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Differentiated instruction for english language learners, on this page, getting started, differentiating instruction for ells, videos from larry ferlazzo and katie hull sypnieski.

Each student comes to school, not only with unique academic needs, but also with unique background experiences, culture, language, personality, interests, and attitudes toward learning. Effective teachers recognize that all of these factors affect how students learn in the classroom, and they adjust, or differentiate, their instruction to meet students' needs.

Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) describe differentiation as creating a balance between academic content and students' individual needs. They suggest that this balance is achieved by modifying four specific elements related to curriculum:

These curriculum-related factors are based on student need in three areas:

The goal of differentiated instruction is to create learning opportunities that make allowances for differences in how individual students learn in order to ensure equal access to important academic content. Content may be modified for students who need additional practice with essential elements before moving on; however, the expectation is that modifications in other areas will ultimately allow all students to master the same key content.

Thus, "differentiated instruction is not the same as individualized instruction. Every student is not learning something different; they are all learning the same thing, but in different ways. And every student does not need to be taught individually; differentiating instruction is a matter of presenting the same task in different ways and at different levels, so that all students can approach it in their own ways" (Trujo, 2004).

It is important to recognize that differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching, not simply a collection of strategies or activities. Effective differentiation requires ongoing evaluation of students' needs and conscious attention to designing instructional activities and assessment to meet those needs. It is true that teachers must have an extensive repertoire of research-based instructional strategies at hand, but they must also be able to "think outside the box" to ensure that each student's needs are met. As Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) point out, the teacher's role in the differentiated classroom is to continually ask him/herself, "What does this student need at this moment in order to be able to progress with this key content, and what do I need to do to make that happen?" (p. 14).

With the recent emphasis on standards-based instruction, there has been much discussion about what constitutes appropriate content, instruction, and assessment for English language learners. As educators have grappled with this issue, it has become clear that educational parity can only be achieved if ELLs have an opportunity to learn the same rigorous academic content as native English speakers. The best way to achieve that goal is through differentiated instruction that takes into account ELLs' English language proficiency, as well as the many other factors that can impact learning (Fairbairn & Jones-Vo, 2010).

Differentiated instruction, by definition, is instruction that is designed to support individual students' learning in a classroom of students with varied backgrounds and needs. For this reason, the same general principles that apply to differentiated instruction for native English speakers also apply to ELLs.

Teachers are successful at differentiating instruction for ELLs when they:

For information on differentiating instruction in the reading classroom, see Differentiated Reading Instruction , a Reading Rockets webcast featuring Carol Ann Tomlinson, Michael Pressley, and Louise Spear-Swerling.

ELLs call attention to the incredible diversity that is characteristic of American schools in the 21st century. Today, most U.S. classrooms include students with a wide variety of academic needs, cultural backgrounds, learning styles, and languages. Differentiated instruction offers teachers an effective method of addressing the needs of this diverse population in a way that gives all students equal access to learning.

Differentiation for ELLs 101

These videos are part of a series created for Education Week by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski.

Differentiating Instruction: It's Not as Hard as You Think

Differentiating Instruction: A Guide for Teaching English-Language Learners

Differentiating Instruction: How to Plan Your Lessons

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (3rd ed.) . Boston: Pearson.

Fairbain, S., & Jones-Vo, S. (2010). Differentiating instruction and Assessment for English language learners: A guide for K-12 teachers . Philadelphia: Caslon.

Irujo, S. (2004, September/October). Differentiated instruction: We can no longer just aim down the middle. ELL Outlook . Retrieved from http://coursecrafters.com/ELL-Outlook/index.html

Tomlinson, C. A. (2005). Differentiating instruction: Why bother? Middle Ground , 9, 12-14.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom . Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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Kate replied on Fri, 2012-08-10 09:49 Permalink

This article touches upon what I find to be one of the most important points in educating ELLs, which is the need to insure that the instructional rigor, level of content, and high expectations are not compromised. Differentiating instruction needs to be about “how can I change my approach to teaching this content so my student can learn” rather than “how can I change the content so my student can learn.” Although the second option is easier it has led to the overwhelming gaps in education that we now see.

Santina (orange... replied on Thu, 2012-08-16 02:21 Permalink

Students cannot learn the same way since so many students come from various cultural backgrounds. Many students are English Language Learners and need extra support. This article has listed many important factors that are important in helping ELL students succeed and reach their goals. If teachers take the time to get to know their students, they would be able to motivate these students and know their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding their strengths and weakness can help teachers establish adequate goals for ELL students.

qingfen zhao replied on Wed, 2013-05-01 20:22 Permalink

To manage a class in different ways is certain good for students; and to let different students do different homework is a good way to involve all the students in learning;

Nuha Salih replied on Tue, 2013-09-17 20:39 Permalink

Different strategies will enhance students and improve their product.

Reinaldo Lopez replied on Thu, 2014-01-30 12:23 Permalink

Teaching Chemistry for ELL students also require that they learn Nomenclature, Stochiometry, Atoms and Molecular Structures, etc., that is equivalent to learn a third new language.

John replied on Wed, 2014-03-12 11:10 Permalink

Great work keep it up.

Tiff replied on Thu, 2014-03-27 09:22 Permalink

Great article.....provides a breath of fresh air, focuses us on what really matters, the individual child's needs. Also gives nice itemized reminder list for us vet teachers who are bogged down and have become jaded due to nclb & the reality of over testing & teaching to the test. Moral of the story:cultural differences/our ELLs really do enrich our schools & touch our lives in a most positive way.

Jean-Paul replied on Sun, 2014-03-30 09:47 Permalink

Having high expectations for the ELL students is an easy one. They always come to school prepared, in proper uniform, homework completed, and questions about any material/content covered the day before. The effort that they bring is immeasurable. I can't grade a student on what they don't bring to class, but I do grade on what they do with it - Love the ELL student's effort.

Marisa replied on Sun, 2014-03-30 16:39 Permalink

Differentiation is a necessity for all students, but especially ELL due to varying language proficiency levels. I especially liked the point to differentiate homework! This checklist is a helpful reminder of ways in which teachers can tailor instruction and assessment to meet the individual needs of the student in order to demonstrate learning.

Brooke replied on Mon, 2014-03-31 12:46 Permalink

Making content comprehensible is an absolute most, it is our whole objective of teaching! Students need to be engaged and digest the information. Students use a wide range of strategies and variables to grasp the content such as reminder cards, charts, drawings, graphic organizers and so on. We need to do whatever it takes to get the material to the child. I know with my own students, sometimes I can try the most bizarre methods of either getting the student to comprehend or correct behavior. My motto is... "you never know until you try". What may not work for one... may work for another!

Dominique replied on Mon, 2014-03-31 17:10 Permalink

Often times regular classroom teachers have a difficult time reaching the needs of their ELL students. This article give some really great suggestions of ways to help ELL students find success. One of the most important things to remember is to set high standards for ELL's. Teachers must remember that they are capable, they might just need a little extra guidance.

Euna replied on Tue, 2014-04-01 10:06 Permalink

According to this article, "differentiated instruction is designed to support individual students' learning in a classroom of students with varied backgrounds and needs." There is no doubt that great diversity in academic proficiency, ethnic background, culture, language and learning style is found in today's 21st century classroom. Therefore, as an accountable educator, differentiating one's teaching is no longer just an option, but rather an essentiality in order to equally move all students from where they are now to the next step. Furthermore, one of the key components to doing so is to know your children personally. The more you know about them, the more you can relate to their needs and better guide them down the path to true learning and understanding.

