Category Archives: Differentiation

How we can use minimal pairs to help L2 listeners to decode what they hear.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to catch Sam Shephard’s lively session on pronunciation at the NATECLA conference in Liverpool. His session focused mostly on productive pronunciation, but as I was presenting on the same day on decoding skills for listening, I found myself thinking more about the role of pronunciation work in decoding- and specifically about minimal pairs.

When I first saw this advert for Berlitz language schools on youtube, I was struck with how clever it is.

But, apart from in this rather specific context, how important is it really that learners can understand or pronounce the difference between //θ/  / and /s /?

Minimal pairs, minimal importance?

It seems that misunderstandings in natural speech are rarely caused by the mispronunciation of one sound. Usually context gives us enough of a clue to understand what the speaker is trying to say. Adam Brown gives a good example in his 1995 article, Minimal pairs, minimal importance?:

‘Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. However, it is a tiny island (the size of the Isle of Man) with a population of three million. Consequently, land is at a premium, and there are no animal farms. The nearest most Singaporeans come to sheep is mutton curry. In short, if Singaporeans don’t pronounce the distinction between ship and sheep clearly, the chances of misunderstanding are minimal: they are almost certain to mean ship.’

Similarly, Jenkins (2000) found that /θ/ rarely caused misunderstandings between NNSs, and she also points out that many native speaker varieties don’t use it anyway, often using /t/ or /f/.

So should we chuck out the minimal pairs work?

Can minimal pairs help L2 listeners decode more effectively?

Well, according to John Field (2008) there is evidence that L2 listeners process in words, but that ‘many of the matches they make are rough approximations that do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the listener heard.’ In other words an inability to recognise certain phonemes is leading to learners making inaccurate guesses about words, which in turn could lead them quite seriously off track as they apply top down skills to their guesses. For example, the listener who hears ‘screams’ instead of ‘screens’ is likely to go quite a way off track.

It is certainly true that context could help here- but that is making the assumption that learners are able to use their top down skills effectively when, Field and others argue, learners who are unable to decode effectively, usually can’t hold onto enough meaning to start stringing ideas together.

So, therefore, there is certainly an argument for using some minimal pair work, especially at lower levels- though we probably do need to be quite selective about which phonemes we choose to focus on.

Functional load

Sounds that carry a high functional load are used to distinguish between a significant number of words. The opposite is sounds which carry a low functional load. For example, Brown (1995 above) says that the only minimal pairs in English for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are:

Confusion/Confucian, azure/Asher, mesher/measure , allusion/Aleutian, glacier/glazier

I think we can probably all agree that the likelihood of students even using most of these words is pretty low, never mind getting them confused!

Minimal pairs with a high functional load would include:

/e/ and /ae/ , /p/ and /b/, /e/ and /I/

A full list is available in Brown 1988

Individual needs

With a monolingual group, it should be fairly straightforward to find out which pairs are causing the most problems. A book like Learner English can be helpful, or simple observation. Obviously with a mixed nationality group, tricky minimal pairs are likely to vary, but there are some which seem to be difficult for speakers of many different languages, and have a high functional load, such as /e/ and /ae/ and /ae/ and /ʌ/

Activity ideas

The first point to make is that ideally, learners should be able to see the link between the minimal pair work and what they are listening to. For example, if a number of learners have heard ‘scream’ instead of ‘screen’, that would be a perfect opportunity to do some minimal pair work on /m/ and /n/.

The second point is not to overload the learners. I wouldn’t suggest working on more than one pair of sounds at a time.

The third point (made by Field) is that ideally words used should be relatively frequent and of roughly equal frequency. So bin and pin would be OK, but perhaps not blade and played.

There are lots of ideas for working on minimal pairs (some of which came up in Sam’s session, mentioned above)

Some different ways for learners to show they can differentiate the two sounds:

  • Put the two words in each pair on different sides of the board and learners  put up their left hand/right hand according to which they think they hear.
  • Alternatively, learners can physically move to the right or left side of the classroom.
  • Put the words on cards and learners grab the right card, either in small groups with little cards, or with big (sturdy) cards, you can haver learners line up so one from each team is in front of the board and they race to grab the right word from there.
  • For a more sedate activity, learners write down what they think they hear.
  • Learners say if the words you say are the same or different.

Obviously all the activities above can be done with a learner providing a model, but then it becomes oral work, rather than listening, and they will need help to know how to make the sounds etc.

If learners have literacy issues, the above activities could potentially be done with pictures rather than words:



And if one of the words in the pair you want to use is not very frequent (e.g. played/blade), you could still do the activity but just write the frequent word on the board and ask ‘Same or Different?’

