Skip to main content

To set or not to set?

The research is not terribly clear on the subject of how much outcomes are altered when you group children by ability. In general, it suggests there may be a slight advantage for those in the top group, but there is a disadvantage for those in middle and lower groups, so, if anything, the overall the effect may be slightly negative. I stress "may". For a clear summary of research done in the 1980s and 1990s on this:

When you look at more recent sources like John Hattie and Robert Coe the above conclusions apply across all subjects taken together, even though maths has tended to be a particular focus, perhaps because of its perceived importance and the relative ease with which you can measure outcomes.

In sum, the research tells us there are much better ways of increasing attainment than putting students into ability sets.

Up to now, however, I have never seen any research on this issue with specific regard to modern languages. To me, as the research suggests, it makes sense not to group by ability in primary schools (indeed, I was surprised to learn that this is quite common practice), and in most subjects at secondary school. Yet I still have my doubts about maths and languages. Why?

Progress in both maths and languages, at least by my own reckoning of classroom methodology, involve a steady accumulation of knowledge and skills where understanding the previous step is quite important before you move on to the next. Research evidence shows most teachers feel this to be the case and that language teachers see teaching mixed ability groups as a challenge or problem. I realise that that is only a partially correct claim, but even so it seems to be more relevant than in other subjects where each conceptual area is, relatively speaking, more distinct. In addition, if you believe that acquisition is dependent crucially on the supply of large amounts of comprehensible target language, then it makes sense to pitch this at a level appropriate to the ability or progress of the class.

With this in mind, most secondary schools understandably take the view that pupils' needs are better served when they can move on at a pace which suits them. Hence sets. My highly unscientific Twitter and MFL Resources survey of language teachers suggests that schools which use some form of ability grouping for MFL outnumber those who do not by about two to one. Setting in some form or another is very common indeed.

So why does the research seem to confirm that setting is ineffective in maths and indeed across the board? Some arguments have been put forward: teachers go too fast with top sets, not allowing knowledge/skills to be embedded; schools assign weaker teachers to lower sets; students in lower sets feel less worthy and behave less well. Hattie notes that lower sets often end up doing low value tasks, such aa filling the gaps on worksheets.One might also suggest that some pupils find themselves in lower sets because they have a poorer work ethic to begin with. This is probably why some schools avoid setting: you end up with all the awkward customers in the lower sets and classes become hard to manage.This may be a very good reason in itself not to set by ability.

What about languages, though? Comparing the success of setting with mixed ability grouping is really hard to do. If you compare the two approaches across different schools, then other factors come into play which make a comparison unreliable. The teachers are different. The school context is different. The methodology may be different and so on. If you do an experiment in your own school, changing from one system to another, you may get interesting results, but once again, it is really hard to control for variables such as change of teacher. Anecdotally, some teachers report their results have improved after moving to mixed groups, others the contrary.

In the absence of research about ability grouping in languages we are left with hunches and the evidence of experience. My own is that ability grouping in languages is probably desirable in most secondary schools, but that it needs some imagination in its implementation. As always, context is key and it may well be that setting does not suit the culture of a particular school. The beliefs of teachers may play a role too; it is better if staff believe in the system. If there is a strong culture of academic excellence and a degree of competition, then setting may be appropriate. If you set or do not set, you are bound to be compromising in some way. If you keep groups mixed you are probably hampering the progress of the most able and not fine tuning your lesson plans enough to the ability of your classes. If you set you may lower the motivation of the less able. Other compromises include the fact that the school curriculum arrangements may impose types of setting a department do not agree with - you just have to go with the system.

Here are some ways you might implement ability grouping to make it work most effectively:

  • You do not need to simply have groups in a simple A, B, C, D hierarchy.
  • You can have just one top, accelerated group. This may avoid sink set mentality creeping in with the other groups.
  • You can have parallel bottom groups to avoid the sink set mentality.
  • You can look at the precise range of attainment in a year group and adjust the pattern of groups from year to year - perhaps there is a persistent small tail of low achievers who need particular attention.
  • You can assign certain teachers to certain groups to make best use of their skills; you can make sure your lower groups get the teachers perceived to be the best.
  • When arranging lower sets you can split up more difficult students.
  • You can make sure there is easy movement between sets; students are often very motivated by the idea of moving up a set. Some also request a move down.
  • You can pack the top sets with more students and make lower sets as small as possible.
  • You can go out of your way to have high aspirations for lower sets and compromise on standards as little as possible. You have to dispel the feeling among students that they are second class citizens.
  • You can make sure that lesson plans and schemes of work are finely tuned to each group.
John Hattie, in his widely read book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, states:
  • “… that instructional materials and the nature of instruction must be adapted to these specific groups”
  • “Simply placing students in small or homogeneous groups is not enough”
  • “For grouping to be maximally effective materials and teaching must be varied and made appropriately challenging to accommodate the needs of students at their differing levels of ability”
Some readers may object in principle to any form of grouping by ability because they believe this is a question of equal opportunities or high aspirations for all. In France, for example, I understand that grouping by ability is almost unheard of. They may also argue that setting, banding and streaming are another means of selection and reinforce academic and social differences between students. In answer to these views I would argue that the opportunities of all may be best served, in some contexts, by arranging classes so that lessons can be pitched at the best level to ensure the best progress.

I wonder if the issue of setting is like a number of others in teaching (e.g. homework and textbooks). If it is done well it works, if it is done badly it doesn't.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…