Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Differentiation and more: Back in the classroom!


I spent the first three weeks of school…in school! I was invited to take over for 3 weeks while a teacher was out on paternity leave- so I got to start the year with students! 

Some students were those that I knew from way back in the Before Times- when I was teaching one section of 5th grade, writing curriculum for grades 3-5 as I went, and mentoring an elementary teacher in addition to teaching my regular schedule of Spanish 1 honors, Spanish 2 honors, and Spanish 1b.  Then the pandemic hit, and the rest was…well, you all know.

I did a week-long sub job last year for a colleague in Texas as well, but it was a short, quick week at the end of the year, and while it was wonderful and worthwhile, I didn’t really get to try a lot of new things. 

I got to try A LOT of new things this time! 

And wow, I had a lot of new things to try!  I was so lucky to get to spend time in the language labs at IFLT this summer with Marta Ruiz Yedinak, Skip Crosby, Annabelle Williamson, Hayiun Lu, and others, and to be a facilitator-coach at the Agen Conference (IN FRANCE!!!), embedded in Spanish with Adriana Ramírez. From all of that came a list of things that I wanted to try, observations, things I wanted to think about, etc. However, the theme of the summer for me seemed to be Differentiation. I watched as some incredibly masterful teachers modeled a TON of different differentiation techniques- some that were familiar and some that were totally new to me. 
In my next few blog posts I am going to share some of the things I saw, learned, and tried. Let's start with Differentiation and the Amazing Skip Crosby!

Differentiation: Skip Crosby Style

Skip was a language lab teacher at IFLT this summer. 

I should mention that Skip is a master at differentiation. It’s so subtle that if you aren’t looking for it, you will likely miss it, which is incredibly impressive because the students don’t even notice it. All they seem to notice is how successful they are any time he asks them something.  If you ever get a chance to watch Skip teach, treat yourself. 
(Side note: He hosts the annual TCI Maine conference, which is open for registration as of September 2022 and although I am not going, I am 100% sure it will be amazing. Click here for more information: TCI MAINE 2022)

Some things that I observed him doing included (some are very differentiation focused, some are just Skip being amazing). 

Accepting non-verbal answers

    As a learner (of Chinese) myself, I can not stress the amazing value of this practice. There are many times when I understand a question and even know the answer, but may not be able to or confident enough to verbalize. I have seen this over and over again. 

Using cognates

    Cognates, if you teach a cognate-rich language, are great *so long as everyone understands them!* Cognates are a literary skill and can backfire- imagine being the person in the class who doesn’t know the word that is “obvious”. Making meaning clear for cognates is one trick. Mike Peto taught me this: use a gesture (I use my two index fingers coming together) to indicate a cognate. When I do that, students can shout out what they think it means in English. Then I confirm. 

Changing the question when it was not understood

    I watched Skip ask a question and then realize that it wasn’t a good question for that student- that is, they weren’t able to understand or answer it- and smoothly repeat the question in such a way that it was understandable. I can’t quite wrap my head around how to do this in such a way that it isn’t obvious-like Skip did- but it is something that I aspire to. 

Letting one student repeat and translate to the shared language any time it was needed

    This practice is something that I have really struggled with. It was really eye-opening for me to see and hear Skip model this and to recognize how it didn’t interrupt or disrupt the flow of teaching or language. I know, based on research and practice, that using the shared language in class does not do harm to student acquisition of the target language, but I have always stopped this when it happened in my class. (Like last week.) Re-reading my notes from watching Skip, I wish that I had just let it run its course, and recognized that the student was getting what they needed in that moment.


    Personalizing our classes is one of the core practices of a comprehension based classroom - after all, getting to know our students and talking with and about them is in our standards! And it takes a while- and practice- to use the information we get from them in a way that works in class. Skip reminded me of the importance of this. Some of the things he did included referring to their pets and their interests and hobbies throughout the class.

Staying in-bounds- only using language that had been used in class and referring only to what had happened in class that day. 

  Out of all the skills that are necessary for a comprehension based class, staying “in bounds” is maybe the hardest. ESPECIALLY when you have students who are at widely differing levels of proficiency. (Like me, last week, with an 8th grader who had never had language instruction and the rest of the class who had 2+ years of proficiency driven instruction…) It takes a lot of intention and work to make it automatic, and compassion for ourselves when we don’t get it right.    

Differentiation in the Moment: A Game 


Using a simple game format, the teacher asks questions of students that they are confident they can answer. The teacher asks different questions of students depending on the student. 

What’s the point? 

Teachers can use a game format to build student confidence and motivation by asking differentiated questions during the game. Plus, this is a great “sponge” activity to use when only a few minutes of class remain. 

Teacher Directions: 

  • Students stand or sit in a circle.
  • Teacher throws a soft object at a student OR students pass object around until music stops. 
  • Teacher asks a question about the day’s input (or other known information) that the student can answer.

Student directions

  • Catch or pass the object as directed.
  • Answer the questions. 

For some ideas of differentiated questions:

  • What does ___ mean in English? 
  • How do you say ____ in [the target language] ?
  • Where did [person] go first in the story?
  • What is one fact about [topic]? 
  • [in target language] Yes or no: ______. 
  • “You ask me a question” (for more advanced students, in the target language) 


You can play this with a lot of different kinds of games- any game where you ask questions about something that you make up on the spot. I have done it with The Lucky Reading Game and also with a variation of 4 Corners.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE - Coming soon I hope! 
Differentiation and observing Adriana Ramírez, 
The Student who is new to Class and how she read a whole page of a story after 3 weeks
Not Quite Plan B, Not Quite Anything goes (adding structure when kids are squirrely) 

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