Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

The core tenets of differentiation should guide our education of ELLs.

By: David H. Vawter & Kelly M. Costner


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.  vawterd@winthrop.edu

Kelly M. Costner is an associate professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.  costnerk@winthrop.edu


Previously published in AMLE Magazine, November 2013.


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Differentiated InstructionELL/ESL/ESOLTeaching
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1 comments on article "Differentiating Instruction for ELLs"

I agree that when it comes to ELL students, there should be a vast variety of differentiation that should be employed. I like the idea of the variety of products and providing the choice to the student can create a desire and ability to learn and understand. There is no traditional way to educate ELL Students.

—Pavel
5/15/2017 1:02 PM

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