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Nuts & Bolts: Appropriate use of Ability Grouping

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The Use of Ability Grouping in a Multi-age Classroom

by Janet Caudill Banks

Long term ability grouping should be discouraged in any class. Mixed-ability grouping should be encouraged whenever possible. Capitalizing on the wider range of developmental levels in a multi-age class, and grouping accordingly, is one of the major goals of multi-age instruction.

A number of research studies on heterogeneous grouping indicate that mixed-ability grouping is the most effective way to maximize student success. When students are in mixed-ability groups, teachers can make more use of the benefits of cooperative learning and peer tutoring, resulting in positive learning experiences for all children. As students interact with other students of different developmental levels, less able pupils become more excited about learning and make significant gains, as they have the help and encouragement of students from higher levels, as well as the exposure to the knowledge and work of those students. More able students also make significant gains as they assume leadership roles, and clarify their own thinking while explaining material to others.

These same research studies indicate that long-term, static, ability grouping affects children negatively. It does not encourage maximum development and it has been found to discourage less able students.

Grouping children by ability for short periods of time to meet specific instructional needs is appropriate. Children who have the same needs can be grouped for short periods of time for instruction, but when these needs are met the group should be disbanded. Another group can be put together based on another need that more than one individual has. In this way, grouping is flexible, not static. Individualized instruction does not mean teaching the same lesson over and over again to each child. Teachers need to recognize times that more than one child has similar needs, and group accordingly, just long enough to meet those needs.

Less able students, in particular, should never be left in ability groups for a long period of time. They need the spark, the knowledge, the motivation, the help, the encouragement, etc. from the more able students. Being in a low group, and labeled that way, can have a long term effect on self-esteem, as well as being detrimental to learning.

© CATS Publications, 1997

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