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Differentiating Instruction: Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

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Course Overview

In this course, you'll learn how to identify your students' language learning needs in order to introduce teaching strategies and resources that build on their strengths. Then you will try your hand at designing and using Differentiated Instructional strategies in your classroom. These strategies include:

  • informal assessments and portfolios that keep track of and document student learning
  • tiered activities that allow students of all ability levels to learn the same essential concepts in different ways; and,
  • adaptive technologies that modify the format of curriculum and/or assessment.

To apply what you have learned, you will apply differentiation strategies to a "Work-in-Progress" (WiP), a unit or other project you currently teach. You will revise the WiP to better serve the English Language Learners in your classroom.

Overarching Course Goals (Course Throughlines)

  • How do I best assess the language and learning needs of my students who are learning English, given the complexity of dual language acquisition?
  • What is Differentiated Instruction and how can it help me to better serve English Language Learners (ELL) in my classroom?
  • What are effective Differentiated Instructional strategies for teaching ELL students?
  • How do I plan differentiated lessons/units, based on English as a Second Language (ESL) and state standards, and implement them in my classroom?


By logging in to WIDE and the course environment during Orientation, participants have an opportunity to become familiar and comfortable with the online course environment, technology (such as video clips), other online tools, expectations, and procedures. Participants also meet the instructional staff and their fellow course members, and have some advance time to plan for their participation in the course, before the start of Session 1. Background reading will be recommended for those interested in deepening their knowledge related to English Language Learners and Differentiated Instruction.

Orientation Understanding Goals

  • What are the expectations for WIDE, instructional staff, and course participants?
  • What can you expect from your course and how can you organize your time?
  • What is the course environment and what are your course resources?
  • Who are your fellow learners and why are they taking this course?
  • What background reading can YOU do to prepare for this course?

Session 1: English Language Learners and Differentiated Instruction: Background and Overview

During this first session, you will examine what you know about English Language Learners and their learning needs and learn more about how to best teach them. Readings, Session Notes, Discussions, and Resources will introduce you to research related to English Language Learners and the field of Differentiated Instruction, (DI) including strategies for differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment. To better understand your students? language needs, you will examine how individuals, at different developmental levels acquire two languages, using case studies of elementary and secondary students. Next, you will explore the ways that you may already differentiate instruction for English Language Learners in your classroom and note areas you want to improve. Finally, you will select a piece of work to revise that:

  • is a "work in progress" ("WiP" -- i.e., a small unit of curriculum or lesson plan)
  • connects to a particular student, set of students, or group you work with (i.e., one language group; a mixed group of English Language Learners; etc.)
  • allows you to apply what you learn to Differentiated Instruction throughout this six-session course

Session 1 Understanding Goals

  • What do I already know about assessing and teaching English Language Learners?
  • What does research recommend related to assessing English Language Learners?
  • What does research recommend related to teaching English Language Learners?
  • How can Differentiated Instruction inform my instructional practice with English Language Learners and help me better meet their language needs?
  • How do I already apply differentiation strategies to teaching English Language Learner in my own setting?

Session 2: A Framework for Classroom Assessment: Understanding Your Students? Strengths

This session focuses on understanding the complexity of learning English in order to better assess the "language and learning differences? individual ELL students bring to a classroom. It presents tools and strategies for informally assessing student?s language and learning needs. Specific assessments will be considered that identify students who have limited English proficiency, and offer information on their challenges. These challenges may include oral expression, vocabulary, written expression and/or comprehension. Participants will assess their student's individual differences and identify (multiple) intelligences-based strengths. Participants will learn about a sociocultural framework for assessing bilingual learners that asks educators to:

  • think and plan how to assess bilingual learners prior to assessing their strengths
  • monitor their learners? individual and group learning

Session 2 Understanding Goals

  • How can I better understand the language and learning needs of my students? What are the "differences" among English Language Learners that I need to focus on to better design strong Differentiated Instruction?
  • What types of student differences--fluency, vocabulary and comprehension--are targets of Differentiated Instruction?
  • What types of student differences--areas of giftedness and multiple intelligences--are sources of differentiation?
  • What specific tools and strategies can I use to informally assess students' language and learning strengths to identify their abilities?
  • Which instructional strategies for language development make the most sense for me to use given the population of English Language Learners in my classroom?

Session 3: Assessment Informs Differentiated Instruction: Focusing, Framing, and Aligning Curriculum to Standards

This session helps participants use assessment information they have collected on their English Language Learners to design Differentiated Instructional plans. To begin, a DI planning tool is presented, asking participants to decide what individuals and groups must learn, given their different levels of English Proficiency. This DI planning tool, as a first step in differentiating the content of teaching, will help participants adapt their WIP to English as a Second Language and State Standards. Aligning content with standards and then designing Differentiated Instructional plans will be introduced by examining and critiquing samples of differentiated lessons for elementary and secondary classes. This planning tool will help participants develop a set of understanding goals for groups of students, given what they learned from their students? informal assessments and portfolios. Building background knowledge and providing English Language Learners with comprehensible input and interaction will be emphasized. Participants will then be introduced to the Teaching for Understanding Framework as a tool to help them to integrate the what, the why and the how of teaching. Finally, participants will use the planning tool as a first step to revise their WiP and begin to differentiate the content of what they teach.

