Differentiation in the second language classroom

Hi everyone!

Today my grade 9 immersion class is working on literacy circles for their novel.  My grade 11 class is doing test review and grade 12 is doing a test.  So, I thought that I would talk about the various ways that I differentiate my instruction for my students.

When differentiating, the final learning outcomes or goals for the lesson must be the same for all students.  How they get to that point depends on their individual level of readiness.  To help me in this task, as I plan your lesson, I write out the goals for the lesson by completing the following sentence:

 All students will be able to _____________.

Once I have defined my goals, I establish how I will determine each student’s level of readiness.  This could take the form of a diagnostic and / or a formative assessment.   From there, I can determine how I will meet the needs of those individual students based on their level of readiness.

Here are some of the strategies I use:

1.  Formative quizzes and tests

I use formative quizzes and tests on a regular basis in my classes.  I use them to help guide me in my instruction all the time.  For example, after students complete a quiz or a test, I will take it up together as a class and then collect it to record the mark, even though it doesn’t count towards their final mark.  I use it to see who needs further support and who can move on.  I make notes on the quizzes and tests to help them and write directly on their papiers if I would like them to come in for extra help and / or suggestions on ways that they can improve.  I find that this works really well and I’ve seen my great improvements by using this on a regular basis.

2.  Offering choices

Whenever possible, I try to offer students choices with their final tasks.  As long as the goals are met and they can demonstrate their learning, then it’s OK.  For example, my grade 9 Immersion class was given the choice of either doing a movie trailer or a comic strip for their final task.  For both tasks, they had to demonstrate comprehension of the text they read.  An important aspect of the project was their ability to communicate their ideas effectively and to demonstrate the themes through whichever medium they chose to tell the story.

Another way to offer choice is with independent reading assignments.  Here in Ontario, each course in FSL has a prescribed number of pages of independent reading.  The way I diffrentiate here is to have students choose their own books.  That way, they can choose a topic that interests them and the level of the language that suits them best.  Sometimes, I have to guide them or “nudge” them in the right direction.

3.  Grammar and vocabulary instruction

Some students understand grammatical concepts quickly and others need more time and extra practice.  I don’t like asking students who understand to repeat tons of exercises.  I don’t think that it’s a valuable use of their time.  I would rather have them take what they’ve learned and use it in a practical way.  For instance, I may have them create sentences that use the concept and then share the sentence with a partner to start a dialogue.

The same holds true for vocabulary.  My Master’s thesis looked the most effective practices for vocabulary instruction.  I chose to look at learning vocabulary through word lists, as opposed to learning words in context.  I found that there wasn’t a significant difference in the test results.  About half the class preferred the list method, and the other half preferred to focus on the words that they didn’t know only.  Keep in mind, however, that this study was done once with two different classes.  Another researcher in a different context may come up with different results, but I still think that this proves that everyone has their own learning style and learns best in different ways.  I try to balance both methods in my classes, so that students have lists with a base from which to work and then gradually let them become more independent with their vocabulary acquisition.

Here are some useful resources:

La différenciation en évaluation

How to différentiante in mixed-ability classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Anything by Carol Ann Tomlinson.

I hope these resources help!  I’d love to hear some of your ideas for differentiating in the second language classroom.


About Mme Martin

I am a high school French teacher in Ontario, Canada. I've been a teacher for the last 14 years and I love what I do. I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching by learning from my colleagues, reading, attending conferences and workshops. I also completed a Masters of Education degree, specializing in Second Language Acquisition. My goal is to increase students' oral fluency in French and I would like to share this journey with you in the hopes that you will find new ideas and be inspired to do the same. I will let you know what I try in my classes and what works and what doesn't. I hope you will find a wealth of ideas to use in your class.
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