3 Essential Keys to Successful Differentiation in ESL Instruction

One of these things is not like the others. Three of these things are kind of the same.

Do you hear the music in your head yet?

If you’re like me, these lyrics bring back images of a split-screen display—four quadrants on a television screen and you searching for the one item that just doesn’t belong.

“Sesame Street” did more than introduce us kids to friendly monsters and the letters of the alphabet. It taught us what it meant to be the same and what it meant to be different—the right way.

That’s kind of what differentiation is in the ESL classroom. It’s about finding the right times and the right ways to make things different for your ESL students when they’re in a class with native English speakers, or when they’re in a mixed-level ESL classroom.

What Differentiation Isn’t

It might be hard to define exactly what differentiation is. Let me start by explaining what it isn’t.

Differentiation isn’t scaffolding. Scaffolding means giving ESL students assistance to accomplish the tasks that the native speakers in your classroom are doing. Everyone does the same thing, but some get more help than others. ESL students get a little extra to do the same things in the same ways.

And differentiation isn’t individualized instruction. With individualized instruction, all students have the same goals, but each student goes through the material at different speeds and in different ways. Everyone gets to the same place, just not at the same time.

What Differentiation Is

Differentiation for ESL students is unique in that you give different material to your ESL students.

The materials or processes have been modified to give your language learners greater success with the same tasks that your native English speakers are also doing. In other words, you change the materials themselves.

When you differentiate for your ESL students, the changes usually come in one of three areas.

  • Content — what students need to learn
  • Process — how they learn the information you are presenting
  • Product — how they demonstrate that they have acquired the knowledge

3 Essential Keys to Successful Differentiation in ESL Instruction

1. Content Differentiation

When you differentiate content, you change the requirements of what students need to learn. The goals for your students are different.

Change the vocabulary your students need to learn. You might simplify the text to eliminate any unnecessary vocabulary, that is, rewrite material with simpler language. If you’re teaching a classic English novel, you might hand your ESL students a simplified or abridged version, or you might give them some key excerpts with glossaries.

Teach them the necessary vocabulary beforehand. Give them additional materials before they tackle the main reading, such as word walls, predictograms, a word sort or semantic mapping.

Present information in a different way. For example, you might give students the information in a graphic organizer rather than a block of text. You might use a Venn diagram, a timeline or a flowchart to give the data to your students.

Give your ESL students different homework assignments. This may involve decreasing the quantity of homework or the way in which they complete the assignment. You might ask the rest of the class to write a summary of something they read while your ESL students simply complete an outline template with information from the text.

A challenge that occurs when working with differentiation is with native material. Thankfully, with a FluentU teacher account, you’ll be able to set adapted homework as well as keep an eye on student progress.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Best of all, you’ll be able to identify trouble spots to ensure all students are receiving needed assistance in problem areas.

2. Process Differentiation

When you differentiate based on the process by which students learn information, you change the way they’re learning. They learn the same information but in a different manner.

Give students the information in manageable chunks rather than a large whole. Give students one section at a time of a nonfiction article, for example, and let the chunks build on one another, giving your ESL students time to absorb the information between each chunk.

Consider letting groups work in their first language. If you have more than one ESL student in class, let them work together and use their native language to complete the task. This can be especially intimidating if you don’t speak their first language, but if you can get past the discomfort, your students might have far better success watching an instructional video with voice-overs, subtitles or even just talking about a problem in a more familiar language.

Use concrete items to teach. Rather than giving them a diagram of the water cycle, give them a tangible example with this simple experiment. You can find lots of ways to make teaching more hands-on with a little thought.

Discover their learning styles. In order to differentiate for your ESL students in the process of learning, you must know their learning styles. This way you can teach to their specific learning style preference. So if you know they learn best through music, teach them the same information in song format rather than just a lecture to present the same information again. If there’s a mix of learning styles, employ a mix of teaching methods and materials to cover the same topic.

Build on your students’ previous knowledge. The more you can help students remember what they already know about a subject, the easier it will be for them to retain any new information you present. Consider having your ESL students complete a K/W/L chart or do a think-pair-share activity. Both of these will bring any knowledge your ESL students already possess to the forefront of their minds so they’re ready to take on new information easily.

3. Product Differentiation

When you differentiate the product, you modify how your students demonstrate that they have acquired knowledge, or the means of assessment.

For ESL students, they may know the information but be unable to express that knowledge because of language barriers. To help them show you what they know, try a different approach to assessing their knowledge.

Use nonverbal means of assessment. Consider letting them put together a collage, build a diagram, produce a video, create a piece of art, put on a performance or make a poster illustrating their mastery of the information. Though these may seem like more extensive or difficult means of assessment, your ESL students might jump at the chance to show you just what they know without having to use words to do it.

If you decide to have your ESL students take the same assessments as the rest of your class, you can still differentiate the product by modifying your testing procedures.

Give your ESL students more time to complete their tests. Rather than having them take the written test with everyone else in class, give your ESL students the test orally, asking the same questions but allowing them to tell you their answers rather than writing them down.

Let your ESL students have additional tools to take tests. You might allow your students to use books or notes as they take the test, and you could certainly allow them the use of a dictionary. Or you might just rewrite your test using simpler vocabulary and grammar in the questions.

ESL Differentiation That Works

No matter how you differentiate for your ESL students, you should keep some things in mind to make sure the differentiation is working for everyone.

Keep your expectations high for all of your students. Whether you modify content, process or product for your ESL students, expect them to put forth the same efforts as everyone in class. Don’t accept less than full efforts from your ESL students, even if they’re doing things a little bit different from the other members of your class.

Continually assess and observe your students. It may take some trial and error until you figure out exactly what works best for the students in your class. Don’t be afraid to do a little guesswork when it comes to the right types of differentiation for your ESL students. But make sure you’re continually observing and assessing your students and how well those differentiation methods are working. The only way you’ll arrive at the best methods for your students is if you know what’s working and what isn’t, and you’ll only know that through observation.

Work with other instructors at your school, especially your school’s ESL specialist. If you’re a subject teacher, you’ll want to consult the school’s ESL teacher. ESL teachers are there to be a resource for your students and for other teachers in the school. Keep communication lines open. Take suggestions from your ESL teacher on how best to differentiate for your ESL students. Get your ESL teacher to help you by letting them know your educational goals for your ESL students and let them help you get those students to the end goal.


Ultimately, the goal is to help your ESL students learn. Sometimes that means going about the task a little differently, differentiating the content, process or product to help students reach the goals you set for them.

Keep at it until you find out what works best for you and your students, and don’t be afraid to try something new in the process.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe