Teaching Listening in Mixed-Ability Classess

Teaching Listening in Mixed-Ability Classess


This paper explores activities that can be used in ELT classrooms to make the listening lessons a satisfactory learning experience for all students in the class, be they high or low proficiency listeners. We first describe the rationales for the need to address the different needs and ability levels of our students and then offer a set of student-centred listening strategies that teachers could use to make their listening lessons more attuned to the diverse ability levels of their students.

This slightly revised ebook was previously published in: Le, V.C., & Renandya, W.A. (2016). Teaching listening in mixed ability classes. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 5(2), 73-82.

To view or download the ebook version, click here.



Although the literature on teaching second and/or foreign language listening skills is abundant (e.g. Richards, 2005; Vandergrift & Goh, 2012), little of this literature focuses on how to deal with challenges of teaching listening to mixed-ability groups of English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) learners. Given the fact that most of EFL classes are multilevel classes, this inadequacy needs to be addressed. We often hear teachers complaining about two major challenges facing them when teaching listening in mixed-ability classes: (i) how to keep both high and low listening proficiency students engaged; and (ii) what types of listening support  would benefit each group.

Drawing on suggestions on teaching English to multilevel groups (Hess, 2001; Ur, 2012), we believe that the problem can be addressed by using multilevel tasks with the same input materials used for listening as provided in the coursebook. We agree with Bell  (2012) that teachers could “choose a task that allows everyone to contribute to the same finished product, but doing different tasks of varying complexity (p. 91).” This paper explores activities that can be used in ELT classrooms to make the listening lessons a satisfactory learning experience for all students in the class, be they high or low proficiency listeners.

Teaching and learning L2 listening

Listening is an important skill as “it enables language learners to receive and interact with language input and facilitates the emergence of other language skills” (Vandergrift & Goh, 2012, p. 4). It helps language learners both to understand spoken discourse and to develop proficiency in the target language (Richards, 2005).  As Field (2008) states, “listening is the principal means by which learners expand their knowledge of the spoken form of the target language” (p. 334). Without understanding input appropriately, it is difficult for learners to make good progress in their learning. Because of this important role of listening, the teaching of listening needs to focus on both comprehension and acquisition (Richards, 2005).

Listening however is a challenging skill to acquire for the majority of language learners because of the distinctive characteristics of spoken discourse. Learners’ comprehension of spoken discourse is influenced by many factors that are beyond the listener’s control such as improvised speech, the speaker’s accent and speed, the familiarity of the topic and the listener’s relevant vocabulary and content schema, the absence of non-verbal cues as well as his or her strategies to deal with listening input (Richards, 2015; Ur, 2012; Vandergrift & Goh, 2012). Underwood (1989) explains that the great challenge second language learners experience in listening is having no control over what they hear, having no control over the speed of the speaker, and thus when they miss a word, they get lost and stop paying attention. So, to become effective listeners, L2 learners need to develop both bottom-up and top-down processing skills (Richards, 2015 ).

Bottom-up skills include the ability to recognize the words L2 learners hear; know where words begin and where they end; and match what they hear to the mental representation they have of those sounds in their long-term memory. Also, they should be able to identify how the function words perform in the target listening text, both in terms of grammar and discourse (Richards, 2015).

In addition to the bottom-up processing skills, competent listeners need to develop their top-down processing skills in order to be able to “bring background knowledge and situational knowledge to comprehension as well as to compensate for their lexical deficiency (Richards, 2015, pp. 379-380)”.

While both bottom-up and top-down skills are necessary to develop listening competence, the former is increasingly recognised as important. The lack of phonological awareness and the ability to decode sounds or draw word boundaries while listening are seen as major hinderances to listening (e.g. Field, 2008), and a shift from top-down to bottom-up listening is therefore supported by a number of research studies (e.g. Renandya & Farrell, 2011). In a mixed-ability class, such a pedagogical shift is more necessary because successful comprehension seems to be closely allied with bottom-up processing (Wu, 1998) and low-proficiency listeners often struggle with lexical segmentation (Field, 2003).

Richards (2005) critiques the conventional, product-oriented listening tasks in classroom materials that “seek to enable learners to recognize and act on the general, specific or implied meaning of utterances, and these include sequencing tasks, true-false comprehension tasks, picture identification tasks, summary tasks, dicto comp [ a technique for practicing composition, in which the teacher reads a passage, and then students must write out what they understand and remember from the passage, keeping as closely as possible to the original but using their own words where necessary]  as well as to develop effective listening strategies” (p. 86).

Field (1998) also argues that these activities originated from a product-oriented or comprehension approach, which “does little or nothing to improve the effectiveness of their [the students’] listening or to address the shortcomings as listeners” (p. 111).

Mixed-ability classes

The terms “mixed-ability’ and “heterogeneous” are sometimes used interchangeably in the literature. However, the term ‘heterogeneous class’ tends to refer to a class where students differ in terms of age, native language, learning style preferences, but are grouped together. In this paper, the term ‘mixed-ability’ class means a class that demonstrates a mix of proficiency in the target language is used. This type of classes is more common in the state schools of the EFL context, where low achievers have learnt ineffectively before joining the new class and are unable to catch up in spite of their best efforts (Ur, 2012).

Even when the students are placed in classes carefully based on their placement test scores, differences do exist as their progress rates are bound to be at different levels. As Wajnryb, 1992: 36) has noted, “Even if we might say that on Day One of the course, a class appears homogeneous, by the end of the first week, patterns and gradations of levels will have begun to appear.” Metaphorically speaking, high achievers and low achievers are two sides of the same coin.  Because of this, it is common, rather than exceptional, that teachers find themselves teaching a mixed-ability class.

The differences which often cause problems in a mixed-ability class include differences in knowledge of English, language learning abilities, prior language learning experiences, levels of motivation and interest and others. For example, some adult learners may know how to make full use of the learning opportunities in the out-of-school environment such as practicing listening online and enjoying listening to English songs while others may just be able to do what is required in the coursebook.

Due to these differences, students tend to react to the classroom tasks and instructional strategies differently as well. According to Ur (1991), the assumption that all students learn in the same manner and at the same pace, and delivering one-size-fits-all lessons wherein students are supposed to do more or less “the same thing, at the same time, and in the same way (p. 233)” is pedagogically indefensible. It is therefore very challenging to find classroom tasks that involve all students without some getting bored and/or others being confused, insecure, or discouraged or demotivated. While weaker students are not able to follow the pace, to complete the tasks, stronger students are not tolerant enough, resulting in classroom management problems.

Meanwhile, EFL textbooks tends to  provide the listening input material and the listening tasks intended for a particular group of learners who are viewed as being relatively homogenous in terms of proficiency. However, it is quite impractical to expect teachers to change the listening texts, especially in the case of prescribed textbooks in centralized educational systems. Therefore, teachers need to assign tasks that are of suitable difficulty to their students’ varied proficiency levels in an attempt to make the listening lessons beneficial in different ways to different learners.

Richards (2015, p. 395) advises teachers to “develop tasks of different difficulty levels that can be used with the same listening text.” The intent in doing so during some parts of the lesson is to make a task more achievable to all students. Therefore, the listening teachers’ main role in teaching mixed-ability classes is to ensure that some learning is taking place by trying to involve every single learner in the process through task differentiation and adaptation.

Dörnyei (2001) suggests three ways teachers can do to help learners become more successful in their learning:

  • Provide multiple opportunities for success in the language class.
  • Adjust the difficulty level of the tasks to match the students’ abilities and counterbalance demanding tasks with manageable ones.
  • Design tests that focus on what learners can do rather than what they cannot do, and also include improvement options.

These ideas seem to be applicable to the teaching of listening, in particular, in mixed-ability classes. Translating these suggestions into classroom pedagogy may help to make the mixed-level class a satisfactory learning experience for all concerned.

Classroom pedagogy

The most fundamental tenet of learner-centred pedagogy is that teachers have to find ways to identify and address the different needs, interests and abilities of all learners so as to give them the best possible chance of achieving their learning goals.  This means that a mixed ability class should offer all the students an appropriate challenge to help them to progress in their own terms. Towards that goal, Hess (2001) and Ur (2012) suggest some key principles that teachers should observe in teaching mix-ability classes, which include among others, variety (or variation), interest, collaboration, and open-endedness.  Bell (2012, p. 90) also suggests:

Ideally, in each lesson, the teacher will have some activity that the whole class can do together, to encourage the sense of being a group. There will be some time when students of similar abilities work together, and some time when students of different abilities work together. And there will be some opportunity for students to work on   their own.

 The instructional strategies that are recommended in the following section are based on those scholarly principles.

Strategy 1:  Planning differentiated listening outcomes

While planning the listening lesson, it is more realistic to use differentiated outcomes. For example, depending on their knowledge of their students, teachers may plan the learning outcome as follows:

By the end of the lesson:

All students will be able to…

Most will be able to…

Some will be able to…

 While considered basically as a deficit model in education, this kind of differentiating the expected learning outcomes is a reminder that what is being taught is not what it being learnt. It is also a good reminder of the fact that the class is a group of mixed-ability learners and it is unfair and unrealistic to expect one-size-fits-all learning outcomes. As Fisher (2001, p.1) has claimed, “All children are born with potential and we cannot be sure of the learning limits of any child.”

