When One Size Doesn’t Fit All

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Sara Davila addresses the challenges of mixed-ability classrooms

Have you often found that, even with a reliable placement test, many students in the same class are at various different levels of ability? Perhaps you have noted that in some skills, like speaking and listening, one group of students is significantly stronger than another. However, on the days when you work on reading and writing skills, the group performing at a higher level of ability is made up of an entirely different set of students. These are some of the challenges faced daily by English language teachers, often leading to frustration for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. As educators, how can we plan to address these challenges? Is it possible to meet the differing needs of a class of students and ensure that everyone makes progress in their language learning? Short answer: yes. Through a combined approach, teachers can leverage a variety of assessments and scales for understanding language ability using the powerful differentiated instruction framework to ensure success for all.

What Does Differentiated Instruction Mean?

In order to fully understand the challenges of differentiation, we need to start by understanding the principles of differentiation. It is tempting to interpret differentiation to mean simply different activities for some weaker or stronger students. While this can be true, differentiated instruction involves a much larger process that helps us think carefully about how to address the varied abilities of our students. The following differentiated instruction framework was originally developed by Caroline Tomlinson (2002) from research-based practices used in classrooms to create support for students with various levels of cognitive ability.

Firstly, we can differentiate the following aspects of our classrooms: the content, the process, the product, and the environment (see Fig. 1). The content includes the specific skills (communicative or enabling) that we are presenting to our learners. The process refers to how our students practice and work to internalize the language being learned.
Product refers to the various things our students produce to demonstrate learning, like presentations or role plays. The affect/environment describes two important aspects of learning: learner affect relates to the various factors that impact a learner’s motivation, confidence, anxiety, and attitude when it comes to engaging with language (Krashen, 1988), and environment relates to the physical learning space, be it the classroom itself or other space in which we might engage in learning activities, such as a library, a specialist room, or the outdoors. When looking to put differentiation into practice, it should be noted that you can pick and choose any aspect to differentiate. Working to differentiate all aspects of the framework is not necessary, and often not useful for teachers.

Secondly, we need to look at why we differentiate: to address learner readiness, interest, and learning profile. Readiness indicates what our learners are ready to do and how we can challenge and push their learning. Readiness in language learning describes more specifically what a learner can currently do with language and what he or she is ready to learn next. Interest describes the various different interests that our learners have, everything from things that are culturally relevant (like holidays) to interests specific to learners (like hobbies or special skills). Learning profile describes the various learning styles and needs of our students, like presenting content through multiple modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile) or providing additional support for learners with special needs.

Differentiation and English Language Learning

In the world of English language teaching, we have a bit of an advantage over other colleagues in that we often have detailed information on student readiness before they enter the classroom. This information comes from the various assessments we use to better understand what skills our students have already mastered. Using this information, we can think about how to target new skills to ensure students continue to make progress in their language learning. Since many of our assessments are aligned to larger scales and frameworks, this can provide considerable insight into how we plan for differentiated instruction that will be effective for our learners. Essentially, our assessments tell us what our students are ready to do, and our various language standards tell us what is possible to introduce next. Using what we know about the zone of proximal development or input + challenge (Davila, 2017), we can develop thoughtful differentiated lessons that support all learners in the classroom by targeting their varied needs.

Using Language Standard Frameworks to Differentiate

One of the most common frameworks for referencing language ability is the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), which describes language proficiency at six levels of ability (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) and includes “plus levels” (A2+, B1+, B2+) that help distinguish students transitioning from one level to the next (Council of Europe, 2001). The Global Scale of English (GSE) is a numerical proficiency scale which comes with a framework of learning objectives (or “can do” statements) that have been calibrated through research to the CEFR (de Jong, Mayor, and Hayes, 2016). The more granular nature of the GSE enables us to target learning and measure progress at a smaller level. In the examples that follow, I will be referring to CEFR and GSE. For institutions using other learning frameworks (like WIDA or Common Core), the process of differentiation will be the same, but adjustments will be necessary to accurately reflect the particular framework. Ideally, we want to leverage the various learning objectives and outcomes provided by our assessment frameworks to inform differentiated planning.

To begin planning our differentiation, we need to understand our learners. Our language-learning frameworks will help us understand learner readiness. Our backgrounds as knowledgeable teachers will help us address learner interest and learner styles. My first point of reference for planning, therefore, will be to look at student abilities. Based on our placement test, I know in my classroom that 15 of my students are currently working at an A1 level of ability. I also know that 15 of my students are working closer to an A2 level of ability. As I begin to plan for differentiation, I label these two cohorts Group A and Group B.

