Using a “Can Do” Approach to Ensure Differentiated Instruction Intentionally Supports the Needs of Language Learners

A woman smiling at a smiling boy who is holding a tablet computer.

Lynn Shafer Willner and Mira Monroe are accessibility specialists at the WIDA Consortia.  In this article written for Colorín Colorado, they describe a "can do" approach when it comes to designing instruction for ELLs with disabilities — in other words, building upon student strengths and abilities rather than focusing on weaknesses.

Video bonus: See Lynn and Dr. Alba Ortiz discuss the importance of identifying student strengths in the video below.

Consider this conversation overheard in the halls of an elementary school. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent):

Yolanda:  The principal has said she wants all of us to incorporate differentiation into our instruction this year. I’ve got 6 English Learners (ELs), three of whom are really struggling this year. I’m trying to think how I can best help them.

Maggie:  No problem. Here’s a quick way to do it: Just pull the scores from your initial unit assessment, weekly quizzes, and benchmark assessments and create follow-up anchor activities: “standards-plus,” “standards-grade level,” and “standards-modified.”  Divide up your students and then, during project time, your students can work at the tasks that are at their levels. If there are special needs students like EL and/or students with disabilities, just have you or your aide add on the accommodations identified in their plans – or put these students in a one-on-one or small group off to the side. The language specialist or special education teacher can work with them there.

Yolanda: Er…I don’t think that’s what the principal had in mind when she asked us to differentiate. Won’t that approach just widen the gap between the students in your class? I mean, the kids who are on or above grade level will get experience with standards-aligned activities, but if you limit learning demands to a point just above student competence, you’ll have a group of kids that won’t be ready at all because their daily work targets are easier, that is, focus on “watered-down” outcomes.

Maggie: So what then? Do you expect me to build a separate lesson for each student? I have a life, you know…

Differentiated instruction has many different definitions, but is most commonly associated with the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson. It has come to embody both set of principles, including application Universal Design for Learning principles, and a repertoire of instructional practices that are proactively implemented for the purpose of meeting the varied needs of all students.

In this posting, we suggest three steps to ensure differentiated instruction intentionally supports language learners. See Kronberg (2013) for related discussion around Utilizing Differentiating Instruction with English Language Learners with Disabilities.

Maggie is expressing what many teachers say and feel. She is trying to meet her students’ needs, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and she needs to sleep, too. Unfortunately, as Yolanda points out, differentiation using reduced learning expectations is not helping to close the gap for students who need extra support. Language and/or disabilities support that’s added on as a supplement to differentiation activities doesn’t work well either. All too often students with the most needs are left to the aide or the specialist.

The "Can Do" Approach

During differentiation activities, how can educators intentionally support the needs of ELs, that is, language learners, especially those with disabilities or who may be struggling? By ensuring the approach to differentiation takes a “Can Do,” that is, an assets-based approach, building on student strengths and interests, rather than targeting areas of weakness or struggle.  The easiest way to remember, especially if your state is a member of the WIDA Consortium is to use the Can Do Philosophy and systematically seek out the positives about your students.

Here are three steps you can take to ensure you are using an assets-based approach when differentiating instruction for language learners:

  • Build a portrait of each language learner’s strengths, interests, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
  • Think about differentiation for language learners in terms of accessibility principles: Integrate support from the outset.
  • Provide feedback that builds on what language learners can do and that scaffolds, rather than rescues, learning.

Three Steps for Using a "Can Do" Approach

Step 1. Build a portrait of each language learner’s strengths, interests, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The Can Do Philosophy

…The more we know about language learners’ cultural backgrounds, home environments and formative experiences, and the positive contributions these experiences afford our school communities, the more effective standards-based instruction will be… (WIDA, 2014)

A foundational element of assets-based differentiation is the development of a multi-dimensional portrait of learner strengths, interests, assets, and interactions with others. Yet, paradoxically, with all the standards-related data available with school and district-based measures, it sometimes seems easier to develop a picture of what learners cannot do in relation to the standards, rather than what they can do. What positives can you leverage to support language and academic development?

All learners bring assets to the classroom. You get to be the detective and discover what those assets are.

Think of a language learner in your class and answer these questions, writing each description from an assets-based point of view — e.g., She is able to …He is enthusiastic about… She is striving to…:

  • HOW does this student participate in the classroom [notice the focus is not IF the student participates, but how]?
  • What does this student like to learn?
  • What resources does this student bring from home?
  • How does this student interact with others?
  • With whom does this student interact?
  • How does this student use language to learn?

These types of questions are meant to spark more questions and help you begin looking at what the learner can do. They help add dimensionally to your learners and these questions are doubly important for learners with disabilities — who are so much more than the monolithic label of “struggling learner” (Meyer & Rose, 2005).


Step 2. Think about differentiation for language learners in terms of accessibility principles: Integrate support from the outset.

Accessibility focuses on proactively improving learners’ opportunities to learn the curriculum by integrating Universal Design for Learning principles into lessons and activities from the outset in order to meet the needs of a greater range of learners. Accessibility requirements can be found in legislation (e.g., the Assistive Technology Act, IDEA, Civil Rights Legislation for ELs, and ESSA) and in professional testing standards such as the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA…CME, 2014).

Accommodations are individualized adjustments to instruction and assessment which remove the effects of extraneous or unrelated factors without changing the construct or learner learning expectations (AERA, APA, & NCME, 2014). Accommodations are generally added on after instruction has been designed.

Modifications are individualized adjustments to instruction and assessment which make curriculum easier or lower learning expectations (AERA, APA, & NCME, 2014). Overuse of modifications may result in equity concerns (i.e., lack of equal access to the curriculum.)

