Differentiate Mixed Abilities


What is Differentiation?

Differentiation is the means of teaching one concept and meeting the different learning needs in a group.

Differentiation lies on a scale. At one end is 1-to-1 teaching, where everything is 100% personalised for one student. At the other is where I was when I first started teaching – treating everyone in the class the same, and moving together (regardless of how well they did or didn’t do). Your job as teacher is to move as close to the 1-to-1 end as possible whilst keeping your sanity.

Why is Differentiating Better?

  • Because your learners are people, not statistics.

  • Because if the material is too easy learners are bored, and quickly demotivated if it’s too difficult.

  • Because they all have their own interests, and things that engage and motivate them.

  • Because they can be different ages, genders, and come from different geographic and cultural background.

So why would teaching them all the same way make any sense?

How to Differentiate (Two Models)

The Barefoot Model (My Model!)


  • Know your students – their linguistic ability, their background, their interests and their classroom interpersonal relationships. (and keep pace with how they’re progressing and changing).

  • These differences mean that you as a teacher need to support them differently.

  • Treating them this way shows them you care and respect them, increases the trust and vastly improves the learning environment (and learning effectiveness).

Six Ways to Differentiate:

As a practical rule of thumb, I use six ways to differentiate, as long as you’re following the three principles, above. There are more, but these give the biggest results for the least amount of effort. The six ways are:

  1. Time

  2. Task

  3. Topic

  4. Material

  5. Grouping

  6. Role

Here’s a quick explanation of each one:

1. By Time – This one is so easy that it only barely counts as differentiation. Have an extension task ready for those stronger learners that finish a set task early.

2. By Task – Set students a slightly different task, based on their linguistic ability. A good way to set more challenging tasks is to move up Blooms’ Taxonomy for the same set task (e.g. instead of X, Y.).

3. By Topic – Not so much differentiation by level, but by interest, or demographic. E.g. if the topic is travel and the function is making a complaint, then you can give a slightly different scenario for a roleplay to a group of businessmen than to a group of university students.

4. By Material – Editing your materials so that they provide more or less support is a fantastic way to differentiate. Think of your worksheets, handouts, PPTs, even your listening and reading source material – all can be differentiated. I.e. a worksheet can have a word bank with definitions in L1 for weaker Ss. You set your room up so you can play two different versions of a listening. You could have a more and less graded version of a handout.

5. By Grouping – a really basic way to differentiate is to group learners of a similar linguistic ability together. This helps when you monitor, set differentiated tasks, topics and hand out differentiated materials (as students are already seated appropriately). Besides, if you always pair strong learners with less-strong learners, then then stronger learners become bored (and resent having to ‘teach’ the weaker learners) and the weaker learners may feel intimidated and/or inadequate.

6. By Role – similiar to (5), above, if you do need to have a small group of learners, and one learner is clearly stronger, you can give them a different role to play in the group. Perhaps as group leader, or error-checker, or something where they have extra responsibility. This can use some of their cognitive ability so the task doesn’t seem too easy for them.

I find that day-to-day, these give you the most time-effective ways to differentiate in a class.

Carol Tomlinson’s Model

Carol Tomlinson is a great author, and has gone in depth into what it means to differentiate. Here’s a quick overview.

You need to understand your learners’:

  • Readiness – how they perform, ability, pace of learning, independence level, etc.

  • Interests – what they enjoy

  • Learning Profile – which learning preferences do they have?

You can then differentiate learners’:

  • Content – what they need to know, based on a curriculum

  • Process – tiered activities based on ‘readiness’

  • Product – how they demonstrate what they’ve learned (i.e. the tasks)

  • Learning Environment – seating, flexible groupings, atmosphere, etc.

For more information, please see her book, written with Marcia Imbeau, ‘Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom

Good luck differentiating in your classroom!