We all remember the embarrassment of grouping as a kid when we found out that the teacher placed us in the low ability reading group. Even though the teacher separated us into groups with cute names or colours, we quickly looked around at who else was in the group and we realised we were in the slow group. What’s even worse, all the other kids knew which group we were in as well. It wasn’t fun having to go home and tell our parents that we were in the Red Group.

Whether it is for Math, Reading, or Spelling, it still seems the majority of primary school teachers use grouping by ability in their classroom in some fashion. It seems a bit archaic to be segregating kids by skill levels, but this is exactly what is being done. However, with class sizes growing bigger by the year, it is difficult to impossible with having all students demonstrate equal achievement.

During the 1980’s, grouping by ability was frowned upon because people thought it was biased against different racial groups. Students that were considered poor were usually showing less achievement than kids that were middle income or higher. There are advantages and disadvantages for grouping students by ability, so let’s take a look at some of the major issues with each.

Advantages with Grouping

Proponents of grouping kids by ability state that they can tailor activities and assignments by skill level. If they do not do this, then some students will finish assignments in a few minutes while others will take an hour. Having students finish assignments by such varying times lead to mischief and trouble in the classroom.

If educators teach toward the middle level, it will leave out the struggling students and the gifted ones, so there is not a win-win situation either way. Plus, people for ability grouping say the peer to peer effect comes into play in the high ability group. High ability students learn better when placed in groups that consist of only other high ability students.

Some teachers use their groups in class in creative ways. The high ability group is able to tutor the low ability group when their assignments are completed. Quite a few students can learn from peer tutoring because it is more one-on-one and they are able to explain why they are not grasping the material better. It is a great idea to use the students this way in such a beneficial manner.

Gifted and talented classes are basically a type of ability grouping. Only students with the best grades are allowed to be in those advanced classes. Ability grouping is happening in every grade level, whether they name it ability grouping is another matter.

Disadvantages with Grouping

It appears the biggest disadvantage for grouping is it hurts the student’s self-esteem early on. The kids demonstrating low ability in the primary grades are not showing their own achievement, but the lack of time that their parents are spending with them on learning school subjects. Unfortunately, it is not the parents that are going to feel embarrassed or disappointed, it is the kids themselves.

Because of this, those kids are probably going to do one of two things. They are going to keep on performing at this low ability with little help at home, or they are going to rise to the challenge and take it upon themselves to do better on their school subjects to place out of the low ability group.

The Equaliser

Technology is allowing for differentiation in the classroom at a greater degree than before. There will not be a need for grouping nearly as much if the teacher is using technology and computer programs to the full potential. It appears that most schools either have a one to one computer device to student program in place, or are in the process of creating one.

Technology has a way that allows each student to move at their own ability and speed. There are hundreds of programs available for Math, Reading, and Spelling online that advances the students when they get the problems right and reinforces the skills needed when they get it wrong. The teacher is left to supervise and assist the kids when needed.

Another use of technology that enables students to work on their own and also at their own skill level are writing programs. Whether it be Google Docs or Word or something similar, students’ writing competence depends entirely on their skill set. The teacher can roam around the classroom offering help when needed. With the use of technology more often in the classroom, there will be less and less of a need for grouping by ability.

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