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Differentiation Strategies for ESL Students

by | Mar 1, 2022

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This month, we’re talking about how to support English as a Second Language (ESL) students and English Language Learners (ELLs)—especially if this is your first-time including ESL students in your class. Last week, we outlined some basic best practices for creating equitable lesson plans for ESL students. Now we want to take a look at some differentiation strategies you can incorporate in a classroom with ELLs.

The Basics of a Differentiation Strategy

Before we talk about how you can employ a differentiation strategy to support ESL students, let’s define the meaning of differentiation in an educational setting: Differentiation (also called differentiated instruction) is an instructional approach that allows teachers to meet students’ individual needs, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. This approach is so successful that the Carnegie Corporation found 70% of students can benefit from differentiated instruction.

Colorín Colorado, one of the nation’s leading educational organizations serving ELLs, outlines three key factors which help determine how a student’s needs should influence your differentiation strategy:

  1. Readiness — Does the student have the prior knowledge needed to learn the new concepts in this learning unit? Has the student mastered the necessary skills needed to be successful in this area?
  2. Interest — What topics interest the student? How can this learning unit be presented in an appealing way to the student? What causes the student to feel motivated to learn?
  3. Learning Profile — How does this student “approach the task of learning,” and what types of activities help the student learn most effectively? What is the student’s learning style?

An effective differentiation strategy takes these three factors into account when planning the curriculum so students can learn through the means most appropriate for their needs.

Tips for Differentiating Instruction for ESL students and ELLs

When developing a differentiation strategy for ESL students, you must also consider a fourth factor:

  1. English Language Proficiency — How well can the student read, write, and speak in English? Have they learned key vocabulary words needed to successfully complete this learning unit?

Even though ELLs may not be as proficient in English as your students who are native English speakers, Colorín Colorado emphasizes the importance of maintaining the same high expectations for ELLs that you set for the rest of your class. To do this, you may need to fill in knowledge gaps before beginning the regular lesson, reteach key study skills, and check in more frequently to ensure ESL students are keeping up with your instruction.

Here are some additional tips for equitably differentiating instruction for ESL students:

  • Offer content in different formats — Depending on their English proficiency, ELLs may struggle to grasp content provided solely in English. Consider whether some students may need a version of a text written/recorded in their first language, extra visual content such as graphs and charts to support the lesson, or additional discussion activities to fully understand the content you’re teaching.
  • Use frequent assessments — This doesn’t mean you need to add more graded tests to your curriculum. Rather, frequent formative assessments should be used to track ESL students’ progress in working through each learning unit. Additionally, it’s important to differentiate your assessments to ensure all students, regardless of their level of English proficiency, are able to accurately demonstrate their mastery of the content.
  • Switch up small groups — Effective instruction includes learning through a variety of formats, including individual, small group, and whole classroom activities. As you plan small group activities, consider how different groupings could benefit ESL students in different situations. For example, group reading activities may work best through certain groupings, but presentation projects may work better if you switch up the students who are assigned to each group.

How to Find Professional Support

If your school needs to improve its strategies for providing an equitable education to ESL students, our expert consultants are ready to help. Schedule a free call with our team to learn how we can build a customized strategy to transform your school and close the equity gap.

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