Three ideas for differentiation in a CLIL lesson

September 5, 2016


I have always had the up most respect for primary school teachers, for various reasons. One of the most important things a primary school teacher does is facilitate differentiation: allowing each and every student to receive instruction and work on his or her own level.

At secondary schools, differentiation is still important. In some parts of the world (like The Netherlands) students are organised by level from the age of 12. This suggest it is easier to differentiate, but believe me, it is not.

If differentiation fails, students might be bored or demotivated to work because they don’t understand what’s going on.

We don’t want, that do we?

So, what can we do in a CLIL lesson to make sure our lessons support differentiation? Let me share some ideas I use in my lessons and feel free to add to that in the comments below.

The three ways to use differentiation explained below are:

  1. At the opening of a lesson
  2. During a plenary instruction
  3. By providing a challenge
Opening of the lesson

The first thing I do in all of my lessons is start with an “Assignment of the day”.

This is quite often a series of questions related to the previous lesson(s). These questions can be about knowledge (“Write down the steps to…”) or about application (“Calculate ..”).

Every now and then I will add a text based exercise, to see how students tackle those problems.

But how does this help differentiation?

After I finished discussing these exercises and check how many people had it correct, I will provide them with a series of assignments to do next, based on how well they did during the assignment of the day.

For example: if a student scored 4 out of 4, he or she can continue working on the more challenging assignments. It is even possible that the student is allowed to only listen to the first part of the instruction instead of the entire plenary session.

I am still perfecting this method, but so far it seems to work quite well!

Instruction: Colour coding

A couple of years ago I taught a group of students who required a very differentiated approach.

Read: the level between the students was huge, the patience with each other limited…

I decided to colour code each student: Blue, Yellow and Green. Those colours stood for: Independent, Needs some help, Receives most help.

During the instruction the students had different roles depending on their colour

  • The blue group was allowed to listen only when they felt it necessary, otherwise they were allowed to work on their homework (which was different from the other two groups).
  • The yellow group had to listen to the instruction, but after that they had to work together to figure out what the answers were if they encountered challenges
  • The green group could ask me for help (not for answers) and received higher priority than the other groups.

It worked like a charm!

Students who were independent and wanted to work on their own pace and level could do so

Students who needed more help received this as well.

After a couple of weeks a colleague of mine visited a lesson and asked one of the students if he thought the groups were fair.

He actually agreed on the way I organised the group and thought everyone was indeed were they were supposed to be.

So, I did not just help student get the most out of the instruction, they were also more motivated to work because they knew I treated them based on their capabilities. Differentiation at its best!

And students at that age really don’t mind knowing they might not be the best in their class in my experience.


The last idea for differentiation is to provide ‘challenges’ every now and then. This could be in the form of lesson goals (“At the end of the lesson you can solve the equation below”) and allowing students to already try and figure it out, or by setting up a challenging assignment at other moments during a lesson.

Not too long ago I ended the lesson with a challenge, asking students to see if they could figure it out. I would provide the answer the next lesson.

To my surprise students walked up to me and asked for the answer after the lesson was over. They really wanted to know if they were correct or wrong!


There’s much more to say about differentiation.

I did not mention learning styles, teacher-assistants or student-created study planners.

However, this blog post is already long enough as it is, so I might just mention that in a future post ;).

Be sure to let me know your ideas on differentiation and share them!


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