Differentiating in a classroom with a variance of languages

shutterstock_171867521Is there a trick that you have to differentiating when you have variance of languages and levels in one classroom?

I would have to say some of my best experiences teaching have been when I have had different languages spoken in the class and various levels of English proficiency. I always get the question from non-teachers, “Don’t you need to know the students’ language to teach them English?” and, as many of you know, you don’t. Despite not speaking students’ languages, you are able to encourage their learning through a variety of techniques, including collaborative learning.

One trick I would say in having a successful multi- language and multi-level classroom is to help your students be independent and collaborative learners. As many of you know, having multiple languages in a classroom is an awesome thing! Learners are pushed to speak in English because they have no other way of communicating.  Although learners covet the chance to speak with the teacher/a native speaker, there are some great advantages to speaking with their partners. They often feel much more relaxed and they can talk for most of the class with their partners, as opposed to just a few minutes one on one with the teacher.

I try to create this atmosphere of independence and collaboration with student-centered activities such as board games, partner dictations, conversation question baskets, jigsaw activities where students have to work with a partner to complete a story, and so much more. Of course, I am walking around, checking their work, listening to their English, and answering any questions they have, but they are working without me and collaborating with their partners. When I am asked a question about a vocabulary word or content that we have covered, I encourage them to look up the word or go through their notes to find the answer. The learning is in their hands and I just assist in facilitating. I will not always be the teacher for these students, and I am definitely not with them 24 hours a day. Becoming independent learners allows students to take learning wherever they go.

I am also intentional with grouping students. I often keep students at a similar level together when they are practicing certain content or grammar. Students can challenge and motivate each other because they know they are at the same level. However, I will group students by mixing levels to allow for students to teach and learn from each other. I love to see students help each other with a difficult word or something they have learned previously. It is true that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else. If students are working on a question together and one student explains to another what the answer is and why, you see the light bulb go off in both students’ heads! They empathize with each other and know the best way to explain something because they have been there not too long ago.

It can be challenging to break down the idea that only the teacher has the answer, but you can help students see a new perspective. Anytime a learner or group of learners asks me a question, I always say, “Great question! Does anyone know the answer?” and usually someone in their group knows the answer. After doing this so many times, learners start to realize that they can check with their partners before asking me. It is really cool to see a student who might be at a lower level or who lacks confidence explaining something to another student at a higher level. Wow, you can see the explosion of confidence happening with that student right at that moment! What a beautiful thing! Collaboration with others is such a crucial skill for life and work and something that can take lots of practice and patience. What a wonderful thing to be able to practice this in class, as well as practicing English! I often share with students how they are experts at workplace interpersonal skills. As educators, we aren’t just teaching English, but teaching students how to learn and help each other along the way!

Jenny Humble Martinez has been teaching English to learners of other languages for over 16 years in the U.S, France, Poland, and Japan. She has taught learners from ages two to 70 years old and is currently living in Chicago, Illinois working with adults in the Latino community on the south side. She has a Bachelor's in Cross Cultural Studies and Master's in Communications and Culture. While not teaching, Jenny loves spending time with her 7 month old baby girl Neriah and her husband Roy, hiking and seeing the world!

Category: Education, Tips and Tricks