How MFL Teachers Can Practice Differentiation in Their Classrooms
Any angler worth their salt knows that different types of fish go for different types of bait.
Likewise, as a teacher, you need to make sure you’re using different types of bait for your MFL students.
After all, each student approaches foreign language education with their own jumble of motivations, skills, interests and personal experiences.
But how can we engage a whole classroom of these diverse personalities?
That’s where differentiation comes in.
By practicing differentiation, educators take into account the varied learning styles and abilities of all students. Ideally, a differentiated classroom will provide multiple paths for every student to achieve their personal best.
Let’s look more in depth at this framework and why it’s important for foreign language educators.
The MFL Teacher’s Guide to Classroom Differentiation That Works
What Is Differentiation?
Differentiation is a framework for accommodating different learning styles and capabilities. On a practical level, the goal is to put limited classroom resources and teacher time to the best use for all students, whether they’re visual or verbal learners, social or solitary, slow or quick.
Carol Ann Tomlinson, a renowned educator and champion of classroom differentiation, believes:
…differentiating instruction means “shaking up” what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.
— “How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd Edition”
Overall, Tomlinson describes differentiation as more of a heuristic approach than a defined set of tactics. It requires planning proactively for a varied, supportive learning environment.
In this post, we’ll walk through some key strategies to accomplish differentiation in the foreign language classroom, plus sample activities to go along with those strategies. These should serve as a jumping off point for the many ways differentiation can be accomplished in your own classroom.
Why Is Differentiation Important for MFL Teachers?
Students in any classroom represent a range of perspectives, capabilities and learning styles. In the foreign language classroom, these differences can be particularly pronounced.
Some students will have a natural ear for language while others will struggle. Some are already bilingual in other languages. They’ll all face different personal learning obstacles, from grammar to pronunciation.
And while dwindling school resources pose a problem for educators across all subjects, again, foreign language educators are especially burdened. Languages and arts are often the first subjects on the chopping block for school budget cuts, meaning language educators need to focus on reaching all students with limited class time and resources. Adopting differentiation as a philosophy can help identify solutions.
Strategies for Differentiation
According to Tomlinson, educators can differentiate across four key axes:
- Content: Broadly speaking, this refers to the concepts that your lessons cover. Students understand, remember, apply and organize content with different abilities.
- Process: The process is how students learn, whether visually, kinesthetically, etc., and how much individual support they need from the educator.
- Product: How and to what extent students can demonstrate what they’ve learned. Some students would rather write a book report than deliver a presentation and vice versa for others.
- Environment: This refers to the physical and psychological space of the classroom. Tomlinson advises creating a flexible, varied layout that allows for both group and individual work.
On a practical level, this opens up a number of routes for effective differentiation. In this post, I’ll focus on three:
- Differentiation by outcome: Educator assigns the same work to all students but accepts and encourages a range of results. Open-ended questions, writing prompts and discussion topics can all be used for differentiation by outcome.
- Differentiation by task: Educator assigns different work to different groups of students depending on learning styles/abilities. Educator might also assign the same series of increasingly complex tasks to all students, to be completed at their own paces.
- Differentiation by choice: Educator provides a variety of assignments for students to choose from, which allows students to use different skills (analytical, creative, technical, etc.) to put lessons into practice.
You may want to expand your scope as you become more practiced in differentiation; check out these comprehensive lists of differentiation styles.
In any differentiated classroom, the educator should provide clear guidelines for all activities and maintain an active, engaged role in the classroom. Students should not mistake a flexible learning environment for free time.
Sample Activities for Applying Differentiation Strategies
1. Free-answer Prompts (Differentiation by Outcome)
At its most basic, this activity provides students with the space to respond in their own ways to a universal prompt.
As an educator, you’re likely already comfortable coming up with writing prompts for your students. Don’t be afraid to draw on your existing experience; just be sure to keep a few guidelines for differentiation in mind:
- Keep it concise and straightforward.
- Don’t use a yes-or-no question as it won’t inspire much in the way of diverse responses.
- Think of your prompt as more of a jumping-off point and less of a question with correct and incorrect answers.
For example, free-answer prompts might do the following:
- Ask students to explain any grammar rule(s) of their choosing as if they were the teachers.
- Ask students to write a fictional story that uses all words on a given vocabulary list.
- Ask students to describe the key conflicts in a novel your class is reading.
You could even ask students to respond to something they’ve read or watched, and base that response around an authentic example of the language. For that, I recommend FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Setting this up is simple. Create a Word document with your prompt at the top of the page, keeping the rest of the page blank or lined, and print enough copies for your classroom.
Depending on the prompt, you can let students know that they can respond in the style that suits them best, whether full sentences or bullet points. You can even design prompts that allow for creative responses such as drawing. Be clear that you’ll be collecting and examining their responses.
2. Color-coded Worksheets (Differentiation by Task)
Catering to students who learn at different speeds and with different degrees of success can be difficult, especially because of the emotional and social implications of implying an intelligence hierarchy in the classroom. You may already have encountered the color-coding option, where different tasks can be assigned to different groups without implying that any one group is “better” than the others.
For the color-coded worksheets activity, you’ll tailor different tasks to groups of students based on their learning styles. Don’t assume this actively simply involves giving some students “easy” questions and some students “hard” ones. Instead, consider how your students think. Who would benefit from analytical questions, who needs to get more comfortable with definitions or foundational concepts, and who just needs an opportunity to speak more in the target language?
Let’s say you’re reading a novel with your intermediate foreign language class. Your blue group could provide a plot summary and character breakdown for a particular chapter. Your red group could pick out all the key vocabulary from that chapter and provide target language definitions. Your orange group could predict what’s going to happen in the next chapter. Your purple group could draw comparisons with other literature your class has read or that they’ve read on their own.
This activity shouldn’t be overused, in part because you’re unlikely to want to mix the groups up much, and in part because of the heavy out-of-class preparation it requires on your part. You may find it works best to break up one of your longer or more difficult units, especially towards the second half of your term when you’re well versed in individual students’ learning styles.
3. Choose Your Own Adventure (Differentiation by Choice)
This activity provides a setting for students to pick their own learning activities without straying from your curriculum. It also allows for some flexibility for students who don’t necessarily have one concrete preferred learning environment.
Your first step is to decide what you’re going to be evaluating students on for this activity. Vocabulary? Reading or verbal comprehension? Grammar? Provide one class material that everyone will be working with for this activity, whether it’s a target language word list or a clip from a target language movie.
Your classroom should be broken into a few stations, where you’ll provide different ways for students to prove what they know about the material. For example, there might be a station for students who will draw or make crafts, another station for students who will make charts and tables, and yet another station for free-writers. You’ll find some ideas for different activities to get you started here (page 29) and here.
Be an active presence in the classroom, floating from station to station and asking students about their work. At set intervals (for example, every 15 minutes), let students know that they can move to another station if they wish. The idea is to guide students to their highest personal learning potential.
This activity works best when students have enough time to explore the choices and complete them at their own pace, so you should carve out plenty of time in your lesson plan. You might use this activity to perk students back up after a vacation or as a full-period review before a test.
No matter what language you’re teaching, differentiation can serve as an important technique to engage the wide range of learners in your classroom.
With these activities as a jumping-off point, you can go on to explore the many ways that differentiation can help your students achieve their personal bests in foreign language learning.