Strategy 2: Compulsory plus optional tasks

 According to Ur (2012, p. 279), this strategy is “to have a compulsory ‘core’ task which is easy enough to be successfully completed by all members of the class, and also an extra component which is longer and more challenging, but clearly defined as optional.”  In teaching listening to mixed-ability groups, this strategy can be used for a variety of pedagogical purposes.

For example, it can be used to activate students’ topic-related vocabulary before listening.  Having introduced the listening topic, the teacher instructs the students to write  down at least, say, five vocabulary items (and more if they can) related to the topic.  After the students have completed the task individually, they are invited to read aloud all the words and explain why they think those words are related to the topic.

Or, after giving the class comprehension questions on a listening text, the teacher asks the students to listen and answer at least, for instance, three questions according to what they hear. High proficiency listeners may answer more than three questions while low-proficiency listeners manage to complete the minimally required workload. This strategy may require some adaptation of the comprehension questions in the textbook so that there are questions that are not too challenging to the weaker students.

Another way of using this instructional strategy is the teacher prepares two sets of comprehension questions, A and B. Perhaps all students have to complete Set A, the high-proficiency listeners also have to complete Set B. Set A may contain factual questions while difficult inference questions appear in Set B.

The use of this strategy is to ensure that students can do the same task, but each at their own level of ability. Students, thus, have a sense of achievement, which will keep them motivated. However, the teacher should use this sensitively so that students do not know they are classified either as weak students or strong students.

Strategy 3: Collaborative listening

 According to Hess (2001), collaboration is a must in mixed-ability classes. Similarly, Ur (2012) notes that collaboration encourages students to learn from one another, which enables them to perform the task better as a result. However, she also cautions that stronger students may not be happy if they are grouped with weaker ones. In order to address this problem, she advises that teachers should “use collaboration mainly for tasks where a large number of students will always get better results, regardless of their level” (p. 278).

For example, the teacher pairs a stronger student with a weaker one to complete a gap-fill exercise based on the listening text. A useful gap-fill exercise is giving the students a transcript of the listening text with key words (content words) deleted, and having the students guess the missing words before listening to the text and check their guesses. This exercise implicitly trains both high-achievers and low-achievers   how to identify key words while listening, a strategy which is important as much of the meaning of the message is communicated by key words or content words.

Another collaborative listening activity can be dictation, which is designed to raise the students’ phonological awareness and develop their decoding skills. After doing a listening activity, the teacher hands out the transcript, with chunks of 2-3 words deleted. These should include some aspects of connected speech such as  weak forms and chunks, assimilation and elision, and resyllabification  (e.g. let her do it, fish and chips, find out about). Students have to listen and complete the gaps, then compare their answers in pairs or groups before listening again to check. It would be more motivating if the deleted chunks are varied in terms of their difficulty so that both high-proficiency listeners and low-proficiency listeners can do what is best suited for them.

It is advisable that the teacher gives the students a chance to discuss and agree on their answers before feeding back to the class so that peer-teaching is encouraged. Again, this encourages collaboration and peer-teaching.

Strategy 4: Variation

In teaching a mixed-ability class, it is essential that teachers design activities that require different levels of response and different levels of participation. One way of achieving this goal is that the teacher designs multilevel worksheets that contain different versions of the same task that differ in terms of task complexity to help students of different language abilities to work to their full potential. The worksheets should represent a hierarchy of task complexity: for example, one version of the task is for stronger students, one for the group’s level, and one for the weaker students. For example, listening and checking a box may be (but not necessarily always is) easier than listening and writing a word; giving a summary is more difficult than giving details (Helgesen & Brown, 2007: 62). Every individual learner is free to choose the version that is most appropriate or doable to them. Motivation experts believe that choice is a key ingredient of student motivation. When students are given choices, they become more motivated (Dornyei, 2001).

Another way of using this instructional strategy is when taking answers on a true/false activity, ask them to give reasons for their answers either in English or in their first language. The level of task challenge and the pace should be varied, too. Sometimes, the teacher can asks the students to complete more challenging listening tasks, sometimes easier ones, sometimes at a faster pace, and sometimes more slowly. This is to help students avoid feeling bored.

Comprehension questions can also be modified to provide better differentiation through balancing different types of interactional organization: teacher-led work, individual work, whole-class work and group- or pair- work. For example, the teacher gives students enough time and space to answer and nominates, by asking the question one by one before  naming the student, so it doesn’t always fall back to stronger students while everyone has to listen. The teacher needs to consider how easy the question is and it is not a good idea to choose students who cannot answer. The tip is starting with easier questions for weaker students, alternating with harder questions for stronger ones. This can be achieved by monitoring while students are working in pairs or groups to identify who can answer which question.

