Differentiated instruction, also known as differentiated learning, supports diversity in the classroom by providing multiple avenues for learning. Have you ever accounted for students’ strengths and weaknesses when developing lesson plans? Or helped a struggling student grasp a new concept by switching up your teaching method? If so, you may already be familiar with the benefits of this teaching approach.

The underlying principle that defines differentiation is that not everyone learns the same way or has the same skillset, but everyone has the right to an education that takes into account—and celebrates—their diverse needs. If you’re interested in a career as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, this approach may one day play a pivotal role in your classroom.

Everyone Has a Toolbox of Ways to Think

Let’s first look at why students’ learning outcomes have improved with this teaching approach. In years past, it was widely thought that the optimal teaching method could be found by discovering a student’s preferred learning style. The most popular model for determining learning styles is VARK, which stands for:

  • Visual
  • Aural
  • Read/write
  • Kinesthetic (tactile)

At the end of a simple questionnaire, a student could discover if they learned by seeing, hearing, reading, or performing activities. However, as The Atlantic reports, research has shown that there is no correlation between academic performance and a student’s learning style. This is because students have a range of learning styles, not just one. Rather than focusing on learning styles, teachers should focus on abilities. Some students excel at reading, while others excel at writing. This differentiation is crucial in ESL classes, where the disparities in students’ language skills may be challenging to overcome.

As University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham explains, “Everyone is able to think in words; everyone is able to think in mental images. It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”

What is differentiated instruction? For Willingham and an increasing number of educational professionals, differentiated instruction is about using multiple tools (teaching methods) so that each and every student can benefit.

The Principles of Differentiated Instruction

Classrooms are mosaics built from students with different cultures, behaviors, and experiences. By acknowledging these differences and responding positively to student needs, an ESL teacher can foster an inclusive learning environment where students are better able to learn new language skills. Let’s explore some of the main principles of differentiated learning.


Time, materials, and student groupings are teaching elements that are there to serve students, not the other way around. These elements should be flexible and adjusted as student needs are assessed and provided for. This is especially crucial in ESL classes, where some students may need more attention than their peers.

Ongoing Assessment

Differentiated instruction means continuously assessing students’ progress, ability, needs, and interests to inform instruction. By making assessment an ongoing process, teachers can determine where students are in relation to academic goals and adjust their teaching approach as needed. An ESL teacher should always be willing to approach a student regarding the challenges they’re facing in learning a second language.

Group Work

Differentiation is all about mixing it up. Students should receive individual, small-group, and whole-class instruction. Groups should be similarly varied, with students working with peers of similar academic ability one week and peers with similar interests the next. Sometimes, all a struggling student needs is the assistance of a peer who’s a little farther along.

Challenging Learning Environment

Every teacher hopes that students will find their lessons engaging, but the true difficulty lies in challenging students of varying skill levels. Teachers who regularly assess student progress can alter tasks so that students are only engaging with content they are able to learn. Rather than provide different tasks for every student, teachers can incorporate flexible tasks, such as having students study alone for a set amount of time.


Students know their academic strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. They know which lessons they find engaging, uninteresting, or downright painful to get through. Although teachers should always be strong sources of leadership in the classroom, student input is crucial for providing for their needs and maximizing learning.

Differentiating Instruction in the Classroom

What does differentiated instruction in the classroom look like? Using an ESL classroom as an example, students have constant access to learning materials of varying levels of difficulty, and study times are set aside so that students can advance at their own pace. Whether in small groups or with the whole class, students apply what they’ve learned to regular discussions, deepening their comprehension and retention of the English language. In addition to teaching by the book, teachers build lesson plans around their students’ individual skills, assessing abilities by reviewing assignments, listening to discussions, or engaging with students one-on-one. Everyone is learning in a differentiated classroom, including the teacher.

Why Is Differentiated Instruction Important for Bilingual Education?

Differentiation is a crucial concept for teachers interested in bilingual career growth. ESL teachers instruct students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and preferences that heavily influence their ability to learn a second language. ESL teachers must be able to account for, support, and celebrate what makes students unique learners. A Master of Arts in Bilingual/English as a Second Language Education can prepare aspiring professionals for this exciting role as a champion for student success.

The University of Texas Permian Basin’s online MA in bilingual/ESL education program covers theoretical and practical methods of teaching, including strategies for teaching science, social studies, math, and language arts to Spanish speakers. Differentiated instruction is just one of the teaching methods we cover in this online program. In as little as 12 months, our online MA in bilingual/ESL education program can prepare you for an exciting career as a leader in the bilingual education field and, more importantly, a champion of student diversity.

Learn more about UT Permian Basin’s online MA in bilingual/ESL education program.