To set or not to set?

by Kat B

Kat (BSc in Computer Science, PGCE) has been teaching since 2011 and is working on her MSc at Oxford University. She speaks 7 languages (English, Danish, German, French, Polish, Portuguese and Japanese) and teaches English, Maths, ICT and programming. To benefit from Kat’s experience as a professional online tutor, please email or call +44 207 3856795.

Attainment-based Grouping in Language Teaching and Learning, Literature Review


Ability grouping is widely used in language learning (Mazenod, et al., 2019), yet the question whether it is the best possible strategy to support learning remains unanswered. In this literature review texts supporting and opposing ability grouping are analysed in context of students’ attainment, motivation and, teachers’ perception thereof. Results remain inconclusive, pointing out the context in which ability grouping is introduced has a very strong impact on the result of the grouping.


This literature review focuses on the potential and confirmed outcomes of implementing ability grouping policy regarding students’ attainment, behaviour, and motivation.  In this review selection criteria based on the review question and conceptual framework were used. To answer the review questions, the selection criteria in the following aspects were chosen: the impact the ability grouping has on students’ attainment, the impact of ability grouping on students’ motivation and the impact that ability grouping has on teachers.

Impact of ability grouping on teachers and students

            Ability grouping (also known as “streaming”, “setting” or “tracking”) refers to teaching students divided into stratified, homogenous groups, based on their attainment in a given subject (McCoach, et al., 2006) and it is particularly pervasive in language learning (Mazenod, et al., 2019).  McCoach et al. (2006) define two main categories of grouping arrangements: between-class and within-class. In within-class grouping the teachers divide students into more homogeneous subgroups, and divide their time providing adaptive instruction based on the students’ expected attainment, while the other groups are engaged with student-led activities (Kim, 2012). Between-class grouping is a school-level arrangement, usually based on students’ previous academic achievement (Kulik & Kulik, 1982). In foreign language teaching the latter is prevalent – students are either placed into a different advancement level classes or placed into classes which have different goals (Sheppard, et al., 2018).

Impact of teachers’ perception of ability grouping on their practice

            Teachers’ view on ability grouping changed over time. Forty years ago, most teachers from the western countries such as Sweden, USA or the UK held positive view of this practice, especially for mathematics and modern foreign languages (Hallam & Ireson, 2003). It was considered to enable teachers to adjust the method, materials, and pace of instruction to students’ needs (Kim, 2012), thus making classes easier to organize. Concomitantly, scholars agree that teachers tend to favour high ability groups (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Kim (2012) confirms this finding, pointing out that having to teach lower sets was considered a potential cause of conflict among staff. Some of the literature suggests that higher level classes are generally assigned to senior staff (Kim, 2012), or a teacher who is native speaker (Sheppard, et al., 2018).

            According to research, teachers observe that lower sets are rarely truly homogeneous, and often aggregate students with a range of learning needs or learning disabilities (Sheppard, et al., 2018), thus making it difficult to create a “one size fits all” lesson for such groups. Furthermore, teacher expect lower sets to be disaffected and display poor behaviour (Kim, 2012), which is why they tend to resort to structured tasks involving rehearsal and repetition (Hallam & Ireson, 2005). Teachers also tend to have lower expectations of their students, which may lead to giving them little possibility for discussion. Furthermore, difficulty with engaging the students from lower sets over time might lead to loss of sense efficacy (Kim, 2012).  Sheppard et al (2018) also concludes after Rogers (2002) and Darling-Hammond (2010) that teachers tend to be enthusiastic about preparing materials for gifted and talented, which is in line with Kim’s (2012) observation that teachers who teach low ability groups consider material preparation and additional strain and tend to become demoralised.

Interestingly, scholars point out that teachers’ attitude towards ability grouping depends strongly on the schools’ ethos, as teachers tend to adjust to schools’ values over time – the longer the teachers teach in mixed environment, the more in favour they are of it (Kim, 2012). She also points out that teachers’ education level influences the attitude towards ability-based segregation, namely, teachers with higher level of academic qualification consider mixed grouping the most effective.

Ability grouping and students’ attainment

            The main premise of ability grouping is the belief that it facilitates collaborative learning, thus increasing academic achievement. Kulik (1982) advocates that ability grouping has a “small but significant” positive effect on achievement in exams. Saleh, et al., (2005) suggest that this result might be based on the premise that high-ability students generate more cognitive conflict and in response produce more collaborative elaborations when grouped exclusively together, thus benefitting from setting. They also confirm after Lou et al. (1996) and Webb (1991) that average-ability students attain more in homogeneous classes, as they receive more explanations, can collaborate better, and in consequence play more active role in academic discourse, which is crucial for effective language learning. However, some findings based on post-test scores of high- and low-ability students show that they benefit more from heterogeneous grouping (Saleh, et al., 2005). Simultaneously, high attainers would benefit from cognitive restructuring necessary for giving the explanations, and questions asked by low-attainer might trigger detection of knowledge gaps and misconceptions (Webb & Palinscar, 1996).

By contrast, according to Robert (2010) there is no evidence that working in homogenous groups increases pupils’ attainment. Triggered by the notion of being of “lower ability”, students may foster dependency on teachers leading to “learned helplessness” and act accordingly (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984). In line with this theory, Chang (1990) observes that lower sets’ students tend to use inappropriate language learning strategies, which in result is detrimental to their learning. Kim (2012) points out that 32% of the interviewed students notice having significantly less opportunities to learn more challenging concepts. Furthermore, once placed in the lower track, the students have limited opportunity to become proficient in the language, thus limiting students’ chance of academic success in the future (Sheppard, et al., 2018). In contrast, Finnish country-wide case study presents clear evidence that mixed-group teaching can lead to high, yet equitable learning outcomes (Sahlberg, 2012) (see Appendix 1).

