Gather 30 people of the same age from your town or city together in a room, and it won’t take much to discover that every individual is different. They are likely to have different interests, tastes in music and food, different opinions and habits. Now imagine that you have gathered them all there to learn something from you, and your perception of this group
might change. As soon as you give them a shared purpose for being in the room, they somehow seem more similar, more homogenous and less like individuals - more like a single group; a group of learners.
This is by far the most common type of setting in the world where English (and any second language, for that matter) is taught: 30 individuals, usually of the same age, with a shared purpose for being in the same room to be taught by a single person, aiming for the same goal and doing the same tasks and activities for around an hour at a time. So why do some students prefer to study English as compared to others? Why do some students perform better than others, and why do some students simply fail, when they have spent the same amount of time in the classroom, doing the same activities as the A-grade students?
The answer (as any teacher will tell you) is due to the fact that this ‘homogenous’ group is made up of people with different levels of ability, experience, motivation, confidence and engagement in what they are learning. In other words, any group of students is composed of a set of different and unique individuals, each bringing with them a vast, diverse set of qualities going way beyond the list of features you just read.
For this reason, teaching is not a one-size-fits-all activity. A good teacher has to change the way they do things to suit the needs of the different learners in their class. So how can we ensure that all of our students get what they, individually, need to work to their maximum ability and achieve the best possible outcome for them, whatever their level of performance, or confidence, or interest in what they are learning?
The solution is differentiation: the ways in which we can alter the teaching that we do to meet the needs of the diverse groups of individuals that we teach. Many aspects of teaching can be differentiated, for different reasons, and it doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel or planning out five different lessons for different students in your class to study. With clever alterations to the materials and methodologies you use in the classroom, you can raise the performance of your learners, no matter how they work or whether they are ‘good students’. Below, we will look at 4 ways of differentiating content and methods in your classes to achieve this challenging aim.
Differentiation of tasks
There is no reason why every learner has to perform every task in the same way. Reading texts and comprehension questions can be designed slightly differently for different ability groups in the class. Stronger students may benefit more from working with full, unabridged texts, where weaker learners may get more from working with easier sections of a text. Splitting a text for an information gap activity enables you to select simpler portions of text for one group and more challenging reading for another. After reading and answering questions about the portion of text that they are working with, stronger and weaker students can come together to share their understanding and build a complete view of the text as a whole, with stronger learners supporting the weaker ones along the way.
The teaching questions you ask students can also be differentiated. Asking more in-depth, challenging questions to stronger students, and simpler, more direct questions to weaker learners working at a more direct meaning level may be more appropriate for each group, leading to targeted development for a wider range of students in the room. Think about comprehension vs. interpretation questions, or description vs. prediction questions, and the language that students need to use in response (either spoken or written), and fewer students will be left behind as they work through the material you give them.
differentiation of language
As with the tasks themselves, the language which we present to students can also be differentiated. Task instructions, sentence examples and even the instructions for the tasks can be levelled to fit the levels of the different learner groups in the class. Another possibility is presenting task instructions in the students’ first language, reducing the cognitive load required to get into the activities you provide, and for weaker students to better understand the purpose of the tasks.
differentiation of groupings
A typical language classroom has students sitting in set places, working with the same one or two people on tasks, and reporting back to the teacher individually after they finish an activity. This setting restricts students’ interaction significantly, and means that there is a lack of control over the different levels of ability in the partnered pairs. As a result, either stronger pairs finish first and dominate post-task feedback as they have had more time to think about what they have done, and have performed better, or the stronger member of a pair takes over and does all the work, as they have a better understanding of the necessary language.
By grouping students according to their level of ability in specific skills, or certain types of tasks, we can give weaker learners more empowerment and confidence, and help stronger students to work more effectively at their level.
Two choices for differentiated grouping are: Pairing stronger students together and weaker students together, either working on different tasks or thinking about different language, provides an opportunity for each group to work on something designed for their level of study.
Then, recombining pairs of stronger and weaker students together allows each member of the pair to share something which is new to the other. This ‘knowledge gap’ provides an opportunity for weaker students to teach the stronger students something from their previous activity, giving them ownership of their earlier work, and greater opportunity to practice what they have studied with their partner.
Grouping weaker students together allows for peer support at the same level, and gives the opportunity to call on members of the class who perhaps do not often contribute, and pairing stronger and weaker students gives greater opportunity for peer learning, both of which (if well-managed) can have a positive impact on learning.
differentiation of expectations
However you differentiate the instruction that you provide, it is essential that you create an inclusive atmosphere where these adaptations and different ways of working are expected and accepted as normal part of learning. It should never be the case that a learner is stigmatised for working with different materials for any reason. Differentiation works best if it is started early in a course of study, and becomes part of the learning routine in the class. Getting students with strengths in different areas working together can bring learners together to help each other work through your classes, and results in a healthier, more inclusive and interesting learning environment all round.
Differentiation is not always easy to implement, but by making task, language and grouping choices according to the different features of your students, the results can be very positive for everyone in the class. As long as you manage the interaction that goes on in the lesson and prevent stronger students from taking over, everyone can benefit from the different ways they work together.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education, a training provider which is validated to deliver the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification for online and classroom language educators with a language proficiency of CEFR B2 and above.