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Differentiating Instruction in the AP Spanish Classroom

by Grace Smith
Grosse Pointe Public School System
Grosse Pointe, Michigan

and Stephanie Throne
Independent teacher
Metamora, Michigan





Part 1: Flexible Groups and Product Menus


What Is Differentiated Instruction?

It's no secret that today's teachers face many challenges and pressures. Not only must we ensure high levels of performance on standardized tests, but we must also meet daily the varied needs and interests of our very diverse learners. We are responsible for "covering" a vast and ever-changing amount of material in a way that guarantees student mastery. Consequently, educators must determine which knowledge and skills are most important for students to learn.

"Differentiated instruction" is earning increasing recognition and respect as a viable option in K-12 and even college-level classrooms because it offers multiple approaches to meeting learners' needs. Teachers who practice differentiated instruction respect student diversity (academic, familial, cultural, and so on) and respond by modifying their instruction. The changes that they make to their instructional strategies and techniques enable them to meet curricular objectives and acknowledge learner variance.

Some educators tend to shy away from differentiated instruction because they perceive it to be extremely teacher-intensive. However, differentiated instruction is student-centered and requires a high amount of student participation and accountability for learning. Differentiated instruction does not equate to individualized lessons for each student. Rather, it encourages flexible grouping (not always homogeneous) and simultaneous activities (interest groups, stations, or learning centers), in which students perform tasks that push them beyond their learning comfort zones. Whole-class and individualized instruction complement group-driven tasks. While students are positively stretched, teachers realize that the quantity of the work assigned is of less importance than the quality of the activities undertaken.

Educators who practice differentiated instruction also know that the students' perception of the learning environment has a profound effect on learning, as does the way in which teachers arrange and present the content to be mastered. If the students are not somewhat curious about the topic of study, or they do not feel safe in their learning community, their motivation level plummets. In addition, teachers view assessment as an essential, ongoing part of their classes, not just a one-time event at the end of a chapter or unit. One of the key features of differentiated instruction is teachers' willingness to continually learn more about their students and to adjust learning strategies and techniques that support changing student needs.

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, differentiation of one or more of three essential curricular elements, found in every classroom, translates into multiple learning approaches that will assist students. See Table 1 for definitions of these key curricular components: content, process, and product.

Table 1

Content Process Product
Information students learn, obtain, or access Activities that cultivate students' comprehension of content End products that show what students have learned


Tomlinson says that teachers who use differentiated instruction understand that three student characteristics guide differentiated instruction. If we develop activities that correspond closely to these three traits, we can better support our students' efforts to comprehend the material and enjoy the learning journey, too! See Table 2 for descriptions of these three significant characteristics: readiness, interest, and learning profile.

Table 2
Readiness Interest Learning Profile
Tasks that match students' skills and levels of understanding Tasks that match students' delights and passions and foster curiosity Tasks that support students' preferred learning style or way of learning


Now that we have a better understanding of the main principles and characteristics of differentiated instruction, let's explore one of its fundamental strategies: flexible grouping.

The Role of Flexible Groups Based on Readiness, Interest, and Learning Profile (Style)
As a language teacher, your initial reaction to differentiated instruction and flexible grouping might be one of the following:

"I already practice differentiated instruction."

"Differentiated instruction is nothing new. It's a natural part of the foreign language classroom."

"My students already perform multiple tasks requiring multiple skills in class."

Most likely, you pair or group your students on a regular basis to foster a particular language skill or mastery of content (such as vocabulary, cultural knowledge, or grammar). However, small-group activities sometimes become so "routine" in the foreign language classroom that they often lack a clear purpose. Communicative activities are absolutely imperative in the foreign language classroom, but they must be created with an end in mind. As foreign language teachers, we can't just "pair up" to pair up, or because that's what we always do in class. We need to examine the rationale behind the group activities and truly think about their effectiveness. We must consciously plan out when to use small-group, whole-class, and individualized activities and consider the methodology we use to group our students. It's also a good idea to vary the range of activities in our classrooms because doing so maintains student interest and helps to halt the feeling of "SOS," or same old stuff.

