3 ways to implement differentiation in your lesson

May 6, 2019


Personal approaches, individual learning trajectories, student focused tasks.. If you did not know any better you'd think all of these things (with new names every couple of years) are new things to education.

Luckily one can find one common theme in all of these approaches: differentiation.

However, in a 'regular' lesson, making sure all students are taken into account can be a challenge, in a CLIL lesson this might be even more difficult!

So how do you do this? Differentiating both language and content in your CLIL lesson?

In this article I will show you not just how to differentiate with language, you will also discover 3 ways to implement differentiation in your lesson.

Estimated time to read this article: 9 minutes

Quick recap: What does 'differentiating learning' mean?

Some years ago I followed a course on "Differentiating in education". A guy from university told us exactly what to do in our lessons to make sure we did a good job and made sure our students learned a lot.


Apart from the fact he was all about research and not about actual teaching at all (something I tend to have allergic responses to)..

..he also pretended differentiation in a lesson is something that is 'easy' and 'doable'.

And believe me, my personal experience is completely different.

The goal of differentiating education is to

  • make sure students achieve personal development goals
  • learn at their own pace 
  • study things they think are important
  • etc.

In The Netherlands, many primary teachers do this on a daily basis.

And I respect them for that, because I do not know if I would be able to do it as effectively as they can.

Often, extra material is required for the different groups: More problems to practice, more in-depth ideas for the bored students etc.

This is not even taking into consideration that the language level of many CLIL students is vastly different!

Key Take Away

Differentiating content and language can be quite a challenge for many CLIL teachers

How to approach a class with vastly different language proficiencies

Allow me to share a personal story:

During one of the first CLIL lessons at my secondary school as a student, we were asked for our experience with the English language.

(For the record: internet was not quite around at that time. Facebook, Instagram, Google and Youtube did not exist.)

In other words: my language proficiency was limited to yes, no and a few naughty words.

Next to me, a girl promptly answered she had already been to England twice, had a  couple of English friends and actually followed a few language lessons during Summer.

Naturally the girl was the teacher's favourite from that point onward.

And I was not.

I do not share this story to make you feel sorry for me ( I turned out just fine if you ask me).

But I want you to realise this is something your students also experience.

On a regular basis.

Maybe even every lesson.

And believe me: this is not a fun experience to have.

I still remember this, despite this taking place quite some years ago!

So next time you notice a student not being quite sure about their language,

make sure you ask if you can help out.

For the record: I also teach students who have a language level that is possible higher than mine (often because of a bilingual background).

Allowing these students to shine and help out fellow students is a great way to make sure they keep motivated, as the language elements in a CLIL lesson are probably quite boring to them.

Again: Differentiating is key.

But maybe more importantly:

Integrating elements in your lesson to help out both challenged and bored students

Enter: scaffolding

Key Take Away

Students can have difficulties with content and language because they find it either too hard or too easy.

The important role of scaffolding

Whenever a student is challenged, this can be on multiple levels.

In this article, let us focus on two: content and language.

Two important elements of CLIL (what a coincidence..)

Content: The content might be too hard or too easy

Language: The language might be too hard (or too easy, but that won't necessarily be a problem)

Without having to change an entire problem, one could change the way a problem is scaffolded to allow for different approaches to the same problem.

Wow, long sentence: example needed!

Let's say I want to discuss the most important thing students learned at the end of my lesson 

The easiest way to do this is just ask them:

"What is the most important thing you learned this lesson?"

In my experience, this does not always result in the answers I was aiming for.

Why not? Well, let's see what could go wrong:

  • Students might find there are multiple new things and don't know what to choose
  • Students might now how to write down the new difficult word they learned
  • Students might lack the reflection skills needed to see what they actually thought was difficult
  • Students might not have any 'most difficult' because they did not learn anything new (they think)

You might be able to come up with more yourself, but I just wanted to clarify a question like this poses many possible challenges to students.

Scaffolding can help in this case.

One way might be to provide sentence starters. This lowers the language barrier.

For example: "What I think was tricky today was.."

And if you want to facilitate the 'smarter' kids: "The thing I explained to others most was.."

By providing a couple of these sentence starters for students to choose from you achieve two things:

  1. 1
    Students get to choose the one they feel most comfortable with (suited to their needs)
  2. 2
    Students have some language scaffolding in place to lower the language barrier, as the content level is quite high when you ask for new things.

In addition, you might provide a list of new words from this lesson, so students can see the correct spelling of new words.

This way you can take one activity, but providing more (or less) structure you can differentiate in your lesson.

Key Take Away

Scaffolding can be a great tool to help students with both language and content differentiation. Keep an eye on the balance between content and language.

3 easy ways to implement differentiation in your CLIL lesson

As you know I speak from personal experience whenever I post articles.

This post is no different, so allow me to share 3 things I do (or have done) in my lesson to facilitate differentiation.

1. Colour-coded groups

Some years ago I taught a group with a lot of 'different' students.

Let's just say some combinations of students should not have taken place..

Anyway, to make sure all students would still receive a lesson according to their needs and learn something new..

..I created colour-codes for the groups.

Red: Need to pay attention to the instruction, take notes, receive priority with questions

Yellow: Need to pay attention to the instruction, have to help each other out first.

Blue: Do not  need to pay attention to this instruction, have to help each other out.

Despite the fact this class of 32 students was considered to be a challenging group by many teachers, this way of working actually helped a lot.

When a colleague asked why they liked this way of working, they responded they felt they received help the way they liked.

And even better: they felt the way I divided the class was fair. It was not in any way a punishment to be in the red group.

2. Fast- track

At the moment I teach a class with a couple of extremely bright students.

Good for them you might think.

But I notice these kids might lose their enthusiasm and positive attitude if they are bored in the lesson..

Something you have probably seen as well in your lessons.

To help out these students, I developed something called the "Fast Track".

Students who want to be on the "Fast Track" receive less homework, can know for themselves if they listen to the instruction and do not even need to be in the classroom all the time.

On the other hand: they get a more difficult test and if the test score is not sufficient, they cannot participate in the "Fast Track" next lesson.

Giving these students some responsibility triggered their curiosity as well as their motivation.

And with 5 or 6 students less in the classroom, I had more time to focus on the students who might just need my help a little bit more.

3. Start assessment

Sounds fancy, doesn't it?

It basically means: I ask a few questions at the beginning of me lesson.

The follow-up action for students depends on how well they feel they understand it.

This can be both language and content related.

For example: I could ask at the beginning of my lesson:

1) Explain in your own words the definition of an isosceles triangle

2) Solve for x: 4x+5 = 5x-2

After providing students some time to try and figure this out, I ask them to share their answers.

Students who had everything correct can start working on their own.

Students who did not, have to listen to the instruction.

Added bonus: Students are more motivated to learn, because they realise they do not understand it yet.

And yes, this how I experienced it, not just theoretical ideas ;).

Notice the focus on language in the first question. 

This can easily be changed into any other language-related question, 

but provides you with a lot of information at the beginning of your lesson.


Differentiation is an important element of education, no matter the level or the age group of the students.

As a CLIL teacher, language might be an additional challenges when dealing with the different language capabilities of students.

By cultivating the successes, keeping an eye on the balance between language and content and using a variety of activities that allow for different approaches, students can perform better than expected.

What do you do to differentiate in your classroom? Let me know!

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