Differentiation in the Young Learner Classroom

There’s Only One of You: How to Cater for Differentiation in Young Learner Classes

On my first day teaching English to a class of young learners I walked into a classroom full of 6-year-olds. As the young teacher I was then I had no idea of how different one 6-year-old could be from another. I mean, from the outside they all looked the same; small people with smiles on their faces (well, at least most of them) wearing identical uniforms.  I soon learned that they could not be any more different, the only similarity was the smiles on their faces.  The more I got to know my learners that year the more I felt I had walked into a meadow with a wide variety of flowers; they all grew at different speeds, in different directions, showed me different colours at different times and above all needed very different forms of nurturing.

Planning for different learning experiences to respond to students’ differing needs is known as differentiation. In 21st Century Education differentiation is seen as one strategy that can help teachers equip all learners with the skills needed for success beyond the classroom. Ellis & Ibrahim (2015) point out that individual differences in children are especially marked within the primary age range; “there are vast social, emotional and cognitive differences as well as physical and psychological differences (2015:212).”

Every child is unique and learns at their own speed which means that there are often significant differences between children within this age range, as identified by Pinter (2006). So, there is no one size fits all! For us, as teachers, to promote learning opportunities for all our Young Learners and enable all of them to achieve to the best of their abilities we need to tailor our lessons to the varied developmental levels of our students in our classroom. So, how can you go about this?

Where to start?

Differentiation starts with getting to know our learners as individuals. We need to gain insight into their current proficiency level and cognitive level of development but we should also try to understand their interests, what motivates them in the classroom and if they respond better to certain instructional strategies over others. This holistic view will help you plan with a focus on their individual needs.  Observation is a useful tool to gain insight into their social and emotional level of development as well as their learning preferences, so you can begin your teaching from where your students are.

  • All about me – get your students to create a personal profile that shows their likes, dislikes, interests, what they think they are good at or not good at. For older young learners who are aware of their learning preferences ask them to include some information about how they like to work (alone/ together) and share their knowledge (e.g., in written form, by drawing, through talking).

What to differentiate?

Walking into any classroom it is likely that you will encounter students with a wide range of abilities, interests and learning styles in one class. In a sense all classes are mixed ability and multi-level. This is not a new phenomenon, however in recent year it has increasingly become a sign of good practice to plan lessons so that all students in the classroom will benefit equally from our instruction.  As Tomlinson (2014) identifies we may have to vary our learning activities by difficulty to challenge students at different readiness levels; or by topic in response to students’ varied interests; or by students’ preferred ways of learning or expressing themselves.

  • Support, match or extend – based on what you have observed regarding your students’ different levels of ability, you can create tasks appropriately challenging. For some that will mean providing minor support for the task in order to fully enable them. It could be as simple as giving them sentence starters to complete instead of writing the whole sentence themselves in order to enable them to achieve the writing task. In order to extend students’ knowledge, you can ask them to write three more sentences than the set task.

Why put in the effort?

Many of us know about differentiation and we all want the best for our learners, however the sad reality is that we often have busy jobs and the admin related to our jobs is taking valuable planning time away. It can take a lot of time to adapt to different students’ needs but I believe the benefits are significant:

  • Student-centred teaching in itself means putting students’ interests first, meeting the needs of diverse learners is an essential part of this.
  • Variety is the spice of life and providing different pathways to learning can motivate the unmotivated.
  • It enables you to work towards a more inclusive learning environment in your classroom and might help better accommodate specific educational needs.

How to differentiate?

Varying your instructional strategies is a common way to differentiate which means that you vary the content (what you teach), the process (what learners do in tasks) or the product (how learners demonstrate what they have learned). Adapting content is time-consuming which is why you need materials with a wide variety of delivery formats such as songs, pictures and readings. So let’s look at varying our teaching with regards to process and product.

To facilitate learning for a wide variety of learners, we need to vary the process; the way students engage, explore and make sense of the concepts we are teaching. For example, some students can use graphic organisers to categorise animals, habitats, characteristics, etc. whereas other learners can talk it through by using think-pair-share.

