How can I differentiate tasks in the classroom?
We all want our learners to benefit from our classes and feel supported as they learn. For this to happen we need to recognize the strengths and needs of our students. By observing your learners, you will pick up on their skills and areas for development. With this knowledge, you can differentiate your tasks to best help them learn. Here are some simple ways to differentiate your classroom tasks and help your students.
Consider disabilities: First and foremost is to consider any limitations or needs your students may have. This means considering using larger fonts and contrasting colours or audio input for learners with sight difficulties or selecting font type and colour or using coloured overlays for dyslexic readers. Is your classroom comfortable for those with physical needs? Can those who use mobility aids manoeuvre around it easily?
Physical Environment: Another way to consider the physical environment is to think about where your students complete their work. While we usually have our learners sit at desks, consider allowing students to stand or move around the room while they work. For those who want to sit, where do they sit? It could be at a desk, or on the floor (with or without cushions as they prefer). Students don’t necessarily need to work in the classroom either; is it possible for you to have learners work in a library or go outside and work in nature?
Group work: Group work can be used in two ways. Firstly, by splitting your class into groups you allow them to draw on each other’s knowledge and skills and work collaboratively to complete a task. Students who are less adept in one area can benefit from the strengths of their peers, and gain insight into how to work on that task alone in the future. A second way to employ group work is to offer it as an option in contrast to working individually. Mixing individual and group work means students can choose the method that best suits them and those who prefer to work alone or suffer from shyness are also accommodated.
Flexible-paced learning: Usually, when we plan a lesson, we pace it for the slowest learners in the class. This can leave more advanced students feeling bored and frustrated as they wait for their peers to catch up. Flexible-paced learning means we allow our students to control the pace of the lesson rather than us. In this case, while we plan the lesson, we do not set a specific time limit for each activity. Students are set the first task and once they begin, they will move through the tasks at their own pace. This means there is no waiting for more advanced students and lower-level students do not feel the need to rush or tell us they understand when they do not. Here, any extension tasks for advanced learners are built in at the end so they always have something to do. This also allows us to utilize online platforms such as Nearpod that can guide students through the lesson.
Online platforms: We’re very lucky to live in the era of Web 2.0 and have many digital tools at our disposal. Such tools allow us to change the energy and flow of our lessons and can provide benefits such as anonymity. Changing the way you collect answers or offer a task gives students a break from the norm and allows you to tap into their different skills. Platforms such as Wordwall offer a variety of tasks that you can use for revision and assessment, which can be combined with flexible-paced learning. Online platforms also allow for a variety of responses. Students can often enter text, images, or voice notes (see platforms such as Padlet) to answer the same question.
Vary input methods: Changing the way in which students receive information can often allow them to process it better. In this method, we keep the input the same, but we vary its delivery. Offering learners the same information via written text, audio file and video means they can choose the method through which they best absorb information. This can be done through the use of personal devices or through setting up stations in your classroom. Students will move to the station that has their preferred medium and receive the input. You can then bring them back to your usual classroom layout or allow them to remain at the stations for any subsequent activities.
Varying output: Regardless of whether you use varied input, it is possible to test learners' understanding through a variety of outputs. This means offering students a range of ways in which to display their knowledge. Traditionally we may ask students to write an essay or answer comprehension questions to demonstrate what they have understood from a text or listening. However, it is also possible to have students present their knowledge through a presentation, mini-lecture, infographic, song etc. All of these forms allow us to see what a learner has understood and can also be assessed for vocabulary and use of English as necessitated by any rubrics.
Offer materials at different levels: This is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘differentiation’. While it may be time-consuming, the most basic way in which we can differentiate learning is to supply the same input at varying levels of difficulty. Starting with a text that fits the level of the majority of learners you can scale the vocabulary and grammar up or down depending on the needs of advanced or less developed students.
Feedback: Feedback can be employed in two ways. Firstly, providing individualised feedback to learners allows them to know what they specifically need to work on to develop their knowledge and skills. This effectively provides them with an individualised work plan that they can tackle at their own pace. Additionally, requesting feedback from learners on what is and isn’t working for them will allow you to better understand their needs and see how you can apply different differentiation techniques to enhance their learning.
Elizabeth S. Coleman is originally from the UK, although she has been working overseas for the past 15 years. She holds a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and an LL.M Gender and Human Rights. Ms. Coleman began her EFL career in South Korea where she worked as an instructor and later Foreign Academic Manager of a private language school. After moving to Istanbul in 2013, Elizabeth has worked at various universities. Currently she is an instructor and CPD specialist at Istanbul Medipol University. A firm believer in education as a transformative and developmental tool, Elizabeth is engaged in research around social constructions, gender, and the representation of minorities in education.