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Differentiating Language Instruction

11/14/2019 | Written by Natalia Roberts

Each unit we teach has a certain set of learning outcomes that the instructor helps every student to achieve. Once those outcomes are identified and the assessments created, the instructor must make a series of tasks to prepare students to meet those outcomes and perform to the best of their ability in the assessments. Then the teacher designs a variety of activities, not only to help students successfully perform the tasks, but also keeping in mind the need to meet a diversity of learning approaches as not all students in the cohort benefit from each activity in the same way.

On my path towards differentiation, I adopted a Flipped Learning model that swaps out lectures and other traditional classroom elements in favor of more face-to-face interaction. Students were offered options to learn the material outside of class either via textbook explanation or a video explanation recorded by the instructor and accompanied by downloadable slides. For some languages there are available videos already on YouTube or a website that accompanies your text that can be used instead of creating the videos yourself. After learning grammar material via video and/or the textbook explanation, students were required to take online concepts checks providing students with instant feedback and helping them formulate specific questions that needed to be revisited in class. The use of the Flipped Learning model led to more robust recognition of grammar patterns and greater confidence to apply them in interpersonal communication tasks during our face to face class time. However, it would be unrealistic to expect students to gain control of grammar forms in oral communication without ever receiving instant feedback on it. While class time was formerly used for teaching these concepts in traditional ways and the feedback coming mostly from the instructor, which still can work, technology is allowing me to better differentiate for my Russian students and address specific misconceptions that may vary from student to student. 

At the UW System Collaborative Language Program workshop, I learned Speak the words screenshotabout H5P¹ Speak the Word Set activity, which allows students to pronounce words and phrases based on a task and receive instant feedback. It is not as simple as pronunciation practice, but it can serve as a concept check for the application of grammar concepts in oral form. H5P Speak the Word Set activity allows the scaffolding of concepts. At first students could be asked to read the phrase in the target language featuring proper form and in the subsequent example they could be asked to produce it in the target language. Learning through different modalities and with varied degrees of difficulty engages every student.  

H5P Speak the Word Set activity is beneficial also for learning vocabulary to be used in conversation for a specific theme. Some students learn vocabulary best by writing down new words or expressions on flashcards, while others work best with visuals supported by instructor’s pronunciation of new words and phrases. Some students may assume they learned new vocabulary after they recognized those words on a multiple-choice quiz or learned to write them. However, they may not be ready to use those words in a conversation. In order to build students’ confidence to use those words in a conversation, I designed concept checks via H5P Speak the Word Set activity which could be done outside of class and still provide students with immediate feedback.

LearningApps ScreenshotNevertheless, students reach varied degrees of readiness after practicing vocabulary and grammar patterns at home. Some students are ready to role-play a situation with a partner based only on the task description, while others require more support in the form of dialogue examples with blanks to fill with students’ own information. Some students prefer to conduct reconstruction of the dialogue when lines are provided out of order either through reading for meaning while connecting questions and relevant answers, or through listening to the recording of a native speaker. This task used to be commonly done in class with slips of paper, however technologies like LearningApps² allow students to place lines of a dialogue in order and receive instant feedback. 

While it takes extra effort on behalf of a teacher to create materials that appeal to numerous learning styles, if we don’t we are doing a disservice to our students. Various degrees of complexity of materials and different modalities allow educators not only to engage each student, but also help each student reach their full potential, despite the background knowledge with which they entered the language learning environment. Switching many of my in class activities to online activities has allowed my students to work at their own pace as they develop fundamental knowledge so that we have more class time to apply the language in creative and personalized ways.


¹ H5P is a free learning objects creator with an extraordinary number of activity types. The .org site is completely free for you to create content and embed in your website. These are self-check activities so after students practice you can then create a quiz in your learning site to check that they learned through that practice. If your institution or department chooses to license the LTI to put into your course management system, the analytics from these exercises will pass directly to the gradebook without having to make an additional quiz to check for knowledge.

²LearningApps is also a learning objects creator with some different activity types from H5P. In this case if your course management system or website is SCORM compatible you are able to get the analytics directly in your gradebook at no charge. Otherwise these too are self-check activities. Again you are able to let students practice as many times as you’d like and then create a quiz to test their knowledge using a google form or your course management system.