Think about differentiated support in terms of accessibility, not only accommodations or modifications. Integrate support for language learners as part of the initial task or lesson rather than adding in on afterwards.

Here’s an Accessibility/Universal Design analogy you can use to help explain to colleagues why it’s important to build in instructional support for language learners from the outset:

Have you ever thought about how a sidewalk is made? First the construction crew pours a beautiful new sidewalk. Then, before anyone uses the sidewalk, the team removes the corner square. They carve out and then pour a curb-cut which allows people with wheelchairs, prosthesis, etc. to access the sidewalk. [Random historical fact: the first curb cuts were installed in Kalamazoo, Michigan in a project spearheaded by a disabled World War II veteran who also happened to have been a dual language learner.]

The same curb-cut provides access to more people than those with disabilities; the benefits extend to baby stroller pushers, delivery service workers, bicyclists, and anyone with pushing or pulling something down the road. In the same way, by supporting learners with intensive needs as you design and deliver your general instruction, you can also support a wider range of learners in your classroom.

There are all sorts of ways you can help all of your learners acquire knowledge and skills in the lessons and tasks. Plan from the beginning to provide multiple means of representing content (i.e., multi-modal support).

…and guess what? If you take the initial step of integrating multi-modal instruction into content instruction, researchers have found that it’s easier clearly identify language objectives. Why? Because you’ve done the harder work of thinking about what you’re trying to help students learn (your content objectives), it’s easier to identify the associated language students will need to develop (Lundgren, Mabbott, & Kramer, 2012).

Use the information from the student portraits you built in Step 1: Think about different ways to engage your learners by tapping into their interests, strengths, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds, challenging them, and motivating them to want to learn. Think of different ways learners can express what they know.  Say “NO” to task modifications, which by their very nature decrease learning expectations (Ellis, 1997). Say “YES” to providing equitable access to grade-level activities from the outset.

Think again about your language learner you selected in Step 1. Consider an activity you are planning to do in your class this next week and ask yourself:

  • What are the essential concepts and questions that this learner should know, ask, or be able to do?
  • Is there a way to integrate multi-modal support which might help more of my learners?
  • Am I maintaining the purpose of my learning objective or just providing “easier work?”
  • What can I do to engage this learner based on the learner’s assets and/or interests?

Step 3. Provide feedback that builds on what language learners can do and that scaffolds, rather than rescues, learning.

Scaffolding: Temporary support with part of a lesson or task so that the learner can achieve the learning objective intended for all learners in the class. This support should be responsive to the current level of the learner, yet fade as the teacher intentionally transfers responsibility to the learner…

If your language learners are participating in grade level activities rather than modified activities, you’ll most likely need to scaffold their participation.

When working with a language learner one-on-one during a differentiation activity, consider how you can connect to and build on student assets. Rather than intervening with the answer, pause for a moment. Identify and describe to the learner the parts of the task the learner can do. Help the learner use think-aloud strategies to isolate any misconceptions or challenges they might have encountered.

Avoid the temptation to rescue your learners (Thompson, n.d.). This can be a real challenge! When learners are confused, take a deep breath and step back. Sometimes the most powerful guidance occurs when teacher and learner don’t look at the text or paper, but at each other. An important part of an educator’s job is to teach and help your learners to figure out how they might get to the answer by themselves.

Reminders (Guidance): “Remember in the whole group lesson how we….? Where would you go/look to do that?”

Resources (Supports): “Is there a model you could use (hanging on the class wall, in a book) to help you?”

From there, keep building on what they can do. Look for ways to help the learner connect with reminders and resources that they will eventually use independently to do that task. (Think of a writing check list, a word wall, etc.) Take a moment to connect back to the assets you described in the student portrait created back in Step 1.

Think about how you might scaffold a learner response while keeping the learning outcome the same:

  • Begin by breaking down the task into steps or components: Identify which parts of the task the learner can do without assistance, and tell them.
    • Use the phrase “I noticed…” and explicitly state what the learner can do. (Sometimes learners just need more awareness of what their assets are.  Also, it is nice to be positive, rather than pointing out what’s wrong.)
  • Early on in an activity, work together to find resources the learner can use independently.
  • At the end of your interaction with the learner, jot a note on the paper that describes what the learner did when the student was successful. (As appropriate, share the observation with the learner, your co-teachers, parents/guardians.) “You got it! You just realized you could…”  

Final Thoughts

Taking an assets-based approach to differentiation is an important step toward meeting the accessibility needs of a wider range of learners in your classroom, especially students who are language learners. Think of all the things we can do by focusing on learner assets!

  1. By using assets-based portraits of learners, we can shine a light on the different resources learners bring with them each day.
  2. By offering accessible instruction from the start, we can use Universal Design for Learning principles to meet the needs of a wider range of learners.
  3. By focusing on the parts in the tasks that learners are able to accomplish, scaffolding their strengths, and guiding them toward independence, we can support learner growth more effectively.

More video from these experts:

Related videos

See more differentiation videos in this series from Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski:

About the authors

Lynn Shafer Willner is an EL Accessibility Researcher on the WIDA Standards Team. Previously, she taught ESOL in the Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools. She developed and researched state EL accommodations guidelines while working at The George Washington University and then led the development of the ELPA21 ELP Standards while working at WestEd.

Mira Monroe is an Accessibility Specialist on the WIDA Assessment Team. Previously, she taught Special Education in several Colorado school districts and worked on the Colorado Department of Education Assessment Team as the Special Education Consultant.


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