Dr Puven replied on Sun, 2014-11-02 16:01 Permalink

I have been teaching ESL/EAP for 30 years and I find differentiated instruction works well with ELLs as the approach itself is holistic. All aspects of the learners are considered in any teaching instruction and tasks designed accordingly. Though it is time consuming, it is a worthwhile effort as students do progress and eventually reach the target with the necessary guidance given. Collaboration among teachers in developing teaching materials and onging informal assessments to cater to diverse students is vital. see www.drpuven.com

B. Hirschlein replied on Sat, 2015-03-28 21:33 Permalink

D.I. Is absolutely a tool that ESL/ELL/BLE etc. teachers need to learn how to use and apply to their daily lessons. Every student different and learns in different ways, the fact that Ell students are learning another language on top of what they are already required to learn in a school curriculum, makes this all the more necessary.

D. Curran replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 11:18 Permalink

Differentiated instruction is definitely a necessity in education in general, and even more so in the ESL/ELL community. Students come from all different backgrounds, so it would be safe to assume that the students come in with different learning styles as well. Teachers who take the time to get to know their students on an individual basis (how they learn best, what motivates them, etc.) will find the most success in their classrooms.

C. Tomlinson replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 12:51 Permalink

Differentiating Instruction needs to happen for every student. Then when an ELL student comes into your classroom there would be no need to stress, because you are already practicing differentiating instruction. Everyone learns differently and how you get to the end point does not matter as long as you get there with the correct knowledge.

Meg Markkanen replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 13:55 Permalink

Getting to know your students is like fertilizing the soil for a healthy garden. The ELL student thinks: “This teacher cares about me and my progress.” Only through collaborating with other teachers can the ELL instructor have an overview of the student’s course content in other subjects. Simplifying the language content of other subjects creates a level of comfort the student needs to not feel defeated in the English language acquisition process. Lessons can be designed in stations to vary the instruction and support individual needs. It is important to constantly check for understanding and an exit pass (kinesthetic) not only attracts student attention but also provides the teacher a snapshot of student understanding of the lesson.

M. Delcher replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 16:28 Permalink

Differentiated instruction is a valuable tool for teachers. For ELL students it is a means to achieve success in learning through modifications that enhance rather than water down instruction. A teacher must assess student’s progress often so that any adjustments to instruction may be met. To differentiate teachers must be flexible. Small group instruction assists in developing students’ performance in ways that are most successful. Working in homogenous small groups allows students to work with others at their level and abilities. This provides the students with growth potential and confidence. It further provides a more accurate method for teachers to measure progress of students and reaching content goals.

Julie Zlotnick replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 16:43 Permalink

This is a great review on what differentiated instruction should be! Knowing your students and their families is one of the most important ways to learn about what your student needs from you. I like that the article says "differentiating instruction is a matter of presenting the same task in different ways and at different levels, so that all students can approach it in their own ways." It is important to remember that "dumbing down the curriculum" or placing ELLs in grade levels below their own age group is detrimental to students and bad teaching practice. In practice, differentiation can be difficult but their are many creative ways mentioned above to help all students grasp key content at their own learning level.

Lilliana Matos replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 21:18 Permalink

Differentiated instruction is an essential strategy to have as a teacher. It allows us as educators to really meet the needs of the children. In order for us to do so we must use our assessments to guide our instruction. We have to adapt our lessons in a way to make it more understandable to the students. Getting to know your students and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is key to knowing how to reach them.

B. Advani replied on Sun, 2015-03-29 21:26 Permalink

Many people confuse the term differentiated instruction with individualized instruction. Differentiated instruction gives ALL students access to the same material, but using different techniques and means of assessment. Not all students can demonstrate mastery of the skills and concepts in the traditional paper-pencil assessments, and it is important for teachers to understand that.

christine stabile replied on Mon, 2015-03-30 10:34 Permalink

Differentiation is a must in today's classrooms. i have had several classes and it really is essential to attain the best results for all students success'.

Jenn B replied on Mon, 2015-03-30 16:15 Permalink

Differentiated instruction is very helpful in the classroom. The preparation for it is time consuming, but the benefits of it is priceless. I would like to use the idea of creating differentiated homework for the various academic levels I have in my classroom.

Julio replied on Mon, 2015-03-30 21:45 Permalink

I love how this article emphasizes the importance of differentiated instruction. ELLs come from many different cultures that possess their own ways of teaching and learning. We can't focus on just teaching a certain way, we have to research and expand our pedagogical strategies to reach each learner in the classroom. Educators should always keep in mind how much of the content is being understood by the ELLs and how to present the material at grade level. Nothing is more important to the families of the ELLs than having their children receive quality education that is rigorous and at grade level.

Lynn Sooy replied on Tue, 2015-03-31 13:05 Permalink

I liked this article. I think that it is so important for the ELL to be motivated, and that requires a teacher who will take the time to appreciate each learner and find out what which ways are effective to motivate each one. They may not fully understand what is being said, but they will be able to motivated by the attitude of the teacher. Getting to know each student is time consuming but well worth the effort.

Karen replied on Wed, 2018-09-19 21:17 Permalink

The website contains links to information on ELL Basics. It includes resources by grade. These resources include books, authors, and videos. It also had a link to ELL in the news, school support, teaching ELLs, and information for families. A visitor to the website can even choose to see the readings in Spanish or English. I found the article “Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners” very interesting and helpful with the different strategies addressed. I plan to work on providing multiple types of assessment and differentiated homework in my classroom. I have also seen a common theme of making sure to have high expectations for all students. As teachers we need to make sure we are asking easy questions, but figuring out a new way to ask the question. As a teacher of ELLs I could see the many benefits of this website. I’m looking forward to having more time to watch more of the videos posted! There are also so many links to different articles to help with different issues an ELL teacher faces.

More information about text formats

Classroom Q&A

With larry ferlazzo.

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to [email protected] Read more from this blog.

Response: Ways to Differentiate Instruction for ELLs

differentiated instruction for ell

(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can you best differentiate instruction for English-language learners in a “mainstream” classroom?

There are millions of English-language Learnes in U.S. schools, and many - if not most - of them are in mainstream classes with students who are much more proficient in English. Given that situation, how can teachers best differentiate instruction for ELLs in their classrooms?

This three-part series will explore that important question.

Today, responses will come from Valentina Gonzalez, Jenny Vo, Tonya Ward Singer, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and Nélida Rubio. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Valentina, Jenny, and Tonya on my BAM! Radio Show . You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’ve been teaching English-language learners for 17 years. Here are sources of advice I recommend:

The Best Sites for Learning Strategies to Teach ELL’s in Content Classes

The Best Videos for Content Teachers With ELLs in Their Classes

The Best Resources on “Differentiated Grading” for English-Language Learners

Ways a Mainstream Teacher Can Support an ELL Newcomer in Class

Of course, you’ll also want to explore previous posts that have appeared in this column about Teaching English-Language Learners and on Differentiating Instruction .

Response From Valentina Gonzalez

Valentina Gonzalez is currently a professional-development specialist for ELLs in Texas. She works with teachers of English-learners to support language and literacy instruction. In addition to presenting, she writes a monthly blog for MiddleWeb focused on supporting ELLs. She can be reached through her website, elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com , or on Twitter @ValentinaESL :

There is a misconception that differentiating for English-learners means that we take the summative assessment (which could be a project, worksheet, or test) and accommodate it by adding visuals, eliminating choices, allowing the use of translation devices, etc. In classrooms across the country, mainstream teachers have either been turning in these assignments to their ESL colleagues in hopes that they will make the work easier for ELLs to access or they’ve been accommodating them on their own.

