How can students work together in a mixed-ability classroom?

Dr. Natalie Saaris
January 7, 2019

The mixed-ability classroom was born from a desire to promote greater equity among students. Too often, tracking and grouping fall along racial and socioeconomic lines, creating disparities between students that exacerbate achievement gaps. The mixed-ability classroom, in theory, creates equal expectations for all students and provides them with the same resources. It eliminates the possibility that lower-income and racially-diverse students will miss out on hearing academic talk and engaging in higher-order thinking.

“Often, because of test-score pressures, diverse students are placed in classes that emphasize quiet practice of isolated skills and facts. Several studies have shown that teachers tend to give students from low-income backgrounds fewer opportunities to talk about content and engage in critical-thinking activities than teachers of higher-socioeconomic students.”

— Jeff Zwiers & Marie Crawford, Academic Conversations

However, the push for greater equity in the classroom results in challenges for teachers who must figure out how to cater to a diverse array of individual student needs. In a 2012 Metlife teacher survey, 83% of principals and 78% of teachers reported that meeting the individual needs of diverse learners was “challenging” or “very challenging.” The struggle to differentiate instruction has driven some schools to rethink the benefits of the mixed-ability classroom altogether: a 2013 Brookings report found a resurgence of tracking and ability-grouping in elementary and secondary schools across the country. In schools that continue to promote diverse classrooms, teachers are increasingly creating ability groups by assigning separate texts and questions based on students’ individual reading abilities.

Given the challenges of its implementation, is it possible to have a mixed-ability classroom where students of diverse backgrounds and reading levels engage in academic talk, higher-order thinking, collaboration, and rigorous reading? What would it take to have a student reading at a 4th grade level access the same text as his or her peers who are reading at an 8th grade level? Here are some guiding principles for educators grappling with the challenges of mixed-ability classrooms.

1. Collaboration and discussion benefit students of every ability

In a metanalysis of several decades’ worth of research on cooperative learning, researchers discovered that collaboration benefits students of all abilities, improving academic achievement as well as motivation, time-on-task, self-esteem, retention, and metacognition (Slavin, Hurley, & Chamberlain, 2003). Discussion and collaboration give high achievers the opportunity to elaborate their thinking, while providing low achievers the opportunity to ask questions that they may not feel comfortable sharing with their teacher (Wiliam, 2011). It ensures that students of diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds have access to academic talk that is all too often the exclusive purview of their wealthy peers.

“Hardly ever would a student interrupt a teacher for clarification or to ask the teacher to go over something a second time. And yet, when working with peers, a student would ask the peer to slow down or to go over something again and again until it was understood.”

— Dylan William, Embedded Formative Assessment

Giving students the opportunity to discuss a text as a diverse group is not only a matter of equity, but also one of improving learning outcomes. Differentiation does not need to result in students working on individual tasks; sometimes the greatest support is engaging in a task with a student who has understood the text more thoroughly, while the greatest challenge is conveying one’s own understanding to a confused and frustrated peer.

“Several experimental studies have shown that groups outperform individuals on learning tasks and that individuals who work in groups do better on later individual assessments.”

— Brigid Barron & Linda Darling-Hammond, Studies Show Deep Understanding Derives from Collaborative Methods

Teachers need to create more opportunities for students to engage in these rich academic discussions. On average, time devoted to discussion in classrooms can be measured in seconds per day (Nystrand, 2006). Technology can support these collaborative discussions by giving more students the opportunity to participate as well as giving students more time to articulate their thinking. Students who are rarely heard during live discussion may share their ideas via an asynchronous discussion thread where they have the time to look up a word or see how their peers are phrasing their response. Teachers can also increase discussion time by giving students the tools to respond to one another: providing question stems and hanging them on the wall gives students the language to ask for clarification or respectfully challenge peers’ ideas.

The first step, however, is to recognize that cooperative learning provides a great benefit to students and that learners of all abilities are better served with more opportunities to discuss and share ideas. This means that students should spend more time reading the same texts and engaging in the same material rather than being siloed into independent activities.

2. Higher-order thinking motivates and engages students of every ability

There is a pervasive misconception that higher-order thinking is a privilege reserved only for high-achieving students. While advanced students get to evaluate arguments, debate the merit of opposing viewpoints, and create solutions for complex problems, their lower-achieving peers are relegated to comprehension checks. This disparity is unfortunate, because higher-order thinking provides benefits in terms of motivation and engagement: Higher-level questions are typically more engaging for students and provide more interesting answers. These are the questions that lead to discussion and debate because they are more open to interpretation. So while students who engage in higher-order thinking get to be active participants in constructing knowledge, their peers see learning as merely consuming information and regurgitating it at the right moment.

