Studies Weekly and Differentiation

How To Differentiate Curriculum for ELL Students

Nov. 9, 2022  ◊  By Studies Weekly

As a teacher, you’ve probably received training on how to work with ELL students, but if you are facing your first classroom with multiple English Language Learners and feel a little overwhelmed, that’s okay! By adding some simple tricks to your daily teaching routine, you can successfully help your ELL students learn in a mainstream classroom.

Differentiation Is Essential

You’re not alone in your struggle to help these students progress. As many as 64% of all public school teachers are teaching one or more students whose first language is not English. As this percentage continues to increase, it has never been more necessary to use a curriculum and differentiation teaching strategies that allow these students to learn English while not falling behind the rest of the class.

Cultivating a Differentiation Mindset

It might be helpful to start with your mindset. Are you taking time out of class to work with ELL students, or are you finding ways throughout the day to have them interact with English? Start by cultivating a differentiation mindset. Constantly look for ways to include your ELL students in classroom activities.

Katie Hull Synieski, a practiced ELL teacher, said in her 2019 EdWeek video, “I think of differentiation more like a mindset than, ‘on Tuesday, I differentiate.’” 

Here are some examples of what that mindset might look like:

Pair students with other students either from the same English level or a different level. Varying these partnerships allows the students to learn from each other and feel like they’re making progress.

Use the “inductive strategy” by having students sort different concepts from every subject into categories. This allows them to make connections about the meaning of these words and phrases.

Make your classroom accessible for all students by including pictures or phrases in native languages in your classroom decorations and instruction. Look for ways to include your ELL students in every part of class.

Integrate Language Learning With Other Subjects

Think back to your training in helping students make connections between subjects. As you work on keeping that differentiation mindset, you’ll be able to teach English principles in every subject.

For example, greater than and less than in math can help students understand the difference between “than” and “then.” As you explain to your students how 8 is greater than 4, you can take a minute to point out the spelling of than, and how it applies when comparing things. When you are working with ordering, such as: “first, we have 1, then we have 2, then 3, then 4 …,” you can point out the spelling of then and how it applies when speaking sequentially or about time. 

Alternatively, you can teach scientific concepts that help students make connections in English about the world around them: the electromagnetic spectrum, Newton’s laws, the water cycle, etc. The Studies Weekly Science curriculum includes scientific vocabulary around these and other concepts. 

Science Vocabulary

Use Technology to Your Advantage

One suggestion, also mentioned in Synieski’s video, was to play videos in class at a slower pace and with English subtitles. This will allow your ELL students to translate the messages and stay engaged in learning.

When you use Studies Weekly Online, you have even more options. Articles and assessments include audio reader options, to help students comprehend the content. As the voiceover reads the article each letter is highlighted, so students can follow along. In addition, students can adjust the speed on the audio reader. 

Variable speed audio reader

Another use of technology is to record your lessons beforehand and share them with your class to watch on their own time.

“Multilingual learners … can benefit from watching pre-recorded lectures they can pause and rewind and then dig deeper into with the teacher in class,” said Ileana Najarro in her 2022 EdWeek article, “5 Ways Teachers Can Collaborate to Support English Learners.”

Create an Environment Where Students Can Take Risks

You want your students to feel comfortable in your classroom and feel like they can try new things and ask for help. When teaching ELL students, creating this type of environment may include implementing the following:

      • Whole class lessons about inclusion and diversity
      • Encouragement to try new things
      • Patience when mistakes are made
      • Making information accessible in English and their native language

Making mistakes is part of learning a language — it’s a part of life! Your students need to feel comfortable raising their hands to answer questions, even if they stumble over their words.

But, helping them feel comfortable can be a delicate balance. On one hand, you want to build their confidence by getting them to answer a question correctly, but on the other, you don’t want them to feel unprepared to answer when called on. You can build this rhythm with the student by talking to them one-on-one and getting a feel for what they’re comfortable with.

Help Your Students Find Meaning Through Fun Activities

Being immersed in a foreign language can be tiring for students. You might find it useful to use learning games and activities to let the students teach themselves and give them a break from listening.

Here are a few ideas:

      • Play matching games with English words and their native language words
      • Make up songs to help the students remember certain words/rules
      • Read children’s books aloud in class as your students follow along with their own copy
      • Have the students write a story together, each one tackling a single sentence

Your Students Will Surprise You

As you cultivate your differentiation mindset, integrate language learning, create a safe environment, and have fun, your ELL students will gain confidence and skill in English and other subjects too. You may be surprised by what your students are capable of.

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