Differentiation within differentiation

At a NALDIC Conference a few years ago, I remember Constant Leung (see his UCL profile here), a Professor of Educational Linguistics at UCL and a NALDIC executive, saying something that has really chimed with me. Delivering a speech to a room full of EAL teachers, he stated, quite simply, that the more teachers have in their arsenal, the more they can use in their practice. 

Obvious, you say? Well, it should be, but it clearly isn’t. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be perpetually, usually in good faith, asked about “what works” strategies for EAL learners. Such questions suggest that learners with EAL are a type of robots, who are going to respond, without fail, to the same “EAL” strategies, again and again. Regardless of where they are from, what language they speak, what school or even classroom they are in, the input from their parents, their motivation, their first language literacy level, whether or not they are refugees… the list could go on, of course. 

This is demonstrably not so. One strategy or one resource (even as great as Gordon Ward’s Racing to English) or even one resource website (even as great as EAL Nexus) is just not going to replace the mind of a reflective teacher, who is able to use an entire arsenal of strategies and “mix and match” them, according to the needs of their learners, the specificity of their schools and the particular character of their own classrooms. Much like a forest, good teaching is not just one type of tree or one type of bush multiplied. It is a mix and combination of all the different mosses, plants, flowers, bushes and trees that makes for a living and breathing forest. Repeating brambles forever will not do it, and neither will endless planting of birches. 

The same mix and matching needs to occur in our classrooms if our learners are to be successful. Prof. Leung’s words imply that you would prepare your lessons and differentiate for your learners using your ever-growing repertoire of strategies. I suggest that we go a step further, though. I suggest we need to differentiate within differentiation, by incorporating elements of EAL teaching strategies into other EAL strategies. For instance, graphic organisers could be incorporated into substitution tables or images could be used within substitution tables. Such approaches only strengthen the efficacy of your strategies whilst exposing your learners to several different ways of gaining new knowledge. I provide several practical examples of this approach below.

This is a 2-step approach in that, clearly, in order to mix anything you need to first know what the different elements actually are. For the purposes of this post, in Step 1, I am focusing on 5 “flagship” types of EAL strategies that I believe no teacher should be able to live without. In Step 2, we will look at how we can combine them.





1 – Substitution tables

Substitution tables allow EAL learners to process sentences as “chopped” into individual bits. They allow you to guide your EAL learners through the grammar, word order and vocabulary of the sentences you wish your learners to produce whilst at the same time allowing you to check their understanding. Examining the examples below will make this linguistic strategy clearer.

Type 1: Tight control

Look at the first image below. Each column represents a separate grammatical item (column 1: a subject, column 2: a verb, column 3: a gerund [an -ing verb], column 4: an object). Learners can make several sentences about themselves or their classmates using this table. Some possibilities are: I like reading books. You hate listening to the radio. She hates reading books. 

What is noticeable here is how tightly controlled these sentences are (the table does not allow to even try and write anything other than a gerund after a verb, therefore, writing “We like books.” is impossible here) and how it focuses specifically on grammar rather than content. This is because this type of table is intended for very new to English beginner EAL learners. Look at type 2, though.

Type 2a: Content / comprehension checkers (low level)

Isn’t this diametrically different! These tables are designed for asking questions and answering them in a barrier game activity where students exchange information about rainfall and temperature in Jamaica and England (it wasn’t intended for writing, but for speaking). It is linked to a lesson delivered using a Collaborative Learning Project’s Geography resource at http://www.collaborativelearning.org/whatcanyougrow.pdf. The activity allows students to repeatedly practice the structure, but they have to read their diagrams to show they have the right data (the 5 and 10 numbers were, of course, changed to other numbers during this activity). Thus, content plays here far more prominent a role than it did in the Type 1 substitution table.

Type 2b: Content checkers (middle level)

In both Type 2b and 2c the challenge is higher for two reasons:

(1) unlike in 2a, it is possible here to make a grammatical error by following the table (e.g. Princess Diana were… or She was married Prince Charles…): the table below does test EAL students’ understanding of areas such as subject-verb agreement in the past simple tense and the use of prepositions (“married to Prince Charles” vs “She married Prince Charles”).

