Differentiation can be defined as:
“….identifying and addressing the different needs, interests and abilities of all learners to give them the best possible chance of achieving their learning goals.”
(Standards Unit, Improving differentiation in business education, DfES 2004)
Differentiation is a key issue in ESOL, or teaching English to students who now live in an English speaking country. This is because, in the UK at least, classes are often extremely mixed in terms of level, and students often have what is known as a ‘spiky’ profile (they may be pretty proficient at speaking and listening, for example, but struggle with reading and writing).
In ELT, differentiation is more often referred to as ‘teaching mixed ability’ or ‘mixed levels’. But, whatever, we call, it, the fact is that no class is ever completely homogeneous, and we all need to be thinking as much as we can about how to meet the individual needs of the students.
That said, I don’t believe in providing different worksheets for all the students and getting them to work on these individually or even in pairs. Unless the class is very small, this just stretches the teacher too thin, and it is often pretty uninspiring for the students as well.
Let’s look at some ways in which we can differentiate without having to spend hours on preparation.
1 Differentiation by outcome
Some people use differentiated outcomes on their lesson plans. For example:
By the end of the lesson all students will be able to.. most will be able to..some will be able to..
This seems quite popular in ESOL, but I personally am not hugely keen on this. It is a reminder that what you are teaching is not what it being learnt. However, it is basically a deficit model.
I would argue that it is more effective (and encouraging) to help students to assess themselves against their personal standard. One way of achieving this is to move away where possible from summative assessment towards more formative assessment. This is a big talking point in British schools at the moment. Basically, this challenges the idea that the best way to test students is by comparing them with each other. This sets up an atmosphere of competition and leads lower achieving students to conclude that they are failing. It also encourages stronger students to rigidly produce only what will get them the highest mark.
Better, surely to encourage students to self assess and to set their own targets or checklists of competencies together with the teacher?
Having promised you less preparation, I have to admit that setting individual targets, does take time and effort but, provided, that a sensible approach is taken (i.e. not asking learners who barely speak English to fill in a 6 page Individual Learning Plan), it can, I think, be well worth it.
2. Differentiation by teaching method
The activities we choose to use can also differentiate well. An activity which involves active learning and group or pair work is likely to differentiate more effectively because
– Students can work at their own level.
– Students can support each other and learn from each other.
Most of us have experimented with putting stronger students with weaker ones and, it has to be said, the results can vary quite a bit. Sometimes it works really well. The stronger student consolidates their knowledge by explaining to the weaker student and the weaker student feels supported.
Sometimes, however, the stronger student dominates or resents the role and/or the weaker student feels embarrassed or says nothing.
Mixing things up so that the same pairings aren’t used all the time certainly helps, but there are also some techniques you can use, such as Scribe, which I first saw in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics. When carrying out a small group discussion, appoint a scribe, or note taker for the group. They should only listen and take notes. After the discussion, they will feed back to the whole class.
If the strongest student is the scribe, this will prevent them from dominating, but still give them an important role and a chance to shine at the end. If a weaker student takes this role, the pressure is taken off them to produce language spontaneously, but they can prepare something to say at the end, which will provide a sense of achievement.
Questioning techniques can also be modified to provide better differentiation. Give students enough time and space to answer and nominate, by asking the question before you name the student, so it doesn’t always fall back to stronger students. Consider how easy the question is and don’t choose students who can’t answer. Use monitoring while students are working in pairs or groups to identify who can answer which question.
Ask different types of questions. A useful model is Bloom’s mastery and developmental tasks (Bloom’s taxonomy) Mastery tasks can be mastered by all learners, they are straightforward- you might ask a learner to describe something or define something. A developmental task is more stretching and requires a deep understanding. These kinds of questions might ask the students to judge or critically appraise for example.
3 Differentiation by task.
And finally, most tasks can be designed to provide either extra support, or extension to challenge more able students. This doesn’t have to mean completely new activities, just a tweak here and there.
The table below gives some examples:
|Activity Type||Extension activities||Support strategies|
|Reading||Select 3 new items of vocabulary, look them up in their dictionaries and write them up on the board, with definitions.Write 3 questions about the text. These can then be given to another early finisher to answer and then passed back to the original student for marking.||Pre-teach vocabulary students will need to do the task and leave it on the board.Activate their previous knowledge of the topic before reading.Give students the answers in a jumbled order, with a few distractors.Make open questions multiple choice.
Break the text into sections with questions after each section and give the option of only reading 1 or 2 sections.
|Listening||When students listen for the second time to confirm their answers, give some optional extra questions as well.When taking answers on a true/false activity, ask why/why not?||Pre-teach vocabulary and activate knowledge as above.Give students a chance to discuss answers before feeding back to the class. Monitor and play again if necessary.Give students the tapescript on second listening.In a gap-fill, provide some of the words needed.
|Writing||Make use of creative tasks that students can do at their own level.Use a correction code to give students a chance to self correct.Increase the word limit.||Give a model or example before they start writing.Correct the draft with the student or in pairs before rewriting.Reduce the word limit.|
|Speaking||Ask students to justify their opinionsPair higher level students together so they can really stretch themselves.||Give students time to rehearse or plan their ideas.Pair weak and strong together.Elicit and practise the language they will be using beforehand|
And, going back to the second point, we can also aid differentiation by providing tasks with more open outcomes, so that students can do the same task, but each at their own level of ability.
Obviously none of these ideas is going to provide every student in the class with a 1-2-1 tailor-made course. However, I do think they can go some way towards helping to address the different needs, interests and abilities of the learners.
Please feel free to comment and add your own ideas. All gratefully received!