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Teaching heterogeneous classes

Radislav Millrood

A widely held view is that a teacher working in a heterogeneous (mixed-ability)

class should adapt the tasks to individual learner needs. Such individualization
turns a lesson into a mixed variety of the individual-fit activities, and is
sometimes described by teachers as impractical. This article studies an
alternative approach which involves teaching a heterogeneous class as a whole
class of individuals. The author claims that the major factor in the
heterogeneous class is the lesson context, which can create either successful or
unsuccessful language learners. This article draws on classroom research data
to describe the features of a success-building lesson context.

Introduction A heterogeneous class consisting of ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’

learners (Skehan 1998: 215–16) is a challenge for teachers. One of the
suggested ways to teach such a class is by using in-class task adaptation,
whereby extroverts will conduct an interview in the lesson, introverts will
make a list of what they think about the subject, visual learners will read,
auditory learners will listen, and kinaesthetic learners will visit other
classrooms for observations, etc. (Leaver 1993: 25–30). The picture can
become even more complicated if we consider a scope of more specific
learners’ problems, and break the class further down into smaller sub-
groups of special needs, impairments, and disabilities (Reid, Hresko, and
Swanson 1991). An alternative view is that it is possible to teach a
heterogeneous class as a whole class of individuals. In an attempt to
investigate this, I have undertaken a study into the teacher’s perception
of a heterogeneous class, the self-perception of successful and
unsuccessful learners, and the classroom discourse of success-building
and learner-failing lessons.

Features of successful The research was carried out in a heterogeneous class of school leavers in
and unsuccessful Russia. The subjects were 15 school-leavers, 3 male and 11 female students
learners (in Russia a big class of 30 or more school students is split into two or even
three groups for the foreign language lessons). Five learners were described
by the teacher as ‘successful’, and 10 were referred to as ‘unsuccessful’.

Teacher interview
I used the interview to study the perception of a heterogeneous class by
the teacher. An excerpt from this interview is shown below, in a slightly
edited version.

128 ELT Journal Volume 56/2 April 2002 © Oxford University Press
Questions Typical answers
Do you think that the teacher of I think that the teacher of English
English should know how to deal should know what it is. It would be
with unsuccessful learners and their interesting to know about other
learning disabilities? learning disabilities as well. However, I
should know how to deal with teaching
to read, to write, to listen and to speak,
and to develop these skills.
How can you take into account the I do not think this is totally possible in
needs of every learner in the class the lesson. Perhaps the best place will
then? be individual tutoring. In the lesson,
there are activities for the class. I can
make some tasks easier, or shorten
them for certain students in the lesson.
However, there is always a common
goal for the class. Assessment criteria
are also the same for all. I teach a class.
How can you characterize the They are capable but lazy, sinking in
unsuccessful learners in your class? language errors, missing word endings
in reading. Their memory is poor. These
learners talk without logic. Many of
them are too laconic in what they say.
They lose the meaning of the sentence
while reading it. They fail to apply the
reading rules to new words, etc.

The interview showed that there was no clear strategy in the teacher’s
professional paradigm for dealing with the heterogeneous class. While
she recognized the need to individualize the tasks, she still tended to
work with the whole class. An important point during the interview was
that the teacher characterized unsuccessful learners as ‘capable but lazy’.

Learners’ self-assessment charts

To study the learning profiles of the pupils I designed a self-assessment
chart. This blank form consisted of a set of polarised concepts, which the
learners used to describe themselves and to rate their learning
characteristics on the scale of 1 – a little; 2 – moderately, and 3 –
significantly. The learners were asked to assess themselves as ‘readers’ or
‘listeners’, ‘writers’ or ‘speakers’, ‘linguists’ or ‘communicators’,
‘analysers’ or ‘memorizers’, ‘serial’ or ‘holistic’, ‘ambiguity-tolerant’ or
‘ambiguity-intolerant’, and as having ‘attention problems’ or ‘thinking
problems’. The categories were described for the learners in English,
with a brief reference to L¡ parallels. A preliminary exercise in self-
description was also carried out before completing the charts. For
assessment, the learners were asked to put a cross in the appropriate box.

