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Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners

By: Karen Ford (2011)

Each student comes to school, not only with unique academic needs, but also with unique background experiences, culture, language, personality, interests, and attitudes toward learning. Effective teachers recognize that all of these factors affect how students learn in the classroom, and they adjust, or differentiate, their instruction to meet students' needs.

Getting Started

Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) describe differentiation as creating a balance between academic content and students' individual needs. They suggest that this balance is achieved by modifying four specific elements related to curriculum:

  • Content — the information and skills that students need to learn
  • Process — how students make sense of the content being taught
  • Product — how students demonstrate what they have learned
  • Affect — the feelings and attitudes that affect students' learning

These curriculum-related factors are based on student need in three areas:

  • Readiness — students' preparation for learning specific information or skills
  • Interest — what appeals to students and thus motivates them to learn
  • Learning Profile — how students approach the task of learning

The goal of differentiated instruction is to create learning opportunities that make allowances for differences in how individual students learn in order to ensure equal access to important academic content. Content may be modified for students who need additional practice with essential elements before moving on; however, the expectation is that modifications in other areas will ultimately allow all students to master the same key content.

Thus, "differentiated instruction is not the same as individualized instruction. Every student is not learning something different; they are all learning the same thing, but in different ways. And every student does not need to be taught individually; differentiating instruction is a matter of presenting the same task in different ways and at different levels, so that all students can approach it in their own ways" (Trujo, 2004).

It is important to recognize that differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching, not simply a collection of strategies or activities. Effective differentiation requires ongoing evaluation of students' needs and conscious attention to designing instructional activities and assessment to meet those needs. It is true that teachers must have an extensive repertoire of research-based instructional strategies at hand, but they must also be able to "think outside the box" to ensure that each student's needs are met. As Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) point out, the teacher's role in the differentiated classroom is to continually ask him/herself, "What does this student need at this moment in order to be able to progress with this key content, and what do I need to do to make that happen?" (p. 14).

Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

With the recent emphasis on standards-based instruction, there has been much discussion about what constitutes appropriate content, instruction, and assessment for English language learners. As educators have grappled with this issue, it has become clear that educational parity can only be achieved if ELLs have an opportunity to learn the same rigorous academic content as native English speakers. The best way to achieve that goal is through differentiated instruction that takes into account ELLs' English language proficiency, as well as the many other factors that can impact learning (Fairbairn & Jones-Vo, 2010).

Differentiated instruction, by definition, is instruction that is designed to support individual students' learning in a classroom of students with varied backgrounds and needs. For this reason, the same general principles that apply to differentiated instruction for native English speakers also apply to ELLs.

Teachers are successful at differentiating instruction for ELLs when they:

  • Get to know as much as possible about each student — ELLs represent a wide range of academic skills, interests, languages, English language proficiency levels, and cultures. The more a teacher can learn about each student's background, the better prepared s/he is to provide appropriate instruction for that student.
  • Have high expectations for all students — Content should not be "watered down" for students who are still developing English language skills. Creative teachers think of ways to help students understand key material and "show what they know" in ways that match their language proficiency levels.
  • Have a variety of research-based instructional strategies at hand — Experienced teachers know that "one-size-fits-all" instruction is rarely successful. There are many different learning profiles in any given classroom, and students learn best when instruction matches their needs and learning styles.
  • Use ongoing assessment to guide instruction — Ongoing, informal assessment is vitally important to matching instruction to students' changing needs.
  • Provide multiple types of assessment — matching assessment to students' learning profiles and language proficiency ensures that every student has an opportunity to demonstrate what he/she knows.
  • Differentiate homework — If all students have the same homework assignments, some are doing busy work while others are struggling with work that they cannot possibly complete successfully (Tomlinson, 2005).
  • Collaborate — Instruction is most successful when all of the professionals who work with ELLs work together
  • Use flexible grouping — Small group instruction is a very effective way of making sure that all students can access important content, and keeping groups flexible allows teachers to match students with different peers for different types of activities.
  • Make content comprehensible for all students (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008) — Providing ELLs with alternative ways of accessing key content (e.g., charts, books written in their first language, simplified text written by the teacher, discussion, etc.) allows them to learn the same material as other students as they continue to develop their English language skills.

For information on differentiating instruction in the reading classroom, see Differentiated Reading Instruction, a Reading Rockets webcast featuring Carol Ann Tomlinson, Michael Pressley, and Louise Spear-Swerling.

ELLs call attention to the incredible diversity that is characteristic of American schools in the 21st century. Today, most U.S. classrooms include students with a wide variety of academic needs, cultural backgrounds, learning styles, and languages. Differentiated instruction offers teachers an effective method of addressing the needs of this diverse population in a way that gives all students equal access to learning.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Fairbain, S., & Jones-Vo, S. (2010). Differentiating instruction and Assessment for English language learners: A guide for K-12 teachers. Philadelphia: Caslon.

