Differentiation for English Learners

by Guest Blogger Lindsey Moses, Author and 2015 Literacy for All Conference Speaker

Differentiation seems to be quite the educational buzzword, and it should be. Essentially, all teachers should be differentiating for their students. No two students or two classes are the same. Although there are similarities, students come in with a wide range of skills and background knowledge from which to build on for effective, targeted instruction right in their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky 1978). Although this makes sense and most teachers already know this, the question is really about logistics: What does differentiation look like? How do I do it? How do I differentiate for my English learners?

Variations on Differentiation

I consider four variations of differentiation when planning instruction to support English learners in literacy. I will briefly discuss the four models described by Opitz and Ford (2008) in Doable Differentiation. Then, I will go on to talk about the more complex and complicated differentiation techniques presented by Tomlinson’s (2001) extensive work with differentiation. I will then address Serafini’s (2012) differentiation considerations model. I will share with you my suggestions for differentiation according to language proficiency stages. Finally, I always quote Tim Gunn and encourage you to “Make it work!” Differentiation should be about adjusting instruction to optimally meet the needs of diverse learners. No one model will work perfectly in every classroom, so basically, I encourage you to differentiate the differentiation models for yourselves.

There are entire books on differentiation, so I will only give a brief overview here. Opitz and Ford (2008) present four models for differentiation: grouping without tracking; jigsaw; connected literature circles; and focused readers’ workshop. Each model considers ways to differentiate according to text, grouping and support. Tomlinson (2001) presents a more complex process as she recommends differentiation through content, process, product, and affect/environment according to students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile. She advocates creating a high-interest activity, charting it along a complexity ladder, and then cloning the activity along the ladder to meet the needs of individual learners. Serafini (2012) argues that differentiation is really a matter of differentiating (or modifying) texts, teaching, tasks, time, talk, and/or context.

Differentiation for English Learners

The previously mentioned models are designed for classrooms without a specific focus on English learners. In order to support English learners, we must understand the stages of language proficiency and general ideas for differentiation at each stage. The following chart gives a general overview.

Stages of Language Proficiency Description Implications for Literacy Instruction
Stage 1: Preproduction

Silent Period (Starting)

Students are in a silent period in which they listen, but do not speak in English. They may respond using nonverbal cues in attempt to communicate basic needs. The teacher and other students should model oral reading. Students in the silent period should not be forced to speak, but should be given the opportunity to try, if they want, in a group activity where they won’t be singled out.
Stage 2:

Early Production (Emerging)

Students are beginning to understand more oral language. They respond using one- or two-word phrases and start to produce simple sentences for basic social interactions and to meet basic needs. Teacher and students should continue to model oral reading. Students should be encouraged to begin taking risks with simple, rehearsed reading and discussion in non-threatening situations.
Stage 3:

Speech Emergence (Developing)

Students’ listening comprehension improves, and they can understand written English. Students are fairly comfortable engaging in social conversations using simple sentences, but they are just beginning to develop their academic language proficiency. Students continue to learn through modeling.   Students should be participating in whole-class, small group, partner, and rehearsed reading, writing and discussion activities. They will need support and opportunities to practice with feedback before independent or paired sharing or reading for an audience.
Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency

(Expanding)

Students understand and frequently use conversational English with relatively high accuracy. Their academic vocabulary is expanding, but they still need support with contextualization of abstract concepts. They are able to communicate their ideas in both oral and written contexts. With scaffolding, students can successfully participate in most all literacy activities that native-speakers are expected to complete. Open-ended questions will allow students to demonstrate comprehension and academic language development.
Stage 5:

Advanced Fluency (Bridging)

Students comprehend and engage in conversational and academic English with proficiency. They perform near grade-level in reading, writing, and other content areas. Students should be encouraged to use higher-level thinking skills during their oral reading. They are near native-like proficiency in oral reading, but may still need support with analyzing, inferring and evaluating

Adapted from Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop (Moses, 2015)

Building on all of these models, I created a differentiation-planning chart specifically for teachers of English learners. It is organized according to language proficiency levels. I encourage you to think about the teacher roles (how you can modify instruction to support English learners) and students’ expectations (what you can realistically expect your English learners to do and work toward).

English Learner Differentiation Planning Chart

Stages of Language Proficiency Teacher Roles English Learner Expectations/Performance
Stage 1: Preproduction

Silent Period (Starting)

Stage 2:

Early Production (Emerging)

Stage 3:

Speech Emergence (Developing)

Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency

(Expanding)

Stage 5:

Advanced Fluency (Bridging)

I suggest starting with a general whole-class anchor lesson and then planning teacher roles and English learner expectations based on what we know about the options for differentiation and stages of language proficiency. Putting language acquisition at the forefront of instructional differentiation considerations presents optimal growth opportunities for English learners.

References:

Moses, Lindsey. 2015. Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop. Portsmouth, NH:

Heinemann.

Opitz, Michael F. and Michael Ford. 2008. Doable Differentiation: Varying Groups,

Texts and Supports to Reach Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Serafini, Frank. 2012. “What Are We Differentiating in Differentiated Instruction?”

Journal of the Reading Association of Ireland. Fall Issue: 12-16.

Tomlinson, Carol A. 2001. How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability

Classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lindsay Moses will be speaking on Monday, November 16 and Tuesday, November 17 at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI. Her sessions are entitled, “Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop” and “Supporting English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom.”

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