Accommodating a summative assessment is only one piece of the puzzle, and if we wait until it’s time to work independently to accommodate, then we are too late.

The best ways for mainstream teachers to differentiate instruction for English-learners is BEFORE the independent work is required. Differentiating for ELLs means accommodating three categories of our teaching: verbal, procedural, and instructional.

Verbal Differentiation

This is about the way we present information. It can take many forms. Simply slowing down our speech can support ELLs as they listen, process, and translate the input. Rephrasing and clarifying ensures that students have full comprehension. Sometimes the gestures and total physical response we incorporate into our verbal instruction can maximize student comprehension, too. The use of visuals is huge with English-learners but supports all students as well. All of these techniques require little planning but do require intentional thought.

Let me give you an example.

If I am conducting a read aloud, I will might preteach some key vocabulary to a small group of my English-learners who are at the beginning stage of language proficiency and possibly a few students who struggle with vocabulary. If I’m lucky enough to have a co-teacher, the co-teacher may gather this group and also introduce the book to the students. While reading the book to the class, I will ensure that I make my reading and thinking visible to the students. I will enlarge the text under a document camera, so students can see what I’m reading. If there are pictures, I will show them and provide opportunities to talk about the visual and the text. Students will turn and talk about the text.

Procedural Differentiation

The way we group our instruction makes a difference, too. From whole group to small group to individual. This type of differentiation supports students with the gradual release of responsibility. Our goal is for students to do things we are teaching them with ease and automaticity. Differentiating the way we instruct the groups of our students supports their independence. By beginning with whole group and keeping that a short mini-lesson, we can show students how to do “the thing.” We model. Model explicitly. Be as explicit as possible. This is how it’s done. In reading and writing workshop, this is the mini-lesson ,and it is usually about 10 minutes of the lesson. Next is group work or WE do. Working with a group is moving toward independence but still with support. In a balanced literacy classroom, this can be seen during guided reading, small groups, shared reading, and shared writing. Working in small groups allows for a lower teacher-student ratio. This type of setting is highly effective because it lowers the affective filter and gives students more opportunities to participate and interact with peers as well as with the teacher. And finally, students move toward independence with YOU do when they work alone to apply what they have learned with their teacher and peers during the I do and WE do phases. During reading and writing workshop, this can be seen while students are reading and writing on their own.

Instructional Differentiation

Using graphic organizers can be extremely powerful if students are explicitly taught how and when to use these tools on their own. There are many types: story maps, Venn Diagrams, T-Charts, tree maps, word webs, semantic maps, etc. If students understand the power of using graphic organizers for reading and writing, then they can pull these tools out at any time to enhance their comprehension and structure their own learning.

Instructional differentiation also includes the use of exemplars and touchstone texts that match students. Students need to see attainable goals so they are able to meet our expectations. Giving each student the same example or goal to reach does not allow for differentiation. Not all students are ready for the same goal. Students are all on their own path in their learning journey. Providing each student with an attainable target seems difficult, but it’s really not that challenging. What I do is save student samples and use them as targets, exemplars, or touchstone texts depending on the content area.

Keep a constant pulse on your language learners. Where are they in language and content development, what do they need next, what supports do they no longer need? Learning content and language simultaneously seems challenging, but it can be achieved with proper planning, engagement and ongoing teacher support.

differentiated instruction for ell

Response From Jenny Vo

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has been teaching for 22 years and is currently an ESL ISST (Instructional Support Specialty Teacher) in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas:

An English-language learner’s lack of English proficiency does not mean that they cannot learn the same content as the native English-speaking peers. However, we cannot expect them to learn the same content in the same way. There should be some differentiation in your instructional strategy and in your materials.

KNOW YOUR STUDENTS . To best differentiate instruction for your English-language learners who are in a “mainstream” classroom, you first must KNOW who your students are. You must know their English-proficiency level. You must know what gaps they have in the content areas of math, science, and social studies. You must know about your students’ learning styles. Knowing these things about your students will help you support them in the mainstream classroom. Not all ELLs will need the same amount of support nor will they all need the same type of accommodations. The following are some accommodations you can use to differentiate instruction for your ELLs in the mainstream classroom.

PLANNING . When planning your lessons, don’t just think about the content objectives. You also need language objectives. What vocabulary will the students need to know to help them master the content objectives? Do you need to preteach the vocabulary to your beginners and intermediate students? Then think about what activities can be used to teach the vocabulary. Vocabulary should be taught explicitly, and students need to practice the words in context many times. Attach pictures to vocabulary words and put the words on word walls for students to refer to throughout the unit or the year.

TEACH SPECIFIC READING AND WRITING STRATEGIES . Explicitly teach your ELLs specific reading and writing strategies. Because they will need ample time to practice these strategies, I would recommend just teaching them a few that you feel are the best. Use small-group time to reteach and give them more practice. We want the students to be able to use these strategies proficiently to help them improve their reading and writing skills. I love Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book. The lessons are short and quick. The books themselves are organized in a very teacher-friendly way.

MODIFIED TEXTS/ACCOMMODATED ASSESSMENTS . For your ELLs who are not reading at grade level, you can differentiate their reading materials by modifying the reading selections for them. Keeping in mind the essential content you want the students to learn, you can rewrite the reading material by rewording sentences, taking out extraneous information, and adding visuals to aid in comprehension. Assessments should also be accommodated to the level of ELLs. They shouldn’t be given the same tests as the other students. Reword sentences, omit extra information, add pictures, and eliminate an answer choice from multiple-choice questions.

CHARTS . Charts are a great way to highlight essential content for ELLs. Make sure you use pictures with your charts. Short phrases accompanied by visuals will greatly aid your ELLs in understanding and remembering the content. As an extended accommodation, make notebook-sized copies of the charts for students to put into their interactive notebooks so that they can use them to study at home.

SENTENCE STEMS . I’m a big proponent of providing ELLs with sentence stems. This accommodation helps so much in developing our ELLs’ speaking, reading, and writing skills in English. Select a few to use for each objective or unit. Put them on the walls. Give students multiple opportunities to use them so they can internalize them.

Being an English-language learner does not mean you are deficient in learning. Lack of language does not equal lack of intelligence. With linguistic support, ELLs can learn and master the same content in the mainstream classroom as their native-English-speaking peers. Provide them with the differentiation and support they need, and you will see what they can accomplish.

differentiated instruction for ell

Response From Tonya Ward Singer

Tonya Ward Singer is a keynote speaker and author who consults internationally to help K-12 educators transform teaching for equity and ELL achievement. Tonya’s best-selling book, EL Excellence Every Day: The Flip-To Guide for Differentiating Academic Literacy (Corwin, 2018), is the go-to resource to help teachers ensure English-learners, and all students, thrive with rigorous literacy. Her first bestseller, Opening Doors to Equity (Corwin, 2014), was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education via Teach to Lead’s Leadership Lab and featured in a spotlight by the Gates Foundation:

Effective differentiation for English-language learners (ELLs) begins with two essential teacher mindsets: 1. That we value our ELLs’ assets; and 2. That we expect excellence from every ELL. Yes, we can teach at a high level, we can actively engage students, and we can use awesome strategies. But none of these efforts will raise ELL achievement if we don’t have these two mindsets in place.

Value ELL Assets

Valuing ELL assets begins with the recognition that multilingualism is an asset, not a liability. Differences in background (language, culture, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and/or life experiences) than the teacher or a school’s majority population are just that: differences.

Seek to understand the unique assets of each ELL you serve. ELLs are an incredibly diverse group of students so they cannot nor should not be summed up as a single group with a single set of needs. In addition to their widely diverse interests, strengths, life experiences, and prior schooling, ELLs come to learning with a range of proficiency levels in English and other language(s).