The profile of unsuccessful learners

To draw a general profile of the unsuccessful learners in the class, their
answers were put together in Table 1.
‘Unsuccessful’ learners perceived themselves as ‘listeners’, ‘writers’,

Teaching heterogeneous classes 129

1 2 3 3 2 1
Reader × Listener
Writer × Speaker
Linguist × Communicator
Analyser × Memorizer
Serial × Holistic
Ambiguity-intolerant × Ambiguity-tolerant
table 1
Attention problems × Thinking problems
Unsuccessful learners
‘communicators’, ‘analysers’, ‘serial learners’, as being ‘ambiguity
intolerant’, and as having ‘attention problems’. The unexpected discovery
was that they called themselves ‘listeners’ rather than ‘readers’, though
they were more successful in doing the reading tasks than those on
listening. Another discovery was that they felt they were ‘writers’ rather
than ‘communicators’, perhaps because they found that they were less
pressed for time when they were writing than when they were engaged
in oral tasks. They said that they preferred to ‘analyse’ rather than to
‘memorize’. Perhaps memory tasks were too challenging for them. They
were clearly ‘serial’, and wanted to learn step-by-step. Unlike the
common stereotype of unsuccessful learners, they were ‘ambiguity-
intolerant’ and wanted to get a detailed grasp of knowledge. Surprisingly,
they tended to emphasize ‘attention problems’, while downgrading the
‘thinking problems’.

The profile of successful learners

It was interesting to compare the ‘learning profiles’ of the unsuccessful
learners with those of the ‘successful learners’ shown in Table 2.
Successful learners of English saw themselves as ‘readers’ rather than
‘listeners’. They also felt more like ‘speakers’ than ‘writers’. Most
considered themselves to be ‘communicators and ‘analysers’ who had
less need to rely on their memories. They were also ‘serial’ and
‘ambiguity-intolerant’ to a greater degree than unsuccessful learners.
However, many of the successful learners admitted to having slight
‘attention’ and ‘thinking’ problems.

1 2 3 3 2 1
Reader × Listener
Writer × Speaker
Linguist × Communicator
Analyser × Memorizer
Serial × Holistic
Ambiguity-intolerant × Ambiguity-tolerant
table 2
Attention problems × × Thinking problems
Successful learners

130 Radislav Millrood

The profile of the heterogeneous class
To draw a general learning profile of the heterogeneous class, the two
profiles of the ‘successful’ and the ‘unsuccessful’ learners were
superimposed one upon the other. The joint profile is shown in Table 3.

1 2 3 3 2 1
Reader × × Listener
Writer × × Speaker
Linguist × × Communicator
Analyser × Memorizer
Serial × Holistic
Ambiguity-intolerant × × Ambiguity-tolerant
table 3
Attention problems × × × Thinking problems
Heterogeneous class
The general impression of the heterogeneous class profile is that of
greater symmetry in learner preferences. The particular class under
study consisted of ‘listeners’ and ‘readers’, ‘writers’ and ‘speakers’, as
well as learners with ‘attention’ and ‘thinking’ problems. At the same
time, the learners in the class showed a preference for analysis, and so
downgraded the usual memorizing activities. Successful and
unsuccessful learners both preferred step-by-step knowledge acquisition;
the two groups were also ambiguity-intolerant, and wanted to acquire a
full understanding of the materials. This symmetry led me to believe that
there was a way to address the heterogeneous class as a whole class of

Unsuccessful learners viewed by the teacher

I asked the teacher of the English class to list the key features of her
unsuccessful learners. According to the teacher’s account, these learners
have poor communicative skills (both receptive and productive), low
language competence (ungrammatical structures, limited vocabulary,
mispronunciation), and knowledge-processing problems (low memory,
and poor meaning comprehension). In reply to the next question, which
dealt with ways of overcoming particular teaching problems, the teacher
emphasized the importance of homework, memory and structure drills,
and rehearsals of performances in the classroom. Her assumption was
that the learners were quite able, but unwilling to study.

Excerpts from learners’ essays

I made an attempt to study the students’ awareness of their learning
problems, and asked them to write a short essay on ‘My learning
English’. Here are some unedited selections from the essays written by
an ‘unsuccessful’ learner:
I like English very much. I do my home works. I learn texts and
dialogues by hard. Study English diªcult for me. It diªcult to
pronounce English words. Many words diªcult spelling. I make
mistakes. Sometimes I can say no correct. It is diªcult to understand

