What do you do when students in a group class finish tasks before the others?

Ideas for how to engage students who finish tasks before the rest of the class.

I mainly teach one-to-one classes, and when I teach groups, I choose who goes in them, so I wouldn’t usually agree to teach an advanced student and a beginner in the same group. Still, this isn’t the case when teachers are working with mixed ability groups, and although this isn’t something I have to deal with, I wanted to look at this topic because I have been that child who got bored in class because the work wasn’t demanding enough.

When I was six, I was one of the oldest children in my class and my school decided to put me up a year because the teachers felt I could cope with the work. When I was seven, we moved house, and my new school was having none of that! Not only was I put back into the correct year for my age, but the new school taught two year groups in one class, so essentially I was now learning with students two years behind what I had been used to. It wasn’t a problem for my whole school life, but there were times in year two when I was very bored, and that’s not a good feeling. The same problem popped up from time to time throughout primary school, and I paid attention to what my teachers did.

So what do you do if you have a group with mixed abilities and some students finish faster or find the tasks too easy?

Here are some ideas that I have seen working well.

1. Make the task a minimum requirement, but not the end goal

If the task is to write 10 sentences and a student finishes early, have a look at the text and ask them to elaborate.
* What was the place like?
* what did the other characters say?
* what were they wearing?
* How did you feel?
* Who else was around?
What’s an alternative point of view
Why do you think that?

One English teacher said that I had constructed a good skeleton, but if I was going to be finished earlier than the other students, I had time to flesh him out and put meat on the bones!

Later when I was in one of my first jobs, one of my managers reinforced this. One of the tasks I’d been set was to collate and analyse some statistics. I think my boss knew at that time that overall, my job wasn’t really stimulating enough. The best thing I could do was to move on, which I did, but in the meantime he asked me to present the statistics to the board as well. I was in the meeting anyway, but adding that bit more responsibility made me feel that my job was that little bit more worthwhile.

If the student finishes early, can they elaborate on what they have already done in some way or do something else to practice an additional skill related to the original task?

2. Create additional tasks for early finishers

Yes, I know this is more work, but if you have students staring into space, distracting others, or generally disengaging, you’re going to have to find time to deal with that. So it’s better to have them doing something constructive. Generally early finishers are motivated and eager to learn, so don’t lose that momentum by not having anything stimulating for them to do.

Sometimes just asking them to write more will get a bit dull, and it’s more of an incentive if the students know they might be asked to do something completely different.

I remember finishing a creative writing piece early and then being asked to write it from another character’s point of view. Alternatively the task could be related to the text, but practicing different skills – a diary entry or newspaper article to follow a comprehension text.

3. Reread and correct

Sometimes the early finishers have plenty of ideas, but particularly with writing tasks, they finish because they don’t check their work thoroughly and spot the simple errors or spelling mistakes. If you have students that do this, it’s often of more benefit to them if they spend the time going through the task again and correcting mistakes they made because they were in a hurry than if they move straight on to something else.

4. Helping others

Sometimes students will not like it if they can’t choose their own groups, but putting stronger students with weaker students can both help the weaker students, and also make the stronger student feel that they are doing something useful if they can help others by explaining something. Often explaining something in their own words will reinforce the knowledge, and get the message across in a simpler way – so it’s a win-win situation.

Some teachers like peer correction, whereby students mark each other’s work. However, in the times when I’ve worked with groups, sometimes this has worked well, but other times students corrected things that were actually right or introduced new errors in their corrections, so I tend to use this sparingly because in the end it can cause confusion and more work!

5. Setting the bar higher

If a student has already understood the basics, you can move on to expect more from them in terms of vocabulary and correct language production. You might let something go if someone is struggling with basic tenses, but expect more from your student who needs more of a challenge.

6. I’m finished!

I haven’t actually seen this in action, but an activity that I read about online was the “I’m finished” jar. Basically you put a bunch of sticks with different activities on them in the jar. The activities need to be related to what you are working on in class, but there is an element of randomisation in terms of what the students will pick out. This keeps it fresh.

I never minded the “if you’re finished early, you can read a book” because I loved reading. In fact sometimes I intentionally finished early so that I could read my book! However using this jar means that the lessons are a bit less predictable for those who finish early.

7. Phones and the internet </h3?

Schools will have their own policies on phone use in class, but as most students' immediate reaction to having some free time is to get out their phone, why not have some activities that incorporate constructive phone use into the English class? This could tasks such as researching information for an ongoing or future project, creating articles for a class blog, or engaging with students in an exchange class in a private Facebook group for both classes.

8. Summarising for those who weren’t there

Whilst it’s not the early finisher’s responsibility to create material to help others catch up, writing a summary of the lesson can be useful for all members of the class when it comes to revision time. It’s not fair to have the same students writing up revision summaries every time, but you could have a rule where each student can do this once or twice a term if they finish early.

9. An individual project

Filler activities can just feel like extra work, and even if you have students who are keen to learn, completing work early only to be given more work, so they end up doing twice as much as everyone else, isn’t that great an incentive. If you have a student or group of students who regularly finish early, they could have a longer-term project of their own to work on. This is good because it feels more meaningful than just another worksheet on the same topic that they have just finished, but there needs to be an understanding that this is only for free time after the rest of the activities have been completed. Otherwise you may find your student rushing through the class activities so that they can work on their project, because they may find the latter more interesting.

What activities do you use when students finish early?

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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