Sunday, 9 June 2013

Differentiation with EAL Learners

In my last post, I talked about the '(re)discovery' of differentiation and the huge impact its had in my classroom. This time I focus on the specific approaches that have worked for me in differentiating vocabulary instruction in mixed-ability classes with EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners.

When I started in my current (international) post, I considered a big plus point in my favour was my history of TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language).

At first, I was confident that my knowledge of language and experiences in teaching at all levels of English language proficiency would see me through. Plus, I had dealt with EAL learners in the regular classroom before, so how hard could it be? Answer: very. I began by incorporating language starters to my lessons, but soon realised that the learners I had from countries where Standard English was the norm were not benefiting. They enjoyed the interactive activities and no doubt their language 'awareness' was improving, but they had other learning needs that these language activities were taking much-needed attention from. 

So, like any teacher who realises an approach isn't working, I switched tactics. 

The first key was vocabulary; something I was well aware of. I often preceded receptive (reading and listening) with an activity to focus on the key vocabulary. This might include (much sweated over) diversions as vocabulary Jeopardy, team quizzes, matching activities, 'find the person with the definition of your word' etc - in other words, all good TPR, tried-and-tested TEFL activities that I knew could work. Learners were enthusiastic during the activities, diligently adding to their vocabulary records and then using that record to support their reading or listening later in the lesson. Success? Well, only partial. While learners were able to access texts more readily in the given lesson, long-term gains were less evident. As learners were almost always working collaboratively, it was difficult to gauge individual learners' comprehension with such methods. Furthermore, a few weeks later when encountering the same key vocabulary I could see that some learners had not deeply learned the words and were, at times, even failing to recognise that they'd ever encountered them before. (Sound familiar?)

Time for reflection.

What I had done was identify the words I felt my learners would struggle with and then introduced them in advance so they would be able to navigate the spoken or written text later in the lesson. I had lumped the essential key words (crucial for learning the concepts of the unit) with the non-essential words (that are 'nice to know' but not key to the unit in general). So back to the bookshelf. My readings introduced me to the tool of Frayer models - so named for Dorothy Frayer who designed them; it is a template in which learners write the word in the middle of a grid, record a definition (in their own words), illustrate and exemplify it and finally record non-examples. See some examples here

Dr Robyn Jackson (Supporting Struggling Students with Rigorous Instruction) also importantly points out that the key vocabulary must be revisited through activities and exposure in texts in order for learners to learn them deeply and add words to their working vocabulary. Providing opportunities for the learners to encounter these words again allowed me to use those activities that I feared I would have to discard (the hours to be lost!), but I had to go further and ensure that I provided opportunities for the learners to meet them again in context as many times as possible over the following weeks. I could support my EAL learners by honing down the content to the absolute essentials and add in the 'nice to knows' to extend learners that were ready for it. Interestingly, EAL learners might be in the latter group meaning that they too have the opportunity to work at their own level of readiness. I could check learners' comprehension individually by checking their Frayer models and encourage revision until mastery was attained (at least on paper - we all know vocabulary acquisition is not as straightforward as a marking on a page). Great all round, but I can improve further. One mistake I made was to introduce as many as 12 terms in one lesson; on reflection, I think 4-6 items is enough for most learners to avoid the whole session being about completing worksheets. I also directed learners to use dictionaries to find their definitions whereas advice from one of our EAL specialists (having read Marzano, 2009)  suggested that this be avoided. Rather, it is more useful that I provide a story or other vocal illustration of the word in context. (Note to self: recording this on video would allow me to add this to a bank of self-access resources for future use; involve learners in the creation of such videos once they've mastered particular terms.)

It will take time to hone and perfect this method in my practice and evidence the results, but sometimes you don't need reams of statistics to see the inherent sense in certain approaches, and this is perhaps one of those times. With the various manipulations of the word involved in the Frayer model, it has to help in basic retention and repeated encounters with the vocabulary facilitates meaning-making in a variety of contexts. A subsequent poll among my learners indicated that 100% felt they had learned something useful from this activity and there's little more encouraging than such resounding confidence that learning was indeed taking place.


Jackson, Robyn, Dr. "Supporting Struggling Students with Rigorous Instruction." Lecture. Vocabulary. 15 May 2013. Knowledge Delivery Systems. Mindsteps. Web.

Marzano, Robert J. "The Art and Science of Teaching / Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction." Educational Leadership 67.1 (2009): 83-84. Web. 10 May 2013. <>.


Friday, 7 June 2013

Real Differentiation

Do you ever feel that you were cheated by your initial teacher training? Some of us are unlucky enough to have felt that way while still on our training courses, while others had to wait until they were in the field to reflect on the essential tools they were never introduced to. For sure, developing mastery in teaching comes with experience, but one particular feature of teaching that I am constantly surprised at the lack of attention to is differentiation
I was among the more enthusiastic learners in my teacher training cohort and yet I graduated with the very puzzling impression that differentiation meant double - or even triple - planning. How this was to be achieved, it was suggested, we would figure out along the way. When staggering under the workload of heavy timetables, constant (and rather pointless) administration, challenging (euphemism!) student behaviour and constantly shifting curriculum, I could only be thankful that at least my classes were streamed and there was a comprehensive bank of tried-and-tested unit plans that I could dip into.
Years later in the context of mixed-ability classrooms (which I now firmly believe in), I finally started to realise what differentiation is and, more importantly, what it is not. As already pointed out by others, differentiation is not about planning more, but planning differently.
For those interested in readings, Tomlinson and Marzano are really the anchor starting points and they very helpfully provide concrete examples across a range of ages and disciplines. Since implementing suggestions from these heavyweights (among others) I no longer 'teach to the middle' and have evidence of real gains among my learners. Those that I worried about not being challenged enough indicate in their reflections and feedback that they thoroughly enjoy the new 'intellectual stretching' on offer, while those who tragically became used to failure as part and parcel of their classroom experience are visibly excited to progress from one task to the next.
Admittedly, it is not a panacea - no one strategy alone can be in my opinion - but getting my head around this not-so-complex methodology has given me practical strategies to reach every learner every time. Not only does it build on my philosophy of 'voice and choice' in learning, but it also makes the whole concept of personalised learning manageable.
In the interest of developing discussion particular to my teaching context of English (Language Arts), I have created an Edmodo group which can be joined by clicking here.
For those looking for some practical strategies, I cannot recommend the Dare to Differentiate wiki highly enough as a source of practical resources that get you started within the hour, but I provide the link with a caveat: take some time to read the literature around differentiation first because otherwise you may not see the value of the tools you find. It was certainly my reading that opened my eyes to the employment of known materials (such as graphic organisers) in new ways.
If you, like me, had considered differentiation as something that you perhaps already did as well as could be expected, take a second look: you might find something new to enhance your own ideas and add to your teaching toolkit, and with it a renewed vigour in your classroom.