I now need to think about planning for the different areas of learner readiness to achieve progress. To do this, I can use the CEFR, along with the GSE, to identify how to help both of these groups (Mayor, 2016). Based on the placement test results, I know that Group A will be challenged by content at an A2 level. However, my A2 students will not be challenged and will most likely be practicing a skill they already know—and getting bored! We as teachers are very familiar with the consequences for classroom management when students do not feel challenged or engaged by content. In order to address the needs of Group B, I will need to provide challenges at the A2+ level of ability or higher.

I am currently planning to work with this group on a reading passage about different animals. As I prepare the content, I want to think about how I can differentiate. I could differentiate the content and provide two different readings at two different levels of ability for my learners. This may be a great option, though it does require a good amount of additional planning and content development, making it time intensive for the teacher. Instead, I can choose to use the same content for all my students, working with the reading from our textbook. If I do this, I will need to differentiate either the process, the product, the environment, or a selection of the three.

Using my reference frameworks, I can see that there are reading skills at two different levels of ability that could easily inform some simple activities for the process and the product students produce to demonstrate mastery.

Let us say I want to plan a lesson in which students need to find details in a text. Here are two Global Scale of English learning objectives I can use to help plan my lesson:

Can understand the main points of short, simple dialogues related to everyday situations, if guided by questions. Reading 34 (A2)

Can understand some details in longer texts on everyday topics, if guided by questions or prompts. Reading 43 (B1)

Here, it is easy to see the difference in what my two groups of students will do in order to achieve progress. Group A will have more structure to help them identify the main ideas in a text by using questions I will write. Group B will work to locate more detailed information and demonstrate their understanding of that information, and they will do so working only with prompts organized in a graphic organizer. By selecting learning objectives at different levels of proficiency and challenge, I will have two different process activities that will result in different products from my students, while using the same reading from my textbook. Everyone is being challenged at an appropriate level, keeping my students engaged and helping them all to achieve new levels of progress in their language development.

Group A:
Read and Answer the Questions
Aligned to: Can understand the main points of short, simple dialogues related to everyday situations, if guided by questions. Reading 34 (A2)

Group B:
Read and Complete the Organizer
Can understand some details in longer texts on everyday topics, if guided by questions or prompts. Reading 43 (B1)

Bibliography
Tomlinson, C. (2002). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development.

Achievements for All

As language teachers, we have a variety of resources we can draw on to plan for differentiation. Using information from the assessments that are already in place and leveraging the information provided through the variety of language frameworks and standards related to English learning, we can begin to think about how to adjust to help all our students achieve progress. In this article, we have looked at just one example of how to differentiate in the classroom—but by using the Tomlinson model alongside language-learning frameworks and adding a touch of your own creativity, you will hopefully have the basis to try this out with your own students. And remember: your students will have different strengths and weaknesses—so Group A and Group B will not always contain the same students. Now it is over to you—go forth and differentiate to achieve success and progress for all your learners.

Sara’s Tips for Planning Differentiation

  • Use existing assessment and observation information to understand learner readiness.
  • Use your language reference framework to identify challenges appropriate for different levels of readiness.
  • Save time by using content from your school-provided resources.
  • Think about simple process and product differentiation, to reduce extra work.
  • Observe how students handle different challenges to gain insight into future planning.

References
Council of Europe. (2001). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge: CUP.
Davila, S. (2017). “Teaching in the Zone,” Language Magazine. https://www.languagemagazine.com/2017/08/10/teaching-zone-sara-davila/
De Jong, J. (1991). “Defining a Variable of Foreign Language Ability: An application of item response theory.” PhD dissertation.
de Jong, J., Mayor, M., and Hayes, C. (2016). Developing Global Scale of English Learning Objectives Aligned to the Common European Framework. London: Pearson.
Krashen, S. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International.
Mayor, M. (2016). “What Does It Mean to Be at a Level in English?” Pearson English Blog. https://www.english.com/blog/be-at-a-level-in-english
Tomlinson, C. (2002). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development.

Sara Davila is the Learning Expert in Higher Education for Pearson English, working on curriculum and content development for global products. Her personal work including materials, teacher development tolls, lesson plans, and worksheets can be found at saradavila.com.

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