on Differentiation Strategies

This is a summary for an #ELTchat discussion, which took place on 13 February 2019, on the topic of differentiation strategies.  It was the first chat I had taken part in since the one on 17 October on Digital Tools, for which I also wrote the summary.  It is my 15th 🙂

This topic is particularly important to me as I am having to do this a lot with my current ESOL ‘Driving Theory’ class, which I wrote about in the chat, and an upcoming ‘Employability’ class.  There are many articles already out there about strategies for differentiation, such as this from Teacher Toolkit and this on ESOL differentiation from the British Council.  Furthermore, @fionaljp  mentioned this one from English Teaching Professional during in the chat, while  shared this post on differentiation with mixed ability classes by Barefoot TEFL Teacher in the ‘slowburn’.

Why Differentiated Instruction

“Differentiation is an important issue for many teachers these days. I have a class with spiky profiles. They range in age, ability and level of different skills, so I have to differentiate in all instructions,” stated @SueAnnan@Marisa_C wondered how much of Sue’s design caters to differences.  “90%” thought Sue. “I offer different amounts of work. Shorter reading passages etc … The preparation can be that you divide up the passage with your eyes as you hand it out, and get different groups to jigsaw read bits according to how much they can cope with,” she added.  She summarised the start of the chat as talking about classes of mixed range, ability, age etc and decided that teachers don’t want to be spending free time making stuff to differentiate too much.

@fionaljp offered that “it’s all about inclusion, isn’t it?”  “I hope my classes are inclusive. But you can still have 3 men and a dog in class, who really aren’t the same level, because its too early in the year, and you haven’t recalled your teachers yet.” answered @SueAnnan. “I’m sure they are … just meaning it can become a bit impractical,” replied @fionaljp.

@sartorious23 stated that “Differentiation might occur when teaching single-gendered classes. Lesson plans and delivery need to be adapted accordingly.” @jonjoTESOL queried this thinking. “I teach in [Saudi Arabia] where all my classes are male. Why do you say that differentiation might occur in the same-sexed classroom?” @sartorious23 responded, “My only instance [in Kuwait] is differentiation on delivery and lesson planning – not on the type and amount of activities for stronger and weaker units … For example, I had to alter my material for male and female classes, in order to provide visuals and ideas that would be closer to them … For the male class, I picked visuals that would not insult students coming from conservative families.”

“All the readings suggest differentiation in task design but often very simple things like this or choice can work best,” stated @Marisa_C.  “An extras box is also a good idea. Variety is the key – a set of laminated cards clearly colour-coded with individual or paired activities is a great idea. Their content is up to you.”

@PhilipMErasmus said that “for me differentiation comes down to: we don’t teach classes, we teach individuals.. this is the aim.”  However, “it depends on the range of ability and interest in the class and the size of the group,” responded @SueAnnan, before stating that “small changes can have big effects … Something as simple as introducing choice to a class can work wonders for morale. They think the teacher is really listening to them.”  @Marisa_C agreed, suggesting that “perhaps leave [exercises] on a table and people can choose whichever one they want – next time they might get wiser.” @jonjoTESOL also agreed with this. “I need a list of these ‘small changes’ that a teacher does that have huge implications in the classroom. No more assuming that two hours of lesson prep is an hour of lesson time,” he said.

@koomska was at a talk about this where they suggested lots of versions of same task. One idea was having answers with ‘distractors’ on back of the worksheet.  @SueAnnan replied that her “weaker students would probably go for the distractors.”. “It’s an awful lot of unnecessary work” commented @fionaljp. “That’s what people with time on their hands always suggest,” said @Marisa_C, so “why not design one task and distribute questions to different students.” @koomska didn’t disagree but stated that “interestingly the title of the talk was ‘low prep differentiation!'” 

Tony Partridge

“I can agree with the point about preparation for differentiating,” stated   “The reality of teaching often makes that tricky or more time-consuming. I like the term “low prep differentiation … What about other solutions away from prep and activities… can interaction patterns, grouping, monitoring etc help?” he asked.

“Maybe giving students different roles playing to their strengths is one way,” suggested @koomska.  

@Marisa_C replied, “More or less detailed guidelines +/- extra time / write two more items for early finishers / change the items in some way / make a key etc – all these are low maintenance ideas.”  This is a slide from a free webinar she did on this topic:

Task Differentiation

“Monitoring,” replied @teacherphili.  “I set the task at same time for all learners and spend more time checking on how the slower or less able ones are doing, as I can generally trust the more able ones to finish quicker.. at which point I check on them. But mostly peer correction using one device. With monitoring, I find more questions during a task generally come from weaker students and they need more support, clarification, checking. If I’m happy they’re making progress with partner, I’ll leave them alone for a bit and do group checking at end, although it’s often staggered.”

 replied to @TonyP_ELT, “If you have a dyslexic learners in your class, give them the reading task the lesson before you do it. Then when you language mine/do comprehension questions they won’t be disadvantaged. It’s zero-prep, apart from knowing what you’re going to do next lesson.”  She later added that “one of the simplest things to do is give a minimum target. Then you can push the faster ones to do more … If you’ve got a big long reading, split it down to do as a jigsaw, and just make sure the smaller bits go to the learners with differences. Then they all still have to do the work of summarising, but with texts that push them all appropriately.”

