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by Erica Fischer on Sep 19, 2011

Differentiated Instruction in the World Language Classroom

Thanks to everyone for joining us for Thursday’s #langchat, and thanks especially to our moderators, Erica Fischer (@CalicoTeach) and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (@SECottrell). The summary is a little bit late this week but is loaded with great information and some interesting discussion!

Our topic was “How can we differentiate instruction in World Language classes?” The hour-long chat was a fascinating mix of theory and practical tips on differentiated instruction, but also covered several other interesting subjects such as goal setting in the classroom. Go here to check out the full archive, or read the summary below for all the main points.

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Differentiated Instruction in the World Language Classroom

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

Participants shared many personal definitions of differentiation, all of which had a similar theme: students have different needs and favored learning methods. Differentiating involves matching your teaching methods to students’ needs and providing students with multiple options and paths for learning. It’s important not to change your methods for the sake of variety, however; the focus should be on the students’ learning, not on the teacher’s instruction — @tmsaue1 calls this “differentiated learning.”

Why Do We Differentiate Our Instruction?

As students learn in different ways, addressing their different methods ensures that all students are challenged and engaged to learn. Several participants mentioned that differentiating your instruction also helps to increase students’ motivation by providing different activities and objectives that keep and attract their interest. In addition to variety keeping the kids interested, letting students choose their own learning paths and activities gives them the chance to choose the path that motivates them the most (@SECottrell).

Choosing and completing work that motivates them can improve their confidence. In addition, @esantacruz13 mentioned that taking the time to get to know students and what works for them also improves students’ confidence.

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How Can We Differentiate in the Classroom?

Our moderator, @CalicoTeach, asked “What should we do every day to differentiate instruction?” One of the critical points brought up by @SECottrell is that world language teachers should always act like we believe every child can succeed. The most important factor in learning a language is motivation, not ability.

After establishing this mindset, @mmebrady thinks we can provide different options for learning activities. Here we should let students choose both what and how they learn. Also, it’s a good idea to implement different learning methods in activities to appeal to multiple students. Even just using the four elements of a foreign language — reading, writing, listening and speaking — is a good way to address students’ different learning styles.

Another way to differentiate your teaching methods is to pick one of the multiple intelligences per day to reach specifically, though not exclusively (@pamwesely). Also, try letting one student be the “star student” for the week, which lets this student pick some activities and goals for the week with the teacher. Another suggestion is to have small groups of students work on the next project, and the whole class votes on the best project to actually do.

Differentiated Instruction through Student Goals

A key element of effective differentiated instruction is to let students choose their own language learning goals for the classroom with the teacher as a facilitator. When discussing goals, remember that goal setting is a learned skill. The best way to start setting language-learning goals is for the teacher to model the process first (@tmsaue1). It’s ok to discuss goals for language learning in English — it’s unlikely, especially at beginner and intermediate levels, that students have the target language skills to discuss their learning objectives in the language.

To help students feel comfortable setting their own goals and providing feedback on what works, try to cultivate an environment that encourages communication and sharing. Remember that not all students are at the same ages or levels of development (@pamwesely). Asking some students to create their own goals may work; with others it might not. Reasons vary, but students may just be too shy to give feedback publicly. @tmsaue1 suggests giving students opportunities for quiet feedback, such as exit slips or at-home surveys.

A potential issue with student-created goals is that many students might not know the best way to learn or what they want to learn (@pamwesely). It’s the teacher’s responsibility to provide the necessary support and motivation so that students can make an educated decision on what and how to learn in the classroom. One way to do this is to communicate proficiency standards with students so that their goals match; not doing so could lead students to set goals that are too high and that may lead to disappointment (@tmsaue1). @klafrench created goals with her students by starting with established proficiency standards and picking out key words to include in the class goals.

Worksheets and other activities can help students set goals, too. Before every unit, @MmeNero has students fill out a traffic light document with learning objectives divided by language skills. Students appreciate knowing what the end goal is.

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Problems with Differentiated Instruction

One of the major problems with differentiated instruction is its popularity with educators. As it’s become a sort of buzzword, many teachers and educators may be tempted to believe that simply changing up their teaching methods will be enough to bring a different style of learning to their students. Don’t fall into this trap! Always have a reason for any changes in teaching methods, and it’s a good idea to gather student feedback as you go.

Some students might assume certain learning methods won’t work for them, too. We need to help those students try these ways (@CalicoTeach). As facilitators, our job isn’t just to give students the information they need to make decisions; we should also push students to continuously challenge themselves.

However, teachers must be careful not to get too involved. @MmeJonesy indicated that it’s sometimes difficult to listen to what students want — teachers often have their own agendas they want to pursue. It’s not easy to leave decisions such as these up to students, but it’s integral to differentiated and student-centered learning. At the same time, goals and paths aren’t necessarily good just because the students’ helped to pick them themselves, so we need to walk a fine line between too much teacher influence and not enough (@pamwesely).

Finally, we need to make a distinction between differentiating and individualizing our teaching; @tmsaue1 asks is it really possible to address the needs of 150+ students? While an abundance of planning time would make this possible, few teachers have that luxury. It’s therefore important to be aware that you cannot hope to cater to the individual needs of every student yourself; this makes student-created goals and other student inputs all the more essential.

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Thanks again to all the participants of Thursday’s #langchat — the archives show that this was one fast-paced and interesting discussion, with views from all angles. If you missed out, join us for the next chat on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EST. Be sure to monitor the #langchat hashtag during the week to take part in the vote on our next topic, or visit our Google Docs page to suggest a topic of your own. Also, check out our wiki at

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Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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