Teachers can easily make use of the three student traits shown in Table 2 -- readiness, interest, and learning profile -- to deliberately group students. When we group students by readiness, we can focus on their skill levels and might purposely pair a weak student with a strong one. This type of pairing helps to strengthen the weaker student's skills and to cultivate leadership skills in the stronger student. Teachers might also choose to group students of the same level so that they can work alongside each other during a particular unit in order to hone a specific skill. Additionally, instructors may choose to develop tiered activities to diversify tasks based on different levels of student ability. Tiered activities focus on the same core skills and concepts for all students, regardless of their ability levels, and provide varying degrees of difficulty to ensure that each student comes away with essential skills and understandings. Tiered activities vary student resources and materials, adjust the level of thinking required, change the product, and/or modify the learning objective.

On other occasions, instructors may wish to divide students based upon their interests, which we often categorize by areas (such as fine arts, athletics, literature, technology, and sciences) and modes of expression (such as oral, written, and hand-designed/built/crafted). At times we need to put together a group of learners with contrasting interests to promote a multifaceted approach or multiple points of view (such as when we debate controversial issues or national/world problems). On the other hand, sometimes it's necessary to group students together with related interests so that they may realize a task driven by their common passion (e.g., literature circles, WebQuests, or a specialty team that explores a particular genre or style of writing).

If we elect to group students based on their learning profiles, we take into account our students' brain-based intelligences and use resources such as Gardner's multiple intelligences and Sternberg's triarchic intelligences models; we also consider students' learning styles, their gender-based preferences, and their culture-influenced preferences. Again, there are times when it's best to put together a group of students whose learning profiles are very diverse; this might be the case with a group presentation that requires several elements (such as multimedia, visual aides, written reports, and/or preparation of a classroom activity). Other times, it is more useful to place students with a similar learning profile into the same group, as they might accomplish more with those who share their preferences or if they are working with a particular type of document or resource (music, film, time line, brochure, electronic text, authentic document and so on). It's also advantageous to group students with a similar learning profile if their task is to develop one facet of a certain topic or project. A learning style questionnaire or survey, particularly at the beginning of a new class, can be a helpful tool. If you don't have access to a "formal" questionnaire, you may find several on the Internet, or you may simply ask your students what they perceive to be their preferred learning style. Teachers must know their own learning style as well so that when they design a lesson, they can flex their teaching to accommodate the needs of students whose learning style is different from their own. Here are some links that offer learning style questionnaires.

Welcome to the Cave of the Code-Breakers (Crack Your Learning Code)
This site is an online miniworkshop for teachers. Its assessment tool can be used as an informal classroom activity with older students.
  Welcome to the Cave of the Code-Breakers

Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire
This site offers a free learning style inventory by Soloman and Felder.
  Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire

The Vark Learning Style Questionnaire
This is a commercial site that offers a free questionnaire, feedback, and help sheets.
  The VARK Questionnaire

What's Your Learning Style?
This site offers a 30-question online assessment that could be used with older students. Descriptions of each style are listed.
  What's Your Learning Style?

Abiator's Online Learning Style Inventory (Test 1)
This site offers a 30-question online assessment. Descriptions of each style are listed.
  Abiator's Online Learning Styles Inventory

Finally, reflect on the way in which you arrange your instructional time in the classroom, and look for new and meaningful ways to group your students. If you have never allowed your students to pick their own partners, give them the opportunity to do so. If you need to mix things up a bit, try some random grouping. Dare to vary each group's assignment. Create some short, spontaneous tasks that require that your students turn to a nearby partner to chat for just a moment, as they would in real life. Lastly, consider Baltimore County Public Schools' Differentiated Instruction document, a descriptive listing of options for flexible grouping (found at the Wilmette, Illinois, Public Schools District 39 site), some of which we have already discussed more informally in this section.
  Differentiated Instruction (.pdf)

  • Investigative (alternative solutions) clusters
  • Debate (exploring perspectives) teams
  • Detective (problem-solving) squads
  • Mentor-guided (older students or volunteers) teams
  • Tech-supported (Internet research) researchers
  • Performance (using arts) teams
  • Tournament (competitive) teams
  • Integrative (linking learning to real-life experiences) teams
  • Supportive (building each others' skills) teams

Next, let's explore another helpful strategy: how to differentiate instruction by varying products.