Essential reflection questions:

Expect Excellence from Every ELL

Teacher expectations can make or break student learning. (Gerson, Holt & Papageorge, 2015, Carrasqulillo & Rodgriguez, 2002, Darling-Hammond & Schon, 1996). We know this, yet we get stuck.

I, too, was stuck back in my early years in the classroom. When my students struggled, I found myself protecting them from that struggle—even with high expectations right from the start. Modifications I made to my lessons, at a superficial level, might have looked like differentiation, but they weren’t. To be honest, I was “watering down": I simplified my language and I lowered my expectations. The result? Over time, this kind of approach leads to long-term ELLs, students who have been in U.S. schools for more than six years and are still designated ELLs.

There is a better way . . .

Differentiate with Strategic Supports

With the two above mindsets in place, we differentiate for ELLs in the very same way we differentiate for all students in a mainstream classroom. We engage in ongoing inquiry about our impact ruled by the following reflections:

In short, there is no magic-wand approach to differentiating our ELLs’ instruction in mainstream classrooms. First, we must shift from shopping for nouns (“ELL strategies” or silver-bullet solutions) to owning the verbs (Value, Expect, Engage, Observe, Support and Reflect) that are essential to impactful and culturally relevant teaching. Only then will our school ignite teachers’ agency and efficacy to teach for ELL excellence in every classroom, every day.

differentiated instruction for ell

Response From Carol Ann Tomlinson

Carol Ann Tomlinson’s recent book with ASCD is Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom, 2nd Edition (ASCD 2018); she has also authored Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (2010) with Marcia B. Imbeau. Carol’s career as an educator includes 21 years as a public school teacher and 12 years as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia’s teacher of the year in 1974. More recently, she has been a faculty member at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, where she is currently William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy:

Many teachers feel a bit lost as they think about how best to differentiate instruction for students who are not yet fluent in English. It’s important to remember that those students often feel powerfully lost as well. There are many straightforward ways to make the classroom more successful for students who are trying to learn both content and the language of the classroom simultaneously. Here are five ideas to consider:

1. Do whatever you can to be welcoming as the students come to your class. A smile and a warm greeting can go a long way in reassuring a student that they matter. Invest in guiding all students in your class to be supportive of one another and make time in the early days of school for students to get acquainted and to begin working together whenever possible. Working with peers can provide rich opportunities to use English while also lessening a sense of aloneness in the classroom.

2. Get to know your students. Surveys, checklists, notes to you, peer interviews that can be shared with the class, posting photos, and many other strategies can jump-start the process of learning about students while they signal your interest and begin to build a sense of community or team in the classroom.

3. Use formative assessments to understand where students are in relation to key content—but be sure ELLs can read and respond to the assessments so that their responses provide you with accurate information. That may sometimes mean you’ve had someone translate the assessment into the student’s language, or that the student can answer the questions orally in his/her own language with another student or ELL support teacher or parent volunteer translating the answers into English for you. Sometimes students can draw what they know better than they can write it. The goal is for you to know what the student actually knows rather than planning from misinformation.

4. Think about your curriculum as a highway that all of your students will travel but also plan in regular “exit ramps” that allow students at key points to work on their own needs for a time. Those exit ramps are key to differentiation. They enable students to work on needs in reading, vocabulary, writing—whatever will best facilitate their growth in the content of your class.

5. Strategies like learning contracts, learning centers, and personalized homework support you in providing students with work tailored to their needs. Think-Pair-Shares feel less risky than answering in front of the whole class, and they also model oral English. Websites and apps that provide reading material at varied reading levels, podcasts, or materials designed to help ELLs with language growth are helpful as well. There are many such sources. A few interesting ones are Newsela, Learning A-Z, Vocabulary Spelling City, STORYWORLD, and Fluent U. The Smithsonian’s news site offers Teen Tribune, Tween Tribune, TT Junior, and TT Espanol. At each level, the site provides articles on a variety of contemporary topics at multiple reading levels. It’s also helpful to scaffold the work of ELLs (and other students ) with lists of key vocabulary, digests of content, options to work with partners, examples and visuals, graphic organizers, and other supports that facilitate student support.

As often as you can, check in with the students one on one to see how they are feeling about their work. Ask for their suggestions about what is most helpful to them in learning and follow up accordingly. Help them track their progress. Let them know you want to be part of their success. It’s nearly always the case that strong teacher-student connections lead to greater student growth.

differentiated instruction for ell

Response From Nélida Rubio

Nélida Rubio is a teacher at Rockwood Elementary School in the Calexico Unified school district in Calexico, Calif. She has been teaching English-language learners for 22 years. She is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

Any teacher can read books, attend trainings and conferences, participate in specialized programs for ELLs, and/or even have the background of being an ELL themselves, yet differentiating instruction for an ELL in a mainstream class does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many very efficient strategies including trends like providing sentence frames or word walls for ELLs, but none serves all ELLs. A sentence frame is of no use when a student does not understand the words around the blank they need to fill. Word walls are great for those who know their meaning and use, but not for those who do not understand their context. And then there is the common belief that translating for a child or providing cognates will help the ELL, not when the content is brand-new and there is nothing the child can make connections to.

Differentiating for an ELL is much more complex than knowing and applying strategies. Each individual learner has different language experiences acquired either at home and/or school, their attitudes toward the new language differ, and their languages have unique structures. There is nothing more effective when differentiating instruction than truly knowing the learner’s background and language abilities in order to encourage language development. A teacher needs to research the individual’s cultural origin by interviewing the child, their parents, or colleagues who might also know about the learner’s background. Educators must take the time to focus on what the student can understand and produce, instead of limiting their own view with what the pupil cannot do.

I recommend class projects or activities that promote sharing students’ background sin a way that uncovers information crucial for the teacher. For example, students can create an All About Me Poster in which a student may include visuals that tell about their favorite activities, pictures and/or facts about their family history, lists of what makes them unique, goals they want to achieve, and other information a teacher might want to know about. Learning about the student’s interests will help teachers encourage language development through the use of high-interest content. Moreover, a family night is ideal to make connections with families. Parents and students can be given a questionnaire with questions such as how long a student has been in school, how well they have performed academically, how they feel about learning a new language, and questions to find out their concerns about home-school connections. If technology is available, families can record a clip or what I call a selfie video in which families answer the questions. By participating in such activities, the learner acquires a sense of belonging, thereby motivating a positive attitude toward language development.

In addition, gathering as much information as possible about their students’ literacy background and native language is essential when planning for differentiation. Researching the similarities and differences between the native language and English language will help target instruction. For example, if the language structures in their native language are close to English structures, transfer of skills will make language development easier, especially if the child has a strong literacy background.

Knowing students’ level of English allows teachers to scaffold content through the use of level-appropriate questions. It is quite impossible for a level 1 student to explain their reasoning with a verbal complex response, but they will most definitely be able to identify a response with a visual or by answering a yes/no question.

Teachers must be committed to getting to know their ELLs and adjust their curriculum to enhance each learner’s language. Adjusting the use of effective ELL strategies and/or using simple questioning techniques that require responses at the learner’s ability level will not take away from the content. Most importantly, when ELLs feel that their teacher knows them, their affective filter is lowered, and language becomes accessible.

differentiated instruction for ell

Thanks to Valentina, Jenny, Tonya, Carol, and Nélida for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected] . When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo .

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching .

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

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Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column .

Look for Part Two in a few days.

How can you best differentiate instruction fo an English Language Learners in a “mainstream” classroom?

