Differentiating Activities in the Classroom

Differentiation has already been briefly discussed in the ELT Glossary, and you might like to start by checking out what was said there. in this article we go into more detail looking at...

  • Why differentiation might be necessary with different learner types and in different learning contexts
  • How activities and classroom management techniques can be differentiated to cater for the varying needs of different learners in the class.

1. With what learner types or in what learning contexts might differentiation be necessary?

  • Learning Context : Mixed Level groups     In small language schools it often happens that a learner is placed in a class because they are just above or below the level, but there is no other suitable class for them at the time they require. They may therefore either not have control of language items/subskills which the others have covered, or already know items/subskills which the others need to cover fully “from scratch”. I have also had learners in a class who had already repeated a previous level (A2), had still not reached the required standard for B1, but the school decided to let them continue rather than risk losing the client. The teacher therefore has to ensure the lower level learners can follow the course while not boring the higher level learners.
  • Learning Context : Mixed Ability groups   Even if groups are all at the same average level, some may have a “spiky profile” (ie be at the level in some systems/skills, but weak in others – eg be fluent but highly inaccurate, or be weaker than the stated level in one skill only, such as  listening). Groups may also contain learners who are at the “correct” level, but simply take longer to assimilate new information. The teacher therefore has to ensure that the activities meet the needs of both the weak and strong learners.
  • Learning Context : Multilingual groups  Differences in the learners’ L1s will affect the ease at which they can assimilate new items and develop new skills.  Eg Arabic learners at elementary level will have difficulty distinguishing between /p/ and /b/ phonemes and will need both receptive and productive practice which other learners, including speakers of most European L1s will not need. 
  • Learner type : Learners with Special Needs  These may be learning difficulties or physical impairments. Learners with learning difficulties eg Attention Deficit Disorder, especially if combined with Hyperactivity) will not be able to concentrate as long as most learners on low-paced activities; learners with hearing impairments may have difficulty hearing recorded listenings or the teacher, while those who are visually impaired may have difficulty reading materials or seeing what is written on the board.
  • Learner Type : Personality Differences      Despite actual strengths and weaknesses, learners may lie on scales ranging from extrovert to introvert, confident to insecure and anxious, dominant to shy etc. The teacher will have to handle each of these learners in a different way to ensure they a) feel happy in the classroom and with the course and b) do not have a negative effect on other learners and the general class rapport.

2. How can activity types and classroom management techniques  be differentiated to lead to effective learning by all the students in the class?

(NB: Notice that the underlined sections of each point directly answer the question “how”, while italicised  sections explicitly show why the action results in effective learning for all students)

a) Activity Types

- Mixed Level/Ability groups

  • By adapting activity format to ensure the level of challenge is right for each learner. Eg: the lesson has moved on to the controlled practice stage and the Ls are working in pairs. Weaker Ls are given a simple gapfill task to do with the missing words in a box, in jumbled order. Stronger Ls are given the same task, but without the examples in the box. 

  • By differentiating the language various learners are asked to practice so that each L can work at their own level. For example in the initial “Test” stage of a lesson on polite requests with a  Test –Teach-Test format, you might notice that different learners are using different requests exponents more or less accurately. Eg: Davide was still having problems with “Can you + infìnitive”  - so you correct and explain it for him, and then tell him that for the rest of the lesson you want to hear him using it. Ingrid was using “Can” and “Could” accurately but avoiding “Will” and “Would”, so you focus on these for her and tell her to practise them in the activities to come.  Belem on the other hand was using all the modals accurately - so you introduced “Do you think you could...” and told her that for the rest of the lesson she should go on practising that.  And so on. The  follow up activities may be gapfills, roleplays or other activities where the learners can use "their own" exponent, thus each working at their own level. 