Teaching heterogeneous classes 131

English speech. I not understand grammar rules. I learn grammar
rules. I make many grammar mistakes. Sometimes I not understand
my teacher. I don’t know many words. Translation is diªcult. I am
not attentive. On the one case I want very much to know English. But
on the other case it is diªcult for me because I know English bad.
Well, there are two big problems with my English: grammar and
words. I have a very small my own dictionary in memory.
Contrary to the teacher’s assumptions, all of the essays expressed the
general message that the unsuccessful learners were willing, but unable,
to learn. The students’ self-assessments of their problems in learning
seemed to be consistent with what science says about learners’ needs.
Cognitive problems experienced by a young child do not always
disappear without trace, and may also persist, though hidden. Even
highly motivated learners can have such hidden cognitive problems
(Shaywitz and Fletcher 1999: 1,351) which lead them to experiencing

Helping unsuccessful Lesson context to enhance learners’ success

learners I attempted to use the resources of the classroom context to enhance
learners’ performance, while addressing the needs of the whole class.
One way to do this was to use supportive strategies, such as increasing
the teacher’s waiting time, giving the learners short and clear
explanations, o¤ering them cues, and building their confidence by
praising them for their participation and achievement, etc. (Ehrman
A more general approach was found in the role of the classroom context.
This can dramatically a¤ect language learners’ abilities and disabilities
(Ruiz 1995: 491–502). The classroom context was viewed as a facilitating
resource capable of creating a zone of proximal development (ZPD ) in
learners (Vygotsky 1978). It was supposed that a context of classroom
interaction can create the supportive ‘sca¤olding’ necessary for the
learner to progress within the development zone, which is both
evidenced and constructed in the classroom. This process, which is
termed ‘laddering’ (Bornstein and Bruner 1989), is success-driven.

Alternative lesson contexts

Lesson context alternatives can be described as ‘success-building’ and

Success-building classroom context Learner-failing classroom context

Process-oriented teaching Result-oriented teaching
Highlighting the learner Highlighting the teacher
Considering learning styles Reducing methodology paradigm
Focusing on communication Focusing on control
Drawing on learner output Imposing teacher input
Limiting constraints Introducing constraints
Creating opportunities Diagnosing individuals

132 Radislav Millrood

It was noticed that the successful learners were much more adaptable to
the learner-failing context, and so did better than their less successful

Learner-failing lesson context

I audio-taped lessons and used the ‘initiation’–‘response’–‘feedback’
cycle (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975) for classroom discourse analysis.
Episode 1 shows a classroom context that failed the learners, despite the
teacher’s attempts to do the task with the learner (the teacher was talking
with the learner about household chores):
Episode 1
Lesson procedure Comments
T: Now, describe your household chores. The teacher initiates a topic.
S: My mother go to work … The student responds with an error.
T: So … don’t forget your grammar … The teacher corrects the error.
S: As usual at 10 or 11 o’clock … On The student overlooks the correction
Monday my mother go … goes … and continues struggling through the
come … comes home at 6 or 7 language.
o’clock and cooks dinner …
T: Who does all the homework in your The teacher initiates another topic
family? Sveta, is it your mother? and prompts the expected answers.
Does your mother do it?
S: No. I help my mother about the The student responds and develops
house. Sometimes. Because I haven’t the subject further.
spare time to … for … do it.
T: Who helps her then? The teacher initiates another topic
S: Who helps her then. and insists on the student following
T: Sveta, who helps her then? the initiated pattern.
S: To helps her then. The student fails to use the pattern
T: No, if you are busy, if you have no The teacher gives a cue.
time to help your mother, who helps
her then?
S: Nobody. The student responds.
T: Nobody does. Is your father busy The teacher corrects the grammar,
with household chores? and initiates a question.
S: No, he work all time. The student responds.
T: He … The teacher corrects the error.
S: He is never the time to help my The student persists with errors.
mother … he short of time to rest.
T: All right … The teacher drops the task.

The teacher focuses on controlling correct language, and introduces

language and content constraints. The learner is expected to say what
complies with those constraints. In the end, the learner is diagnosed as
‘unsuccessful’, and the completion of the task is dropped.