(2) this activity is linked to a reading text and, therefore, writing an answer true to the text requires more than just reading a number off a grid or a diagram, which was the case in 2a.

Type 2c: Content checkers (top level)

Hah. Clearly linked to the English curriculum, this substitution table (based/adapted from a resource available from https://eal.britishcouncil.org/) clearly checks the understanding of the play, but as you can see, it also checks grammar (arrive at the castle vs arrives at the castle). In other words, both content and language are taught through the use of such a table. Here, the teacher should check/mark the EAL learner’s sentences through the lens of both the content and the English language in order to support them effectively.


2 – Graphic organisers

Another way of supporting EAL learners is through the use of graphic organisers such as Venn Diagrams, cycles, timelines, relationship trees and cause-effect chains. These are very effective as they lower the verbal/linguistic requirements of your lesson/content without lowering the cognitive requirements. Graphic organisers (aka key visuals) are an accessible way of presenting content. 

A word of warning, though. These are useful to allow your English language learners to comprehend the content and be able to organise it in their mind. However, you still need to give them a way to produce language so they can talk or write about it: it is a good idea, then, to embed some linguistic elements onto the graphic organisers. On the Venn Diagram, you could add language such as What they have in common is… They are different because… whilst on the relationship tree (the first image), useful language could be “…are made up of… or …is divided into…)

3 – Images / pictures

I do not intend to dwell too much on this. Quite simply, images are very useful for EAL learners for rather obvious reasons – most are internationally understood and if graphic organisers lower the verbal barrier, pictures / images can do so even more effectively. Be wary, though, when you select images, though: searching for “beautiful” through Google Images might produce images of mostly white people (inappropriate if you are presenting this to a Somali student) and your idea of “a village” might be completely different to that of a person from Poland. Will they understand what you mean?



4 – The First Language

The use and maintenance of the first language has been consistently linked to more effective second language acquisition (in our case: English) by researchers such as Cummins, Thomas and Collier and Garcia. I’ve written before on this blog about it and spoken on many occasions at various events about it. Therefore, it is imperative that, certainly, L1 (=first language) is not blocked in a classroom and that we take full advantage of its enormous potential. If your learners are at a stage of SLA (=second language acquisition) where it is difficult for them to express their thinking in L2, then do use their L1 so they can use their cognitive skills to their fullest. 

Some simple ideas on how to do so:

  • let your EAL learners create their first draft in their L1, and only translate it later into English
  • deliver your lesson / content in English, but students present their understanding of the topic in their language by the end (yes, you won’t necessarily understand it, but they will know they’ve grasped, which, trust me, is a powerful motivator!)
  • provide key words translated in their first language – feel free to use my tool at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1PyxBv_vbx87cYk2rJMxqd2rsq7s5FkzEBRBt6hBMr2A/edit?usp=sharing 
  • if you can get a hold of a book on the same topic in the student’s language, do it! Ask yourself if you are teaching English Maths, English Geography, English Biology or just simply Maths, Geography and Biology?

5 – DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Text)

Please watch my YouTube video on DARTs to get a better understanding of what these types of strategies entail. These relate mostly to reading. 



Mix them up!

So let us now get to the central business of this post. Now that we know what these strategies entail and hopefully we use them in our classrooms, time to spice things up a bit! It is very easy to get stuck up in one strategy and not consider that it itself can be differentiated. For instance:

  • substitution tables can have some images instead of only text
  • substitution tables can be presented as images
  • graphic organisers can have substitution tables within them
  • graphic organisers can be enriched by L1 embedded into them
  • DARTs activities can include images

I am going to present some very simple examples of how to do this. They are genuinely simple. If you already use substitution tables or graphic organisers or DARTs, chances are this will be a comfortable step for you. It’s more about seeing that we do not need to use these strategies in their original form, but alter them. It’s about “attacking” your teaching and learning using an entire arsenal of ways whilst sticking to the EAL pedagogy principles. If text alone won’t do it, add images. If images won’t do it, add L1. If DARTs in their original form are not as effective, mix some substitution tables in… There are multiple ways of getting your message across – if need be, use them all. 

