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Differentiating Activities in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

    a) Activity Types

    - Mixed
    Level/Ability groups

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

    • By
      differentiating the language various learners are asked to practice

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

    • When teaching listening or reading, the “same” text can be
      used, but produced for different levels.

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

    - Multilingual
    groups and others

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

    b) Classroom Management Techniques

    - Mixed level/ability

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

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

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

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

      Controlled pairing is also relevant to multilingual groups. 

    - Personality

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

    - Learners with Special

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



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