English teachers in the UAE commonly complain that their curriculum is too challenging and too demanding for their students, who are not proficient enough to meet those demands. Experienced ESL teachers know that class behavior can deteriorate if the level of instruction is not suited to the needs of the students. For teachers in the UAE, attempting to teach a curriculum that’s misaligned to their students’ proficiency can be especially frustrating. In this article, I will discuss a classroom practice that can preempt behavior issues and enhance student learning—differentiation.
If the lessons pose too great a challenge, this can lead to excessive chatting, disengagement, and other disruptions. Furthermore, weaker students may resort to copying, which, if not controlled, can encourage other students to opt for that path of least resistance rather than put in the necessary effort to learn. Such students may feel daunted by too great a leap from where they are to where the teacher would like them to be; however, it isn’t their responsibility as young learners to compensate for what is ultimately the teacher’s job. If the curriculum is too difficult for the students, it’s vital that teachers differentiate their lessons to make the content accessible.
While it has broader usage within general education, for our purposes let’s think of differentiation as accommodating the particular language learning needs of individual students. This practice is particularly important in the UAE, where larger, mixed-ability classes are the norm. In practice, you will modify the language content, level of support, and assessment expectations according to student proficiency. For example, if the target function is talking about preferences, you would ensure your weaker students can describe their likes and dislikes through simpler language and structures, such as I like to and I do not like to, before attempting anything more complex; whereas, you would train more proficient students to use higher-order language and structures, such as I prefer to, I am (really) into, or I would rather. During such lessons, you also adjust your own language practices with each proficiency level so that weaker students receive support through simpler, more direct English, a greater use of body language, as well as occasional L1 usage. Lastly, you assess student achievement according to the content objectives you set for each level, so if you’re assessing how well they can write about their preferences, then you gauge how well your weak students can use the simplest exponents before you expect them to step it up another level. Otherwise, if they haven’t grasped the concept at its simplest terms, they’re likely to fail in acquiring the more sophisticated exponents. In addition, you can preempt copying and other forms of cheating by giving students assessment tasks modified according to their level. Thereby, weaker students have no recourse with their more proficient colleagues.
By differentiating, you provide weaker students with more reasonable targets for success and ensure a solid footing in the language before scaffolding to more challenging content. Further, you support the extension of stronger students, who, if not accommodated for, can also become sources of disruptive behavior. In my next article I will discuss how grouping and cooperative learning strategies used in conjunction with differentiation can further benefit your lessons and improve your overall classroom management.