearing difficulties, poor eyesight, or difficulty sitting still. Similarly, Freeman (2010) mentions “teachers who recognize the multiple intelligences of their students acknowledge that students bring with them specific and unique strengths, which are often not taken into account in classroom situations. Gardner has theorized that individuals have at least seven distinct intelligences that can be developed over lifetime”(p.169). But here we will discuss about eight intelligences because Gardner later developed eighth intelligence.

Gardner (1991) categorizes multiple intelligences into different types (cited in Beckman

& Klinghammer,(2006).

  • Linguistic intelligence: ability to learn languages. Writers, lawyers, editors, interpreters, etc. are good at this.
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: capacity to analyze problems logically and carry out mathematical operations. Those who have this kind of MI include scientists, engineers, and doctors.
  • Visual-spatial intelligence: ability to learn mental modes of world. For example, painters, decorators, architects, etc.
  • Musical intelligence: skill in performance, composition and appreciation of musical patterns such as those of singers and composers
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: potential to use one’s whole body or parts of the body to solve problems as in athletes and crafts persons
  • Interpersonal intelligence: capacity to understand intentions, motivations, and desires of other people. Teachers, sales persons, and politicians are good at this.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence: capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations and apply one’s talent successfully, which leads to happy and well-adjusted life
  • Naturalistic intelligence: ability to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment

Activities That Fit Each Type of Intelligence (Armstrong, 1994, cited in Freeman, 2007)

  • Linguistic-verbal: note taking, story-telling, debates
  • Logical-mathematical: puzzles and games, logical sequential presentations, clarifications and categorizations
  • Visual-spatial: charts and grids, videos, and drawing
  • Musical: singing, playing music and jazz chants
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: fields trips and hands-on activities
  • Interpersonal: pair work, project work, group problem solving
  • Intrapersonal: self-evaluation, journal keeping, options for homework

What Makes a Mixed-Ability Classroom?

Some factors which make a class mixed-ability are given below.

  • Age and gender
  • Personality traits and cognitive ability
  • Cognitive development stage and motivation
  • Socio-economic status and educational background
  • Preferred learning styles and strengths
  • Language proficiency level

 What if Students are All at Different Levels?

Harmer (2008) suggests the following strategies for dealing with mixed-ability groups where different individuals are at different levels and have different abilities.

i. Use Different Materials/Technology

The learners in the class are of different levels. Some learners are slow and others are average and some others are fast. The language teacher has to develop the materials, activities and tasks according to learners’ level. S/he may use different materials for the mixed-ability learners because same activities, materials and tasks may work for all the learners. The teacher should find out who the good and less good students are and ask them to form different groups. While one group is working on a grammar exercise (e.g., past continuous), the other group might be reading a story or doing the internet-based research. Later, while the higher-ability group or groups are discussing their topic, the weaker ones might be doing writing exercises, or sitting around a CD player listening to an audio track.

ii. Do Different Task with the Same Materials/Technology

Where teachers use the same materials with the whole class, differentiation can still take place. We can encourage students to do different tasks depending on their abilities. A reading text can have sets of questions at three different levels. The teacher tells the students to see how far they can get: the better ones will quickly finish the first two sets and have to work hard on third. The weakest students may not past the first set. The teacher can vary the same materials for different leveled students.

iii. Ignore the Problem

In a mixed-ability class, there may come different problems. The better students can do the activities and understand the instructions quickly than the weaker ones. This situation puts both types of students (fast and slow) at risk. Fast or better students are at risk because they may get frustrated or bored for not getting challenging task from teacher. Similarly, slow students are at risk because of their inability to do the activities that teacher assigns. These students need support from their colleagues to complete the tasks. Therefore, in this situation, the language teacher should get bored instead s/he can ignore the problem and work according to students’ level.

iv. Use the Students

A teacher can use the students to help one other. S/he can put the students in pairs or in groups so that they can learn from each other. The group and pair work create the feeling of community learning. A teacher gives clear instructions before s/he assigns work to each pair or group and asks students work. The group work helps students take responsibility of the learning. Some teachers adopt a strategy of peer help and teaching so that better students can help weaker ones. They can work in pairs or groups. When the teachers form students into groups, they can ensure that weak and strong students are put together.

