Differentiated Instruction Redux in Your ESL Class

< Back to the TEFL News

This post was written by Matthew Clark

Homogenous classes are what we all want. Heterogeneous classes are what we generally get. Here in Denver we conduct month-long intensive teacher-training programs, including the IDELT™. A large part of these programs involves live teaching practice with ESL students living in the area. Our students are divided into two groups: beginner and intermediate.

A few days ago, some of the intermediate students came to me to make a request. They wanted to be challenged more in the lesson, i.e. more advanced vocabulary and grammar. On the same day, our visiting trainer expressed her opinion that some of the intermediate students were finishing their classroom tasks too quickly, leaving our teachers in training with extra time on their hands and uncertainty of what to do.

The cause of this problem is twofold: several new students joined our intermediate class who had not had as much practice as our regular students, and some of our regular students are improving faster than others and are now upper-intermediate.

The solutions were less obvious. 

  • Do we remove the upper-intermediate students from the class?
  • Do we alter the content of the lessons to make it more challenging?
  • Should our teachers in training plan variations for each activity?
  • Do we divide the lessons into an intermediate and an upper-intermediate lesson?

There are disadvantages to each option. We can only run two classes, and removing the upper-intermediate students means they stop taking lessons entirely. If we make the content more difficult, the true intermediate students may be overwhelmed. Asking teachers in training to plan variations is not something they have experience with and would add stress. If we divide the lesson, half of the students will only be engaged half of the time.

What did we decide in the end? Logistically, it is not possible to split up our lessons. Personally, I have never turned away a student at the door. Realistically, the only option was to alter the content and activities of the lessons. Here’s what we suggested to our teachers in training:

  • All activities should include an extension activity. Extension activities can be assigned to students who finish the original activity quickly and should require them to think more critically about the target language.
  • All lessons need to allow sufficient time for free speaking activities. These activities allow students to demonstrate both fluency and accuracy with the target language, as well as allow the teacher to identify errors that would not otherwise occur in a controlled accuracy activity.
  • Lessons should include authentic materials. In addition to the target language that the teacher highlights in the material that is suitable for all learners, more advanced learners are confronted with additional language that may fall within their range of comprehensible input.

What do you think of our ideas? Can you suggest others? Have you ever been in a situation like this? What did you do?

June 22, 2011