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Teaching lower-attaining pupils

I would really welcome any comments or suggestions on this blog. Tweet me or send comments to my email which is public at spsmith45@aol.com. During my career I mainly taught pupils of above average ability, so I am writing partly from my own experience, partly based on what I have read and what other teachers have told me. This post is not about SEN pupils.

I’m going to start by saying that the general principles of language learning apply to nearly all students: exposure to understandable TL, practice, four skills, interaction and recycling. When time is limited with less able students, however, you have to restrict the diet, sometimes quite a lot. The reality is that many pupils do not have great memories.

It is quite likely that classes with more lower ability pupils will take more managing than others. If you are new to teaching, I'd recommend you read Bill Rogers. Doug Lemov or Tom Bennett on classroom behaviour. Good behaviour is the bedrock of learning and pedagogically sound lessons will not guarantee it.

Here are some suggestions on how you might adjust your teaching:

• Instead of trying to get students to be confident in several tenses, stick to just three time-frames, present, past and future. Be rigorous in the grading of language, i.e. doing one tense at a time to avoid confusion.

• In terms of vocabulary, cut down the number of words and chunks to be practised, but practise them frequently. Make the most use of spaced learning to help memories bed in.

• Make greater use of English and translation. Many students have weak literacy skills in English, so you can play a role in building these, along with their TL skills. In addition, lower ability students will have much greater difficulty processing TL input, will get quickly confused and lose motivation.

• Make everything totally clear and simple as possible, providing short-term wins for students. Vocab apps such as Memrise, Quizlet and Quizlet Live can be motivational and are relatively easy since they operate largely at the single word level.

• Explain to students that they will all, at some time, make use of what they are learning. Indeed, they are more likely to use their language than a quadratic equation learned in maths.

• Make sure the school assessment system gives a fair chance of success. Make sure exams are challenging enough, but not too hard.

• If lessons are spaced too far apart, make best use of any homework opportunities to ensure a degree of spaced learning.

• Keep a good balance of four skills, but enhance the role of reading and writing since these in some respects involve a lighter cognitive load. Speaking and listening require having to process lots of information on the spot with no time for reflection. It’s sometimes forgotten that less able students are often happier writing than speaking.

• Be particularly rigorous with your behaviour policy whilst maintaining a positive spirit in the class. Lower-attaining pupils may have low self-esteem and need plenty of encouragement as well as tasks which make them feel successful.

• Where concentration spans are shorter and memories poorer you’d need to vary tasks even more than usual. Lesson plans should be divided into shorter sections.

• Be more careful than usual to set written tasks which will produce fewer errors, then be more selective in correcting error. If you set unfeasible exercises the students lack of belief in their skill will be reinforced.

• Many successful teachers find that more hands-on and visual activities pay dividends, e.g. hand-held flash cards, card-sorting, dominoes and physical activities. But we have to be careful; aspirations need to remain high and you can’t fill time with engaging but futile tasks which don’t promote the formation of long-term memory.

• Give quick wins by using more short-term testing than average.

• Focus more than usual on cultural aspects to encourage greater motivation. Less able students are less likely to buy into learning about grammar and vocabulary for their own sake.

To repeat, I'd be grateful for any constructive feedback on this post.

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