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Break It Up! 5 Simple Steps for Differentiated Instruction with ELL Students

What do you do when you’ve got one, two, three or ten students in a classroom who need a different learning experience from the rest?

And ELL—English Language Learner—students can struggle in class without a bit of extra support.

Both language teachers and subject teachers alike must adjust their teaching strategies here and there to suit these learners.

While it doesn’t require any tremendous effort to make this happen, it does require a little bit of thoughtful preparation .

That’s why it’s great that you’re here!

We’re going to introduce you to a really simple method for helping out your ELL students in class .

By following this, you’ll be able to keep ELL students from becoming frustrated or unmotivated, and you’ll keep yourself feeling upbeat and successful while watching students shine.

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

What Are Differentiated Instruction Strategies, and Why Should I Care?

First, let’s define what differentiation actually means.

Differentiation doesn’t mean you have to teach a different lesson for every student. Rather, differentiation is a way for teachers to alter their instructional strategies to help all students with mixed abilities and learning styles reach their academic potential. For ELL students, their language barrier adds another challenge to their learning. Not only do they have to learn English, but they also have to learn the content being taught, all while trying to absorb it through the way they learn best .

Differentiation benefits everyone in the classroom. It gives students a chance to work at a pace that’s challenging for them without it being too overwhelming. For students who need more support, differentiation gives you a chance to work with them while others can work independently. That way, your class can run more smoothly because everyone’s assigned to a task.

Not only that, but using differentiation can actually help with the feedback loop. What this means is that through trial and error, you can understand student needs, such as simply seeing  how students respond to instruction  or even how well they complete classwork. Simply put, differentiation in your classroom makes teaching much easier on you. You won’t ever feel spread too thin anymore—you’ll be able to lavish additional attention on students who need it, when they need it.

This strategy is great for ELL and non-ELL students alike, so it’s always worth a shot!

5 Solid Steps for Using Differentiated Instruction with ELL Students

1. figure out what you can differentiate.

For ELL students, you want to give them an opportunity to learn the same academic content as native English learners. For this reason, there are quite a few things you can differentiate in your class:

2. Profile Student Readiness

Student readiness is what their current understanding is of a topic or unit of study. For ELL students, it could also apply to their current level of reading, writing and oral skills.

Using student readiness to create lessons and instructional strategies means you’re creating tasks that closely match students’ skill levels and what they understand about the topic you’re teaching. Not only will you see students producing more work, but ELL students will be more motivated to learn. The idea is that they’ll feel challenged but not so overwhelmed that they don’t want to tackle lessons and activities you provide for them.

To determine student readiness, you’ll need to assess for learning . This simply means giving them a diagnostic test. Some examples include pre-assessment tasks, student response activities, formative tests or even interviews. Once you’ve collected enough data, you can then differentiate instruction according to their readiness.

Aside from your own assessments, you can ask previous teachers of these students for some insight. If possible, you can even look at report cards and past work to give you a better picture of what your students’ needs are.

As noted above, you can then go ahead and do things like vary the pace of the lesson, complexity of vocabulary or even how independent they can be for certain tasks.

For example, if you see that most of your students struggle with sentence structure, you might want to differentiate the way you assess them. Let’s say you have an assignment where you’re asking your students to write an essay on a famous person. You might have a different rubric for your ELL students, where you assess their content more rather than the structure of their paragraphs, while other students who have a better grasp on English will be expected to produce more well-written work.

3. Identify Meaningful Goals and Objectives

Once you’ve figured out what student needs are and what type of differentiation to use in your class, you need to be clear about your goals .

A goal isn’t necessarily to have all students learn a certain thing, but rather it will indicate what ways you’ll go about helping them maximize their learning.

Think about what it is you want your students to know, to understand and to do. For example, if you want your students to learn about famous inventors, you might want to provide reading material with easier vocabulary for your ELL students. For example, one of your goals can be to ensure all students have a fair amount of time to complete their work. Once you’ve established the goal, use that to help you figure out how to differentiate your class.

You also want to go beyond identifying language skills. Yes, ELL students need to have differentiated learning because of their learning skills, but there are many other factors that affect their learning as well. Think about what type of learner they are (visual, auditory, etc.), their educational and personal background and whether or not they receive support at home. The more you understand these factors, the more it will help you and the student when it comes to developing their English skills.

4. Create Learning Profiles

Once you’ve figured out student readiness and your goals for your class, it’s time to create learning profiles for your ELL students.

It’s an important step in differentiating your classroom experience, because it can help you group students together, figure out instructional strategies, figure out your differentiation goals and it will give you a reference for when you want to try out different instruction strategies.

Creating learning profiles doesn’t need to take a lot of time. All you need is a file for each student. Jot down notes as you need to in class and after, including their cultural background and things you observe, like how a student reacts to a lesson or any topics they’ve told you they find interesting. Make sure you include academic knowledge, such as your pre-assessments, writing pieces and any formal or informal tests they’ve done.

5. Create Your Differentiated Strategies with Assessment Data

When you analyze your assessment and student readiness data, you can start implementing your differentiation strategies.

Don’t try out too many at once. You want to be able to see if each thing you’re trying works first. If you have too many strategies, you won’t know what isn’t working in your classroom as easily as, say, if you try one or two out at a time.

Here are some ideas you can implement:

ELL students want to know that they’re important, intelligent and are subjected to the same academic rigor as all students in the class.

The more teachers understand this and create differentiated strategies to help them grow, the more we’ll see these types of learners develop into confident, fluent English speakers.

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Instructional Practices

Differentiated Instruction for ELL Students

Making students feel at home in their classrooms is always on a teacher’s mind, but for English language learners (ELL) this may take on even more importance. A small gesture, like learning how to say a student’s name in their native tongue, can go a long way with a student facing the challenges of a new environment.

It's worth noting that we use the common phrase English language learner , along with the acronym ELL, but we also recognize that this is imperfect. Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label. They are navigating not only rigorous academics, but a new language that could potentially cause barriers to their education. Identifying and implementing differentiated instruction for ELL students is an important topic for teachers looking to reach these students. There are so many opportunities ahead for your ELL students, too, and connecting them to their learning experience is a meaningful job.

ELL Differentiation Strategies for Your Classroom

Y ou can help prepare students with support resources, like HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature , that benefit your multilingual learners, but also all of your students. Find a support tool that can help you implement these strategies to better work with your ELL students.

differentiated instruction for ell

How to Prepare to Differentiate Instruction for ELL Students

You can prepare for teaching ELL students by putting these tips below into practice. Keep these in mind as you plan your curriculum.

With these new practices in place, your students will feel more prepared to learn and grow in your classroom!

Sentence Frames in the Classroom

Sentence frames are a helpful tool to support English learners. They allow students to think about what they want to say without the distraction of how to phrase their response. Here are some sentence frames you might use to help multilingual learners analyze and appreciate different genres.

• The story takes place in ______

• The story is told from the point of view of the ______

• Three words that describe the main character are ______

• The main problem in the story is ______

• The author communicates an important message about ______

• I would/would not recommend this story to a friend because ______

• The main idea is ______

• Three details that support the main idea are ______

• In this paragraph, the author is saying ______

• The author includes this section because ______

• I agree/disagree with the author about ______ because ______

• The poem is mostly about ______

• One thing I noticed about the speaker of the poem is ______

• Three words or phrases that stand out to me are ______

• One tool the poet uses is ______ to communicate ______

• The poem communicates an important message about ______ using these details: ______

Differentiation for ELL students is an important practice to meet students where they are in their academic instruction. It’s especially important when students are learning a new language on top of new lessons! Implement strategies in your ELL classroom to support your students on their academic journey.

