Break It Up! 5 Simple Steps for Differentiated Instruction with ELL Students

What do you do when you’ve got one, two, three or ten students in a classroom who need a different learning experience from the rest?

And ELL—English Language Learner—students can struggle in class without a bit of extra support.

Both language teachers and subject teachers alike must adjust their teaching strategies here and there to suit these learners.

While it doesn’t require any tremendous effort to make this happen, it does require a little bit of thoughtful preparation.

That’s why it’s great that you’re here!

We’re going to introduce you to a really simple method for helping out your ELL students in class.

By following this, you’ll be able to keep ELL students from becoming frustrated or unmotivated, and you’ll keep yourself feeling upbeat and successful while watching students shine.

What Are Differentiated Instruction Strategies, and Why Should I Care?

First, let’s define what differentiation actually means.

Differentiation doesn’t mean you have to teach a different lesson for every student. Rather, differentiation is a way for teachers to alter their instructional strategies to help all students with mixed abilities and learning styles reach their academic potential. For ELL students, their language barrier adds another challenge to their learning. Not only do they have to learn English, but they also have to learn the content being taught, all while trying to absorb it through the way they learn best.

Differentiation benefits everyone in the classroom. It gives students a chance to work at a pace that’s challenging for them without it being too overwhelming. For students who need more support, differentiation gives you a chance to work with them while others can work independently. That way, your class can run more smoothly because everyone’s assigned to a task.

Not only that, but using differentiation can actually help with the feedback loop. What this means is that through trial and error, you can understand student needs, such as simply seeing how students respond to instruction or even how well they complete classwork. Simply put, differentiation in your classroom makes teaching much easier on you. You won’t ever feel spread too thin anymore—you’ll be able to lavish additional attention on students who need it, when they need it.

This strategy is great for ELL and non-ELL students alike, so it’s always worth a shot!

5 Solid Steps for Using Differentiated Instruction with ELL Students

1. Figure Out What You Can Differentiate

For ELL students, you want to give them an opportunity to learn the same academic content as native English learners. For this reason, there are quite a few things you can differentiate in your class:

  • Content — This refers to what students are being taught. You can teach the same content to all students eventually, but alter the pace at which you’re teaching for different students. Students who are moving slower, working to grasp more fundamental vocabulary and ideas, can be given supplementary material at the same level. More complex or otherwise advanced material can be tacked on to the assignments for students who are moving faster.
  • Assessment — This refers to what types of final products you want the students to complete. This can be the same assignment, but with different expectations. For example, you can have the student write a fictional story, but for some students, they only need to write two pages instead of three. More leeway can be provided in terms of assessing and grading English grammar and vocabulary usage. This can also involve giving different assignments altogether, or providing tests with simpler language (or definition banks) for your ELL students.
  • Process — This refers to how students are being taught. ELL students might need, for example, a teacher who speaks slower and uses more gestures, or even a lesson that needs more visual cues. The content is the same, it’s the way you deliver the content.

2. Profile Student Readiness

Student readiness is what their current understanding is of a topic or unit of study. For ELL students, it could also apply to their current level of reading, writing and oral skills.

Using student readiness to create lessons and instructional strategies means you’re creating tasks that closely match students’ skill levels and what they understand about the topic you’re teaching. Not only will you see students producing more work, but ELL students will be more motivated to learn. The idea is that they’ll feel challenged but not so overwhelmed that they don’t want to tackle lessons and activities you provide for them.

To determine student readiness, you’ll need to assess for learning. This simply means giving them a diagnostic test. Some examples include pre-assessment tasks, student response activities, formative tests or even interviews. Once you’ve collected enough data, you can then differentiate instruction according to their readiness.

Aside from your own assessments, you can ask previous teachers of these students for some insight. If possible, you can even look at report cards and past work to give you a better picture of what your students’ needs are.

As noted above, you can then go ahead and do things like vary the pace of the lesson, complexity of vocabulary or even how independent they can be for certain tasks.

For example, if you see that most of your students struggle with sentence structure, you might want to differentiate the way you assess them. Let’s say you have an assignment where you’re asking your students to write an essay on a famous person. You might have a different rubric for your ELL students, where you assess their content more rather than the structure of their paragraphs, while other students who have a better grasp on English will be expected to produce more well-written work.

3. Identify Meaningful Goals and Objectives

Once you’ve figured out what student needs are and what type of differentiation to use in your class, you need to be clear about your goals.

A goal isn’t necessarily to have all students learn a certain thing, but rather it will indicate what ways you’ll go about helping them maximize their learning.

Think about what it is you want your students to know, to understand and to do. For example, if you want your students to learn about famous inventors, you might want to provide reading material with easier vocabulary for your ELL students. For example, one of your goals can be to ensure all students have a fair amount of time to complete their work. Once you’ve established the goal, use that to help you figure out how to differentiate your class.

You also want to go beyond identifying language skills. Yes, ELL students need to have differentiated learning because of their learning skills, but there are many other factors that affect their learning as well. Think about what type of learner they are (visual, auditory, etc.), their educational and personal background and whether or not they receive support at home. The more you understand these factors, the more it will help you and the student when it comes to developing their English skills.

4. Create Learning Profiles

Once you’ve figured out student readiness and your goals for your class, it’s time to create learning profiles for your ELL students.

It’s an important step in differentiating your classroom experience, because it can help you group students together, figure out instructional strategies, figure out your differentiation goals and it will give you a reference for when you want to try out different instruction strategies.

Creating learning profiles doesn’t need to take a lot of time. All you need is a file for each student. Jot down notes as you need to in class and after, including their cultural background and things you observe, like how a student reacts to a lesson or any topics they’ve told you they find interesting. Make sure you include academic knowledge, such as your pre-assessments, writing pieces and any formal or informal tests they’ve done.

5. Create Your Differentiated Strategies with Assessment Data

When you analyze your assessment and student readiness data, you can start implementing your differentiation strategies.

Don’t try out too many at once. You want to be able to see if each thing you’re trying works first. If you have too many strategies, you won’t know what isn’t working in your classroom as easily as, say, if you try one or two out at a time.

Here are some ideas you can implement:

  • Grouping — You can have students work in groups according to their language ability during independent work time, or you can even give small group instruction by breaking everyone up and teaching one mini-lesson at a time. Another idea is to pair ELL students with native speakers (if possible) so the student with the better grasp of English can support the ELL student during independent work. The ELL student can even be a buddy for a younger student in another class, to help boost their confidence.
  • Providing visual aids during instruction — Model specifically to ELL students what you would like them to do, as well as give them directions. This You can provide drawings, concrete items or photographs to show them to help them process what you said to them. If there are any idioms or figures of speech in your lesson content, make sure these are explained, as they make take these phrases literally.
  • Tiered activities — Give ELL students modified work, such as worksheets with simpler vocabulary, or different reading material. Make sure though you keep the academic content the same for all students. Once you see them complete modified material faster, give them work with more complex vocabulary, and eventually even the same work as native speakers, if possible.


ELL students want to know that they’re important, intelligent and are subjected to the same academic rigor as all students in the class.

The more teachers understand this and create differentiated strategies to help them grow, the more we’ll see these types of learners develop into confident, fluent English speakers.

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