Differentiating Instruction To Benefit English Language Learners

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Using differentiated strategies helps students construct meaning of the content on a personal level using interests and choice. In general, middle school students struggle with their interests and identities. In the ELL classroom, self-knowledge can be even more elusive as these students may feel distanced or isolated from their peers. Differentiating instruction can help students develop interests, create a positive identity, and find other students with similar interests and abilities.

According to Tomlinson (2004), students must have prior knowledge, prerequisite skills, and an interest in the information in order to be ready to learn. Students must also have a positive attitude and be free from any immediate physical or emotional burdens. Unfortunately, in most classrooms, many of these factors do not come together independently very often. Many students within special populations have poor attitudes about their abilities, lack most prerequisite skills to access the general education environment without support, and have very little outside experience with the grade level topics encountered. Some students are sent to school hungry, emotional, and tired, which does not allow them to focus on instructional activities.

Students attempt to construct meaning with everything they do. Each student brings different experiences and prior knowledge with them into the classroom. This is expressly true of ELL students who come from different backgrounds. Teachers must build on that personal knowledge in order for students to comprehend and retain the information given to them. Students who do not have the necessary prior knowledge must have the gaps filled with background knowledge given by the teacher before the lesson. Providing background knowledge is advantageous for all students when learning new material. This gives students the tools to help them hold onto the information by constructing meaning.

It only makes sense to pitch the instruction to each individual student. The unsuccessful method of throwing information at the entire group and hope that some students will understand everything perfectly is unreasonable and irresponsible on the part of the teacher. Teachers are service providers who assume the responsibility for teaching each student. Every student learns things differently and thus they must be taught based on what they experience. Differentiation is the key to providing this service. Developing instruction that compliments a variety of learning styles allows ELL students to be included within the general education environment. These students deserve a fair and appropriate education but they are frequently misunderstood, as they become outlying statistics during standardized testing.

Assessing Skills

The exceedingly diverse composition of classrooms today demonstrates a significant need for differentiated instruction everywhere. Meeting the needs of each individual student is essential, now more than ever. When teachers take the time to identify learning styles and use a variety of assessment techniques to determine the knowledge of each student, then the results will be a more effective education for everyone.

Identifying skills and deficiencies of all students, along with their likes and preferences, occur through assessments and inventories. However, it is critical that the students are being tested accurately for the target skills. Using accommodations such as allowing them to take the test in their native language, reading the questions to them for content other than reading the English language, and extra time will give the students the ability to show what they know about the subject being tested instead of how well they know English.

Differentiating instruction is the most efficient way to create feelings of success within every student. Identifying the needs of students will allow teachers to individualize instruction and create a successful learning environment. Using assessment techniques will allow the teacher to understand what each student knows and what they need to learn. This provides the opportunity to create instruction based on need, which decreases boredom and increases learner interaction.


When teaching students who struggle to keep up with the fast pace of the general education curriculum, such as ELL students and special education students, it is critical to use accommodations that provide support in the areas that they struggle the most. Being able to read grade level texts are a common area of difficulty for both groups. To accommodate students, the text can be delivered in a number of ways. The teacher or a peer can read the text to the class or as a partner with the struggling student. Some texts have audio recordings available and those can be used for whole group, small group, or individual instruction. Providing graphical representations of the text through drawings, cutout pictures, or alternative texts that have additional pictures in them gives the students the visual ability to understand and retain the information. These methods provide students with the tools they need to expand their abilities and become successful in what may otherwise be a frustrating learning experience.

Numerous strategies can be used to differentiate in the classroom. For example, depth of content can be altered to meet the needs of the students. Students who are unable to master material at the introductory level of the concept should not be required to continue on to content that is more complex until they understand the foundations. Likewise, students who have mastered the content should not have to wait for others to catch up to them. Using flexible grouping can provide necessary small group instruction to struggling students, while students who are ready to move on can enrich their knowledge using independent activities.

Communicating Expectations

To ensure success in a differentiated classroom, it is important to communicate expectations as clearly as possible right from the start. Ideally, classroom expectations should be communicated before the first day of school when the parents are learning about the school rules, policies, and expectations. Next, students need to understand what is expected of them at all times. The first four weeks of school should be dedicated to reinforcing procedures and routines so students can become comfortable with how the differentiated instructional process works within the classroom. The lessons must be tailored to practice the different procedures and routines involved in the classroom. These routines range from warm-up to closure and everything in between. Students learn what to do for situations that involve instructional lecture, small group work, independent class work, grouping procedures, station rotations, partner work, and other instructional set-up. They are also taught what to do when a non-instructional issue arises, such as in-class disruptors, in between instructional times, and leaving the classroom. Improper reinforcement of these issues can be the major problem for highly independent differentiated instruction styles. If there are procedures for every situation, then the classroom flows nicely since the students understand what they must be doing at all times.

