Can a 17-year-old and a 12-year-old study together?

The simple answer to this is, no. Even if we didn’t have guidelines on what is an acceptable age difference between the oldest and the youngest students in a class group, I still wouldn’t do it. Younger children learn differently to older learners. They have different needs, interests and worldviews, which influence the choice of material we use, how we adapt it and our approach to teaching.

As a general rule, I try to keep ages in each class within 3 years, but this can be stretched to 4 years if rationalised. This helps to keep learner groups in 3 main categories: primary, lower secondary and secondary. Of course this gets complicated when students are considerably older or younger than the rest of the student population. In this instance, we would simply add them to the next age appropriate class group.

But shouldn’t we be mindful of levels, too? Yes, we should, but age always trumps level. When creating class groups, I use a spreadsheet to sort learners by age and then level and check that there is a good mix of L1s. Ideally, ages and levels are similar while the nationalities/language groups are different in each class.

But what do we do with a 17-year-old beginner when there are no beginner classes within their age group? This is a situation I have had to deal with on numerous occasions. One quite extreme example a few years ago was when a 17-year-old from Russia came to our school. There were questions raised very early on that he may have had some undisclosed special educational needs (SEN). On a side note, this is always a point of contention and something we should never diagnose. After all, we are not doctors or specialists, even if we can see there are issues which need to be considered carefully.

He could barely write and had very little spoken competences. Although we had an A1 level group, this was reserved for young learners. There was a weak pre-intermediate group but they were 12-14 years old. In fact, the only group within his age range was an advanced class. In the end, he joined this group.

I spoke to the group leader and my manager to explain my actions and then assigned this class to an experienced teacher who would be able to differentiate the tasks and activities to help promote his inclusion. In the end, this worked out quite well. He was among his peers who were mature enough to give further assistance to help him contribute during class time. Of course, this took planning and support and his contributions were very small steps, but he was happy.

I feel that this was the best course of action and had I placed him with a much younger, although lower level group, it probably wouldn’t have worked out as well. Experience has shown me that older, lower level learners can get very frustrated if they are separated from their peers and placed in class groups with much younger students. This is particularly acute if they are the only one that seem to be treated in this way. If we couple this with the points made in the first paragraph, it will never bode well.

Placing students in class groups often feels like pushing square pegs in round holes- there are always multiple considerations that need to be kept in mind. However, the age of our learners should always be at the top of the list.

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