Sunday 10 July 2016

Mixing It Up - Mixed Ability Grouping in my Primary Classroom

I have a confession to make. It's one I've made before on this blog and something I don't mind reminding people of time and again.  It's also important to remind myself repeatedly because I learned a lot from this big mistake I made as an NQT.

When I started teaching, I was obsessed with ability groups. 

How were groups organised?
In my NQT year, I had ability groups for maths, writing and reading so pupils moved between different tables for these lessons.  At first, these groups remained the same for half a term then they were changed based on assessments.  Children would be disheartened and parents would enquire if their child went from Rectangles to Circles. Equally, celebrations were had when they went 'up' from Rowling to Blyton.  

Very soon, I decided this wasn't working and that my groups should be more flexible.  For the next year, I changed maths groups each week, abandoned writing groups and kept reading groups the same; after all, it's impossible to do guided reading with 5 different books with flexible groups.  The move from Guided Reading to whole-class reading lessons allowed me to abandon reading groups. 

Why change the strategy?
Although it felt like I was doing some really important things, in reality having ability groups was damaging for many reasons.  Without realising it, I was cultivating an ethos of fixed mindsets.  The children knew where they stood in the class and equally that was where they stood in my mind - very little movement or opportunities for them to go beyond where I'd placed them.  Their tasks and activities were set at the right level for their table and they completed them.  However there was no real personalised challenge.  I was putting a ceiling on children's learning.  

Also, the children and their parents were acutely focused on the groups rather than the learning of the subject.  This had negative consequences on children's self esteem in return for no learning gains.  Having to change ability groups every week or six weeks meant I was creating unnecessary workload for myself. Within a week of being at my new school, I had completely abandoned all ability groups. 

How does it work now?
Children sit at mixed ability tables for all subjects.  Sometimes I specify who children sit next to in the groups and, occasionally, I've insisted they sit boy/girl/boy/girl; although this is for behavioural reasons.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, we plan our lessons in a top-down format.  We consider what will stretch our children who come to the lesson with the highest starting point and then plan to support the rest of the class to aim as high as they can within the same learning objective.  Instead of prescribing which level of support children have, they are able to choose when they need some forms of scaffolding.  This means that all children are challenged and there is a greater motivation for them because they have had an element of choice.  

The activity is the same for all children with different forms of support available.  I often use my three-tiered tray set to help organise this.  Sometimes the options for support for the activity are just displayed on the board or discussed as a class, other times I put resources to support children in the trays (e.g. word mats, sentence starters, questions, writing frames, 100 squares etc) occasionally corresponding the colours to the level of support but mostly the colours don't mean much. Children know where they can go for more support and, as much as possible, I try to ensure children can aim higher throughout the lesson if they are confident, removing supports to encourage independence.

When children are completing activities, I use my time in a variety of ways.  Firstly, I could be using my little Ikea stool to move around the class and support various children as and when they require some help.  Early on in the year, children learn to ask for help when they know they're stuck rather than expect me to come straight to them.  This is especially important for the children with the lower starting points.  In ability groups, they are often very used to having adult support immediately.  In mixed ability groups, they must become more in control of their learning and understanding, particularly recognising when they are stuck.  

Secondly, I could be targeting specific children who I have recognised that may require support in the lesson.  I would aim for them, using my trusty stool, and ensure I address any misconceptions or questions.  Alternatively, I may have decided to work with a specific group - it could be children who struggled in the last lesson, pupils who may require further input or announcing my help for children to come and go as they please.  In my classroom, I have a small carpet area which I use for these quick interventions.  Sometimes children bring their book and a pencil; other times they bring a whiteboard and a pen.  My aim in these times is to ensure children become confident enough to return to their working place as soon as possible but sometimes children choose work with me on the carpet for the whole lesson.  Providing they are challenging themselves and working hard, I am happy for them to complete the activity wherever.  

Their tables are named after Superheros and the groups are called their Super Groups.  Every 3 or 4 weeks (half of a half term) they change Super Groups and they can earn Super Group points for behaviour, effort, reading at home, getting diaries signed, games etc.   The winning team at the end of the time gets a prize - a box of heroes (get it?!) - to share.  