Find solutions that provide scaffolding and best learning practices for ELLs on HMH's K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.

Watch our webinar Reading and Writing Strategies for Multilingual Learners to learn how to accelerate academic language for multilingual learners in Grades 4–12 through high-interest content, consistent instructional routines, and daily practice opportunities .

A ddress the range of English learners' needs with our English language development programs .

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Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

differentiated instruction for ell

His first name was Mauricio, and he was from Uruguay. As a class assignment, one of his teachers in his new school in the United States asked students to construct Venn diagrams about themselves, showing how the different aspects of their lives converge.

Mauricio chose to represent his life in Uruguay in one circle and his new life in the United States in the other. The teacher noted that he included playing soccer as part of his life in Uruguay but not in the convergence of his Venn diagram. Mauricio explained that in the United States, he could no longer play soccer every day.

From that day onward, Mauricio’s teachers and coaches used his interest in soccer to bridge the gap between his first language and English. They succeeded not only in connecting him to classroom tasks but also in engaging him socially, thereby demonstrating just one of the ways that differentiated instruction (DI) can support our work with English language learners (ELLs).

Honoring Strengths

This We Believe  encourages us to employ “multiple learning and teaching approaches” that address the varied backgrounds, range of abilities, and multitude of skills that our young adolescents bring to the classroom. By addressing our students’ strengths, we increase the likelihood of engagement and content knowledge retention. Furthermore, we model the respect for diversity that is a hallmark of middle level education.

Many of us have understood, believed, and practiced DI for a long time, yet we still find ourselves wondering how to serve our ELLs—even fearing that we simply can’t help our ELLs if we don’t also speak their native language. However, we (the authors) have come to believe that teachers who already practice DI should not be afraid of the additional “challenge” of teaching ELLs. In fact, all the reasons for which DI is valuable for our native speakers of English also make DI a valuable approach to instruction for our ELLs. Indeed, DI is based on the idea that we should honor the natural learning strengths inherent in all students—and that’s no different for our work with ELLs.

In the following sections, we briefly discuss each of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s six major tenets of DI. In each case, we explain implications for our ELLs and discuss implications for working with ELLs.

Student Characteristics

The first three tenets deal directly with student characteristics: readiness, learning preference, and interest.

Readiness.  The first major principle of DI is readiness, which is  assessment  in three areas: 1) readiness of the student to  begin learning;  2) readiness of the student to  speed up or slow down learning;  and 3) readiness of the student to  move on to the next topic or skill .

DI requires that sound teaching decisions be based on solid assessment data, but those data don’t have to come from standardized test scores. In fact, readiness in a differentiated classroom is often best determined by quick assessments like hand signals to confirm agreement/disagreement or levels of understanding, or tickets-out-the-door to gauge the impact of the day’s classroom experience.

In terms of ELLs, it is important to have knowledge and realization of the linguistic capabilities of the student, but it is just as important to gauge levels of understanding of the content. Both hand signals and tickets-out-the-door can provide content assessment data while respecting the fact that a student’s productive language skills (speaking or writing) may be behind his receptive language skills (reading or listening). A hand signal or a ticket-out-the-door may require little or no linguistic production but can reveal much about content comprehension.

Learning Preference.  The second major aspect of DI is learning preference. DI theory maintains that students learn in a combination of several different ways—not through just one approach. Some students prefer to learn  visually ; other students retain information better through  auditory  input. Still others are  kinesthetic  learners and prefer to learn through physical movement. It’s important to realize that learning preference is just that: it’s the way that a student finds learning to be easier, but it doesn’t mean that there is no function in the other modalities.

In differentiated classrooms, teachers use all three modalities (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic), but when re-teaching or working one-on-one, it is best to try to match a student’s strongest modality. When working with an ELL, visual support for language is always important. Kinesthetic work helps develop stronger connections among items stored in the brain for increased likelihood of recall (for both content and language). An ELL’s native language or culture (which may be more oriented to either visual or auditory structures) may also influence the preferred learning approach.

Multiple intelligences also are a factor in learning preference. The link between multiple intelligence theory and English language instruction is that students learn better if the content is made relevant to them and to their lives. Howard Gardner identified nine naturally occurring intelligences that teachers can use to help every student learn. For example, a musically gifted student might be able to learn some material faster/better if the material is presented in a melody or song.

A teacher who differentiates varies instruction with student preferences in mind and then makes every effort to provide further instruction and feedback that is more individually tailored to students. For the ELL who uses primarily musical intelligence, melodies or songs from the native culture could be used to further enhance motivation and learning.

Interest.  The third major tenet of DI is interest. Motivation theory suggests that expectancy (expected level of success) multiplied by value (the value that the student places on the task) is the best determination of a student’s motivation for an individual task (see  Middle and Secondary Classroom Management: Lessons from Research and Practice , by Weinstein and Novodvorsky).

If a student places high value on the task and has a high expectation of success, then motivation will be at its maximum. For many students, value is closely tied to  interest  in the topic. A teacher can add value by discussing the importance of the lesson and providing examples relevant to the student’s life. If the teacher knows the interests of the students and uses those interests in designing lessons, value for the task is enhanced even further.

The expectancy times value equation is even more important with the ELL student. Students might be interested in the content and context, but their language difficulties may cause them to have such low expectations of success that motivation and interest are actually at their lowest.

In Mauricio’s case, his teachers used his interest in soccer to increase his interest in classroom tasks. Interest in the subject matter also may be increased for an ELL by linking content to the student’s interests, native culture, or homeland.

Curriculum Decisions

The first three tenets deal directly with student characteristics; the next three involve curriculum decisions made by the teacher. The curriculum tenets are process, content, and product.

Process.  The area of differentiation that teachers have the most control over is process—the instructional strategies they use to teach the lesson.

The simplest way to differentiate by process is to vary instructional strategies over time. No single method works for all the students all the time and ELLs need the same variation that other students need. Further, varying the instructional strategies can provide opportunities for the ELL to practice each of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

Content.  Content differentiation refers to the level of material to which students have access. There often is a wide range of reading skills and levels in any heterogeneous classroom, especially when ELLs are present. Differentiation theory states that providing different levels of scaffolding and allowing for different reading speeds by controlling the amount of reading is best for students reading in their native language. If this is true for native speakers of English, it surely would also apply to the ELL.

Product.  The sixth component of differentiation is product. There are many different ways students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Differentiation theory states that students should have choices in terms of the way they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Some students might be most comfortable sharing their knowledge through a written document; others might be most comfortable with a presentation. Still others might prefer to create a product that integrates their learning.

For the ELL, it is important to consider that a written product might be outside the linguistic capabilities of the student. Therefore, offering choice in product can actually accommodate language proficiency levels.

Best Practices

In many ways, the combination of DI and its implications for work with ELLs is, quite simply, best practice. What happened to Mauricio the soccer player? Through solid instruction with appropriate ELL accommodations including DI approaches, he was successful not only in achieving academic success, but also in helping his high school win numerous soccer championships.

David H. Vawter  is an assistant professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.   [email protected]

Kelly M. Costner  is an associate professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.   [email protected]

Previously published in  AMLE Magazine,  November 2013.

Privacy Overview

Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Utilizing differentiated instruction for english language learners with disabilities.

Robi Kronberg is an Educational Consultant who works with school districts throughout the U.S. Her areas of focus include differentiated instruction, co-teaching and collaboration, and inclusion. She may be reached at [email protected] or at 720/339-6066.

