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by Erica Fischer on Mar 9, 2012

Dealing with Ability Gaps in High-Level Classes

Hello everyone and welcome back to #langchat!

We had an interesting discussion this past Thursday on a very challenging topic in language education. How do you deal with widening ability gaps in upper levels?

Participants shared many fantastic ideas that you can begin implementing in your classroom right away. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful contributions! Thanks especially to Erica Fischer (@CalicoTeach) for moderating the night’s chat.

If you didn’t catch the chat, please find the summary below for your convenience. If you have some additional ideas to share, we’d love to hear from you in the comments or through Twitter.

High-Level Ability Gaps

In upper levels, especially with large classes, it’s not uncommon for the differences in student abilities to widen. Participants lamented that in high school classes, this is one of their principal challenges.

Many participants believe this is a result of motivation more than anything else. @klafrench says that her students who really want higher fluency definitely “get their hands dirty” more than others, which results in higher skills.

Last week we discussed how to combat apathy and a lack of motivation in students, and many of the suggestions from participants may be useful in high levels as well.

Common Challenges

An issue with students who lag behind in higher classes is that they often have trouble with early-level skills that prevent fully learning the new material. High-level classes focus on more advanced grammatical material and speaking exercises that are challenging for students who have never truly mastered the past tense.

On the opposite side of the coin, students who are ready for more advanced material might get frustrated in a class that moves at the speed of the slowest learner. Or they might seize every opportunity to answer questions or participate, robbing less assertive students of their chances to improve.

Close the Gap, or Embrace It?

As world-language teachers, we’re lucky to be able to work with students regardless of level and find ways to ensure comprehension. By providing comprehensible input and engaging all students, we should be able to move everyone forward (@CalicoTeach).

So, as long as we are moving all students forward, is it important to close the ability gap? Most participants believe that it’s not — the important outcome is growth. Are students improving their efficiency?

It’s also not wise to pretend gaps don’t exist by teaching to the lowest-level student. Students are aware of different ability levels, and trying to hide this will get us nowhere.

Dealing with Ability Gaps

What strategies do you pursue with high-level classes where the ability levels differ? Participants shared several ideas useful for both bringing students’ abilities closer together as well as taking advantage of gaps in student levels.

@CalicoTeach believes that it’s important to focus on changing the task, not the content. Keep it challenging and scaffold the material. Design tasks with scalability in mind — make it easy to bump the level up or down as necessary (@tbcaudill). @klafrench keeps the material at the same higher level for all students, especially with reading material.

  • @tmsaue1 recommends keeping the theme the same in mixed classes to allow all students to be learning the same general content. Include lots of open discussions so that students can contribute what they’re able to contribute.

@jas347 suggests keeping questions and activities open-ended. This gives students an opportunity to show what they know, and they aren’t punished for what they don’t. Having specific expectations for answers is impossible when student levels differ, so let students answer in their best way. Expand this to all class activities.

  • @SraCasey recommends technology projects with a set goal but flexible options. These allow students of higher levels to take a more challenging approach to the goal.
  • Flexible, open-ended questions and activities might take more planning, but as @CalicoTeach points out, it’s less work than planning specific activities and questions for different levels.

Extra credit for extra work could encourage more students to get involved at a higher level or could satisfy the needs of quick, motivated learners. When @jas347 taught grades 6-8, 8th-grade students could come early to class for more advanced instruction and received extra credit for including their instruction in their regular work. If students wanted more knowledge, they could come and find a way to apply it in a way that was relevant to them.

  • The extra instruction doesn’t have to be for extra credit, either. @klafrench found that conferencing on writing with her 2nd-year students really helped to close the gap all around and brought writing skills up in the entire class.

@SenoritaClark has tried mixing students of different levels in activities to encourage the less active students to participate. However, for an upcoming novel project, she’s considering assigning groups by level. She’s expecting this to cause higher output for student-created material. For example, if creating questions on a chapter, higher-level questions should come from the groups of more advanced students.

Mixed Classes

Some high-level classes of world-languages have mixed grade levels as well. @SraCasey teaches classes of Spanish 3 and 4 students together. In classes like this, extra instruction for the higher-level students is sometimes necessary.

These classes also provide unique opportunities for student teaching. @SraCasey will often put students of different years together so that during pair work, higher-level students can reteach the material to their younger classmates.

Centers, separate areas for group work that students rotate to throughout class, have great potential in mixed classes. Rather than combine all students together to teach at once, split groups so that you can personalize their instruction. Focus on “input centers” rather than “output” ones — this will give students plenty of opportunity to discover the necessary vocabulary.

In all classes, personalizing the classroom is important. Check out the recent #langchat summary on personalizing instruction for some great ideas from your colleagues.


Our #langchat discussion this week was less active than most due to the busy month of March, but we’ll be back next week on Thursday at 8:00 EST. If you haven’t in the past, please be sure to check out our wiki and suggest or vote on a new topic.

Thanks again to everyone for participating! If you’d like to read the full archive of the chat, please go to our Google Docs page. See you next week!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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