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Expert Q&A

I have a variety of levels in my ESL class. How do I differentiate instruction?

Differentiated instruction refers to the teaching approach in which learners have multiple options for learning. This approach requires a great deal of flexibility when designing the curriculum and presenting information to students. Creating alternative modes of learning represents a challenge for teachers. The three main characteristics of differentiated instruction are: a favorable learning environment, a good plan of instruction, and ongoing assessment of student performance.

Let’s start by focusing on the learning environment. The first step is examining the teacher’s teaching attitudes. Implementing differentiated teaching means that teachers need to be convinced that ALL students are able to succeed. This attitude will affect the way students feel about their own potential to succeed.

The second step to creating a conducive environment for learning is creating a learning community in the classroom; it is important to make it clear to students that collaboration will be emphasized. To stimulate collaboration among students, it is effective to use flexible grouping. Flexible grouping involves allowing learners to work with a variety of peers based on the nature of the task, interests, needs, readiness, and self-selection. When adopting differentiated instruction, it is counterproductive to use stagnant group work, regardless of the criteria used to form the groups.

Good planning is the second important component of differentiated instruction. Planning instruction in a mixed-ability group means that one single plan will not be able to address the diverse needs of the students. It is common that teachers will need to select content, a teaching approach, and methods of assessment, for different groups of students within the same classroom.

The fundamental thing is to make it clear for students what the major concepts or principles are that they will be able to gain from the lesson. Once they understand what the lesson’s “main idea” is, the teacher will then use that as the anchor for the unit or lesson the teacher plans to differentiate. From the anchor, the teacher will be able to diversify the paths through which students will process the information, and eventually they will all end up at the same point as they understand the major concept.

Creating learning centers in the classroom is one way to differentiate instruction for students. Centers would reflect the needs, interests, abilities, and readiness of students in terms of their language command (i.e., beginning, intermediate, and advanced), as well as linguistic abilities in reading, writing, oral, and content area. 

Assessment is the third major component of differentiated instruction. Assessment simply means collecting information about the learners. The information does not necessarily need to be graded or evaluated. It can be collected through activities learners engage in during instruction. Pair-work activities, writing samples, reading activities, role plays, etc. can all serve as a way for teachers to examine student progress. Observation of student performance on these various activities should be recorded through rubrics. You can also watch a webcast on the topic.

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