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

26 Responses to Simple ways to differentiate materials for mixed level classes

  1. Very important advice – thank you for addressing this! I particularly identify with what you say about not comparing students with each other. Success is built on success and one must begin where the student is at and progress from there.
    Great post!

  2. Dear Rachael,
    I started jumping on my chair, when I saw your post 😉 Like Naomi, mixed-level classes (but I mean, really, really mixed!!!) is my daily bread and I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas, techniques, advice …
    I love the idea of the scribe! Will use it.
    And I wouldn’t compare students achievements either. It’s not a race.
    Open-ended exercises are something I always propose. And working in groups and pairs. As you said, mixing weaker and stronger students can have its advantages but also pitfalls that need to be avoided. I once had a student who hated working with weaker peers because he took it as a punishment.
    So what could I add. Well, I often give tasks which can be completed no matter what the level. Diary writing, preparing posters, reading (everyone chooses the level he / she feels comfortable with). I have some extra activities ready for the “turbo” students … sometimes, I give two versions of the same exercise. For example, when we have a new reading text, I give stronger students a gapped version of the text, so that they have to figure out what the missing words are. This leaves weaker students enough time to compete reading in peace.

    When it comes to Bloom’s taxonomy, then I wouldn’t ask a too tricky question from a student who’s struggling. It’s rather an easier question that he / she can give an answer to confidently. Of course, I try to hand pick the students in as subtle way as possible – they shouldn’t notice my scheme 😉

    And then the assessment – I have introduced in one of my classes a new system in that summative assessment becomes formative. Once they have taken the test and I have corrected them, they get a new chance, i.e. they can correct their own mistakes ( I have only underlined the erroneous parts). They have to correct the vocabulary. And when it is grammar, they have to add a short explanation as to why it was erroneous. This way, they can improve their mark (if it is very well made correction I increase the mark by one), but most of all, they take the time to understand their mistakes and correct them. The students love the system.

    That’s all for the moment
    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for commenting, Sirja, and for adding some great ideas. It sounds to me as if you are dealing with your mixed classes admirably.. It’s a tough situation. It doesn’t tend to happen so much in private language schools, I think, but in ESOL classes in the community (i.e. in church halls and social centres), classes are often extremely diverse, and the tendency is often to get everyone doing something different, using worksheets. To my mind, though, this greatly reduces student-student interaction, and also makes it extremely hard for the teacher to interact with everyone in any meaningful way.

  3. Serene Almeleigy

    First of all, I’d like to thank you because the presented ideas, techniques and suggested solutions are convenient. What I liked most was the picture presented at the beginning of the article. It is very effective and attracted my attention. I am really looking forward to reading more and more articles of this type. However, whenever i ask strong students to work in groups with weak ones, strong students feel angry or they quickly accomplish the assignment by themselves. Weaker students feel frustrated. This happens although I never leave them alone. I always keep moving between them. 🙁

    • Hi Serene,

      Thanks for commenting 🙂 I agree it can be a problem pairing weaker with stronger. It certainly helps if you don’t do it all the time, and vary the pairs. It also helps if you explain the rationale. But if it isn’t working for your students, better not do it.

  4. Mohamed

    how can we make these ideas work in Morocco? I’m a teacher of English by the way.

  5. Mohamed

    thank you Rachael Roberts for paying attention to my comment. Would you tell me are you an English native teacher?

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  9. Hi,
    My name is Yordanka Brunet from Cuba and I found quite interesting your article about Simple Ways to differentiate materials, can you be so kind and contact me through my email because I would like to ask you for more pieces of suggestions related to this issue, due to I am an English teacher trainer, currently teaching EAL at an international school, where my students are quite different. I have in the same class, beginners, intermediate and advanced students and it is complex to provide tasks for all of them according to their needs, learning styles and linguistic skills. Thanks!

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  15. christa

    I love your article, but my question is, how can i differentiate an English reading lesson for a student with ADHD

    • I don’t really know enough about this area to properly advise you. Can I suggest you join, or at least visit the site of the IATEFL special interest group for inclusive practices and special educational needs? One of the committee members, Rom Neves, has written about this in their newsletter.

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  17. Belkiss Belal

    I am new to your website and I ‘d like to congratualte you for the excellent and highly professional content 🙂 Many thanks for the invaluable information you shared with us. My line manager had always referred to using graded worksheets as a solution to mixed abilities classes. However, I found it discriminating especially when Ss find out that they arent working on the same worksheet. I looooved the idea of the scribe, I will definitely use it. I have a question regarding differentiation by outcome where Ss assess themselves. Do they need to do it by the end of the course or by the end of each lesson? also, if it is possible to provide us with a sample of a learning plan. Thank you very much 🙂

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  19. aicha

    can you please provide me with the origin of this definition : Identifying and addressing the different needs, interests and abilities of all learners to give them the best possible chance of achieving their learning goals.
    . i need to use this definition and reference it
    many thanks

    • elt_admin

      The source of the quote is directly below. I don’t have a current link though, as this was written some years ago.

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