Multiple choice questions are very common in EFL listening materials as well as on listening comprehension websites. Questions of this type are more appropriate for objectively-marked tests, but are of little help to listening practice.  Low-proficiency listeners tend to feel frustrated and demotivated with these questions because they are likely to fail to answer them correctly. Therefore, adaptation is needed. The teacher can go through the questions with the whole class first, asking the class to guess the answers before listening. This can motivate high-proficiency listeners as they have a good opportunity to volunteer while low-proficiency listeners may have a try having listened to their peers‘ information. It is advisable that the teacher nominates both those who volunteer and those who do not so that every student feels like “a valued class member who is assured of the teacher’s attention” (Bell, 2012, p. 90).

 Strategy 5: Personalization

Ur (2012, p. 278) notes that personalization is not only a way to arouse interest; it is also a very basic aspect of task design in heterogeneous classes.” Giving students an explicit opportunity to “personalize” their understanding will make learning more memorable. For example, the teacher can ask the students to listen to the listening text the last time to answer questions as a post-listening activity such as:

  • In your own words, what is the theme of the listening text?
  • What feeling do you get when you listen to the text?
  • What information about the topic is the most interesting/surprising to you?

 Alternatively, the teacher can ask the students to write down on a piece of paper questions that they wish the teacher to clarify about the listening text.  Examples:

  • What does “ (a particular word or lexical unit)….” mean?
  • I heard a phrase that sounded like “…..” I’m not familiar with that.
  • I couldn’t catch the part after “…”
  • I want to know more about …..

 The idea behind asking the students to write down their questions is to encourage shy students – most of them are low-proficiency listeners – to raise their problems. Having collected the questions from the students, particularly from low-proficiency listeners, the teacher reads aloud the question one by one without mentioning the author’s name, and invites the answers from the whole class. It is anticipated that most of the listening problems encountered by low-proficiency listeners are related to phonological awareness and knowing the meaning of the words. Therefore, extra practice may be needed by replaying the part of the text that is related to the students’ questions for the students to raise the students’ phonological awareness. If time is limited, the teacher needs to consider this problem while planning the next lesson.

Strategy 6: Listening assessment

One of greatest challenges facing teachers of mixed-ability classes is assessment, especially in contexts where uniformly administered tests and giving grades are part of the requirements of the educational system. While this kind of summative assessment is necessary in the educational process, its dark side is that students tend to interpret their grades competitively, comparing their own performance to the others in the group, which, again, leads to anxiety and low self-esteem, becoming an obstacle to further improvement on the part of low-proficiency listeners while encouraging high-proficiency ones to rigidly produce only what will get them the highest mark.

The gap between learners, therefore, is very likely to increase, making learning and teaching ever more difficult. One way of  addressing this dilemma is to move away where possible from summative assessment towards more formative assessment because there is a “close link between between listening practice that focuses heavily on process and formative assessment” (Vandergrift & Goh, 2012, p. 243). By definition, formative assessment is the process of monitoring student knowledge and understanding during instruction in order to give useful feedback and make timely changes in instruction to ensure maximal growth (Noyce & Hickey, 2011).

There are a lot of useful formative instruments that teachers can used to assess students’ development of listening skills such as learner checklists, questionnaires, listening diaries, etc. (see Vandergrift & Goh, 2012). For effective use of these instruments, learners do need some training.


Teaching a mixed-ability class can be demanding but rewarding for teachers’ professional development. Since teaching mixed-ability classes is a way of life, teachers’ attitudes play an important role in selecting effective teaching methodologies for those classes. Regrettably, approaches to teaching listening promoted in the literature tend to be for same-ability classes, which do not exist anywhere. When applied in the real classroom, those approaches disadvantage low-proficiency listeners.

Therefore, teachers who are sensitive to the different abilities and needs of their students and are ready to respond to them are better equipped to meet the diverse learning needs of their learners. The objective of this paper has been to propose useful classroom activities that can help EFL students who are either high proficiency listeners or low proficiency listeners to improve their listening competency.

These proposed classroom activities are not new, but they are adapted to suit the mixed-ability class. Neither are they a panacea. Teachers are encouraged to experiment with them in their own classroom and reflect upon their practices as a way of harnessing their teaching skills. This can ‘constitute a kind of action research that can contribute to reflective practice in teaching” (Ellis, 1997: 36). Action research (Burns, 2010; Wallace, 1998) or practitioners’ research (Allwright, 2003)  could be a promising method of achieving this. “What really persuades people to make professional change is the practical experience of trying out something themselves” (Lynch, 1996: xv).

All these efforts may culminate in a fruitful kind of teacher autonomy that is based on learning from experience and reflection on practice. Teaching second/foreign language in general, and teaching listening in particular, in mixed-ability is challenging, but the creative efforts teachers make can make a meaningful difference in students’ learning journey. We hope that the ideas in this chapter are useful to help students become better listeners, and teachers become more effective practitioners.


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