Teacher’s repertoire in the learner-failing context

Types of teacher intervention in this ‘learner-failing context’ are shown
in Figure 1. The teacher’s repertoire of interventions included
‘instructions to the students’, ‘correction of errors’, ‘questions to the
learners’, ‘explanations to the learners’, and ‘markers’ (indicating the

Teaching heterogeneous classes 133

stages and the end of a task). The dominant types of intervention were
‘corrections’ of learner errors, and ‘questions’ to the learner seeking to
assess the learner’s knowledge.

figure 1
Teacher interventions in
the learner-failing context

Success-building lesson context

Episode 2 shows a lesson with a classroom context that provides more
help in success-building for the learners (while the participants, a
mixture of ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ learners, talk about computers
and human beings). The same teacher was giving the lesson after an
analysis of the previous audio-taped classroom episode.
Episode 2
Lesson procedure Comments
T: What’s the di¤erence between a Initiating a topic with a question.
computer and a human being?
S1: A computer can retrieve infor- Answering the question and giving
mation at any time and a human one’s point.
being … can retrieve information
only … after not such a long time
… People can forget …
T: People forget. Computers never Summarizing what the student has
forget. People have headaches. said and developing the idea.
Computers—no headaches. Initiating a point of discussion with a
Computers store information. question.
S2: Also store information. Answering the question.
S3: People need more time to retrieve Adding explanation.
T: Do people retrieve information … Asking a question.
in one and the same way?
S1: People use associations … Looking for the answer.
T: Also, today I tell the story in one Adding ideas and initiating a
way, but tomorrow di¤erently. question.
What about computers?
S3: Computers always does … do … Giving the answer.
everything in the same way …
T: What about you? Any ideas? Addressing a silent student.
S4: Computer can remember any time. Contributing an idea.
T: Yeah, there is no problem for Developing the idea.
computers to remember …

134 Radislav Millrood

S4: People can’t remember at any Rephrasing the idea.
T: Ah, so we have diªculties in Inferring from the talk.
retrieving the information.
S1: People forget what is not useful. Rephrasing the idea.
T: … or unpleasant … also we tell Adding an idea.
the same story di¤erently.
S5: Situations are di¤erent Inferring an idea.
T: We say, people adapt to the Rephrasing the idea.
S3: Computers can’t … Inferring the idea.
S5: In the future computers … like Initiating an idea.
humans … erm … erm …
T: Yeah, they will adapt to the Formulating the idea.
situations like humans.
S5: … will adapt … Echoing.

Teacher’s repertoire in the success-building context

In the success-building context the teacher’s repertoire consisted of
‘questions’, ‘summaries’ of the students’ contributions, and ‘development’
of the students’ contributions, by adding ideas and inferring from students’
utterances, ‘managing’ the discussion by addressing silent students, and
‘formulating’ ideas that were not worded clearly enough by the students.
The teacher did not correct learners’ errors explicitly. Although no visible
language or content constraints were introduced in the lesson, the teacher
was able to manage both the language and the content. Observations
showed that in this context the usually ‘unsuccessful learners’ did not
appear to be failing the task. The repertoire of teacher’s intervention in the
success-building context is given in Figure 2.

figure 2
Teacher interventions in
the success-building

Conclusion The study has shown how a heterogeneous class can also be addressed as
a whole class of individuals who have a symmetry of learner needs.
Contrary to the assumptions made by some teachers, many unsuccessful
learners are motivated to study, but they first have to face certain
diªculties. A success-building lesson context can be used to ‘sca¤old’
these learners, and so provide for whole class progress. This context is
developed through the repertoire of the teacher’s interaction with the
learners. Two of the essential aims of the approach are to limit learner-
failing, and to create a supportive environment. These aims, together
with other features, can help to address the problem of teaching a
heterogeneous class.
Revised version received November 2000
Teaching heterogeneous classes 135
References Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language
Bornstein, M. and J. Bruner (eds.). 1989. Interaction Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
in Human Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlboum. Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge,
Ehrman, M. 1996. Understanding Second Language MA: MIT Press.
Learning Diªculties. London: Sage.
Leaver, B. 1993. Teaching the Whole Class. Salinas, The author
California: The AGSI Press. Radislav Millrood has been involved in the English
Reid, D., W. Hresko, and H. Swanson. 1991. A language teaching and teacher training for 30
Cognitive Approach to Learning Disabilities. Austin, years. He is Head of the ELT Department at
Texas: PRO-ED . Tambov State University (Russia) and a
Ruiz, N. 1995. ‘The Social Construction of Ability consultant/co-ordinator of the British Council
and Disability’. Journal of Learning Disabilities teacher development projects. His current
interests are in teacher training and project
Shaywitz, S. and J. Fletcher. 1999. ‘Persistence of
management, as well as running the Internet
Dyslexia’. Paediatrics: 104/6.
homepage ‘English Language Teacher
Sinclair, J. and M. Coulthard. 1975. Towards an
Development’ at
Analysis of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University

136 Radislav Millrood