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Differentiating for English Language Learners


Listen to the post read as a podcast.

It's never easy and it's always important, like most aspects of a teacher's day. But differentiating for English language learners (ELLs) can not be overlooked or pushed onto tomorrow's to-do list. Because they are children, they are likely struggling with communicating, academics, friendships and adjustments (for starters).


I used to think that differentiation for English Language Learners meant teaching them the vocabulary and varying the outcome of their work. Now I think that there is a lot more I can do without much effort - designed for ELL but beneficial for everyone.

Differentiation doesn't stop at holding language learners to different expectations. There are simple modifications and accommodations that will keep them learning and included.



Here are basic strategies that we can use every day that make a profound difference for our ELL students, to make sure they are included, learning and getting the most out of their time with us.


The Traffic Light System

When creating a task on paper, make a simpler version... and if you're feeling spunky, a challenging one too. It can be adapted by reducing the amount of work to do, simplifying vocabulary, pairing it with a levelled text, having the beginning already completed or combining it with a word mat. Just providing a pictorial word mat can be the biggest and most helpful differentiation.


I like to separate the differentiated tasks into labelled baskets (or piles) so students can independently choose their challenge. You'll be surprised who takes what!


traffic light differentiation for student work choice and agency, comfort, stretch and challenge, math workshop choices
'Traffic light' differentiation in math workshop

Labels, Labels and More Labels!

Just label things. It doesn't have to be pretty. I mean, pictures are nice (especially for the young ones) but just make sure there are labels on the things in your classroom, especially tools that students need to access often.


Take it up a notch by adding the words in your students' languages too. You don't need to speak their language! Have your students write on the labels - it brings a beautiful sense of ownership and belonging.


Wait Time...

I remember learning the three second rule of waiting, however I give at least five, at least!


When I pose a question, I hold my finger to my temple to signify that it is thinking time - so everyone has time to come up with an answer before sharing. Stealing thinking time by blurting is a serious offense in my grade 2 classroom! Depending on the question and the brain power it requires, thinking time can vary from five seconds to a minute. I often think about the question myself, then at least double that time for my learners.


However, when speaking to an individual learner, sometimes ten seconds isn't enough and that's okay. And our students need to know that it's okay! What's the pressure all about? It is so hard to translate and think and translate again and then speak in a way that makes sense in a new language. Just wait for them.


Learning Partners

What did I do before I knew what learning partners were? ...I don't even want to think back to those days.


Learner partners are assigned partnerships in class. It's a go-to person for talking, helping, checking in with and collaborating. They are for talking, talking and talking because the more students talk, the better they can think, write, communicate and express themselves.


You can get this editable template for displaying learning partners in the free resource library! 💛


Learning Partners (or LPs) change often and get used EVERY day, probably every lesson. I have displayed learning partners differently depending on the grade I'm teaching in a given school year. In lower primary, I start the year with a display of paired photographs, with each child's name and photograph beside that of their learning partner's. With older students, I pair simple name cards or have even just written their names together on a specified section of a whiteboard that is always visible.


It usually takes about a month to build the LP culture in my classroom because I rely on it so heavily and use it frequently. However, when I worked in a school where it was the standard practice in all classrooms, the students arrived on day one already knowing how to support each other and work together. With K-2 students, I tend to let the partnerships last a bit longer (2-3 weeks) but with 3-5 I prefer to change them weekly.


One-to-One (or mini group)

Just a few minutes of individual attention can make a world of difference. The fear of speaking in front of others, the difficulty listening to instructions or following all that is said in a lesson... all of it, it disappears with a little bit of personal time.


You can make a big difference with little things like:

  • reading together daily or increasing classroom conferences with these learners

  • checking in and giving one minute from each lesson

  • keeping new to English learners close to you during whole group instruction

  • writing to parents/caregivers just to say that you're proud of the efforts made and learning happening


Word Mats

So simple and easy to make or at least, quite accessible.


Even when learners say or pretend they don't want it or need it, leave one on the table or in eyesight anyway.



Sticky Notes (or sentence stem cards)

Write it down for your student to read. Reading together and want to talk about the text? Use questions and answers that follow the same sentence pattern, eg. "I like _____. What do you like?"


Sentence stems are important because they create a scaffold which allows students to answer in a complete sentence, provides some of the English sentence structure (formulate the sentence) and allows some students to perform better than they could alone.


Vocabulary words, high frequency sight words, tricky spelling, sentence starters.


Sticky notes come in every color, shape and size - and their uses for supporting language learners are endless. Also, flash cards and scrap paper work just as well. 😉



Multilingualism in the elementary school classroom, deepening our understanding of language & identity and it's role in the elementary school classroom. a blog for teachers.

For me, one of the most important things was making these small moves a disposition - a habitual part of what I do when delivering a lesson or preparing my classroom for the day. I had to practice them, one at a time, until they became second nature.


I started using these techniques and strategies because I had many English learners but it turned out that lots of students benefit from them!

And it worked. It made a difference!


Interested in reading more about teaching, engaging and supporting your language learners in the classroom? Check out Teaching in a Multilingual Classroom and Creative Ways to Preteach Vocabulary for Language Learners.


Sending lots of teacher love,

💛  Sativa


PS. Did you know that you can get an absolutely FREE teaching resource from me each month? It's true! Sign up for my monthly newsletter and get something unique, creative and beautiful for your classroom every mid-month 🥰


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