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As more educators face the challenging and often daunting task of teaching English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities, it is becoming increasingly imperative that teachers are equipped with sound pedagogy as well as a wide repertoire of instructional tools and strategies designed to create accessible and successful learning opportunities for all students. Principles of differentiated instruction and universal design for learning , as well as the methodology and strategies inherent in our collective knowledge base of English language acquisition and special education, have the potential to provide a useful combination of theory and practice to support successful student achievement. Implementing these educational frameworks with fidelity requires educators to think thoroughly and intentionally about who they teach, what they teach, and how best to teach.

 Much has been written and debated about differentiated instruction in the past 10 years. While different definitions exist, many scholars and practitioners agree that differentiated instruction embodies both a set of principles and a repertoire of instructional practices that are proactively implemented for the purpose of meeting the varied needs of all students. Non-negotiables of differentiated instruction could be considered to include respecting individuals, owning student success, building community, providing high quality curriculum, utilizing assessment to inform instruction, implementing flexible classroom routines, creating varied avenues to learning, and sharing responsibility for teaching and learning (Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Narvaez, 2008).

Some educators believe that differentiated instruction is difficult to empirically validate as it includes an amalgamation of many different teaching theories and practices. Other researchers and practitioners point to a history of studies that validate components inherent in differentiated instruction and conclude that differentiated instruction has a positive basis in research. In spite of the ongoing debate, many school districts have embraced differentiated instruction as a professional development focus and have encouraged teachers to implement educational practices that embody the principles of differentiated instruction. Because of the significant recognition of differentiated instruction as a viable means to meet the needs of diverse learners, its potential to be effectively utilized with ELLs with disabilities is worthy of continual examination.

A positive note for educators: the vast majority of the principles and strategies deemed to support ELLs with disabilities transcend applicability to only one type of student. In short, many of the principles and strategies represent sound educational practice for all students. It is a daily occurrence to hear a teacher remark, “I differentiated today’s lesson specifically for six students and realized that my other students also benefitted from the varied text choices and the visual organizer.” Good teaching for a few is most often good teaching for all.

The remainder of this article discusses and illustrates how several constructs of differentiated instruction can be utilized to support ELLs with disabilities.

Quality differentiation for all students must be rooted in a knowledge of and respect for specific students. This knowledge base includes students’ prior academic experiences, cultural beliefs and practices, linguistic strengths and needs, learning preferences, interests, and prior and current academic performance. When teaching ELLs with disabilities additional information is essential. It is important for teachers to know each student’s level of English language proficiency (Fairbairn & Jones-Vo, 2010). Knowledge of each student’s linguistic proficiency in the student’s native language, as well as the student’s prior experiences with formal schooling, are also important. Relative to information about disability, it is essential for educators to know specific information about each student’s disability; how the disability impacts learning, including language learning in both their native language and English; and the services, goals, and accommodations/modifications that are described in the IEP (Individualized Education Program). A teacher who knows his or her students well is far likelier to create respectful and engaging learning opportunities for all students, including those with diverse language and learning needs.

A primary goal for all educators who aim to differentiate is to create access to curriculum and instruction so that all students can be challenged, but not overwhelmed, by academic demands. Determining an appropriate level of challenge within academic content can be particularly challenging for ELLs as linguistic proficiency plays a significant role in the ability to understand academic content. English language learners face challenges in all four areas of language: reading, writing, speaking and listening. These challenges are made more complex when combined with students’ specific disabilities (e.g., storing or retrieving information, focusing attention, spatial relationships, abstract reasoning, language processing, visual-perceptual processing) and the effect of the disability on educational performance.

When designing lessons, the teacher rooted in the framework of differentiated instruction continually utilizes assessment data to guide upfront instructional planning as well as day-to-day instruction. Of particular importance when planning instruction for ELLs with disabilities are decisions about frontloading instruction. Frontloading introduces students to important aspects of the soon-to-be taught curricular content in order to increase understanding of the content. Teachers can choose to frontload such topics as: critical academic vocabulary; big ideas; essential understandings; specific purposes for reading, speaking, listening, or writing; and text structures that will be encountered. When frontloading for ELLs with disabilities, teachers should consider language-related needs as well as disability-related needs.

When planning effective instruction for ELLs with disabilities, it is important to be cognizant of two distinct areas of need – linguistic needs and disability-related needs. Relative to linguistic needs, it is important for a teacher to consider what specific academic language students will need to know in order to understand the content and communicate mastery of the focus skill/s. English language learners, both with and without disabilities, often struggle with academic vocabulary and therefore benefit from explicit instruction on essential vocabulary words as well as the language used to demonstrate understanding of a specific focus skill. An example involves the focus skill of sequencing. For students learning about the sequence of events in a historical context, students must understand the academic terminology inherent in the time period being studied. Additionally, in order to speak of, write about, or read and comprehend text it will be necessary for students to also understand the languageused to articulate events in sequential order. A student with emergent language skills may benefit from being explicitly taught basic sequencing words such as first, next, then, and last . A student with more advanced English language skills might benefit from explicit instruction in more sophisticated sequencing terms such as initially, in the interim, towards the end, and finally. Designing instruction that addresses the academic content (historical time period), as well as the focus skill (sequencing) and the language used to communicate both requires thoughtful and intentional lesson planning. A teacher might choose to frontload the terminology of sequencing and several targeted vocabulary words from the social studies lesson. Ongoing instruction would include repeated exposure to academic content as well content-embedded language in text material, teacher presentation, and student discourse. Some students who are native English speakers may also benefit from the same frontloaded lesson and could be easily included in targeted small group lessons.

Relative to disability-related needs, it is important for the teacher to plan instruction that will address learning strengths and needs as specified on students’ IEPs. Using the above lesson focus, a teacher could further differentiate the lesson to include accommodations and/or modifications needed by certain students. For example, one student requiring multisensory presentation might need to see the sequencing terms in repeated contexts as well as repeatedly hear the terms. Another student might benefit from placing the sequencing words on the floor and retelling the key events in chronological order while stepping on the correct sequencing term. Yet another student might need a color coded visual organizer which lists key events in chronological order and includes a word bank of appropriate sequencing terms for later use in a writing task. Still other students may benefit from a picture dictionary or a captioned video highlighting the social studies topic being studied. As with the previous example, these instructional options may be specifically implemented to meet the needs of targeted students, but could be made available should other students find these varied approaches helpful to facilitate their own content understanding.

When instructional planning includes attention to both linguistic needs and disability-related needs, it is likely that a teacher will incorporate instructional strategies that are responsive to the range of learner needs. Two of the many strategies that are frequently discussed in the literature of differentiated instruction, instruction for ELLs, and individualized instruction for students with disabilities are instructional scaffolding and collaborative peer instruction . Instructional scaffolding involves providing temporary support to a student who is not yet at independent mastery of a task or skill. Scaffolded supports can include such things as modeling, written organizers or templates, and verbal coaching. Collaborative peer instruction includes a variety of means through which students formally and informally interact around instructional tasks. A teacher who has a thorough knowledge of his or her students might differentiate a writing lesson by providing a framed paragraph (scaffolding) for students needing guided writing support while encouraging other students to examine in-depth writing samples to determine writer style and voice. All students may end the lesson by working in small groups to share their insights as writers.

Delivering information to ELLs with disabilities must enhance student comprehension. The literature on teaching both ELLs and students with disabilities consistently encourages teachers to present information slowly and succinctly, chunk information into manageable pieces, allow for wait time, build-in checks for student understanding, and provide opportunities for students to relate the content to prior knowledge and experiences. The use of sheltered instruction, a methodology developed for ELLs that addresses both language and content instruction, specifically addresses the need for teachers to repeat and restate instruction; slow the rate of delivery; provide visual references, physical gestures and realia to increase student understanding of spoken and written words; simplify the use of complex language; and use high-frequency words (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004). Fortunately, there is ample evidence to suggest that these same strategies benefit not only students with disabilities and ELLs, but can support all students in successfully accessing grade level curriculum and instruction.