So let’s go!

1 – Substitution tables + pictures (+ L1)

Here, as you will see, the text in the last column has been replaced with the images of books / the radio. This presumes, of course, that your learners would’ve learned this vocabulary already. This is why I have written “L1” – you might have chosen to translate the words for them and these were the keywords for these learners.

This time, the like/don’t like/hate words are replaced by emojis (note that -s is added in the 3rd person singular) and it is the student’s task to change these into words when they write their sentences (or speak them).

The examples provided are for the beginners substitution tables, but you can imagine quite easily how this could be done for higher levels just as well. A bit of creative spark will allow you to cover smaller grammatical units as well. For instance:

  • a / an vs zero article could be presented as an image for number one vs an image for 2+ plurals
  • the online world abounds in images showing prepositions such as in, into, to, from, on, onto, etc.
  • the wh- question words are easily shown by pictures of a clock (when), a map (where), a light bulb (why)


2 – Graphic organisers + substitution tables

Let’s have a look at the graphic organiser below as an example. Here, we have 4 causes leading to an effect or a series of effects. Imagine that your learner needs to write a paragraph about 4 causes / factors of soil erosion (these being: intensity of rainfall, soil erodibility, slope gradient and length and vegetation).

Okay, so the learner puts the four factors we just mentioned into the four “causes” boxes. Great! But how are they going to put into English sentences what they know? This is precisely where substitution tables come in. First, write down an actual model paragraph of what you would say. What grammar / words (I mean quite precisely what words one needs to use to explain this. What language do we use to talk about causes / effects?

The substitution table you create needs to allow your learners to practice the language in a repetitive manner as EAL learners have to repeat language structures in order to remember them. Since this is done in the context of the lesson, and not in some isolated grammar-only manner, this is good EAL-specific practice. Essentially, what you need here is A leads to B. Are there other words that function as leads? You bet – results in, brings about, produces, gives rise to. And this is the result.

If you feel that “leads to” or “results in” is erroneous as it is all the 4 factors that result in the soil erosion and you wish the learner to reflect that in your writing, you can always write Cause 1 + Cause 2 + Cause 3 + Cause 4 = Effects and then produce the following and replace the substitution tables in the image above with it.  


3 – Graphic organisers + L1

When you provide learners with graphic organisers such as the ones above, I would normally suggest that they need to fill in the content obligatory blanks and teachers provide support with content compatible vocabulary (see my previous blog here) or grammar linked to these. Simply put, learners need to be required to write in the subject-specific vocabulary in English and not have it translated or simplified, but it’s the definitions of those that need supporting, which is where strategies such as substitution tables or starter sentences are useful.

But what if you provided completed graphic organisers to students so that they acted as a guide? If there is a reason to believe that your learners would have covered the material their class is studying at the moment in their country of origin (just speak to them – you will find out!), you might wish to draw on this and use their first language knowledge to reinforce and consolidate their learning. Inputting translated phrases onto it might be helpful in such cases. Below is an example from Maths:


There is nothing particularly fancy about it – simply put, I have entered my translated keywords onto the graphic organisers. The EAL learners are then asked to produce, either in speaking or in writing, a sentence to explain how fractions are multiplied. I am avoiding translating everything for them as I largely want to draw on the fact that they understand what numerator and denominator are, but everything else in the lesson is presented in English. The last thing you want is to generate a conviction in your EAL learners that without translation they cannot move on. Rather, you wanted to create a feeling that their language and prior knowledge (why should language be separated from knowledge in the eyes of those teachers who block L1 in their classrooms is beyond me) are respected and taken advantage of. Your students have history – their brains did not get erased when they came to England. Use their knowledge as mediated via their L1. 

In other for students to generate such sentences, you could go again for a substitution table, but a simple gap-fill could do, such as the one below:

In order to ________ ________s, you need to ________ __________s by ____________s ________ ______. 