Every lesson is different and there is certainly no formula I use to manage mixed-ability groupings.  I organise lessons based on the learning taking place and what I know about the children.  There are some patterns within different subject areas and, having used mixed-ability groups for a while now, it is second nature to ensure all children will be appropriately challenged.  At times, this requires changing the course of a child's learning mid lesson - and those are certainly the most exciting lessons! 

More information:
This post has information about challenging all children.
This post links mixed ability groupings to mindsets
This post goes into further detail about pupil choice in lessons.


  1. I did a few things that were similar to this - 1) I let the children pick the activity they felt best showed their understanding (& they often picked harder than I would necessarily have initially given); 2) I did a little bit of ability pairing within mixed ability groups so that they could support each other and be challenged by each other. I also let chn leave the carpet as soon as they felt they were ready and allowed those that were less confident to work with me in a small grp - I was lucky to have a TA who could support children at tables or we'd swap and she'd work on the carpet whilst I targeted a group. I found these as very positive strategies and children realised that there were areas of learning that they were confident (such as fractions) that "more able" children weren't which really boosted their have a go attitudes. J Ratcliffe

  2. Love this. I have been moving away from ability groups ..I might pinch the superhero idea.. really like that! Or I may use sports stars ..will think. You're right about how groups can be damaging ..and with the sky high expectations , whole class teaching with careful intervention and planning can help them all fly.

  3. Would love to hear how you would handle organisation of flexible grouping in terms of children's exercise books and resources... Did the children have set tables still? I work in KS1 so have to do much of this prior to a lesson so they can start promptly, any tips would be appreciated.

  4. Thanks for sharing your ideas and thoughts. I've recently joined a new school with open plan modern learning environments. It's refreshing to be able to start up new learning ideas and I agree with your thinking around mixed ability groups. I'm in a Year 1&2 environment and have occasionally found myself grouping the early readers together. It's hard to break some old habits... but I'll keep trying!

  5. I really like this idea but I teach a mixed year class of year 4,5 and 6, from very high 6s to very low (more like year 2) 4s. Does anyone have any insight on how I could bring this into my classroom?
    A confused (nearly completed) NQT!

  6. I've done this all year and it's amazing! I move the children every two weeks and they sit in the same place for every lesson. The week before Christmas I let them choose where they sat as a reward. I tend to do a week of boy/girl then a week of same sex. The children are all on board with it and they know if they're sat with someone they don't get on with It's only for two weeks. Some of them have really shown a growth mindset attitude and been able to get on with people they previously thought they couldn't. They compare themselves to one another much less and it also means that some of my more needy lower ability children, who are doing work pitched at their level, can't just copy the person next to them as often they're doing something different. I teach a year 6 class and the range is huge. e.g. In maths some ch are working on bonds to 10 and 20 whereas others are getting top marks on arithmetic papers. I differentiate the work according to their needs and often let them choose their own level to work at. Of course some children choose stuff that is too easy or too hard but it didn't take long to work out who does this and keep an eye on them. The children have also blown me away with how supportive they are of their peers in helping each other and getting along. I don't think I will ever ability sit them again!

  7. Would love to hear how children achieve when they consistently choose a task that is too much of a challenge for them. Similarly, what about children who want to do as little as possible and choose a task they find easy?

    1. The work we do on the Growth Mindset (see other blog posts on here), talking to the pupils and discussing the options in detail prevents this being a problem past the first fortnight of the year.

  8. i am about to try mixed ability maths groups and am wondering how you decide what to teach and at what level? I teach y2.

  9. I have just discovered your blog (whilst searching for ideas for mixed ability teaching) - I love it! This is so useful, I really appreciate you sharing the practicalities of MA teaching. It's something I definitely want to get to grips with.

    One question - what is this Ikea stool of which you speak?!

    Looking forward to having a read through your other posts!

  10. Kagan grouping is like this . I find it works well in my classroom.

  11. Thank you so much for this post.
    I group my children and they have started to realise which group they are in and that does not fit comfortably with me.
    I am thinking of changing to mixed ability but honestly do not know where to start

  12. I love the idea of mixing abilities


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