The literature on the use of differentiated instruction with English language learners who have disabilities is limited. However, there is clear consensus that the use of sound educational practices will benefit all students. Collaboration among practitioners who have different skills and knowledge, defensible implementation of educational practices, and ongoing formative and summative assessment of student growth and instructional effectiveness are imperative as we continue to explore the intersection between differentiated instruction and the achievement of ELLs with disabilities.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English learners (2nd ed) . Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Faribairn, S., & Jones-Vo, S. (2010). Differentiating instruction and assessment for English language learners . Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

Tomlinson, C., Brimijoin, K., & Navarez, L. (2008). The differentiated school. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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A diverse elementary ELL classroom sitting in a circle

6 Essential Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

We interviewed educators with decades of experience in teaching ELLs and tapped a network of experts and observers to find the strategies that work.

Over 10 percent of students in the United States—more than 4.8 million kids—are English language learners (ELLs), and the number is on the rise. Though these students do not learn differently than their native-English-speaking peers, they do have particular educational needs.

To learn about these needs—and best practices for addressing them—I interviewed a range of educators and observers, including Larry Ferlazzo, an educator and author of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide ; longtime teachers of English as a second language (ESL) Emily Francis and Tan Huynh; and the journalist Helen Thorpe, who spent a year observing a teacher who works with ELLs.

The group emphasized that the strategies listed here, which include both big-picture mindsets and nitty-gritty teaching tactics, can be incorporated into all classrooms, benefiting both native English speakers and ELLs.

1. Cultivate Relationships and Be Culturally Responsive

No surprise here. A successful classroom, our educators agreed, is one in which students feel known, appreciated, and comfortable taking emotional and intellectual risks. That requires intentional planning and consistent messaging by the teacher.

Emily Francis, an ESL teacher in Concord, North Carolina, makes clear that she wants her students to “embrace their culture and their language as a foundation of who they are” and to consider their acquisition of a new culture and language “not as subtractive, but as additive.” To help support students who may never have attended school before or may be coping with migration-based trauma, Francis emphasizes that little things make a big difference. “The first thing that I need to think about is, how is my student feeling in my classroom?” she says. “Are they sitting next to a buddy they can ask a question in their home language? Do they feel comfortable tapping me on the shoulder if they have to go to the bathroom?”

But creating a supportive environment is also about cultivating an appreciation of diversity—it’s critical that both the curriculum and the classroom environment honor and reflect the lives of the students. For instance, Francis makes certain that her classroom library is reflective of her students’ diverse backgrounds and identities .

ESL teacher Katie Toppel, who teaches near Portland, Oregon, champions the value of home visits to get to know students’ families and takes care to incorporate the particulars of students’ lives, such as pets’ names and favorite sports, into lessons. Students are most engaged when they feel a personal connection to a lesson or unit, a connection that’s created in part by a teacher’s investment in culturally competent relationships.

2. Teach Language Skills Across the Curriculum

English language learners should not be learning the fundamentals of English in isolation; they should be applying their developing language skills to rich academic content in all subjects.

“It is key that in mainstream classrooms, teachers understand their role as language teachers,” says Valentina Gonzalez, a district leader in Katy, Texas, suggesting that all teachers should be aware of the specialized idiom they work within. “If we teach math, then we teach the language of mathematics. If we teach science, then we teach the language of science.” Math teachers, in other words, should take the time to teach the unfamiliar vocabulary of mathematics— add , subtract , calculator , solve —concurrently with the teaching of math skills.

3. Emphasize Productive Language

The educators I interviewed agreed that productive language skills—hard-to-master dimensions of language fluency like speaking and writing—should be front and center from day one, even if students feel hesitant about them.

Beginning ELLs often develop receptive language skills like listening and reading first. Educators who are unaware of the typical path to fluency may believe that students who can follow verbal or written directions will be able to produce oral or written language, but that’s usually not the case.

To support reluctant speakers, Tan Huynh, an educator who blogs at Empowering ELLs , suggests using sentence frames. “For example, when a science teacher wants ELLs to produce a hypothesis, they might offer the sentence, ‘If _____ was added, then _____ because _____.’ This sentence frame provides clues that empower ELLs to sound and think like scientists,” Huynh says.

Andrea Honigsfeld, a professor of education at Molloy College in Rockville, New York, suggests that all lessons touch on every letter of the acronym SWIRL, which stands for Speak, Write, Interact, Read, Listen. The approach intentionally privileges productive language skills “from the beginning,” she says.

4. Speak Slowly—and Increase Your Wait Time

Easier said than done. Still, many of the teachers I spoke to said this simple change is vital . You can record yourself speaking in class to measure your cadence, and adjust.

“Adding in an extra three to five seconds after we pose a question offers all students time to think,” explains Gonzalez. “However, for English learners, it also gives time to translate, process their thinking, translate back into English, and develop the courage to answer. If we call on students too quickly, many of our students will stop thinking about the answers—or trying to answer at all.”

That means undoing some of our own habits, according to Larry Ferlazzo, a high school ESL teacher in Sacramento, California. “Researchers have found that typically most teachers give one to two seconds between asking a question and expecting a student response,” he says. “The same researchers have shown that if you wait three to five seconds, the quality of responses is astronomically greater.”

5. Differentiate—and Use Multiple Modalities

All kids learn better when they engage with material in multiple ways: Lessons that involve writing, speaking, drawing, and listening, for example, give students four opportunities to deepen their understanding of the work. For ELLs, those additional engagements also provide a little breathing room so they can work through the language barrier.

Helen Thorpe, a journalist who spent a year observing Eddie Williams’s classroom in Denver in order to write a book about immigrants called The Newcomers , marveled at Williams’s method of differentiation. “Eddie would enunciate very clearly in English multiple times, he would write it on the board, and he would go to the projector to give a visual. And, finally, he’d be asking the kids to verbalize aspects of the lesson themselves,” she says, tracing Williams’s efforts to move his students from receptive to productive language fluency.

Toppel uses a strategy called QSSSA to scaffold classroom discussions with ELLs. The letters stand for Question (the teacher poses a question, then gives ample think time); Signal (a designated motion like a thumbs-up, a finger on the nose—something that lets students indicate that they’re ready to answer); Stem (the teacher provides a sentence starter for the question—for example, for “What is your favorite place to read a book?” the stem might be, “My favorite place to read a book is _____”); Share; and Assess.

6. Incorporate Students’ Native Languages—and Don’t Be Afraid of Technology

Bilingualism is the goal, of course, not replacement.

Ferlazzo uses a strategy called “preview, view, review,” which leverages a student’s native language skills as a foundation for learning the new language. He introduces a topic and encourages students to preview it in materials in their home language (often using multilingual videos and other online resources ); he then teaches the topic in English, and then has students review the information in their home language.

Ferlazzo also encourages teachers to embrace technologies that students find helpful, like Google Translate. He stresses that the app can be a useful way for students to translate words quickly—but warns that it can quickly “become a dependency” if it’s used as more than a handy dictionary.

Thorpe agrees that Translate can take pressure off teachers, who sometimes find that they “just stand at the front of the room and say things over and over. And if the kids didn’t know what those words are, they’re out of luck.” Translation technology means you can say it once (or twice) and let the students use the technology to translate key words and phrases.


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