Tomlinson (1995) says, “Among instructional strategies that can help teachers manage differentiation and help students find a good learning ‘fit’ are the following.”

  • Use of multiple texts and supplementary materials
  • Use of computer programs
  • Internet centers
  • Learning contracts
  • Compacting
  • Tiered sense-making activities and tiered products
  • Tasks and products designed with a multiple intelligence orientation
  • Independent learning contracts
  • Complex instruction
  • Group investigation
  • Product criteria negotiated jointly by student and teacher
  • Graduated task and products rubrics

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2006) makes a similar recommendation through a number of questions which can help teachers evaluate the appropriateness of their instruction for the diverse learners in their classrooms.

Diagnostic Assessment:

  • How can I assess the range of student skills, interests, learning needs in this class?
  • Have I been informed of any students’ special needs?
  • How many distinct levels exist in this class and by what measure?
  • Does this assessment accurately gauge student preparation, skill sets and content knowledge?

Curricular Content:

  • Are the nature and scope of content appropriate for all the students in this class?
  • How can content be adapted to engage all students?
  • What recourses strategies are available?

Instructional Practices:

  • What points of entry can I offer to engage students initially?
  • Do my instructional plans advance each student’s understanding to a new level?
  • Am I still holding all students to high expectations?

Student Products:

  • Do I allow for a range of student products to demonstrate mastery?
  • What type of products will best demonstrate subject mastery of each subject, while still holding all students to high expectations of new content knowledge?
  • Am I facilitating and assessing all development in addition to testing content comprehension?

Final Thoughts

Differentiated instruction is one of the best ways of dealing with mixed-ability learners. A class contains different students with different abilities and multiple intelligences. A teacher cannot address all of his or her students’ needs and interests if he or she applies only one instructional plan in teaching. This challenge demands selection of multiple methodologies along with varied activities and tasks. It should be the teacher’s responsibility to analyze the classroom needs and develop teaching methods and techniques for diverse students who may not learn in the same way. Some students are auditory, some are visual and some others may be kinesthetic. Learners have different intelligences. There are different activities that language teachers can develop on the basis of multiple intelligences for their learners.

To make the instruction differentiated, the teacher has to make variations in his or her teaching methods, instruction, and lesson planning. Learning to differentiate the instruction takes time and requires rigorous planning and hard-work. For example, if a language teacher wants to teach poetry in a mixed ability class, he or she can differentiate the instruction by developing a few sorts of activities for the same poetry. The teacher can develop activities for slow learners, fast learners, and average learners. And the activities are also simple, challenging and medium according to their difficulty level respectively.

As time-consuming and difficult as differentiated instruction can be, language teachers should not be discouraged. Success may not be achieved at the beginning, but it will come eventually if the teachers continue to differentiate their instruction persistently.


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2006). Teaching all students to high standards in

mixed-ability classrooms. Washington, DC. Retrieved

Beckman, L. & Klinghammer, S. (2006). Shaping the way we teach English: A successful

            practices around the world. Washington: Office of English language programs.

Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching (4th ed.). London: Pearson.

Harmer, J. (2008). How to teach English. London: Pearson.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences? The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1999). Who owns intelligence? The Atlantic monthly, 283(2), 67-76.

Freeman, D. L. (2007). Techniques and principles in language teaching. New Delhi: OUP.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners.

Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.).

Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved

 (*Binod Singh Dhami is an M. Phil. scholar at Kathmandu University, Nepal. He is also a faculty member at Gramin Adrash Multiple Campus, Kathmandu, Nepal where he facilitates applied linguistics in M. Ed. second year. Being a TESOL trainer, he facilitates TESOL certification in Nepal. Besides, he is a text book writer. He has co-authored English language teaching methods and English for communication, the courses designed for B. Ed. second year. The author can be accessed at


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