Diversity and mixed ability at the modular and programme level. Supporting Ab Initio language students’ transitions

Cinzia Bacilieri, Thomas Jochum-Critchley, Maria Muradas Casas, Nadine Saupe describe their approach to developing approaches to support a wide range of students 


Group of students in computers room

 “A very intense yet rewarding course which has been extremely enjoyable.”

A number of positive comments we received only two years into the existence of the Ab Initio language programme in the Department of Language and Linguistic Science. These programmes were first introduced for German and Spanish in 2012/13 and this year for Italian. They were designed as an alternative pathway to the pre-existing post A Level language programmes in French, German and Spanish. The Ab Initio and post A Level pathways are brought together in the second year of study.

In addition to the fast pace and high intensity of the Ab Initio curriculum in the first year, mixed ability is the major challenge of the first and second year: different levels of pre-existing knowledge and skills – from absolute beginners to students with GCSE or even beyond – and various language learning strategies. In order to address these challenges, a number of tools and approaches are used by the teaching team to allow students to develop according to their needs, aims and potentials.

Developing autonomy through portfolio learning

Learning portfolios are a recognised tool which effectively addresses individual needs, levels and interests and thus allow for the development of learner autonomy. Students get the opportunity to both make informed decisions about how, what, when and where they learn as well as reflect upon the process. As a result they become more able to take responsibility for their learning (Holec 1981).

In the first year, Ab Initio language students complete a language learning portfolio which consists of a number of language learning tasks and also includes short reflective essays. The portfolio is submitted in three instalments in order to ensure that students are engaged in a regular and continuous way with the learning material. Based on these principles, two portfolios with different levels of freedom have been developed, for Italian and for German pivoting on the four skills (listening, speaking, reading writing).

The Italian portfolio comprises six tasks which are released in three instalments following a learning progression. The first task requires basic language skills to be completed; students are asked to demonstrate a more proficient use of Italian to pass the final tasks successfully. This progressive structure help students to increase their confidence and sense of achievement in their learning by giving them the opportunity to follow their progress throughout the year. In contrast, the German portfolio does not follow a linear progression. All tasks are released simultaneously at the beginning of the academic year, allowing the students to independently organise their learning and thus develop their autonomy.

Fostering a community of learning across language levels and year groups

Addressing mixed ability has to take into account the learner group as a whole. A Peer Mentoring Scheme was introduced to facilitate the development of a strong learning community. Second year students are trained in basic principles of coaching and mentoring which includes a clarification of roles and responsibilities from mentors and mentees. Peer mentoring allows for mentors to become positive role models. It enhances the learning experience of both, the mentors and the mentees. The scheme provides much needed support and collaborative learning opportunities which benefit both the students who have to acquire the language to a high level in a very short period of time but also the experienced language learners who get to share their knowledge with their mentees. The mentoring meetings thus provide a less formal space for supporting the Ab Initio students to cope with the pressure and anxiety which may arise from the high expectations and fast pace of the programme. The scheme continues in the second year where final year students are recruited to mentor the Post Ab Initio students. The teaching on second year modules can thus build on the acquired foundation in learner autonomy as well as on a strong learning community which is based upon the collaboration of students at different levels.

different arrows direction

Student centred teaching focussed on interaction and collaboration

How to engage students with different skills and abilities in order to maximise the learning experience, is one of the key challenges of content and language integrated learning. This question leads to reflection upon curriculum design, the classroom dynamics, and teaching practice and methodology, as a way to enhance students’ learning experience. Students’ learning needs should be at the heart of module design (Tomlinson, 1999). In order to reach and engage the students, clearly defined aims and outcomes for each lesson are necessary, and by focussing on students’ needs a flexible teaching style is beneficial. Post A Level second year, lectures and seminars have been modified in order to take into account the mixed ability classroom: interactive activities, a variety of resources as well as tasks differentiated by outcome lead to a high level of student-engagement. In-class collaborative learning is promoted through group and pair work tailored to students’ abilities, learning profiles and interests, allowing each of them to reach their full learning potential.

Our experience with the Ab Initio language programme has shown that a mixed ability classroom is an asset rather than obstacle for learning and teaching. By addressing individual students’ learning needs as well as developing the learning community as a whole, we believe that we can create a more positive learning environment where our students engage and thrive. The evaluation of our tools and approaches at module and programme level is ongoing and a more detailed reflection including student feedback will be presented at the upcoming Learning and Teaching conference in June 2015.


  • Holec, Henri. (1981), Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon
  • Tomlinson, Ann (1999), The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

A11_LLS-Bacilieri -bio-picCinzia Bacilieri is a Teaching Fellow in Italian and LFA Italian Team coordinator, Department of Language and Linguistic Science. Whist pursuing a career in Archaeology in the UK, Cinzia worked for several years as a teacher of Italian in the Adult Education and HE sector and as a professional translator before joining the University of York in 2011. Because of her background in the field of Art and Heritage Studies, since her arrival in York, alongside general language teaching, Cinzia has worked on developing new interdisciplinary language modules focusing on Italian Art, whose curricula features elements such as art-related or technical vocabulary and Medieval/Renaissance Italian.

A11_LLS_Jochum-Critchley-bio-picThomas Jochum-Critchley,is Teaching Fellow in German, Department of Language and Linguistic Science. Thomas has worked in a number of HE institutions across the UK and Europe including France, Portugal and my native Austria, before joining the University of York in 2012. Over the past years, he has developed a range of language teaching projects in the areas of learner autonomy, video and technology in language teaching, and grammar in the language class

A11_LLS_Muradas_bio_picMaría F. Muradás-Casas is a Teaching Fellow in Spanish, Language and Linguistic Science. Maria is a highly qualified and experience language teacher with 20 years of experience both in the USA and in the UK. She has created and taught a great variety of Spanish courses – focused both in language and content – to students of different ages and a wide range of abilities.

A11_LLS-SaupeNadine Saupe is Programme Coordinator for German Degree Programmes, Department of Language and Linguistic Science. Before joining the University of York in 2006 Nadine worked in a number of HE institutions in the UK, the USA and my native Germany. Over the past few years her main objective has been to design the German degree programme at York with a strong communicative and content focus teaching not only language proficiency but also cultural understanding and intercultural competence.

One thought on “Diversity and mixed ability at the modular and programme level. Supporting Ab Initio language students’ transitions

  1. Pingback: L&T Session E – Diversity and mixed ability at modular and programme level. Supporting Ab Initio language students’ transitions | York Learning & Teaching Forum

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