A more contextualised task, which would make the relationship to listening clearer, might be to select a phrase or short section from something they have listened to which contains a lot of the two sounds (not necessarily in minimal pairs) and ask them to mark the two phonemes.

E.g. ‘Looking after rabbits is really easy’ might work well for /r/ and /l/.

Individualised work

Clearly working on minimal pairs is much trickier with a multi-lingual class. As mentioned earlier, there are some vowel sounds which a lot of people find tricky. Alternatively,  learners could be given different sounds to work on, according to needs. There are now quite a few websites  (for example where learners can listen to minimal pairs, so this kind of differentiated activity could be set as homework.


Filed under Differentiation, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Pronunciation

The Language Experience Approach: a person centred, materials light approach to literacy

In a previous post, I talked about some criteria for selecting suitable reading texts to use with learners. Two key points are that texts need to be at the right level and that they need to be intrinsically interesting for the students.

Clearly, one way of achieving both these points is for the learners to produce the texts themselves. The Language Experience Approach (LEA) is a way of doing this, which has its roots in early literacy teaching. It dates back to the sixties and is fairly well known in ESOL circles, but not, I think in general ELT.

Overview of the LEA

1 Working together, the teacher and students choose a topic or activity which can be written up later. This might mean watching a video, taking a field trip or simply bringing in some pictures.

2 Carry out the activity or discuss the topic.

3 Discuss the experience or discussion and write some key words and phrases on the board.

4 The class works together to develop a written account. Typically the students dictate to the teacher, who writes it down. I say typically, because this is at root a literacy activity, so doesn’t assume that the students can write in English. In classic LEA, the teacher does not correct any mistakes or even elicit any corrections. However, I personally feel that for students’ whose first language isn’t English, providing or eliciting a correct model is vital at some stage in the process.

Of course, there is no reason why students who are able to write in English couldn’t work together in groups to write a text.

5 The teacher or a learner or all the learners read the text aloud to the class, and then everyone reads it again silently. This is another stage at which linguistic revisions might be made.

6 Extension activities.  Because the students have written the text themselves, they should be quite familiar with the meaning, even if they do not recognise all the words. At lower levels of literacy, students could:

–          Copy the story.

–          Word or sentence matching (match strips with words or sentences from the text with the text on the board)

–          Write down the story as the teacher dictates it.

–          Complete missing words which the teacher (or one of the students) has rubbed out.

–          Unscramble the sentences from the story (previously scrambled by the teacher)

At higher levels :

–          Students revise and edit the text themselves.

–          Use this text as a basis for writing their own personalised accounts

–          Use the vocabulary from this text to write a new text.

Of course if you have both more and less proficient readers/writers in your class (very common in ESOL), the students could do different tasks with the same text.

The beauty of the LEA is that it is firmly learner centred, using the students’ own experiences as the basis of the work,  and can provide a sense or achievement for every student in the class, at very mixed levels. It is also very materials light, and requires little preparation.

I am sure that there is plenty of room for variations on the LEA and would be interested to hear your ideas.


Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology

#ELTChat summary on Multiple Intelligences 07/03/12

This is a summary of the first ELT Chat on Wednesday 7th March 2012 about Multiple Intelligences.
#ELTChat takes place on Twitter every Wednesday at 12pm and 9pm BST
Shaun Wilden kicked off by giving us a link to the Wikipedia page on Multiple Intelligences. The link is below, but basically, it’s a theory proposed by Howard Gardner in the 1980s, which says that rather than there being just one kind of intelligence, there are different kinds of intelligence:
• Spatial
• Linguistic
• Logical-mathematical
• Bodily-kinesthetic
• Musical
• Interpersonal
• Intrapersonal
• Naturalistic
• Existential
(The last two were added at a later date)
The first part of the discussion mostly centred around whether MI theory had now been discredited, to what extent people believed in it and to what extent it was practised.
The overall view seemed to be that people were little sceptical about the scientific basis, but agreed that it was important to recognise that people learn in different ways, and to provide a variety of activities:

@louisealix68: think it’s good as T to know we all learn diff.(I’m visual) in order 2 help kids with learning strats best 2 them
@rliberni: yes agreed I think the idea of varying activities etc is imp and MI would help to highlight that
@breathyvowel: Yup but for me the varying comes first, and the relevance to MI is more or less incidental

@esolcourses also suggested that it might be impractical or unnecessary to devote too much time to individual differences when students actually had a lot in common. And other people suggested some drawbacks to focusing on MI:

@OUPELTGlobal: I think tchers should be careful of labelling their sts – different sts can use
different ints at different times.
@michaelegriffin: Just sort of the cultiness of MI puts me off. I am with @Marisa_C about
much of it just being sensible
@kevchanwow: agree that a wide range of activities is necessary to keep students involved. But does MI offer the right framework?