  • Body grammar – In the review unit students can work with some of the sentence writing tasks in a number of ways; they can write them in their student book in the correct order, or are given learners hand out cards with sentence elements on and should arrange themselves in the correct order to make accurate sentences.

Product differentiation is probably the most common form of differentiation. By facilitating learners with varied response opportunities they show their understanding of the concept in a different end product. Offering them choice often increases participation level, motivation, engagement and, as a result, positively affects on-task behaviour. It also provides a great opportunity to integrate digital literacy into the classroom where available.

  • My menu choice is… – One of my favourite ways of providing varied responses is allowing students a choice in what they want to produce. With lower-level young learners I might provide three or four choices to pick from, with older young learners there is one blank course to propose their own ideas of how they will demonstrate an understanding of the language. For example, learners can record a recipe using an iPad or they can draw the steps whilst writing key words underneath. Another choice could be using pictures or even making a piktochart to visualise the process. Their final choice is to write the procedures in full sentences on the computer using, for example, paper or Smore.

So what does it mean for teachers?

We, as teachers, need to be flexible and have a range of teaching methods and techniques available and use them as needed. We need to truly listen to our young learners’ developmental needs, identify their specific needs and be responsive in finding ways all of our learners can make progress regardless of the developmental stage they are at. We need to have the resources that enable us to offer differentiated activities with minimal extra effort.  Only then can we help our learners hop over some of their hurdles to the next square. Happy teaching!

We would love to hear from you. What differentiation strategies do you use in your classroom?


Ellis & Ibrahim (2015) Teaching Children How to Learn

Pinter (2006) Teaching Young Language Learners

Tomlinson (2014) The Differentiated Classroom

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Author: Anna Hasper

Anna Hasper is a teacher, trainer and international English Language Teaching consultant based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Anna’s specialty is enabling teachers within local constraints, such as limited resources, to become the best teacher they can by enhancing all students’ learning opportunities through engagement. She has been working in the ELT industry for over 13 years and has worked on various projects for the british Council, International House, Ministries of Education, private schools, education providers and publishers in primary, secondary and vocational contexts. She loves exploring new places and learning about different cultures and has worked in a variety of countries such as China, Jordan, Iran, Uganda, Senegal, Algeria and Armenia. She currently writes and trains teachers for publishers and delivers a variety of Cambridge accredited teacher training courses (TKT, CELTA, YL Ex & Delta Module 3) around the world.


  1. Dear Anna, thanks for sharing your experience. I have been teaching English as a second language in São Paulo Brazil since 1991, for the last 5 years I have been only in private teaching. Since June 2016 I’ve got my first 4 to 7 year-old group. I guess I have been using ‘ differentiation’ without being familiar with the jargon. Most are illiterate even in our mother tongue and we have been playing kids games such as tag, duck- goose, red light- green light, Simon says, bingo with pictures of animals or other vocabulary from books I read for them, songs etc. It has been a challenge but very rewarding and yes all have different ways of responding to the activities, of learning etc. It’s a pleasure working with them.

    1. Hi Tania, thanks for your comment. I think indeed, a lot of us teachers ‘differentiate’ already without using the jargon. Key is that we enable all learners to succeed and it’s great to read that you provide such a variety of activities so they all get interested in learning! Playfulness at that age is learning and I’m glad you enjoy the challenge.

  2. Dear Ms. Anna,
    Thank you for your excellent article. I am an English language teacher trainer at a college in Saudi Arabia. Since I observe classes, my main focus is the active learning process of the student. And one of the ways to achieve it-differentiation is something alien here, especially in the southern side of the country. I have asked my coachees to firstly make learners’ profiles using VARK styles (electronically) and then make lesson plans accordingly. But training them on planning to implement differentiation in their lesson plans is really hard. Particularly, when the traditional style of classroom teaching is quite predominant. I once had my coachee to make groups for his mixed-levels class and 3 different worksheets for each level. So, he made 2 easy ones for the weak and one hard one (a totally different topic) for the strong student. That was good. But, then came the issue of managing the groups and their responses, where he couldn’t because when the strong ones gave their answers, the weak ones had no clue about it but when the weak ones gave the answers, the strong ones were able to participate instantly. So, I would request some tips on management of differentiation.

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