Irujo, S. (2004, September/October). Differentiated instruction: We can no longer just aim down the middle. ELL Outlook. Retrieved from

Tomlinson, C. A. (2005). Differentiating instruction: Why bother? Middle Ground, 9, 12-14.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Comments and Recommendations

This article touches upon what I find to be one of the most important points in educating ELLs, which is the need to insure that the instructional rigor, level of content, and high expectations are not compromised. Differentiating instruction needs to be about “how can I change my approach to teaching this content so my student can learn” rather than “how can I change the content so my student can learn.” Although the second option is easier it has led to the overwhelming gaps in education that we now see.
Posted by: Kate  |  August 10, 2012 09:49 AM
Students cannot learn the same way since so many students come from various cultural backgrounds. Many students are English Language Learners and need extra support. This article has listed many important factors that are important in helping ELL students succeed and reach their goals. If teachers take the time to get to know their students, they would be able to motivate these students and know their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding their strengths and weakness can help teachers establish adequate goals for ELL students.
Posted by: Santina (orange group)  |  August 16, 2012 02:21 AM
To manage a class in different ways is certain good for students; and to let different students do different homework is a good way to involve all the students in learning;
Posted by: qingfen zhao  |  May 01, 2013 08:22 PM
Different strategies will enhance students and improve their product.
Posted by: Nuha Salih  |  September 17, 2013 08:39 PM
Teaching Chemistry for ELL students also require that they learn Nomenclature, Stochiometry, Atoms and Molecular Structures, etc., that is equivalent to learn a third new language.
Posted by: Reinaldo Lopez  |  January 30, 2014 12:23 PM
Great work keep it up.
Posted by: John  |  March 12, 2014 10:10 AM
Great article.....provides a breath of fresh air, focuses us on what really matters, the individual child's needs. Also gives nice itemized reminder list for us vet teachers who are bogged down and have become jaded due to nclb & the reality of over testing & teaching to the test. Moral of the story:cultural differences/our ELLs really do enrich our schools & touch our lives in a most positive way.
Posted by: Tiff  |  March 27, 2014 08:22 AM
Having high expectations for the ELL students is an easy one. They always come to school prepared, in proper uniform, homework completed, and questions about any material/content covered the day before. The effort that they bring is immeasurable. I can't grade a student on what they don't bring to class, but I do grade on what they do with it - Love the ELL student's effort.
Posted by: Jean-Paul  |  March 30, 2014 08:47 AM
Differentiation is a necessity for all students, but especially ELL due to varying language proficiency levels. I especially liked the point to differentiate homework! This checklist is a helpful reminder of ways in which teachers can tailor instruction and assessment to meet the individual needs of the student in order to demonstrate learning.
Posted by: Marisa  |  March 30, 2014 03:39 PM
Making content comprehensible is an absolute most, it is our whole objective of teaching! Students need to be engaged and digest the information. Students use a wide range of strategies and variables to grasp the content such as reminder cards, charts, drawings, graphic organizers and so on. We need to do whatever it takes to get the material to the child. I know with my own students, sometimes I can try the most bizarre methods of either getting the student to comprehend or correct behavior. My motto is... "you never know until you try". What may not work for one... may work for another!
Posted by: Brooke  |  March 31, 2014 11:46 AM
Often times regular classroom teachers have a difficult time reaching the needs of their ELL students. This article give some really great suggestions of ways to help ELL students find success. One of the most important things to remember is to set high standards for ELL's. Teachers must remember that they are capable, they might just need a little extra guidance.
Posted by: Dominique  |  March 31, 2014 04:10 PM
According to this article, "differentiated instruction is designed to support individual students' learning in a classroom of students with varied backgrounds and needs." There is no doubt that great diversity in academic proficiency, ethnic background, culture, language and learning style is found in today's 21st century classroom. Therefore, as an accountable educator, differentiating one's teaching is no longer just an option, but rather an essentiality in order to equally move all students from where they are now to the next step. Furthermore, one of the key components to doing so is to know your children personally. The more you know about them, the more you can relate to their needs and better guide them down the path to true learning and understanding.
Posted by: Euna  |  April 01, 2014 09:06 AM
I have been teaching ESL/EAP for 30 years and I find differentiated instruction works well with ELLs as the approach itself is holistic. All aspects of the learners are considered in any teaching instruction and tasks designed accordingly. Though it is time consuming, it is a worthwhile effort as students do progress and eventually reach the target with the necessary guidance given. Collaboration among teachers in developing teaching materials and onging informal assessments to cater to diverse students is vital. see
Posted by: Dr Puven  |  November 02, 2014 04:01 PM
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