Category Archives: Differentiation

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