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Classroom Management Tips for Teaching Mixed-Ability English Lessons in the United Arab Emirates

English teachers in the United Arab Emirates commonly complain that their curriculum is too challenging and too demanding for their students, who are not proficient enough to meet the demands. Experienced ESL teachers know that class behavior can deteriorate if the level of instruction is not suited to the needs of the students.

For teachers in the UAE, attempting to teach a curriculum that’s misaligned with their students’ proficiency can be especially frustrating. In this article, I will discuss two classroom practices that can preempt behavior issues and enhance student learning: differentiation and cooperation.

About the author: Greg Askew completed the TESOL certification with OnTESOL and taught English in the United Arab Emirates for 10+ years! 


If the lessons pose too great a challenge, they can lead to excessive chatting, disengagement, and other disruptions. Furthermore, weaker students may resort to copying, which, if not controlled, can encourage other students to opt for that path of least resistance rather than put in the necessary effort to learn. Such students may feel daunted by too great a leap from where they are to where the teacher would like them to be; however, it isn’t their responsibility as young learners to compensate for what is ultimately the teacher’s job.

If the curriculum is too difficult for the students, it’s vital that teachers differentiate their lessons to make the content accessible. While it has broader usage within general education, for our purposes let’s think of differentiation as accommodating the particular language learning needs of individual students. This practice is particularly important in the UAE, where larger, mixed-ability classes are the norm.

In practice, you will modify the language content, level of support, and assessment expectations according to student proficiency. For example, if the target function is talking about preferences, you would ensure your weaker students can describe their likes and dislikes through simpler language and structures, such as I like to and I do not like to, before attempting anything more complex; whereas you would train more proficient students to use higher-order language and structures, such as I prefer to, I am (really) into, or I would rather.

During such lessons, you also adjust your own language practices with each proficiency level so that weaker students receive support through simpler, more direct English, a greater use of body language, as well as occasional L1 usage. Lastly, you assess student achievement according to the content objectives you set for each level, so if you’re assessing how well they can write about their preferences, then you gauge how well your weak students can use the simplest exponents before you expect them to step it up another level.

Otherwise, if they haven’t grasped the concept in its simplest terms, they’re likely to fail in acquiring the more sophisticated exponents. In addition, you can preempt copying and other forms of cheating by giving students assessment tasks modified according to their level. Thereby, weaker students have no recourse with their more proficient colleagues.

By differentiating, you provide weaker students with more reasonable targets for success and ensure a solid footing in the language before scaffolding to more challenging content. Further, you support the extension of stronger students, who, if not accommodated for, can also become sources of disruptive behavior.

Cooperative ESL Activities:

Cooperative learning activities help ESL students to interact more with other students and allow teachers to witness their learning. Communicating and collaborating with their peers allows students to participate more by using the language in lower-risk situations where they do not feel they are being evaluated.

Many experts recommend cooperative learning activities to provide opportunities for English language learners to practice using English and to receive feedback that promotes language acquisition. By focusing on the process as well as the product of group work, cooperative learning also enables students to work effectively with others from various cultural backgrounds and English ability levels, to develop friendships that might not happen otherwise, and to experience the satisfaction of helping others.

Cooperative learning is an essential strategy that gives students the best opportunities to use the language and practice what they are learning. The following activities are carefully structured to promote purposeful talk and collaboration:

Information Search 

This activity is similar to an open-book test. This is especially helpful in livening up dry material.

  1.   Create a set of questions that can be answered by searching for information students have available in class.
  2.   Hand out the questions. If possible create questions that force students to infer answers rather than just find them; this will foster even more discussion and cooperation.
  3.   Have students search for information in small teams. A friendly competition can even be set up to encourage participation.
  4.   Review answers by merging smaller groups into bigger groups before you take up the answers as a class.

Card Sort 

This activity can be used to teach concepts, classification characteristics, or review information. The physical movement can help energize a tired class.

  1.  Give each student an index card (or piece of paper) containing information or an example that fits into one or more categories. [For example types of nouns – countable vs. uncountable, or information that fits into varied parts of a resume, or different parts of speech]
  2. Ask students to mill around the room and find others whose card fits the same category. (You may announce the categories beforehand or let students discover them.)
  3. Have students with cards in the same category present themselves to the rest of the class.
  4. As each category is presented, make any teaching points you think are important.


This team technique increases the students’ accountability for what they are learning in a fun and non-threatening way.

  1.  Choose a topic that can be presented or reviewed in 3 segments, and divide the students into 3 teams.
  2. Explain the activity.
  3. Have Team A prepare a short-answer quiz on the first segment of the topic. Teams B and C use this time to review this segment.
  4. Team A quizzes Team B. If Team B cannot answer the question, Team C gets a shot at it.
  5. When Team A finishes quizzing Teams B and C, repeat the process with the other teams as quizmasters.

This can be used while teaching new content, as test review, or as warm up of necessary content before teaching the next topic.

Jigsaw Groups 

This is a cooperative learning technique that has each member of a group responsible for completing and understanding one part of the whole. They do this by meeting with students from other groups in charge of the same portion of the assignment. When they have finished, each participant must return to his/her original group and share his or her knowledge effectively with the group to complete the “puzzle.”

For example, a reading comprehension text or a short story is divided into parts, and students are only provided one of the parts. Each team will be able to complete a set of questions only after each team member relays the information from their assigned part to the rest of the team.

Things To Bear In Mind

It is very important to monitor these kinds of activities quite closely as they happen, especially at the beginning, since each student’s learning is dependent on the rest of their team and if someone misunderstands the instructions or the content, this could lead to a bigger comprehension problem for everyone in the team.

Also, it is sometimes necessary to explain to the students the purpose of these kinds of activities and that they are beneficial to their language development. If the students come from an educational background in which they learned mostly by rote or in a teacher-centered way, they might question the seriousness or effectiveness of these activities.

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