You could highlight the words you want them to use (multiply, fractions, denominators, numerators, straight, across). There are, of course, other ways to differentiate for the level of the English language your learners currently have at their disposal.

(1) give the first letter of the words

In order to m_______ f________s, you need to m_______ n_________s by d___________s s_______a______. 

This just might result in just finding the words and not understanding, so tell them that once they’re done they’re going to have to tell you or the class about it without reading their sentence, but just looking at the diagram.

(2) provide hints as to what part of speech these words are

In order to ________ (verb) ________s (noun), you need to ________ (verb) __________s (noun) by ____________s (noun) ________ (adjective) ______ (preposition). 


4 – DARTs + images (leading to some graphic organiser possibilities, too)

DARTs is a vast field of numerous possible activities as you would’ve seen in the video embedded above. One of possible activities is jumbled up sentences. For instance, you could have 2 sentences summing up a lesson and it would be your learners’ task to reassemble the words into a sentence using a correct word order. Look at the example above for the subject of History.

These images should be reinforced through your lesson so your learners are not suddenly exposed to them when they do this task. As you can see, I provided information on how many words there are actually are in a sentence as some images might represent more than 1 word. If you feel that some of these concepts are too difficult to grasp through an image as they might be too abstract or too removed from the specificity of the History lesson, translate them into your students’ first language.

That’s how you get a jumbled up activity through images. There is, of course, a potential of having a mixture of text and images, too, if you feel this is more appropriate.

If your students really need support with basic word order or find understanding that subjects can be composed of more than one word, then draw them a Word Tree!

For clarification:

  • NP = noun phrase
  • VP = verb phrase
  • PP =  prepositional phrase
  • det = determiner
  • rel pron = relative pronoun

This is a simpler version of what is used in linguistics. You could use some examples with your students first, and then get them draw their own trees. It has worked miracles with my EAL beginner learners. It clearly shows to them, as in the example above, that, for instance, a verb can be two words (sets – up) and you could easily demonstrate here that “The dictator” would replace the pronoun as NP, becoming two words, acting as a two-word subject. No need to do it digitally – just draw one on the board. Start with a simpler one – the above is to demonstrate to you the potential of these.

Another option is to use a Sentence Diagrammer, which is a Windows Store app (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/p/sentence-diagrammer/9nblggh10hzs), which will generate sentence diagrams in a different format. It does not enjoy super feedback in terms of ratings, but it works for me! See below:

I am sure you appreciate the potential of these. The examples above are fully completed, but you can, of course, remove some words as well and ask your learners where they belong in the diagrams. Coming back to the use of images as a differentiation strategy, you can very easily replace the selected words with images on these. See below:

1 – Word Tree with adjectives within a noun phrase removed

  • this is so that we can expose to the students / reinforce the idea that in English any noun, if placed in front of another noun, can act as an adjective. “Concentration” by itself if a noun, but when placed in front of “camp”, it becomes an adjective. Do not assume this is the case in other languages. In my own native tongue, Polish, it certainly isn’t. “Koncentracja” (noun) is not “koncentracyjny” (“concentration” as an adjective)

2 – Sentence diagram with images

  • here, only verbs are replaced, and we would be checking if the learners use the appropriate tense (the original text used Present Simple) and whether the use the -s suffix in the 3rd person singular (Hitler creates). 

Summing up

In your planning and differentiation, do not be held back by the stock ideas. It’s fantastic if you use substitution tables and graphic organisers, but they can be enriched so that you use a variety of channels to get your messages across for your different EAL learners. I hope the examples above are a good starting point for you – but please do not just stop there. No resource is better than your own creative brain.

One thing that teachers really do need to do is think about what language they use in their everyday lessons, both content obligatory and content compatible language, and what language is specific to their particular subject domains. Be specific with what area of English language you teach in that lesson – do not just remove random words and replace them with images or L1 – trying to teach all of the English language by picking random bits is a recipe for failure (you wouldn’t do that in any other area of any curriculum anyway). Focus on a particular linguistic element (e.g. adjectives, Past Simple tense, passive voice or prepositions) and build your activities around that. 



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