Ability-level groupings in the secondary English classroomI'd be interested to hear everyone's thoughts on the advantages or drawbacks of ability-level groupings in the high school English...

Ability-level groupings in the secondary English classroom

I'd be interested to hear everyone's thoughts on the advantages or drawbacks of ability-level groupings in the high school English classroom.  The administrators at the school where I'm currently teaching are advocates of detracking, but when they combined the general and college preparatory levels (against the wishes of the majority of teachers), many students struggled despite our best efforts to differentiate, modify activities and assessments, etc. 

Asked on by ajmchugh

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ajmchugh | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Change it up according to your goals.  I never let my students choose their groups.  Sometimes, if it doesn't matter about grouping, I'll take a few pictures and cut them up (grouping by putting the picture back together again) or do the popsicle stick thing or by color, birthdays, etc. If what I'm doing does matter, I sometimes break up the class into groups with one or two higher level students who can help the struggling ones, or all the students who are struggling with say, commas, will be in one group that I will work with and the other groups will be doing something else.  The more advanced students will get aggravated if they're always doing the "teaching," but on the other hand, they will definitely know the material...you truly know it if you have to teach it.  On the other hand, sometimes students can put in clearer terms for other students who aren't "getting it" than I can.  From the very beginning of the year, I make it very clear that we are a learning community and we are all responsible for not only our own learning, but also for the learning of our classmates.  By doing this, it truly cuts down on the jeering and making fun of slower learners, and it helps these students become more comfortable about taking risks. 

Thanks for your suggestions!  As I noted in my other post, the administrators in our building have reversed their decision to detrack.  I've taken a few graduate courses in differentiated instruction, so I do use the strategies that you suggested, regardless of whether or not my kids are grouped by ability.  With classes of 30, and with many teachers having 150+ kids and an extra (sixth) class, we just didn't have the resources or support to make it work the way we hoped to.

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ajmchugh | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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I can see both sides of the issue as well, and I think the word "tracking" has such a negative connotation to it.  Our school also did away with the "college" and "general" English classes so we're seeing quite a bit of polarization in the ability levels.

One strategy that I've found helpful is to tier the lessons, allowing the students to choose their own difficulty level.  For example, our ninth graders have a science fiction unit that we always used to use Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as the anchor text.  Since quite a few of the students had difficulty with his writing style, I've added a few more books that students can choose based on their interests and abilities, such as The Last Book in the Universe as an easier book and The Time Machine for the advanced readers.  The kids love it and I'm not tracking!

Thanks for the suggestion.  We've tried assigning different texts, differentiating with various writing assignments from which the students can pick, and even grading writing based on "improvement" rather than according to the state rubric we generally use.  (This was a suggestion from an expert on differentiated instruction who came to do an inservice for us.)  English teachers were not happy with this suggestion, as kids were beginning to turn in pathetic drafts (on purpose!) so that any type of revision at all looked like an improvement once they realized how we were grading. 

The same thing was happening with the different texts.  Even the top students were resentful if they were assigned a more difficult text--even if it was a short article of criticism.  They felt, despite our best efforts to vary the articles, groups, and difficulty levels, that they were being punished for being smart. 

Like I said in my other post, most of the teachers in our school are simply stretched to their limits.  Many of us have six classes, about 150 students, and 3 different preps.  We just didn't have the support or resources to make it work. 

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ajmchugh | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Thanks, everyone, for the responses.  This coming year, our high school will be back to the three-level structure, with a general, CP, and Honors level (and AP in the higher grades).  The administration reversed the decision to detrack because of budget cuts--we're in NJ--and due to the facts that our class sizes are so large and we don't have the resources to hire more teachers.  (Instead, we actually didn't replace the two English teachers who retired in June, and half of the Department members will have a sixth class this year.  Most classes have 30 kids, too.) 

We still have an open-enrollment policy, which TRULY is what its name suggests; anyone, without any consideration of grades, courses taken in the past, or test scores, can take any course--even AP.  As a result, as mwestwood noted, the average AP scores have gone down across the board. 

I do agree that the top students raise the bar for those who are struggling in the AP and Honors level.  Our problems, though, were mainly in the combined CP/General level, where class sizes of 30 made any kind of meaningful instruction very difficult. (And forget about having time for lots of individual writing instruction, which so many kids who struggle need--especially in a CP-level class!) 

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Change it up according to your goals.  I never let my students choose their groups.  Sometimes, if it doesn't matter about grouping, I'll take a few pictures and cut them up (grouping by putting the picture back together again) or do the popsicle stick thing or by color, birthdays, etc. If what I'm doing does matter, I sometimes break up the class into groups with one or two higher level students who can help the struggling ones, or all the students who are struggling with say, commas, will be in one group that I will work with and the other groups will be doing something else.  The more advanced students will get aggravated if they're always doing the "teaching," but on the other hand, they will definitely know the material...you truly know it if you have to teach it.  On the other hand, sometimes students can put in clearer terms for other students who aren't "getting it" than I can.  From the very beginning of the year, I make it very clear that we are a learning community and we are all responsible for not only our own learning, but also for the learning of our classmates.  By doing this, it truly cuts down on the jeering and making fun of slower learners, and it helps these students become more comfortable about taking risks. 

