Differentiated instruction: how to use it in the ESL classroom

Chris Parker
A guide explaining differentiated instruction, how it works, and how to use it to teach struggling ESL students or those with varying English skill levels

When teaching English to non-native speakers, your students are often coming from different backgrounds and with different prior experiences. This can make it very difficult to teach anything if you’re trying to provide the same teaching instruction and materials to all students. Differentiated instruction has become a popular way of teaching ESL because it simply works, and if you’re not already utilizing it in your classroom, here’s why you should and how to do so.

What is differentiated instruction?

Students have variable learning styles, skills, and strengths, and they respond to different teaching styles and content differently. Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that considers all of this. A teacher who uses differentiated instruction is thinking about the different methods that they can use to design content, present it, and assess student performance. 

What areas can be differentiated?

The three areas of instruction that can be differentiated are:

  • Content – what students should be learning during a lesson
  • Process – how students should complete learning activities
  • Product – how students demonstrate what they’ve learned

As a teacher, you should be asking yourself how you can provide fair but different accommodations for students in each of these three areas based on their differences and needs.

Why should I use differentiated instruction?

Every teacher should be using differentiated instruction, regardless of what subject they’re teaching. Research shows that it can improve students’ reading, writing, and math skills, as well as student behavior and teacher morale.

Another study showed that students in a differentiated group demonstrated a greater understanding of math concepts than those taught with traditional instruction. So, if you aren’t already using this approach, it’s probably exactly what you need to help your students learn English more quickly while making your job as a teacher much easier.

When should I use differentiated instruction?

This approach should not be used during every lesson, as whole group instruction still works very well in some circumstances. Differentiated instruction is a powerful tool, but one with a very specific use. While every teacher should be using it frequently, it does not need to be used in every scenario, as you would only use it when you anticipate or notice students struggling with traditional group instruction.

Examples of when to use this approach

You would use differentiated instruction in the following scenarios:

  • A student doesn’t have as much prior knowledge about a topic as others and you notice this.
  • A student is knowledgeable about a topic but can’t demonstrate that knowledge well on tests.
  • A student has a disability that makes it difficult for them to complete tasks as quickly as others.
  • A student exhibits lower-level reading skills while all their peers are operating at higher levels.
  • Some of your students are unable to comprehend a concept that their peers easily understand.

Strategies for differentiating content

1. Differentiating content 

Provide content in different formats
We know that students’ learning styles differ, as some learn best by reading things, while others benefit most from hearing things or experiencing them. This is what separates the four primary learning modalities (visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic).

While it would be ideal to learn which style each of your students uses and then provide them with individualized materials that appeal to this style, this obviously isn’t practical, as it would take too much time when teaching large classes. Instead, you can design your content to appeal to as many styles as possible, so every student is having their learning style accommodated. 

Rather than simply handing out a book and having the whole class read it, you can have students read in groups, so both the reading and aural styles are being appealed to, instead of just the reading style. When showing videos, they should be accompanied by text subtitles, and whenever possible, realia and other hands-on material should be used to accompany other types of materials.

Match content to students’ needs 
Because your students are operating with different knowledge and skills, your content should match that so no student is asked to complete content that is beyond their current skill level. Bloom’s taxonomy is a framework that details the different skill levels that students are able to operate at. Some students may only be able to remember and understand things they’ve learned, while others may be more capable and can also apply and then analyze what they’ve learned.

Using this framework, you should observe your students to determine their different skill levels, then differentiate activities to meet their needs. You can have lower-level students demonstrate that they can remember and understandthings while having higher-level students show that they can apply and analyze things,

Worksheets, for example, can be variated to cover the same topic and content, though in different ways, with some students demonstrating lower-level skills and others demonstrating higher-level skills to match their needs.

2. Differentiating process

Create groups based on abilities

It can sometimes help to separate your class into smaller groups based on their knowledge or skill levels. Not only does this allow you to provide content specifically tailored to each group and their skill level, but it also helps students feel more comfortable with the learning process itself.

Peer scaffolding is when two students are working together on a task and knowledge is transferred from one student to another. When students are “on the same page” and understand each other because they’re at similar skill levels, then it can make the learning process much more comfortable for them, which can lead to greater learning.

When explaining things to each group, you’ll also be able to explain at a level that all students in a particular group can understand, since they’re all at similar skill or knowledge levels.

Set aside time for struggling students

When planning out your lessons, you should always set aside some time within each lesson for helping struggling students. Some of your students will likely breeze through tasks, while others may need additional support to complete them.

When you’re designing tasks for your lesson, you should design them to be finished a bit earlier but have some extra activities ready for those who finish early. You can offer an extracurricular activity, such as an additional worksheet with an incentive for finishing it, or you can have a fun activity that keeps advanced students engaged while you walk around the room to assist those who are struggling. 

3. Differentiating product

Use a rubric that considers all skill levels
Rubrics, if you’re not already familiar with them, are tools that can be used to assess proficiencies. They typically appear as tables or grids where all the varying proficiency levels for a particular skill are shown. Here’s an example of a speaking and pronunciation rubric. They can help you gauge how skilled your students are and identify which students may be struggling to learn a specific skill or concept.

Example: writing proficiency levels

To assess your students’ writing skills, a typical rubric might show the following proficiency levels:

  • Poor – student can write some words but misspells others
  • Fair – student can write most words but not full sentences
  • Good – student can write full sentences with some errors
  • Excellent – can write full sentences that are free of errors

In the example of writing proficiencies above, instead of simply requiring words to be written to be considered at the fair proficiency level, you could also consider how well the student uses punctuation or whether it’s only certain types of words that they are struggling with (e.g. struggling only with big words while writing all small words correctly.)

Allow skills to be demonstrated differently

While tests and worksheets are the most common types of assessments that teachers use to assess skills, they don’t normally allow room for differentiation. When you’re providing all your students with the same type of assessment, whether it’s the same test or observing students in the same way, you’re not considering that students have different ways of expressing themselves. 

You should therefore provide your students with choices when it comes to assessments. For example, for students who are struggling to finish a multiple-choice test, you could instead conduct a face-to-face Q&A session and ask them similar questions through that format.

Rather than having students come up to the board to write things, which might make some nervous, you can give them a choice of either writing on the board or at their desks, and then simply observe what they’ve written while at their desks.

Question list for differentiating instruction

Always ask yourself the following things when differentiating instruction:

  • Does every student have the same prior knowledge?
  • Do all students have the same reading/writing skills?
  • What different learning styles do my students have?
  • Are there any behavioral issues affecting learning?
  • Are any of my students disabled or special needs?

Differentiated instruction works best proactively

While differentiated instruction can be useful to address issues in the classroom, it’s best to use it proactively rather than reactively. This means that you should always try to predict scenarios where differentiated instruction will be needed, rather than waiting until some of your students are already struggling before using it. By gauging your students’ prior knowledge and skills before designing your lessons, you can have a better idea of when and how to use this approach.

Written by Chris Parker for EnglishClub.com
Chris has been studying linguistics academically for several years and has taught ESL in both primary and secondary schools.
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