5 ways to engage mixed ability groups of young learners

Stephanie Dimond-Bayir

Do you sometimes wonder how to juggle the needs of all your learners while keeping them engaged? We can find plenty of creative and interesting ideas to make lessons fun, but it is sometimes a challenge to deliver such tasks in a class where the ability of learners can vary so much.

Research tells us what you probably already know: that teaching mixed ability groups can be challenging, especially with limited resources. However, we should remember the advantages too: mixed ability classes can support learners in terms of their self-esteem and ‘within class’ grouping can be ‘beneficial to pupil achievement’ (Sukhnandan and Lee, 1998).

So how can we be creative but engage all our learners?

A little forward planning can help. Here are five examples of things you can do:

  • Differentiate your tasks. Make them creative but with extensions for stronger learners. Books such as Power Up include suggestions for this in the teacher’s notes. If you are working with very young learners, for example, you can encourage them to work on letter formation by giving out play dough and asking them to create letter shapes. Less confident learners can just create one letter shape or follow a pencil line template to support them. If confident learners finish quickly they can create simple words by matching up their letters or creating an additional one. The same technique works for labelling diagrams or writing descriptions: less confident learners simply complete the task; stronger learners add additional items.
  • Utilise games or activities where speed, not just knowledge, is important. This sounds harder for less confident learners, but even good learners can lose by not being quick enough. For example, you could play a word collocation game. Stick two verbs (e.g. make / do) onto two empty boxes or waste paper bins. Use two soft balls or beanbags and have the learners come up in twos. Call out a noun (e.g. a bed / homework / your hair / a mistake). The learners throw their ball into the correct verb box (e.g. make a bed).  All learners can join in and even stronger learners might be too slow. The flashcard ‘pick it up’ game where learners grab the correct picture from a selection in the middle of a circle also works well.
  • Play to the strengths of less confident learners and ensure they contribute early. For example, play the ‘conveyor belt’ game. Put objects or flashcards in a box on one side of your desk and have another box the other side. Move each object or picture along your desk as if it were on a conveyor belt, then drop it into the empty box. If you want, you could play some ‘supermarket Muzak’ while you do this. Once you have finished, give learners two minutes to say or write all the objects they can remember.  Sometimes less confident learners have good memories and can do well. Remember to call on them to contribute first! This is also a fun way to revise new words for the whole class.
  • Use timing to help. For example, if learners are writing questions, match fast finishers with other fast finishers and ask them to think of three more questions between them. Avoid rewarding with fun tasks as this will encourage learners to rush rather than produce good quality work and can also make slower finishers feel that they are missing out.
  • Vary feedback. If a weaker learner has worked hard, praise them and identify one or two simple things that they can work on e.g. spelling errors. Meanwhile stronger learners could be encouraged to swap work and correct each other’s work.


These approaches can be adapted to a range of activities, meaning all your learners can be involved and encouraged by classroom activity.

Are you inspired by these ideas? Then you may like one of our new courses: Power Up (British English) and Level Up (American English).

References: Sukhnandan, L. and Lee, B., (1998) Streaming, Setting and Grouping by Ability: a review of the literature. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research

If you’d like to stay on the subject of classroom dynamics, have a read of ‘Why putting children together in groups doesn’t always work‘.

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