Differentiation in ESL Classes

If you’ve got a great class, but a few students constantly struggle to keep up, try these techniques to keep things running smoothly.

Teenage Students Studying In Classroom With Teacher

We’ve all been there. Whether at a school or learning center, we’re teaching away to students that have been with us for a while when someone from administration knocks on the door and drops a new kid into the group.

Quickly, you see that this kid’s English level is far below the level of your other students, and you tell your TA (teaching assistant) or administrator. Though they nod their head in agreement with you, the next class has the same child sitting down with the other students.

Over the course of the coming weeks, three more students—also with low levels—join the class. What can you do?

Differentiation is a way for teachers to alter their teaching strategies to help all students with mixed abilities and learning styles reach their academic potential. Note that this does not mean that the teacher should teach a different lesson for every student.

Remember, don’t try out too many tools at once. It is important to see if each strategy works. If a teacher tries too many strategies at once, they’ll never exactly know what is and isn’t working in their classroom.

First, a teacher needs to pre-assess the students’ current understanding of a topic or unit. For older students, this can also apply for their current level of reading and writing.

Assessing their level allows teachers to create lessons and strategies that closely match students’ skills so that they will feel challenged, but not so overwhelmed that they become discouraged. Some examples of pre-assessing are interviews, tests, student response activities, etc.

Teachers can focus on teaching the essential content and to help meet the students’ needs, they should provide more instruction and practice for some students and less for others.

Differentiating the process might also be beneficial. The instruction that teachers provide, the materials they use and the activities they employ should all be differentiated.

Varying assessment is also important. Teachers can shake up the complexity of how they assess a student by changing the level of thinking needed to finish a task. A teacher could even set the same assignment for students, but with different expectations.

A teacher needs to know their students and what kind of learners they are (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.), what kind of support (if any) students receive at home and much more. Observe how students react to a lesson or topic. This will also help teachers when it comes time to group students together.

Once a teacher has all this information about their students, they can start implementing critical differentiation strategies.

Remember, don’t try out too many tools at once. It is important to see if each strategy works. If a teacher tries too many strategies at once, they’ll never exactly know what is and isn’t working in their classroom.

Here are some ideas a teacher can easily implement:

A teacher can have students work in groups according to their language abilities during independent work time or can even give small group instruction by breaking everyone up and providing one mini-lesson at a time. Another idea is to pair students, so the student with the better grasp of English can support their partner during independent work.

Visual aids during instruction
Teachers can models themselves specifically to students on what they would like them to do, as well as, give them directions. A teacher can show drawings, concrete items or photographs to help them process new information.

Tiered activities
Giving students modified practice such as worksheets with simpler vocabulary or different reading materials might also be useful. A teacher needs to make sure they keep the academic content the same for all students. When they see some students completing modified material faster, they can later give them work with more complex tasks.

At the other end of the spectrum are extension tasks. These are further activities that center around the aims of a class, but come after it. They occur as often as homework and are given to early finishers/advanced learners as extra, more demanding work.

Extension tasks can provide more complex or difficult forms of practice. They can also make classroom learning more meaningful, as they give learners a chance to personalize language and content.