 “The first and most basic change needs to come in what we ask of students. By all accounts, the cognitive tasks posed to students are, on average, neither cognitively challenging nor personally engaging.”

— Jay Mehta & Sarah Fine, The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools

Not only are higher-order questions more engaging, they are also more open-ended and provide students with more entryways into the discussion: Higher-level questions are sometimes easier for struggling students because they provide the flexibility to choose among different ways to answer and support one’s reasoning. Lower-level questions typically have one correct answer, which narrows the approaches that a student can use to produce a response.

By encouraging students to dig into the same content and answer the same engaging questions, teachers share the privilege of higher-order thinking among all students. Granted, some students will need more support to digest the basic information in a text (more on that to come), but they should all be encouraged to do the meaty thinking that makes learning meaningful, memorable, and motivating.

3. Technology enables differentiated supports within the same rigorous text

What would it take for struggling readers to read the same rigorous text and answer the same higher-order questions as their higher-achieving peers? What would it take for the struggling reader to overcome gaps in background knowledge, limitations in vocabulary, and perhaps even trouble with reading fluency?

Let’s tackle background knowledge first, as this is often the key roadblock to comprehension. Simply put, students need a basic level of context in order to make sense of rigorous texts. All writers make references to events, terms, and concepts that they expect their readers to know, and a student who lacks that basic understanding will be lost in the text, even if they implement every expert reading strategy.

Educators who know their students can often anticipate where students’ knowledge gaps will lie. As they read through a current events article about the midterm elections, for example, they might expect their students to be confused by gerrymandering. One strategy they might use to overcome this gap in background knowledge is to discuss gerrymandering with students prior to assigning the text. This can be a very short, accessible overview that will prevent students from being completely confused when they encounter this term in the text. Educators can similarly frontload background knowledge for a scientific or literary text by previewing key ideas that students need to know as they read. Teachers can also include this information in a digital annotation embedded within the text using a platform like Actively Learn.

Giving students access to a digital dictionary, translation, and text-to-speech tool can remedy several other reading challenges that students face. The key is to make looking up or hearing a word as accessible as possible so that students do not have to interrupt the flow of the text to access an external resource. Some digital reading platforms can even embed images and videos inside the text to give students a visual aid as they make sense of literary scenes or scientific processes.

Best of all, technology can help to make these supports available only to those students who need them. While some students will need a summary to make sense of a scene from Shakespeare, others should be challenged to figure it out on their own. In Actively Learn, we offer a separate layer of “extra help notes” visible only to designated students. For example, as students are reading The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, they will all encounter the comment made by Mrs. Mitty to her husband: “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.” Some students will be expected to make the inference that Dr. Renshaw is a psychologist, while others will have this made explicit for them with an extra help note in the margins:

The extra help note, which helps students collaborate in a mixed-ability classroom
An extra help note in Actively Learn helps to clarify Mrs. Mitty's reference.

This enables educators to differentiate the scaffolds available to students an ensure that students are given the appropriate tools to read rigorous text.


The reasoning behind the mixed-ability classroom is that it gives students of various backgrounds and abilities access to the same high-quality instruction and resources. All students are held to high standards and encouraged to use each other as a resource. Struggling students benefit from the modeling of their peers, while higher-achieving students are challenged to articulate their understanding for their classmates. All students benefit from the opportunity to collaborate with one another and engage their higher-order thinking.

The mixed-ability classroom presents educators with both a challenge and an opportunity. It is no easy feat to differentiate instruction and scaffolding to support students of dramatically different reading levels. But finding ways to bring students together within the same assignment unlocks learning opportunities that students simply can’t find in homogeneous groups.

Related posts:

Works cited:

Barron, B. and Darling-Hammond, L. "Powerful Learning: Studies Show Deep Understanding Derives from Collaborative Methods."

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. A. (2016). Visible learning for literacy: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning: Grades K-12. Thousand Oaks (California): Corwin.

Mehta, J. and Fine, S. 2015. The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the Role of Classroom Discourse as It Affects Reading Comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, Volume 40(4), 392-412.

Slavin, R. E., Hurley, E. A., & Chamberlain, A. (2003). Cooperative Learning and Achievement: Theory and Research. Handbook of Psychology. doi:10.1002/0471264385.wei0709

Wiliam, D. (2018). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Zwiers, J. C. (2011). Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland: Stenhouse.

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