3 Powerful Differentiation Strategies for Second Language Learners

As we wrap up the first quarter of the 2018-2019 school year, classrooms around the country are now in full swing; routines have been put into place, students have settled into their communities, and Term 1 report cards are going home. As a teacher, you are beginning to get comfortable with how the year is progressing-then you notice a new name on your roster. Yumiko is a new student from Japan-he and his family have just moved to your district and he is getting placed in your classroom.  His English skills are low-you are tasked with not only teaching him English but also making sure he is accessing grade level curriculum. How can you best support him in your classroom? What are some strategies that could help him learn the language AND access grade level content? Here are a few differentiation strategies that can support ELLs in the mainstream classroom.

1. Keep it Visual



Students who are learning a new language have a harder time processing spoken language.  Using images and realia can support a student’s understanding of concepts. As well, input charts can be a powerful tool when teaching second language learners.  Input charts are visual representations of the concepts you are teaching. They can be used in any content area and help students build vocabulary and organize information. Here is a quick step-by-step process on how to incorporate these charts into your classroom.

  1.     Determine the type of input chart that fits the content standard. (Comparative, pictorial, compare/contrast)
  2.    Pencil the information on large chart paper. Use a document camera to trace the visual.  Besides the sketch, include bulleted notes of all important information.
  3.    Decide beforehand how the information should be chunked and color coded. Hint: put a dot of the color next to the section.
  4.    Write/sketch as you talk to students. Stop to provide frequent opportunities for ‘heads together’ processing of the information. Give specific prompts about what has just been sketched/written.
  5.    The next day  add real pictures (from the picture files)  during the review of the chart.

And voila, you now have a pictorial representation of a grade level concept!

2. Use Close Reading

Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text.  In a previous blog post, we outlined the process of close reading: Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom.  We can’t stress enough the power of incorporating this strategy in your classroom. Here is a quick example of how this could look:

1st Reading: The teacher reads the text aloud, modeling good reading and allowing the students to listen for the gist of the text (what the text is mostly about).  At this time, students can note any unfamiliar words or ask any clarifying questions.


2nd Reading: Students work in partners to reread and interact with the text in order to create a collaborative summary.  Students might circle the nouns and noun phrases, underline the verbs, and box the keywords as a strategy to help them break the text down and find the meaning of the text.  (Highlighters are helpful!)


3rd Reading: The students reread the text again in pairs, answering text dependent questions provided by the teacher.  They will work together to create collaborative responses.

3. Structured Student Talk Time

How often do we have students “Turn and Talk,” without explicitly teaching them how to do this?  As a teacher, I am guilty of giving my students talk time, but not structuring it in a way that best supports students.  For ELLs, structuring student talk time can help them build oral language skills as well as help them gain confidence in their speaking abilities. First, set a purpose for the talk. EL Achieve suggests, “Knowing your purpose is essential to selecting the right routine. When we want students to go deeper in their understanding of content, we may use a routine that requires them to discuss a correct answer, rather than one designed for repeated language practice.”  Do you want students to practice:

Fluency: Getting “miles on the tongue”

Flexibility: Putting sentences together in different ways to express the same idea

Depth: Supporting conversations to elaborate and grow ideas

Shine: Collecting summative assessment data

Knowing the goal of student talk will help you choose the appropriate speaking protocol.  Our friends at the Sacramento County Office of Education and EL Achieve put together this great resource outlining student talk protocols.  Explicitly teaching these protocols can aid in developing students oral language skills, as well as allow them to discuss grade level concepts.

Structured Student Talk Protocols

As educators, we are always looking for new ideas on how to differentiate for students in our classrooms.  At Smart ELD, we are constantly implementing and revising strategies that support second language learners.  For more ideas on differentiation, contact us at info@smarteld.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *