5 Steps to Differentiating Instruction for English Language Learners

Differentiated instruction and assessment provide different pathways to learning so that every student in your classroom—including students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds—can reach high expectations and standards. In their book Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners, Shelley Fairbairn & Stephaney Jones-Vo outline what teachers and specialists need to know and do to effectively differentiate instruction and assessment for the English language learners (ELLs) in their classes.

Here are 5 general steps for K-12 teachers to keep in mind, excerpted and adapted from the book:

Gather important information about your students. Begin your lesson planning by collecting the English language proficiency (ELP) levels of each ELL in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. You’ll also want to collect data about prior schooling and home language literacy, cultural background, immigrant and refugee status, special needs of students pertaining to giftedness and cognitive or behavioral disabilities, and student interests. When you understand these factors, you can design instruction that matches students’ needs, and that facilitates learning. Assessments that take these factors into account allow students to fully reflect their knowledge and skills in the content areas.

Determine long-range learning goals and set corresponding content and language objectives. Once you’ve identified the essential learning goals of an assignment for all students, create standards-based content objectives in clear, specific, and measurable terms for the units of instruction you develop. Identify the language demands of the assignment and articulate language objectives for each activity that focus attention on how students use language to achieve the content objectives (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2016). Language objectives can be drawn from the oral and written language that is explicit or

implicit in the standards-based content objectives. The student descriptors show you how to differentiate language objectives and set reasonable language-based expectations for students at five ELP levels. When you differentiate language objectives according to ELP levels and use content objectives that are the same for all students, you enhance students’ simultaneous development of language and content-area knowledge and skills.

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Design and differentiate assignments and assessments. Measures of student achievement should yield evidence of student performance relative to the content and language objectives set forth for a given lesson, set of lessons, unit, or longer period of instruction. The assessments must account for a range of student factors that influence learning, such as prior schooling and home language literacy, ELP level, cultural background, and special needs. Be sure to include accommodations that prevent those factors from confounding assessment. For example, students’ differing background knowledge can hinder their achievement on a reading comprehension test because they are not familiar with the topic. The scoring criteria for these assignments/assessments also must take into account students’ ELP levels so that the expectations for students at different levels are in keeping with the test data for each student. Differentiated tests can be provided.

Design lesson plans. Lesson plans should be designed to enable students to learn the content and language necessary to achieve the instructional objectives of the lesson. Select differentiated instructional and assignment/assessment strategies that are appropriate for the students’ levels of language proficiency and align with the lesson’s content and language objectives. In this way, ELLs will be able to demonstrate their learning on the predesigned assignments using differentiated assessments. Avoid thinking of this sort of planning as “teaching to the test” in its negative connotation. Keep in mind that this constitutes high-quality instruction focused on the knowledge and skills that the standards require from all students. This is the way to set ELLs up for success in achieving the objectives of each lesson, thus providing access to the curriculum.

Teach, assess, and adjust. Implement your differentiated lesson plans, paying attention to differentiated instructional and assessment strategies for students at different ELP levels. Information gleaned from the assessment process should be used to inform your future instruction. Use differentiated rubrics to assess student performance, document growth, and identify targets for instruction.

Your students will vary in terms of culture, language, ability/disability, and more, but all are entitled to equal educational opportunities under the law. Keep this general five-step process in mind when differentiating instruction and assessment—and get the book behind today’s post for more details on how to put these steps into action.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2016). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education

Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners

By Shelley Fairbairn & Stephaney Jones-Vo

This user-friendly guide shows elementary and secondary teachers how to differentiate core content-area instruction and assessment for the ELLs in their classes. Includes concrete strategies teachers can use in any content-area classroom to engage every ELL, from beginning to advanced levels of English language development.

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