Differentiated Instruction Strategies for ESL


Differentiated strategies for English as a second language (ESL) students can involve a rearranging of existing curriculum, as well as some creation of new ideas to supplement with strategies that meet students’ existing language abilities. Carol Ann Tomlinson, Ed. D. says that when we can design instruction knowing where our students are vs. insisting they meet us where we feel they should be, we are responding to their immediate learning needs, and they’re more likely to learn. Content presented in multiple ways using alternative processes with end-products that reflect what students learned is at the heart of differentiation.

Representing Content

  • Build in multiple opportunities to represent the content. If you are using text for example, accompany it with video, audio, PowerPoint, interactive whiteboards, Internet or overhead projectors. Use whatever combination you can think of to enhance the content and reinforce it for second language students. The more ways they can hear the message, the louder and more comprehensible it will become to them. If it is mathematics, provide hands-on manipulatives using magnetic numbers, construction models, graphs, charts and other learning aids. Allow them to demonstrate their ideas to other students in groups or paired as buddies.

Reading And Writing

  • If students must read independently and the text is above their ability to read English, allow your ESL students to have the material read to them. Provide them with some one-on-one guidance, such as pairing them with students who can speak English. Students can record themselves reading and play it back for the ESL student if pairing is limited. This also allows students to share in the responsibility for their learning. Authors Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi in "Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide" (2001) advocate the use of writing workshops, peer review and lots of student-to-student feedback in their writing projects.

Projects And Games

  • Use projects to culminate learning, such as when ending a unit of study or a lesson.
    Build in a presentation component. Allow second language students to accompany an oral presentation with a PowerPoint or interactive whiteboard demonstration. Technology can help second language articulate when their verbal abilities limit them. ESL games make good projects that engage and enhance learning. Whenever possible, make a game out of learning. Use Jeopardy for learning vocabulary, or cognates; use flashcards for new content vocabulary; make board games for projects using themes like Halloween or for general games with markers and dice to teach colors, letters and numbers. The website Teachersfirst.com has many free and for purchase downloadable games for ESL students.


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