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First steps into ... tips and lesson ideas: Using digital to support students who are learning at different paces

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Students learn at different paces. Daniel Barber introduces the benefits of using digital to support mixed-level classes and suggests some practical tips.

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Using digital to support students who are learning at different paces 

Why should I use digital for different learning paces?

All classes are mixed-level classes. Even the most homogenous groups have their more advanced students, as well as their strugglers. No doubt you have seen in your own classes the problems that such imbalance can create: feelings of superiority and inferiority; boredom in advanced class members and frustration in weaker learners; the difficulty of planning lessons that cater to all; the struggle to manage everyone fairly. Dealing with this is known as differentiation, and it is perhaps the hardest teaching skill, but the benefits to the learning environment, to our workload and to learning outcomes are huge.

In her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson says:

Offering multiple and varied avenues to learning is a hallmark of the kind of professional quality that denotes expertise. Our students – each of them – are a message that we can never stop attending to the craftsmanship and artistry of teaching.

The fact that you are reading this article shows that you work to improve your teaching ‘craftsmanship’. And there is no substitute for professional development, of course. We must keep working to meet the needs of students with different abilities and motivations. However, we need all the help we can get, and a number of technological advances in language instruction can help make differentiating easier and more successful. We’re going to look at one type: the online components of published courses. These might include digital student’s books and workbooks, extra exam preparation materials, interactive whiteboard materials, resource centres and virtual learning environments.

What to look for

For any resource to assist in the task of differentiated instruction, it must offer certain advantages:

Choice – Students seem to respond positively as agents in their own learning. Handing over the controls of learning means that they feel empowered, but it also takes some of the the decision-making out of our hands, and in mixed-ability classes, where the teacher’s attention is spread thin, this can only be a good thing. However, it can add a layer of complexity to the class space for the teacher because they have to be able to jump mentally from one task to another.

Flexibility – Any successful learning tool must adapt to the individual. Is it to be used in class or at home? Is it necessary to do every activity, or can you skip or repeat sections if need be? Is supplementary support in the form of glossaries or dictionaries easily accessible?

Challenge – We know that learning is best when students are offered opportunities to go one step further than they are used to. A resource that helps with differentiation needs to provide activities for fast finishers that are not simply ‘more of the same’ time-filling tasks to keep everyone busy, but genuine opportunities for extended learning. It also needs to allow struggling learners to reach their learning outcomes at a slower pace, with graded tasks if necessary. 

So how can online components help?

Courses are increasingly being delivered in both print and digital mediums. A course can include a whole suite of online resources for teachers and their classes. So, a more extensive range of learning opportunities is on offer than traditional courses. This has some very welcome potential benefits.

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A range of exercises – There may be more exercises to choose from, differing in difficulty and style. Unlike with printed books, students aren’t expected to do all the exercises. Rather, they and the teacher can select from a broader range. Students can do as many as necessary until they feel confident; this self-reflection of their own needs and capabilities will be evident when they demonstrate their understanding in later tasks.

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Additional material – Many online platforms can be personalised, with the option for the teacher to add material to the VLE for learners to contribute to (for example, by contributing thoughts through messaging). 

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Monitoring and recommendations – Many digital products offer teachers the ability to monitor students’ progress with a dashboard-style page that shows you which exercises each student has attempted and how well they’ve done. Various tools help teachers measure progress, and some can even suggest courses of action, such as which activities to do next at the right level of challenge.

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Privacy and differentiation – Students get privacy with a personal login to the site. This means that a teacher can give different homework to students according to their individual needs without the rest of the class knowing, which could save any embarrassment or hard feeling.

Tips and ideas 

  • Demonstrate online activities in class. Don’t expect students to do the activities without being shown how to access them, where to click and how easy it is. Once students see how motivating the activities are, they will be more likely to carry on at home. However, some repetition and consistency in choice of practice activities is important; solidify understanding of one practice type before introducing another.
  • Let students choose a number of activities from a longer list to study, either in class or at home.
  • Set up a fast finisher station in one corner of the room where students can access digital resources and choose activities. Train students to ask themselves three questions before starting: What do I need to work on? How difficult do I want it to be? How much time do I have?
  • When a student is absent, recommend extra online activities to help them catch up.
  • When a strong student needs pushing harder, suggest they time themselves doing a number of extra exercises from the online workbook.
  • Personalise the content. Imagine you are doing a unit about travel and you find a text about the transport system in the students’ town. You can upload the text to the LMS and send a message to the students to let them know it’s there.
  • Students get immediate feedback on their progress from the software, so use the time in class when you would normally be going through the answers and instead ask students more about the learning process: Which exercises did you choose? Why? Which did you find the easiest and hardest? What will you do next time? Do you have any questions about the language?

References

Tomlinson, Carol A., How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, ASCD, 2001, 2nd Edition

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