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Easy Ways to Practice Differentiation in Your Secondary ESL Class

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

Today’s inclusive multicultural classrooms challenge teachers to respond to learner differences by creating a meaningful learning environment. Therefore, we, teachers, need to use various engaging teaching and learning strategies to allow our students to acquire information and showcase their talent, creativity and learning in multiple ways. Differentiated instruction involves both selecting appropriate pedagogical strategies and offering multiple learning opportunities to respond to students’ varied learning styles and preferences.

Differentiated instruction, though, is not tailoring individualized lesson plans for each learner to fit their learning profile. Rather, it is the identification and choice of flexible curricular materials and instructions according to students’ preferred learning style, learning pace, interest and culture, so we can maximize their potential and learning.

In order to successfully differentiate in your classroom, you need to:

  1. identify learners’ different ways of processing content (learning styles)

  2. allow learners to get access to various types of content related to the subject-matter 

  3. use direct instruction and modelling combined with guided practice and self-directed work

How to Combine Three-tiered Instruction with Student-centered Pedagogical Approaches?

The Three-tiered Instruction Model or the  To-With-By (also Teach-Practice-Apply or I do-We do-You do) model is a suitable three-stage approach to differentiation offering direct instruction and modelling (To), guided instruction involving flexible grouping or learning centers (With) and a self-directed learning phase (By) during which students work independently.

For instance, you can combine the three-tiered model with several student-centered pedagogical approaches such as Universal Design, Flipped Classroom and Project-based Learning. All these three approaches offer various venues for differentiation in terms of material and instructional choice, so you can maximize your students’ potential and learning.

1) The pillars of Universal Design are the following three principles: representation, engagement and expression. Universal design promotes the use of various flexible tools through which students have access to information. Otherwise stated, flexible representation of the subject-matter allows learners to grasp information at different degrees of complexity. Learners’ choice to select the modes of representation and forms of expression (that is, process and product) according to their interest and learning preferences will engage them more in their own learning. In addition, the use of technology allows learners to manipulate and process content at their own pace while keeping them emotionally engaged and focused on learning.

2) The Flipped Classroom approach puts students in the center of teaching, and it increases students’ responsibility and active participation in the learning process. Students have access to digital materials created or selected by their teachers that they can watch at home. Learners may store and replay these videos several times, so they can process information at their own pace. The Flipped Classroom model provides students with more flexibility to process information, and it allows more time for practice and discussion of questions or ideas during class time. However, this approach requires students to be autonomous since they are not supervised by their teacher while watching the selected videos at home. You can read more about the Flipped classroom in another blog post here: Are You Ready to Flip Your Classroom?

3) You can use stations or learning centers in the classroom during the guided instruction phase of the three-tiered model. Working in stations not only promotes collaboration among students, but teachers can also provide direct instruction, help or guidance to learners in a more restrictive group setting.

4) Project-based Learning (PBL) focuses on student inquiry and in-depth investigation of a thematic subject-matter through a three-stage process called activating, acquiring and applying. Project-based instruction can also be set up under the form of workstations where students may carry out various tasks and work on different activities of their choice. While working on collaborative projects, these workstations using mixed groupings can accommodate learners’ choice of manipulating content, processing information by accessing a plethora of printed and digital materials and showcasing their progress and creativity. 

To motivate your learners to explore problems in-depth, you may involve them in designing the project, setting goals and establishing assessment forms. By doing so, you may encourage your learners to have control over their own learning and choose the activities according to their interest and learning profile. Showing examples of previous projects or modelling what artifact learners need to create will also help them complete projects more successfully. Nonetheless, flexible groupings according to students’ interest and learning style, yet having various skills, may also be beneficial for maintaining their engagement throughout the project.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, differentiating means showing greater flexibility when it comes to planning and implementing lessons. Your learning and evaluation situations should be open to changes and adjustments to accommodate learners’ varied learning styles even though you have already designed them with consideration of students’ ways of processing and manipulating information as well as their preference for showcasing their learning. Using the three-tiered model combined with some of the principles of Universal Design, Flipped Classroom and Project-based Learning, you can set up a shared democratic and collaborative environment in which learning occurs. Through heterogeneous pairing and grouping to carry out problem-solving and decision-making tasks, students will share and learn from each other as well as about each other’s cultural values and experiences.

Our willingness to learn about differentiating strategies and use them in our practice will make us more ready to respond to our learners’ diverse needs. Being aware of and responding to our students’ different learning styles and their learning preferences will likely increase their engagement in class. Overall, through the thoughtful choice of curricular materials and instructional methods, our students will experience individual success so that they stay motivated and take ownership in their own learning throughout the school year.

I would love to hear about the differentiated instructional approaches you have successfully used in your secondary ELL class or you are planning on using soon. Please, share your ideas in the comments section. 

Happy teaching!

Kynga C. 


Baecher, Laura (2011). Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners: Strategies for the Secondary English Teacher. Wisconsin English Journal, Vol. 53, Nr. 2.

Campbell, Bruce (2009). To-With-By: A Three-tiered Model for Differentiated Instruction, The NERA Journal, Volume 44 (2), 8-10.

Kluth, Paula (2003). Differentiating Instruction: 10 No-Fuss Strategies for Inclusive Classrooms, Canadian Education Association.

Landrum, Timothy J., McDuffie, Kimberly A. (2010). Learning Styles in the Age of Differentiated Instruction, Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 18:1, 6-17. Routledge.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. In Tomlinson, Carol Ann, What Differentiated Instruction Is-and Isn`t (p. 1-7). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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