  • When teaching listening or reading, the “same” text can be used, but produced for different levels. Tasks can be the same or also differentiated, depending on the text and the learners’ needs Sites like “News in Levels” provide texts at three different levels, roughly A2, B1 and B2. Alternatively, the T. might choose an authentic text for strong, high-level learners, but write a simplified version for weaker or lower level group members. 
- Learners with Special Needs
  • As mentioned above, deaf learners will not be able to follow recorded dialogues from the textbook during listening comprehension work. Their equivalent will be lip reading. A solution to the problem is for the teacher to stand directly in front of the deaf learner while the recording is playing and lip-synch it - changing position as necessary to indicate the different speakers. 

- Multilingual groups and others

  • By breaking the lockstep. (Also useful in mixed ability/level classes and with learners with special needs such as slow processing problems.) This gives each L. the time they need to assimilate the language and ensures their grasp of the new language is stronger and they are not confused by being thrown into an activity at a level of communicative challenge which is too high for them.  Eg in a Presentation –Practice- Production lesson on a new structure, the T may know that the structure will cause more problems for some learners, because of L1 interference than others. After the initial presentation the T. may have ready several controlled practice activities, several semi-controlled activities and several free practice activities. All the learners completely the early Controlled Practice activities, but those who have no problems with them then pass to the Semi-Controlled Practice activities, while others work on further CP tasks with the T helping as necessary. The same progression continues through the freer activities. This means that some learners may not reach the free practice stage, but has the advantage that they have not been demotivated by being over-challenged and, in the end, will have learnt more

b) Classroom Management Techniques

- Mixed level/ability groups

  • By using stronger learners as models for weaker ones. Eg the T has done choral repetition of a model sentence and has moved on to individual repetition. She asks several strong Ls to repeat individually (thus increasing the level of challenge for them) before calling on less able learners, so that they have the advantage of the extra models. 

  • By allotting different roles to different learners during an activity. Eg Hadfield suggests that during small group discussion, a note taker can be nominated for the group. They don’t participate but only listen and take notes. After the discussion, they then report back to the whole class.  

If the strongest learners have this role, this prevents them from dominating, but still gives them an important role at the end. If a weaker student is the note-taker , the pressure is taken off them to produce language spontaneously during the activity, but they can prepare something to say at the end, which provides a sense of achievement.

  • By using different pairings –  weak learners with stronger ones, alternating with each learner working with another learner of their own ability/level. The weak/strong pairing means that the stronger learner can help the weaker, explaining as necessary, but risks the stronger learner “taking over” and just doing it for the weaker learner. However, this pairing can be useful if the learners are asked to complete an activity individually and then compare and justify their answers in pairs. Alternatively, pairing weak/weak, average/average, strong/strong ensures that all learners get the chance to work at their own level and be challenged by others of the same level – this is particularly important to avoid frustration in stronger learners. Controlled pairing is also relevant to multilingual groups. 

- Personality Differences

  • By varying elicitation techniquesCare has to be taken in full class stages not to increase the anxiety of shy/insecure (or weaker) learners but also not to let confident (or strong) learners dominate. This may involve eg deciding between whether to nominate learners – and if so whether before or after an elicitation – or leaving the question “open”. Prior nomination warns the learners that a question is coming so that they are prepared to answer and is useful with more insecure learners. Post-elicitation nomination provides a greater challenge for more confident learners. Open nomination can lead to strong learners dominating, but sometimes leads to greater participation from others. Eg I have one learner who, if nominated to answer a question, however “easy”, immediately panics. But if an “easy” question is left open, she will often volunteer an answer. 

- Learners with Special Needs

  • T. control of seating arrangements are crucial if the class includes visually impaired learners or fully or partially deaf learners to ensure that the class is fully inclusive  For example, visually impaired learners need to be seated close to the board and the T. needs to ensure that anything written on the board is large enough to be visible to them. Visual impairment may include colour blindness – many men are red/green colour blind and these colours need to be avoided when using the board or marking/commenting on written work.  if a class includes a deaf learner who lip reads, a horseshoe or circular seating arrangement needs to be used so that they can always see the lips of anyone who is speaking at that moment.



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