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sboeman | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

Posted on

I can see both sides of the issue as well, and I think the word "tracking" has such a negative connotation to it.  Our school also did away with the "college" and "general" English classes so we're seeing quite a bit of polarization in the ability levels.

One strategy that I've found helpful is to tier the lessons, allowing the students to choose their own difficulty level.  For example, our ninth graders have a science fiction unit that we always used to use Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as the anchor text.  Since quite a few of the students had difficulty with his writing style, I've added a few more books that students can choose based on their interests and abilities, such as The Last Book in the Universe as an easier book and The Time Machine for the advanced readers.  The kids love it and I'm not tracking!

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scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

First, I agree with Post #3 in regards to AP scores.  We have a very open AP program--we have prerequisites, but a parent override can place a student almost anywhere.  I would argue that this isn't all bad as long as a principal doesn't put great pressure on the teacher to have the same pass rate.  I teach students every year whom I know will not be able to score a 3 on the AP exam.  That doesn't mean that I lower my standards or try to discourage those students.  My feeling is that the more a student is exposed to college-level teaching in high school, the better it will be for him when he gets to college.

That being said, for the past three years, my school went back to ability-level grouping for secondary English for all levels.  We had a class called "Concepts" for lower-achieving students.  For the first year that we had these students separated from the regular college prep and honors/AP classes, most of the teachers planned together and practiced vertical teaming.  However, after that first year, things fell apart, and a teacher who taught senior Concepts classes found that there were many versions of the junior-level Concepts classes--such as some teachers showing movies instead of requiring reading, etc.  This caused problems for the senior English teachers because they expected more from those students and were supposed to be teaching the class like a college prep class, but the students did not have the necessary preparation.

My personal experience with the ability-level classes produced mixed feelings for me.  I taught a lower-level junior English class the first year we tried it and planned completely differently for that class than for others.  While I felt that I was able to help those students somewhat better than previous classes, the discipline issues were the most severe that I've ever encountered.  I taught 27 students, and 22 of them were males, but because it wasn't completely a single-gender classroom, the dynamics were off.

Overall, I think that establishing and maintaining ability-level classes depends on your administration and the support that you receive in regards to student placement, class size, etc. It could be that it's simply one of those concepts that is ideal in theory but rarely carried out correctly.  I don't know--I would be interested to see what others' experiences are with lower-level ability-tracked classes.

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marbar57 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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I don't know that I totally agree with either side.  We have a method at our school that works better than any other method we've tried.  In fact, we use it for every grade.  Your students are always going to be at different levels of academic advancement.  There's no getting around it!  What we do is take the faster ones--the ones who catch on quick and understand--and pair them up with slower students.  It's really neat to see the faster students actually teaching the concepts to the slower students!  That shows me they understand it and know it.  And, too, they seem to be much more patient with their peers than we teachers are.  I guess that's because they are on the same plane with them.  Occasionally you'll get some students that don't want to pair up, or they think they don't like the person they get paired up with.  But it really helps all of them become more tolerant and patient with each other.  I've seen some of them become good friends by the end of the year!

Try it!  You'll be surprised.

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MaudlinStreet | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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We have open enrollment in our AP program. Essentially, if a student achieves an A or B in an honors sophomore English class, they can enroll in AP Language and Comp. as a junior. I completely support this, although I feel that teacher recommendations should also play a role. I don't believe in entry-level writing requirements or an entry exam. However, I've experienced much of poster #3 describes. An interesting pattern arises with this...even though every class has students at different levels, one class will have a majority of higher level students, while another will have less advanced students. So, passing rates for the different classes are often skewed due to these demographics. It seems to be a fluke of the schedule, depending on what periods the AP science and math classes are offered.

While I have been frustrated at times by having to rearrange my curriculum, or re-teach concepts for some of the class, overall I like open classrooms at all levels. When I teach "regular level"I enjoy challenging the students and watching them stretch themselves. In the AP/honors classroom, I find that the cliche is true: less advanced students will rise to their classmates' skills. The more advanced students are often motivated to support their classmates, and help them achieve success. Of course, it doesn't always work, and sometimes students feel frustrated (as do I). However, I feel that differentiated classrooms challenge teachers to improve their craft daily. Speaking for myself, I've learned more in the differentiated classrooms I've taught, and my students have gained more from the experience.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Years ago our local high school had strict requirements for students who wished to enter the AP classes.  Specifically, they had to have a certain score or above on standarized testing in the subject under consideration.  For AP English, they wrote an essay, and the English Department read and conferred about these essays; Foreign Language teachers were also incuded in this conference as they were accurate judges of students' competency in grammar and the structure of language.  Now, however, these measures have been reduced in the goal of having a diversified classroom.  With this, AP teachers find themselves having to make adjustments in their instruction and assignments.  The results have included fewer students attaining requisite scores on the AP exams.

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teachertaylor | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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I support ability-level groupings in the secondary English classroom.  I think that it's more effective to cater to a group of students who have similar abilities in literacy because the teacher is able to choose materials that address a majority of those students.  Differentiation will always have to occur because there will be individual needs, but trying to mix groups breaks the true meaning of differentiation.  Schools just need to make tracking a more flexible system and if students need to be shifted to another level, it should be done.  I've had friends in other districts who report that it's just impossible to move students out of tracks once they are "labeled." 

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