Teacher at board.

‘We boil at different degrees’: Differentiation in the ESOL classroom

What is differentiation?

Differentiation has been defined as ‘an approach to teaching that attempts to ensure that all students learn well, despite their many differences’ (original emphasis).[1]

One reason why differentiation is so important in ESOL is that the learners are so varied.  Indeed, the Adult ESOL Core Curriculum in England recognises that even within one class, ‘backgrounds may span a wide continuum, ranging from people with no previous education or employment at one end to highly educated professionals, such as doctors or university lecturers, on the other’.[2] Similarly, Scottish providers recognise that ‘There is no such person as a “typical” ESOL learners’.[3] Philida Schellekens has even suggested that ‘diversity is one of the main defining characteristics of the ESOL classroom’.[4]

The differences that ESOL teachers must attend to are not simply to do with learners’ first language or where they come from.  Differentiation encompasses learners’ professional and educational backgrounds, their varying motivations, interests, learning styles, ages, aptitudes, abilities – indeed, anything that make one learner distinct from another.  Policy documents such as ESOL Access for All in England have reminded us that taking learning and difficulties and physical impairments into account is particularly important in the practice of differentiation in ESOL classrooms.[5]

Differentiation in practice

What does differentiation look like in practice?  In this article, I will show how a lesson about the British Museum can be adapted to bring learners’ differences more into play (https://etf-esol-nexus.demo.bbdtest.co.uk/content/teachers/lessons-and-activities/lesson-plans/british-museum).

Task A

The lesson begins by getting learners to look at images of six artefacts from the Museum.  They discuss where they can see such objects, and what they think the objects are for.  They then discuss whether they like visiting museums, and which ones they have visited. 

Possible differentiation strategies for this task are:

  • grouping learners who have experience of visiting museums with those who do not.  The resulting information gap can stimulate discussion among the learners.
  • asking learners to describe well-known or precious objects from their own cultures.  Doing so can make learners feel that their cultures are valued and respected, and not ‘second best’.

Task B

In this task, learners match key words from the short texts they will read in Task C with their definitions.  Differentiation for this task can include cutting up the words and definitions for learners to match, which introduces a physical element to the task, thereby catering to those who have a predisposition towards the kinaesthetic learning style.[6]  The cut-up cards could be recycled in subsequent classes for language games such as pelmanism and snap, which also have a kinaesthetic element to them.

Task C

This activity asks learners to read the three texts quickly to answer a gist question.  Differentiation strategies could include:

  • allowing weaker readers to read one or two of the texts instead of all three.  This may be necessary for multi-level classes or a group of E3 learners with ‘spiky profiles’ (significantly stronger in some skills than in others).
  • preparing an audio recording of the texts to make the task accessible for blind and visually-impaired learners.  An alternative would be to get strong readers in the class to read the texts aloud to their blind or visually-impaired partners.

Task D

Differentiation entails stretching stronger learners as well as making activities accessible to ess able learners. The detailed reading task here could be made more challenging for stronger readers by, for example:

  • writing additional questions.
  • changing the three-option multiple-choice questions into open questions (or making them four-option).
  • asking questions that focus on directly- or indirectly-stated opinions and attitudes rather than facts.
  • reducing the time given to complete the task.

Weaker readers could be helped by reducing the number of questions or by changing the questions into two-option multiple-choice questions.

Furthermore, to cater to learners who have visual impairments or dyslexia, the text could be printed in a larger font size, double-spaced and/or reproduced on coloured paper.  Resources permitting, these learners could also be allowed to read the texts on a backlit screen, e.g. on a desktop computer, laptop or even smartphone.

Task E

As indicated in the original lesson plan, this language focus task could be presented in two ways: as an inductive grammar task, in which learners discover the rules themselves, or as a deductive grammar task, in which the learners are given the rules beforehand and asked to apply them.  The approach taken depends on the way learners have been taught grammar in the past, i.e. their familiarity with the two approaches.

Another differentiation strategy outlined in the lesson plan is to get weaker learners to be given just the short (one- or two-syllable) adjectives to look at and/or asking them to only look at the superlatives in one or two texts.  Stronger learners could also be asked to think of additional adjectives to describe the objects in Task A.

Task F

As an opinion gap activity, differentiation is already built into this task.  Getting learners to say which object is the most/least interesting to them (and why) not only gives them an opportunity to develop oral fluency and practise the target language, it also acknowledges the fact that individuals within one class will have different ideas, interests and values, all of which should be respected.


This task asks learners to find out more about an object in the Museum for a class presentation.  One way to introduce differentiation into this task is to give learners a choice as to what the product of their research will be.  For example:

  • if learners are studying English because they want to do further study (perhaps at university), they could be asked to write an academic essay on whether the Museum should return some of its objects to their native countries or not.
  • if learners are job seekers, they could write covering letters and CVs for a real or imaginary vacancy at the Museum.  This could be for cleaning, administrative or even curatorial work.
  • if learners are interested in literature and drama, they could be encouraged to write a short story, poem or play inspired by the objects in the Museum.

The point is to try to match the tasks wherever possible to the learners’ individual interests, needs and aspirations.


As we have seen, a range of differentiation strategies can be applied even within a single lesson.  Learners’ different educational experiences, cultural backgrounds, learning styles, language and skills proficiency, disabilities, learning difficulties, interests, needs and goals need not be seen as hindrances to learning, but as opportunities for its enhancement. 

The key benefits of differentiation can be summarised as follows.

  • It makes learners feel valued as individuals.
  • It enables all learners to achieve and progress.
  • It promotes tolerance and appreciation of differences.
  • It makes teaching multidimensional, multisensory and multimodal.

Further reading


  • D. Perry, ‘Differentiation – policy and practice’ (2003), Language Issues: the Journal of NATECLA, 15/1.

[1] D. Perry, ‘Differentiation – policy and practice’ (2003), Language Issues: the Journal of NATECLA, 15/1.

[2] Department for Education and Employment, Adult ESOL Core Curriculum (2001). London: DfEE.

[3] Education Scotland, ‘What motivates the ESOL learner?’ 

[4] P. Schellekens, Oxford ESOL Handbook (2007). Oxford: OUP.

[5] Department for Education and Skills, ESOL Access for All (2006). Nottingham: DfES.

[6] A person’s learning style can be defined as ‘a characteristic and preferred way of approaching learning and processing information’ (T. Hedge, Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom (2000). Oxford: OUP).


This article has been written by Sora Zushi who is a British Council ESOL Resource Specialist. He has ten years’ experience as an ESOL Lecturer at City and Islington College, London, and is currently EAP Tutor at King’s College London. Sora also produces national and international exams as an Item Writer for Cambridge ESOL.

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