A Menu of Product Assignments
Before considering a list of possible products, it is vital to understand the goal of product assignments. A product is an outcome that reflects student skills and knowledge, as well as ownership and application of curricular elements. As Tomlinson states: "Product assignments should help students -- individually or in groups -- rethink, use, and extend what they have learned over a long period of time -- a unit, a semester, or even a year" (How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, second edition, p. 85).

When we craft product assignments, we need to strive for a plan that will encourage students to move beyond their learning comfort zones without causing a lot of frustration. Teachers can assist students by developing steps, called "scaffolding" (such as brainstorming, rubrics, models/examples, time lines, peer and self-evaluation, critiquing, revising, and editing), that help to guide students toward successful completion. Educators must clearly identify the essential concepts and skills that students need to master and communicate their expectations for quality and product format. As we design product assignments, flexibility is crucial. We ought to allow students to use multiple and varied technologies, materials, means of expression, and resources. Whenever possible, our product assignments should enable a connection between Spanish and students' own interests, life experiences, and/or real-world issues.

Table 3 below offers a variety of possible product assignments for your classroom. For each assignment, we have listed potential target areas, such as the development of specific grammar and vocabulary skills.

Table 3

Product Possible Purpose
Advertisement Practicing commands, future tense, subjunctive, persuasion, vocabulary related to product (clothes, food) and shopping (money terms, stores), artistic/visual/oral skills
Autobiographical preterit-imperfect book Distinguishing between preterit and imperfect, using descriptive vocabulary, practicing writing skills (chronological focus) and artistic/visual skills
Board game Creating a project using the imagination, communicating Spanish/Latin American historical and cultural facts, using vocabulary and/or grammatical terms
Compile and annotate list of Internet resources Using technological skills, research skills, and writing skills (descriptive focus)
Debate Practicing if clauses (with future and conditional tenses) and subjunctive, expressing opinions, using vocabulary related to world issues (environment, discrimination), developing problem-solving and oral skills
Design and teach class Using organizational, planning, and presentation skills; applying current grammatical concepts and vocabulary terms
Imaginative teacher's biography Distinguishing between preterit and imperfect, using descriptive vocabulary, developing writing skills (chronological focus)
Journal, magazine, or newspaper article Using informational or persuasive writing, using vocabulary related to world issues or culture, expressing opinions
Letter to editor or persuasive essay Practicing persuasive writing, using vocabulary related to world issues or culture, expressing opinions
Photo essay Creating a project using descriptive writing skills, summarization techniques, and images
PowerPoint presentation Using creativity and presentation skills, technological skills, historical or cultural knowledge, and research skills; using a specific set of appropriate vocabulary terms and/or grammatical structures
Travel brochure Practicing commands, future tense, persuasion, travel vocabulary, subjunctive, writing skills (organizational), geographical skills, research skills, and artistic/visual skills
Write and perform own play/dialogue or memorize existing dialogue Demonstrating creativity and presentation skills

We hope that our summary of the principles, characteristics, and buzzwords associated with differentiated instruction is helpful to you, as are our suggestions about flexible grouping and product assignments. If differentiated instruction still seems insurmountable or unappealing to you, think about ways you can overcome barriers to implementation. Spend some time looking over research that supports differentiated instruction, partner with some of your colleagues to plan activities together that require differentiated instruction, ask for help from your administrators and parents, and/or challenge yourself to put one new strategy into practice in the near future. In part 2 of this article, we will identify and describe several technology tools that may help you to better differentiate instruction in the Spanish classroom.

Grace Smith works as the technology curriculum coordinator for the Grosse Pointe Public School System in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. She also writes training materials and facilitates workshops. Smith holds a B.A. in English and social studies with a minor in Spanish, an M.Ed. in secondary reading, and a Ph.D. in instructional technology.

A former college professor, Stephanie Throne works as an independent contractor for adult, high school, elementary, and preschool Spanish classes and as a private tutor for students of college-level Spanish and elementary reading and math. She holds a B.A. in Spanish and economics and business administration with a minor in international commerce, an M.A. in romance languages and literatures: Spanish, and a Ph.D. in romance languages and literatures: Spanish.

Smith and Throne have collaborated together on several historical articles and are authors and cofacilitators of Thomson Course Technology's online course entitled "Differentiating Instruction in the K-12 Classroom Using Simple Technologies."







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