Classroom Environment

Classroom environments are crucial to the development of social skills. Classrooms need to be positive environments where students feel safe, encouraged, challenged, and supported. This is accomplished by maintaining positive rules and procedure routines for all students to establish a sense of security. For every task, students need know what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and understand why it is required. This reduces the anxiety level and fear of failure within a classroom, especially for ELL students. When students are able to establish a sense of security in their classroom environment, they will achieve a sense of belonging through successful social interactions with their peers. This allows the ELL students to interact with others comfortably and thus gives them the opportunity to practice their social skills with the encouragement of the teacher.

It is essential to create a safe environment where students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes as well as their inquiries. This is central to attain the proper attitude for learning. Since ELL students do not always have background information about the topics, it is important to anchor the information and provide opportunities to gain interest. Providing choice and thoroughly communicated expectations of performance and participation gives the students a foundation with which to work. When the students do what is expected, genuine praise from the teacher and others will reinforce the skill learned.

Research suggests that students who are successful in school have bought into the idea of taking responsibility for their own education (Slavin, 2006). The key to this is motivating students to become active participants in their own education. Motivating students begins with having high, yet realistic expectations. A well-structured classroom with predictable routines will give students the security of knowing what is expected of them for any given situation. Once procedures and routines are in place, it is then possible to challenge the students using a print rich environment where everyone will learn. This prevents boredom, reduces misbehavior, and encourages students to think in new ways. Encouraging students to think critically by questioning what is going on in their environment will teach them a higher level of reasoning ability. Asking questions that make students not only state what they think but also explain why they think and feel the way they do will give students the practice of delving into topics in depth rather than just skimming over the material quickly. Another important activity is to encourage students to look outside their own perspective in order to view situations as how others may see them helps to instill the value of others. When students value themselves, they value others too.

Cultural and Ethnic Diversity

When developing a differentiated curriculum, especially for English Language Learners, it is important to take into account all types of students and their backgrounds. There will always be a broad range of students with varying abilities and needs within a single classroom. Certain guidelines should be followed. There needs to be a reasonable attempt to accommodate the needs of the students while nurturing their abilities through specialized instruction. Sieffert (2006) explains that biases lurk everywhere including throughout the classroom, school, and curriculum. Being unaware of these biases prevents effective instruction for students and places an invisible barrier between the student and learning.

Choice is the key to successful differentiated instruction. Allowing learners to participate in the instructional design process provides alternative perspectives from other cultures. Successful integration of personal experiences of the students creates a formidable learning environment. Letting students pick a topic of study such as books from a particular country or choosing to write an expository paper about their favorite cultural cuisines gives students some interest in the instructional process. Many times these topics will also involve the parents in the education their child. The job of the teacher is to create meaningful and authentic activities, which demonstrate the value of other cultures while incorporating instructional standards and practicing necessary skills. Executing this successfully will capture and maintain the interest of all the students.

One example of cultural issues influencing the learning environment is being aware of the various holidays celebrated by the students in the classroom. If students are absent because of a holiday or are required participate in a restrictive ritual, it is important to know this ahead of time so classroom activities will not interfere with their cultural event. If students are not permitted to eat certain things during a certain time, then activities that offer food should be avoided. This of course always should be considered for students with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Many differentiated instructional assignments can be created around cultural traditions.

Another example of cultural issues to be aware of is whether students are able to afford the necessary supplies for class. Some cultures expect the schools to provide the supplies. Requiring or even encouraging extensive purchases for projects and homework may leave some students behind when it comes to turning in assignments, and differentiation can require many additional supplies. Some students may choose to fail an assignment instead of having their peers see that they cannot afford things like poster boards or markers. Additionally, students may run out of supplies at some point or not be able to afford any at all. This needs to be handled in a discrete manner so the student is not embarrassed by the situation or feels obligated to the teacher for supplying the necessary items. This may be accomplished by having borrowed items that stay in the classroom, which also provides the opportunity for the student to be responsible for the items during and after class.

An additional example of cultural issues in the learning environment would be to encourage learning about other cultures. Differentiated instruction lends itself well to the understanding and embracing of heritage and cultures of all the students in the classroom. It encourages them to explore their own culture as well as that of others. Learning about the similarities and differences each culture has to offer gives the students a new perspective about other people.

Working with Parents

Working with parents can be one of the most difficult duties a teacher has. It is impossible to create a well-managed differentiated classroom without some parent interaction. This is especially true for students who are not working on the same things. Parents need to be informed about what their child is doing and why it may be different from what other students are doing. Parents also like to hear how well their children are doing by seeing how much progress is being made. This is equally true of parents of ELL students. However, it is likely the parents are not fluent in English and may require a translator for phone calls, notes home, and conferences. These parents have a right to know how their child is doing, especially when it is good news. It is extremely unlikely that any parent wants to hear how poorly their child behaves or performs in the classroom. That is why it is so important to understand that parents may become defensive regarding the behavior of their child. It is key to remember parents are doing what they know how to do and may need our help for some things.


Students are all different. It is likely that each student will accomplish different things throughout their lives. No two students will take the same path, nor will they have the exact same interests. ELL students are no exception to this rule. When they are older, each student will have a different job that uses skills sets comfortable to them. Ideally, students will get jobs they are good at doing. If teachers do not teach students what they are good at, no one will. The only way to accomplish this is through differentiated instruction.