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Phil Wade - Differentiation is the spice of life

Average: 3.5 (4 votes)

I taught an English option course for several years.

It contained around 20 students from 3 different departments. It wasn’t levelled so I had some almost complete beginners with bilingual students whose parents were English and Australian. The students were aged between 19 and 30 with varying study and work experience.

The official course aim was to improve their oral English but also to make sure that it was enjoyable, as some of the students were quite shy due to lack of English speaking practice.

As you can see, it was a very diverse group of students and quite a general course aim and without the usual needs analysis and diagnostic tests that are so common in language schools, it was initially very challenging to know what to do and how. In such situations, you really need to put your pedagogical cap on to come up with a method or strategy to solve this teaching puzzle.

I taught this course for several years and so created, developed and adapted both the course content and how I taught it. Below are some strategies for differentiation I’ve explored along with their pros and cons.

1. Average B2 with generic topics

This is a classic way of dealing with mixed groups that many teachers, in my experience, opt for. The average B2 level aims to be challenging enough for B1s and comfortable enough for B2s and B2 is often the university admission level. B2 also allows more natural teaching and less of a language and grammar heavy style.

Using general topics is a safe way to appeal to all the students, regardless of their disciplines. Thus, speaking topics about student life and TV all work.

Pros: It works well for the majority if that majority is around B2.

Cons: It is very challenging for the lower students and the C1s will need more pushing.

2. Differentiated tasks

Creating levelled variations of tasks for different students is a good strategy with mixed level classes. I’ve seen this done via worksheets, written tasks on boards and often is based on the amount of work expected in a set time, the difficulty of the task or the expected task type such as an oral presentation versus a short written response. A C1 task for a C1 student and an A2 task for an A2 seems pedagogically sound.

Pros: It is an effective way to tackle mixed levels as you can use the same topic but create a range of level-suitable task variants and provide for progression.

Cons: It requires a lot of work at a planning level and logistically in the class. It also relies on the students accepting their levels and not becoming demotivated by being too low or too high.

3. Grouped tables

In a room with tables or moveable chairs, physically putting similar levels together creates levelled teams to work at the same level. This can be combined with differentiated tasks or it can naturally differentiate itself. For instance, if you ask tables to create a story or talk about... for 5 minutes, each levelled group will operate within their linguistic boundaries.

Pros: This is a simple strategy with larger groups of people who can be grouped. It also creates a team spirit if continued over several sessions.

Cons: It relies on the students getting along and having a complementary mix of personalities. It isn’t possible with smaller groups and if they levels in a group are too mixed, it can be tough.

4. Paired support

The ‘pair up a stronger with a weaker’ strategy has been around a long time and it seems, on paper, an effective choice. The idea is that a higher student supports and corrects and weaker one and provides a model for their language progression. While the higher student operates at a ‘teaching’ capacity and also has to provide some explanations for the other. Therefore, solidifying their more conceptual knowledge of the language.

Pros: It can create a very supportive class environment where students help their peers away from the glare of the teacher.

Cons: The pairs need to ‘buy in’ to the strategy so that the lower students don’t feel patronised and the highers feel they have got something out of it. The highers can tend to dominate as the lowers can take a passive role and fear correction.

5. Student tutors

There is often 1 or more students in a group who are higher than the rest. In a mixed level class, this can be quite evident. Utilising these students is a great tool to provide more support for the rest and gives them more responsibility and challenges them to communicate and operate in a teacher role by explaining, supporting and correcting students.

Pros: A very high level student in a much lower class will often relish this challenge as it will push them and it enables you to be in more than 1 place at 1 time.

Cons: It can be dangerous as the student must be mature and the others must not see them as arrogant or superior.

6. Flipped projects

Giving levelled activities for homework that then feed into the next class avoids many of the pitfalls in the previous strategies. For example, in preparation for creating and filming a class TV show project, the lower students could prepare weather reports or 1 minute student news stories while higher students develop challenging interview questions to ask a classmate or get ready for group debates. Each levelled output can then fit perfectly into the project.

Pros: Levelled homework is perfect for students as there is no time limit so lowers can work longer on it to provide confidence in the class.

Cons: The in class activity has to be carefully planned so each piece of the puzzle fits and each student is challenging just enough.

7. Skill corners

Most classrooms have empty spaces and these can tend to be the corners. By creating seating or standing spaces there with a poster that says ‘vocabulary’, ‘fluency’ or ‘pronunciation’ on, you very quickly create a new type of classroom, activity and atmosphere. Setting up 4 of these corners with each representing a skill area that students need to work on and asking them to choose 1, is a wonderful way to start an interesting and student-centred lesson that is inherently differentiated. Providing task cards for students to read and work on in set time limits supplies a time pressure and a nice alternative to typical coursebook lessons.

Pros: The element of physicality and student choice motivates learners and the tasks you provide enable you to focus on specific weaknesses other thresholds students need to concentrate on.

Cons: The activity relies on correct student choice so works better if all 4 are relevant to every learner and you rotate students. You must also connect the activities to their learning in the class and beyond so it is not just an isolated ‘fun’ activity.

8. The roaming teacher

You can’t give every student attention at the same time but by sharing yourself between groups or tables, you can provide equal amounts of it. All you need to do is grab a chair and move around the class during an activity. What you do can range from listening and commenting on oral work to providing written corrections and suggestions or even evaluations. These you can give during the activity, at the end before you move on or you can save them and add them to the board for a class feedback exercise.

Pros: This type of activity is a great way to provide 1-2-1 help to each and every student and to build closer relationships. In a class feedback session at the end, you can also elicit information from specific students and praise them.

Cons: Some students can become intimidated by the teacher’s close proximity and clam up so it’s essential to explain that you provide a supportive element to the activity and are not there to criticise.

Do you have any strategies you’ve tried in your class? Share them below.