Talking with experts in ELT!

Interviews on education and language teaching

Chris Roland talks about differentiated instruction



Differentiating instruction advocates accommodating the different ways that students learn; advanced learners, struggling learners and a number of learners spanning the middle -all in the same classroom. It is a challenging task for the teacher. Teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom may: Design lessons based on students' learning styles; group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments; assess students' learning using formative assessment. Manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment.

By Anastasia Spyropoulou, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


  • Can the average teacher divide his/her time, resources, and efforts to effectively instruct students of various backgrounds, readiness, skill levels, and interests? 

I think, first of all, we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the fact that sometimes it’s difficult just to keep our students in the room, in their chairs or to get them looking at the right page or the right exercise. Education in groups is a complex creature.

Coming back to your question, I think yes, in every lesson there will always be an extent to which we can cater for diversity within the group but we will seldom be able to do this as much as we would like.

I like to think of lessons in terms of two different dimensions. On the one hand we have the learning that is going on in each of our students’ heads. On the other hand we have the logistics of managing the class as event – noise levels, focus, organization and behaviour.

As teachers, we need to be able to manage both but the latter will normally put a ceiling on the former. It’s very hard to concentrate on helping one student who is having problems getting their head round a certain structure when two of their classmates are kicking each other on the other side of the room.

What I will say is that the more a class is working with you, the more they understand the pedagogic rationale for the tasks they are given, then the more personalised you can make your teaching and the more you can vary class dynamics and groupings.


  • What classroom elements can a teacher differentiate?

We can vary interaction patterns, groupings, class dynamic and space. We can also vary the amount of times students repeat a task, see a structure or are exposed to a vocabulary item. In terms of exercises from a course book, we can vary how quickly (and easily) students get to see the answers.


  • How can a teacher re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners at the same session?

One of my favourites, for a learner who has struggled with a structure, exercise or set of words, is to ask them to go home, record themselves reading the very same summary, exercise or word list and to send it to me as an audio – in order to increase exposure time.

I also make quite a lot of use of blank exercises. By that I mean once we have gone over the answers together as a class, on a separate day, I will test students individually, checking if they can remember the answers whilst looking at the same exercise in my teacher’s copy of the book that does not have the answers written in it.

For more advanced learners, we can move to a higher level of functioning than was involved in the original task. So for instance, if the aim of the exercise as it is in the course book is to match thumbnail pictures of food to printed word items, we can then ask more advanced learners to practice naming the photos without seeing the words. We might then ask them to try to remember the whole list. Here we have moved from word recognition to memorisation. We might then shift to aspects of pronunciation, asking them to place word stress. Or we might move to a higher level of communication, asking them to find out which of those items a colleague has in their fridge at home.

In my new methodology book (Understanding Teenagers in the ELT Classroom, available from Pavilion Publishing in September) I've included a sliding scale of these functions, showing how we can add challenge to tasks as well as a separate trouble shooting chart suggesting how we might help students that have become stuck on a task.


  • Is it fair to vary the length of time a struggling student may take to complete a task? What do the other students do?

Absolutely! Time is one of the factors that we can manipulate (manage is probably a nicer word) to ensure linguistic uptake. Education shouldn't be a competition and there is no point piling confusion upon confusion just for the sake of apparent classroom uniformity. What this does entail though is a slightly more flexible mindset on our part.


  • How does a teacher know where to find and provide materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings?

I'm going to take the more radical, deep-end communicative line here and say that those materials are already sitting in front of the teacher just waiting to be made the most of.

If we have 15, 20, or more students in front of us, we have 15, 20, or more cultures too. There's no need to madly look for resources such as texts. We just need to make a space in our lesson plan and allow our students to have a voice. The challenge is providing enough structure for that voice to be heard by their colleagues and ensuring that there is sufficient sense of consequence to give meaning to their act of speaking on the one hand and to provide motivation for their classmates to listen on the other.

Another point that I touch on, in my session Differentiated Instruction, is that if we do want to access our students' worlds, we must also be prepared for an increased amount of tangential behaviour - silliness, noise, daft comments - as well. It means, to some extent, that we are allowing them to be themselves. It means we are working with them.




  • Is developing routines an important element of differentiating instruction?

Perhaps not routines as we understand them in the context of a primary classroom, say, but yes, we need to establish expectations and acceptable ways of doing things. For example, I often break up the class and allow my teenagers to work in different spaces outside of the classroom - I think there are one or two photos of that in one of the talks. When students are outside the classroom though, they have already been primed. We have already spoken about what is good and what isn't good when they are working on their own and how other people might perceive their behaviours. So routines per se maybe not so much but established codes of practice, yes. 


  • How do you keep track of everyone’s progress? How do you give grades and evaluate students’ performance? That is, you teach differently. Do you also assess differently?

Basically, I'm trying to get students to the same place, just to differing degrees.  If the lesson aim is verbs in the past, for example, I might only manage to teach a struggling student half a dozen irregulars. Two very advanced students, meanwhile, might be testing each other on the entire verbs list in their books or collaboratively writing a text about what we did in class the previous session or term.

A lot of the time though, the vehicle for our material will be exercises from the book. We can still use those exercises to evaluate everyone's performance. If students have completed tasks over and above the core classwork - for example if they have sent me audios of themselves reading corrected work for consolidation, or have put together optional writings - whatever their ability - then they will receive additional recognition on their report cards come the end of term.

Brief transitions to 1-1 teaching, which I will touch on in both talks, also provide useful insights to individual students' progress.


  • Does differentiating instruction call for teachers to be well organized and to have clarity on goals for each competence?

Yes, and on a related note, I will show you a disorganized classroom in one of the talks.


  • Is there a way to involve students in keeping records of their own development?

I think if we can show our students their own store of remembered words and sentences and somehow hold that up to the light for them to see, then development becomes evident. One way to do this is to regularly pair them up and have them test each other on vocabulary and phrases previously covered. With repetition over time, students start to become aware of their own burgeoning lexical stores. We hope 😊.