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Differentiating in the Online Classroom

Differentiating in the Online Classroom

Help! None of my students are the same level!”

It’s a truism about teaching that as soon as you have two students in your group, your class is mixed ability.  

In the language classroom different strengths and weaknesses in communication skills can even make it difficult for some to simply know what is going on and join in with the lesson. Fortunately, we are long past the days where my Director of Studies told me – we teach to the highest level in the class here – the rest just have to keep up!  

The opposite is true in ensuring students get the most out of their learning.  The teacher needs to grade their language of instruction down to the lowest level in their group. Everyone needs to understand what to do! But then when it comes to the learning content, the teacher has three main choices: 

Differentiation by input:
Give students the same activity with different material. A reading that will challenge and engage the stronger students, for example, while those developing the skill have a simpler or shorter text with similar content or structures. In online classes, that might mean a link to a different video clip for different students then involved in the same follow up task.
This can also be done by having multiple short statements or questions on a screen and assigning different ones to different students.

And in online classes you can often provide additional input to a student who needs help by sending your support in a private text chat 

Differentiation by task:
Although having learners share differences they found in content is a language teaching staple (Jigsaw reading, split listening, comparing pictures…) the juggling act of running an online classroom can be simpler if everyone is working with the same content. So here, you just set something different to do with the material or ask different degrees of questions about the same video or text.

This is where a teacher may group students of similar abilities to focus on a version of the task together. Rather than just making one task a shorter version of another, something that feels different will help student feel more valued. If groups are reporting back or performing in front of their classmates, you can begin by looking at the more basic version, praising valuable outcomes, and then looking at the subsequent versions. 

Differentiation by outcome:
This one is about expectations – a teacher should be looking for different expected learning outcomes for different students in their class. In task-based instruction, the students can also be involved in the goal setting – it’s their lesson after all.
A teacher can frame differentiated outcomes by considering what all students should minimally get out of a task. This might be ‘describing past events’ while most students should be able to ‘describe the regularity of past events’ and a few may be able to ‘compare the time they spent on different hobbies as a child’. Knowing where a student is at, setting and rewarding success in your shared expectations of their progress is true mastery of differentiation. 

Fortunately, differences in ability and knowledge in the communicative language classroom also create a kind of ‘communication gradient’ where imbalances in what students know or can do gives them a meaningful reason to communicate. The smart teacher can make great use of this in a few more ways: 

Give students different roles:
You can pair students of different levels together where the stronger student can drive the conversation, such as, ask the questions or outline the text students are writing together. Small pair-work roleplays are perfect for this, where you can set up ‘who’s who’ in such a way that the stronger speaker leads, but the students have to work together to complete the task. Anyone watching or listening needs a role too, such as, checking what vocabulary was used (lower level) or listening out for effective intonation (higher level). 

Have learners teach and test each other:
When a student talks about what they know, they are at an advantage even in a language they don’t. Have the weaker students tell the class about his pet pug just as much as you might set another student the task of explaining a grammar rule. Where other students are quizzed or get to ask questions of their classmate to understand deeper or clarify language, you have everyone learning and language emerging. 

So, difference is good in the social makeup of an online class.  It adds challenge and authenticity, especially where learners are travelling vicariously and connecting online from different worlds. There is so much students have to say and do together. So let’s flip the question – if your students were the same level, what would you do? 


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