Several people felt that, irrespective of whether the science actually stood up, there was a benefit in discussing multiple intelligences with students so that they would be aware of different ways of learning and able to ‘play to their strengths’ (@OUPELTGlobal)

@kevchanwow: MI as a means for students to discuss how they learn. An exercise in empathy and to realize that there are many ways to learn and that it is OK to be (learn) different
@samshep: we cn be interested in how ss learn w/out labelling them. Also shd encourage thm to try diff things & expand capabilities
@kevchanwow recognizing what brings our students joy and how where they excel is key for rapport. But does MI help us do that?

There was also seen to be a benefit in teachers at least considering MI, so that they would not assume that all learners learnt the same way (or the same way the teachers did)

It was questioned whether MIs needed to be formally assessed, but @Marisa_C suggested a possible test for anyone who wanted to do so, the Barsch Learning Styles Inventory, available online. @worldteacher also provided a short MI quiz (see below)
@ louisealix68 mentioned Thomas Armstrong (link below) as a good place to go for more information on MI.

People started to discuss other systems of learning styles:
@samshep surely multiple intelligences is just learning styles dressed in different clothes w same pitfalls and questions.
@shaunwilden: @samshep I agree and there are far too many learning styles models out there, can get very confusing 🙂
@teflerinha asked whether people felt that multisensory learning (link below), which has some crossover with MI, was particularly suitable for YLs. It was generally agreed that it was, though the point was made by @worldteacher that it could also apply to adults.
@louisealix68 raised the question of whether males had different learning styles to females. @breathyvowel commented: I definitely find that the atmosphere changes with gender balance, so perhaps unconsciously yes and @teflerinha commented: Thnk gender cn affct way class interacts. Once had all male CELTA & all activities finished superfast.

A little later there was also discussion of naturalist and existential intelligences and how these might be accommodated. @teflerinha made the point that existential or spiritual intelligence was becoming a big thing in coaching and business training(essentially about connecting with your inner wisdom and with others) and @leoselivan suggested that naturalist intelligence lent itself well to categorising and ordering tasks.

@cherrymp commented that perhaps Emotional Intelligence was more important to cultivate than MI (“the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups”.)

@Marisa_C asked for examples of MI based activities which had been used successfully:
@teflerinha: Extended project type work tends to be good for MI I think as there are a variety of tasks
@louisealix68: e.g. use running dictation for kinsaesthetic. Dictogloss = linguistic/math
@esolcourses: Online drag and drop picture quizzes on my website 4 spacial intel. – work well as ind. or group activities.
@louisealix68: learn vocab=rote (music); organise alphabetically – math; read/cover = ling
@rliberni: used to do dictation in teams with paper up on wall 1st grp to complete with all correct won
@teflerinha: And giving ss the opportunity to work alone as well as in pairs or groups- for intrapersonal learners
@michaelegriffin: Drawin’, movin’, clappin’ actin’, connectin’, solvin’ (puzzles),
@OUPELTGlobal : Asking sts whon learn visually to find their own images for texts, adds to their understanding/learning of the text

There was a questions from @SueAnnan as to whether MI meant more planning. Some comments:
@leoselivan: no but it does require thinking on your feet sometimes. I think if a T is aware u
don’t need to spend MORE time planning
@teflerinha: Not so much a lot of prep as bearing it in mind when choosing activity types I
@shaunwilden: No cos it is everyday teaching anyway 🙂
@OUPELTGlobal: I don’t think so. Once I was aware of them, and my sts too, we sort of
helped each other. Awareness is very important!
But @SueAnnan made the point that, while she agreed to an extent, she had seen ss turned off by non traditional activities. @michaelegriffin agreed, ‘I think that is a very good point and quite common… Like “why are we drawing in English class???!?!” “Give me verbs!”’
@SophiaKhan4suggested that it was ‘sometimes hard to go out of your own comfort zone when choosing activities tho’ and @NikkiFortova agreed ‘@SophiaKhan4 so so true, but if we don;t go out of our comfort zone from time to time, we don’ t learn @shaunWilden said that ‘thats only natural isn’t it, if we have a class we need to cater to all which might mean some are happy when others aren’t.’

Perhaps a good conclusion would be @shiftparadigm’s comment,’ In practice, might a good place to start be recognizing and accommodating a student’s strengths?’

List of useful links (please let me know if any don’t work)

Link to Wikipedia page on MI (@ShaunWilden)
Link to Thomas Armstrong’s webpage
Link to Barsch Learning styles inventory (@Marisa_C)
Link to MI Quiz (@worldteacher)
Link to Howard Gardner’s book on Googlebooks (@Marisa_C)
Link to info on multisensory learning (VAK) (@teflerinha)
Link to VARK learning styles @rliberni)
Link to Bonnie Tsai, interesting speaker on MI (louisealix68)
Whole set of links on MI (@cybraryman1)
Googlebooks link to Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (@marisa_C)
Link to page on Multiple Intelligences (@cherrymp)
Link to Multiple Intelligences lesson plans (@cherrymp)
Link to a whole list of learning styles resources, diigo by @carldowse (@SueAnnan)
Link to article on Integrating MI in ESL/EFL classrooms (@worldteacher)
Link to MI lesson plan (@shaunWilden)
Link to Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences and Education (@cherrymp)
Link to an interactive version of Blooms Taxonomy, revised for 21st Century (@nikkiFortova)


Filed under Differentiation, ELT Chat summaries

Assessment for Learning: a new way to meet individual learner needs?

They say that there is nothing new under the sun (especially not in teaching?) but the notion of Assessment for Learning (as opposed to assessment of learning)is a big buzzword in mainstream education in the UK and there are plenty of ideas which we can apply to ESOL and ELT.

The idea of AfL originated from a booklet by Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. In this, and subsequent books and papers, they focus on four main ways of helping students to become more independent learners and to individualise learning:

  •  Questioning techniques
  • Feedback methods
  • Sharing criteria
  • Self  and peer assessment

Questioning techniques

I suspect that questioning is something which the average ESOL/ELT teacher already knows more about than Wiliam and Black assume. In my experience, a lot of teaching in our field(s) takes place through asking the right questions, whereas they seem to think that most teachers are asking closed questions to check knowledge. Having said that, I think it is still an area where further development may be useful.

Some approaches/activities you could try:

  • Opening up ideas by asking other students to comment on what has been said, rather than commenting on it yourself.
  • Bouncing questions around, so you nominate one student to answer another’s question.
  • Get students to put up their hands to ask a question, rather than to answer one.
  • Ask students to write down questions at the end of a lesson about what still confuses them. These could go into a box for you to look at when planning the next lesson, or they could be redistributed for small groups to answer.
  • Ask why rather than just accepting an answer. This is particularly important, I think, when going through the answers to, say, a reading comprehension or a gapfill.

And my personal long time favourite: increasing wait time after you have asked a question. In Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice, Black et al report that teachers who increased wait time found that:

–          Answers were longer

–          Failure to respond decreased

–          Responses were more confident

–          Students challenged and/or improved the answers of other students

–          More alternative explanations were offered.

Feedback methods

This refers to both giving students feedback on their work and on getting feedback as to how well each student is doing.

In terms of the first category, one of the big points made by AfL is that writing comments on students’ work is much more effective than grades. In fact, their research showed that a group of students given only comments improved noticeably, whereas the other two groups given either grades only or both comments and grades, did not.  Of course, the comments have to be helpful and specific about exactly what the student has to do to improve.

In terms of getting feedback on how each student is doing, there are two basic themes. One, which will be familiar I am sure, is getting students to work in pairs and groups so that the teacher can monitor and assess. The other may be less familiar and involves a few nice little techniques:

  • Using miniwhiteboards for students to write answers on and then hold up. If everyone is facing the front, peers will not be able to see who has written what, but the teacher can.
  • Giving each student laminated A,B and C cards, so that they can hold up the answers to multiple choice questions in the same way.
  • Using signals to indicate to the teacher how well they feel they have understood. These could be  ‘traffic light’ red, amber or green cards (green for I am sure I have got this to red I haven’t a clue what you’re on about

Sharing criteria

In the ELT/ESOL context, the idea of sharing the criteria you use may not be that new. As a reminder though, some of the ideas in AfL may be useful:

  • Using models of what you want students to achieve. This obviously applies to writing, but could also apply to speaking, with recordings of native speakers or more proficient students doing the same task. These models can be analysed by the students, using the criteria.
  • Letting students decide on what they think the criteria for assessment should be, or negotiating it with them.

Self and peer assessment

Again, this is something which I think is quite common in ESOL/ELT classrooms, but it is given a lot of emphasis in AfL. Possible ideas:

  •  Two stars and a wish (may be better for Yls). Students peer assess using two stars to say two good things about the work and a wish to identify something which could be improved (further)
  • Students identify what they think is their best piece of work, and say why.
  • Using learning journals to set targets and self evaluate.

If you wish to find out more about AfL, either of the publications mentioned above would be a good place to start. I’d be very interested to hear any comments on any of these approaches, and whether this kind of approach is popular in your context (and of course why or why not 😉 )


Filed under Differentiation

Simple ways to differentiate materials for mixed level classes

I love this picture..they’re all eggs, but just look at the variety. And it’s the same in any class.

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!

If you found this post useful, why not check out my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, a quick easy reference to all the teaching skills required for CELTA.


Filed under Differentiation