In the vast majority of primary and high schools around the world, students are grouped into large classes of 30+ students by age - in each year group, students are approximately the same age. English curricula are designed to teach the language that students at that age are ready for, based on their developmental levels and the content that they have studied before. However, age-banded grouping brings a problem: language development depends on a different range of factors compared to other academic, knowledge-based subjects like history or geography.
Language ability depends on much more than simply what previous classroom exposure students have had to vocabulary or grammar points. It also depends on confidence, the ability to deduce meaning, how well a student processes non-linguistic communication, how much exposure they have to English outside the classroom, their preferred ways of learning and many other social and psychological factors… For that reason, the language classroom is a much more diverse environment in terms of student needs, especially compared to history, say, where the amount of curriculum knowledge in a specific year group can be guessed at based on what has been taught before (plus the attentiveness and retention of information by students).
After the end of the first-language acquisition process at 5 or 6 years old, none of the language proficiency variations mentioned above are related to age, so it follows that any standard curriculum which is designed for an age-banded group of students cannot give every student in a class what they need. In fact, when delivering a specific skill or item of language, it is likely that in a standardised curriculum-based lesson, only a minority of students will get what they need in class, and the majority are likely to struggle in one area or another, from class to class.
Standardised curricula are generally well-organised in terms of the order and presentation of content to students, moving from simple to more complex, from very high-frequency language to less common forms, etc. However, curricula are often designed in a vacuum, away from the realities of the classroom and the wide diversity of student strengths and weaknesses as mentioned above. This leaves a significant gap between what students get in their classes, and what they really need.
The only solution for this (yes, you’ve guessed it), is for the teacher to adapt their teaching to the needs of the students in their classes. This is a universal part of any effective teacher’s job. This is why no two language lessons should ever be the same, and part of what makes language education such an interesting and rewarding activity.
Adapting to a needs-oriented framework for delivery can feel like a lot fo work (how do you identify students’ needs? How can you make sure every individual gets what they need?). But with a few simple techniques in mind, you can make this a lot easier for yourself and your learners:
Do some informal needs analysis early in a course, or think about your learners in terms of strength and need in specific areas of language (pronunciation, fluency, spoken grammar, confidence, not just ‘speaking’). make a student list which highlights strengths and weaknesses in different areas of language. This can inform how you deliver different types of lesson.
Use differentiated grouping - Use your student list to call on stronger students to help weaker ones in a grammar lesson, and then for the stronger speakers, say, to return the favour and help the less confident ones in a speaking lesson. Use the list to think about different pairing and grouping strategies in different types of lesson, so that everyone helps each other through their specialisms.
Use differentiated task design - have easier and more challenging versions of lesson activities ready (or if you don’t have time to make different versions, have different expectations of what students will do with a task that you provide). Asking stronger learners to produce 10 examples, and weaker students to produce 5, will give more time and support to those who need it.
Apply scaffolded learning for those who need it - think about the amount of support you provide at the beginning of a class, and who you are giving it to. Through the class, gradually remove the teacher support, and encourage students to support each other, before leaving them to complete their own work independently at the end of the lesson. Withdrawing support in these areas of need (again, thinking about who specifically needs more support in certain areas) can help students develop independence and strength with the language you are teaching
Teaching based on need will take a little extra work, but the results you see and hear in students will surprise you - it is not enough to just teach to the curriculum and expect the weaker students to keep up, despite their specific weaknesses, and for the students who are already strong to keep succeeding. More teachers need to take control of the differences between their learners, and teach accordingly to give the majority of their students what they need.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.