Session 3 Understanding Goals

  • How can my students? portfolios and informal assessments help me understand the language abilities of English Language Learners in my class and use this to guide my instruction?
  • How can the DI Planning Tool use assessment information to help me differentiate my content?
  • How can I offer English Language Learners the background knowledge, vocabulary, and academic language they need in this content area?
  • How can the Teaching for Understanding Framework help me identify and plan the curriculum around essential content and questions (that will be differentiated)?

Session 4: Linking Differentiated Instruction to Teaching for Understanding (TfU)-- Examining the Content, Process, and Product

This session focuses on completing the process of instructional design of the content. To better accommodate English Language Learners, specific strategies to modify the language, instruction, and classroom presentation will be discussed using case studies. Proven strategies for supporting growth in language and learning will be presented that include:

  • building background knowledge
  • providing comprehensible input with concrete materials
  • linking content to student experiences

These strategies will be further presented through ongoing critiques of sample lessons. Participants will select specific language development strategies to use in their WiP. To further plan for Differentiated Instruction, participants will begin to design Performances of Understanding related to the Understanding Goals in their WIP. Participants will also get feedback on their work to date.

Session 4 Understanding Goals
  • How can the DI planning tool with the TfU framework from Session 3, help me to differentiate content, process, and product to meet the needs of English Language Learners?
  • Given what I am learning in this course, how do I begin to differentiate the content, process, and product of what I teach for the English Language Learners using the Teaching for Understanding Framework?
  • How can the TfU framework help me organize, plan, and develop Differentiated Instructional strategies that address key content areas of the curriculum I teach?
  • As I design Performances of Understanding for my students, how can I combine the background knowledge and academic language they need to teach a specific content area?

Session 5: Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners--Tiered Assignments and Flexible Grouping

This session provides specific language development strategies to help you design tiered assignments. Additionally, this session will suggest ways to use flexible grouping in a classroom so you can personalize teaching for English Language Learners. Samples of differentiated lessons, units, readings, and Session Notes will demonstrate how flexible groupings and tiered assignments offer English Language Learners the academic language, instructional format, and content needed to better understand material. Specific language development and comprehension strategies will be reviewed, and participants will be asked to include a collection of language development strategies into their WIP. Designing Performances of Understanding that foster language development will be discussed and considered. New technologies that facilitate personalized teaching and working with individuals and groups will be introduced.

Session 5 Understanding Goals

  • As I design my WiP, how can I make explicit links to the experiences and concepts being learned by my students?
  • How can I modify instructional techniques of classroom presentations (speech, explanations, and contextualization) to foster English Language Learners? understanding of the content?
  • How can I identify strategies to introduce and emphasize key vocabulary needed in this content area?
  • How can I utilize developmental language/literacy strategies in my WiP to create a strong differentiated unit?
  • How can I introduce English Language Learners to new technologies as tools to help them learn language, identify background knowledge, and build comprehension skills for themselves?

Session 6: English Language Learners and Differentiation: Planning, Acting and Reflecting on Next Steps

In this session participants will finalize a revised WiP using the Teaching for Understanding Framework that integrates language development, academic content learning, and Sheltered English Instruction. As participants reflect on their WiP they will plan how to best continue to assess their students and teaching design. They will consider appropriate next steps for using the Teaching for Understanding Framework in the future to differentiate instruction. Additionally they will consider if the TfU Framework is a tool that can help them learn to integrate the what, the why and the how of teaching. Additional strategies for assessing Performances of Understanding will be reviewed. Finally, participants will synthesize what they have learned in this course, and plan next steps to better serve English Language Learners through Differentiated Instruction. Specific strategies for utilizing the Wide World network for ongoing support will be suggested.

Session 6 Understanding Goals
  • What is my current understanding of how to best assess and teach English Language Learners through Differentiated Instruction?
  • How can I identify aspects of the curriculum that are difficult for English Language Learners to understand, and use the tools I have learned to regularly differentiate instruction in my own setting?
  • How can I practice and develop strategies that use flexible grouping and interactions to clarify content learning and make meaning?
  • How can I continue to use WIDE online resources to build my understanding of Differentiated Instruction that supports English Languages Learners' academic development?
  • Where else can I find support and resources related to Differentiated Instruction in the future?

Rhonda Clevenson

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$399 per team member
$599 individual


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