@Marisa_C also “likes the idea of mix n’ match ‘input modes – varying the skills and materials focus e.g. video vs image vs text vs audio or jigsawing reading just to make different students ‘shine’.”

“I think knowing your learners is important, if your teaching environment permits that. Sometimes though, you have to ‘jump into’ a teaching situation or cover a class at short notice and then have to differentiate on the spot.” stated @TonyP_ELT.

I think low prep means working with what you have, but it is possible to mix up the pairs, offer varying abilities work at their level and praise the weak ones when they manage, so they don’t feel ‘NUL’ (French for ‘stupid’ as in ‘nul points’),” stated @SueAnnan.

2019-02-15 10.40.31
A mixed nationality, mixed ability class requires differentiation.

@teacherphili stated that he has “never had to differentiate as much as I do now.  Not so much with instructions, but because of their different levels and comprehension abilities.”  The specific course is English for UK Driving Theory, with lots of driving analogies used to differentiate, such as when setting homework using a traffic light system.  @Marisa_C suggested that we need a whole toolbox of attitudes and techniques and not just think about designing two extra hours of activities for the different levels and abilities.

“It’s not just about extra materials of activities,” added @teacherphili, “but almost at every stage thinking about the different abilities and speeds the learners go at.  I have very able students who comprehend everything quickly, while others go at a snail’s pace.. although the less able ones understand it takes them forever to complete tasks & are often still doing the work while the others have left and I’m packing up. @Marisa_C replied that it “looks like a very extreme placing strategy!!! I have had this problem with ESP classes where company cutting corners but if students [are] in the same department, it’s usually not so much of a problem.” @SueAnnan said that “Cutting corners is often the reason for this. I have a class of teens 14-17. You can imagine that they need careful handling to stop boredom and lack of motivation. I’ll admit that I’m planning more carefully for them.” @teacherphili stated that he is “often spending time with ‘slower’ learners at the expense of the ‘faster’ ones. I turn around and they’ve finished and are checking their phones.. so I immediately check their answers or give them an additional task

 responded that “I hate that feeling. I feel like I could give just as much help and guidance to the more abled students but I have to help the lesser abled students. Perhaps planning extra related activities is the obvious answer here.” 

Although not explicitly mentioned by name in the chat, Geoff Petty has famously written a lot about this topic and has training materials freely available online. In a recent training session at work, @teacherphili was given the following handout, which includes improving differentiation while using the weak methods (category ‘C’)

Traffic Light system for homework

Whiteboard on 15 February
Traffic Light system for homework (photo taken on 15 February)

“I like the idea of the extra challenge – challenges (reading, listening, etc) for homework can be a really good way of dealing with the issue but my gnawing question always is – will the more motivated students accelerate to a degree that creates problems for the T?” wondered @Marisa_C. Later on, she pointed out that we often forget that teachers with very low pay rates cannot afford the extra hours of that people getting a decent salary can give to preparation. Aileen @EltManchester responded to this by saying: “Personally, I love preparing innovative materials, and in previous, well-paid ELT contexts, I have spent many happy hours preparing great materials for my students. Good for me, good for my students, good for my school. Paying teachers to do a job properly just makes sense.”


In the slowburn, @jonjoTESOL added that aforementioned link to a nice website that gives a good summary of what differentiation is for anybody who might be too shy to ask. It suggests moving up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to create more challenging tasks – “I can’t wait to try, fail, try, fail, try, then partially succeed at this,” he said. He also stated that “there is a differentiation by linguistic ability in my students – my school has a lot of lower levelled students but not a lot of higher leveled students (B1 to C1). As such, they tend to be bunched together to save on resources.”

So in summary of my 15th summary for ELTchat, my own motivation to join was to share my own recent experience.  There were a lot of ideas shared but not that many links or resources on this occasion.  It is an important topic which often comes up in observation reports and has many possible ways of doing it.  But in general, participants during this chat felt that too much time could be spent on preparation to deal with this and that teachers are not paid enough to do lots of extra planning, even if some awareness of different needs, abilities, levels etc is essential when we are in the classroom.

If you regularly take part or have taken part in #ELTchat in the past, @vickysaumell is carrying out some research into its use.  Click here to complete the survey.

Tier 1: Differentiated Instruction and Scaffolding image courtesy of  UEN instructure.com. http://bit.ly/2SSaSU3

Reference: http://geoffpetty.com/training-materials/differentiation/


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