Ability grouping and students’ motivation

Some scholars agree that being placed in between-class ability-based groups seem to lead to lower self-esteem and have detrimental effect on low-attainers’ motivation (Slavin, 1990; Hallam & Deathe, 2002; Kim, 2012) as they tend to compare themselves to other students. Moreover, the lack of a high achieving role-model might damage students’ motivation, and it leave them questioning the equity of the education system in the presence of deepening attainment gap (Saleh, et al., 2005).

By contrast, most recent studies from Japan show that in selective schools, where the students would have already been pre-grouped by the entry exams, show that the academic self-concept of high achieving students grouped in a homogenous environment is negatively affected, due to being confronted with the presence of other high-achieving classmates. Consequently, the self-esteem of lower aptitude students rises in this context (Sheppard, et al., 2018). Sheppard et al., (2018) attributes it to having more realistic role model, reminding that low- and average-attaining pupils do not consider high-achieving classmates as role models. Thus, success of someone of similar ability level might increase others’ motivation. This study however does not consider that in this context students are grouped based on level of advancement: basic, intermediate, proficient; rather than on the predictions regarding their ability, which might result in Pygmalion effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).


Ability grouping is believed to help to give students the access to the curriculum without overburdening them with the material. Some research shows that ability grouping for language learning has potential to be beneficial, however, its positive results have only been confirmed in highly contextualised situations. Moreover, the studies from Japan, although confirming that ability grouping had impact on students’ attainment in language learning context, presents contradictory conclusions regarding the groups affected, showing negative impact on motivation and attainment of high achievers grouped in a homogeneous set. Although most teachers recognise the potential benefits of ability grouping, there seems to be a consensus regarding the fact that it comes at much too high cost for students (leading to students’ disaffection and loss of self-worth, sink groups); and teachers (increased workload, teachers become demoralised, staff argues who needs to teach low sets). Furthermore, the success of Finnish case sets an example to be followed, by showing how mixed education can be effective.


Cheong, C. A. S., 1990. Streaming and learning behaviour. Tokyo, Annual Convention of the International Council of Psychologists.

Darling-Hammond, L., 2010. The flat world and Education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hallam, S. & Deathe, K., 2002. Ability grouping: Year group differences in self-concept and attitudes of secondary school pupils. Westminster Studies in Education, Volume 25, p. 7–17.

Hallam, S. & Ireson, J., 2003. Secondary school teachers’ attitudes towards and beliefs about ability grouping. British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 73, p. 343–356.

Hallam, S. & Ireson, J., 2005. Secondary school teachers’ pedagogic practices when teaching mixed and structured ability classes. Research Papers in Education, Volume 20, pp. 3-24.

Kim, Y., 2012. Implementing ability grouping in EFL contexts: Perceptions of teachers and students. Language Teaching Research, 16(3), p. 289–315.

Kulik, C. C. & Kulik, J. A., 1982. Effects of ability grouping on secondary school students: A meta-analysis of the evaluation findings. American Education Research Journal, Volume 19, pp. 415-428.

Lou, Y. et al., 1996. Within-class grouping: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, Volume 66, p. 423–458.

Mazenod, A. et al., 2019. Nurturing learning or encouraging dependency? Teacher constructions of students in lower attainment groups in English secondary schools. Cambridge Journal of Education, Volume 49, pp. 53-68.

McCoach, D., O’Connell, A. & Levitt, H., 2006. Ability grouping across kindergarten using. The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 99, p. 339–46.

Robert, P., 2010. Social origin, school choice, and student performance. Educational Research and Evaluation, Volume 16, pp. 107-129.

Rogers, K. B., 2002. Grouping the gifted and talented: Questions and answers. Roeper Review, Volume 24, pp. 103-108.

Rosenholtz, S. & Simpson, C., 1984. The formation of ability conceptions: Developmental trend or social construction?. Review of Educational Research, Volume 54, p. 31–93.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L., 1968. Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Sahlberg, P., 2012. A Model LessonFinland Shows Us What Equal Opportunity Looks Like. American Educator.

Saleh, M., Lazonder, A. & Jong, T., 2005. Effects of within-class ability grouping on social interaction, achievement, and motivation. Instructional Science, Volume 33, p. 105–119.

Sheppard, C., Manalo, E. & Henning, M., 2018. Is ability grouping beneficial or detrimental to Japanese ESP students’ English language proficiency development?. English for Specific Purposes, Volume 48, p. 39–48.

Slavin, R. E., 1990. Achievement effects of ability grouping in secondary schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Education Research, Volume 60, pp. 471-499.

Webb, N., Baxter, G. & Thompson, L., 1997. Teachers’ grouping practices in fifth-grade science classrooms. The Elementary School Journal, Volume 98, p. 91–113.

Webb, N., Journal for Research in Mathematics. Task-related verbal interaction and mathematics learning in small groups. Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 22, p. 366–389.

Webb, N. & Palinscar, A., 1996. Group processes in the classroom.. In: D. C. Berliner & R. Calfee, eds. Handbook of Educational Psychology. New York: MacMillan, p. 841–873.

APPENDIX 1: How economic, social, and cultural status impacts students’ mean reading scores – country comparison (Sahlberg, 2012)

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