Differentiating Instruction in the LOTE Classroom: Focus on Special Education Learners

This article was published
in the April 2003 issue of
the LOTE CED Lowdown.

by Nathan Bond, Ph.D

The face of the average learner in a LOTE classroom is changing. In previous decades only college-bound students studied foreign languages; however, today a rich array of students with a range of needs, ability levels and expectations fills the modern classroom. This influx of learners, including mainstreamed special education students, can be attributed to some school districts requiring all students to complete advanced high school graduation degree plans, which often include two years of study of a foreign language. Sadly, studies show that only 30% of general education teachers feel adequately prepared to work with mainstreamed students (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996). LOTE educators, however, are carefully examining their instructional practices and beefing up their repertoire of strategies to meet the demands of teaching a more diverse student population. One promising approach appears to be differentiation.

Carol Ann Tomlinson (2001), the nation’s most noted scholar in the area of differentiation, states that to meet the needs of all learners, teachers can vary three curricular elements: content, process and product. Her model proposes a flexible flow of instruction as students move through a series of wholeclass and cooperative group activities to master information. The purpose of this article is to offer both global and specific ways that LOTE educators can differentiate the “process” to meet the needs of special education learners. In order to differentiate the “process” focus on the following:

  • Maintain a positive attitude about working with special education students, and focus on their abilities, not just their disabilities. In a qualitative study that examined novice teachers and their perceptions of diverse learners, Tomlinson found that “In virtually no instance was there reference to what a special education student or struggling learner can do. Nearly total focus is on what the student cannot do” (Tomlinson, Callahan, Tomchin, Eiss, Imbeau & Landrum, 1997, p. 279).
  • Establish strong lines of communication with the student, parents, special education teacher and other faculty. Another expert on differentiation, M. B. Doyle (2000), encourages teachers to talk directly with the students to determine their strengths and interests. Furthermore, teachers should collaborate with other teachers who work or have worked with the special education student to learn which instructional techniques were successful. Lastly, portfolios of student work along with IEPs can provide the teacher with great insight into the abilities of the special education learner.
  • Teach explicitly. When teachers follow a structured instructional approach, they state the purpose of the lesson, model the knowledge or skill, and then provide students with ample, creative and hands-on opportunities to interact with the information. Teaching explicitly does not imply a simplistic and superficial view of teaching or learning. Instead, Tomlinson, et al (1997) state that teachers should prioritize information by identifying the essential concepts and teaching them well. They state, “Don’t focus on coverage, but developing deep conceptual understanding of a topic (p. 277). Also, teaching explicitly does not imply a singular approach to teaching or learning. Stradling & Saunders (1993) state, “But this does not mean that they [the special education learner] should not also be encouraged to learn in new and more efficient and effective ways. Learners need to be encouraged to develop a broader repertoire of learning strategies” (p. 131).
  • Teach thinking skills. Academically successful students enter the language learning process with elaborate cognitive strategies that help them to make sense of unknown information or tasks, and teachers accustomed to these students devote little instructional time to teaching thinking skills. On the other hand, special education students typically lack well-developed thinking skills. Bender (2002) urges teachers to strengthen students’ metacognitive abilities. For example, either the teacher or other students can “think aloud,” or orally explain the steps taken when approaching listening, reading, writing and speaking assignments in the foreign language. Another way to teach thinking skills is to show students how to simplify or break down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. And finally, the teacher can show students how to use graphic organizers, acronyms and mnemonic devices to master a foreign language (Paivio & Desrochers, 1981).

After reading this list of suggestions, LOTE educators should feel encouraged, since many of these ideas already comprise current definitions of effective foreign language instruction. Other proven methodological approaches should be remembered. They include: teaching information that is relevant to students’ lives; making learning active through the use of manipulatives, dialogues and role-plays; using authentic tasks and materials; assessing learning with formative, traditional and alternative techniques; motivating students with rewards; providing scaffolding or instructional support throughout the lesson; and establishing a structured classroom management system with clear rules and procedures. Adherence to this advice should aid teachers as they differentiate instruction for the special education learner in the LOTE classroom.


  • Bender, W.N. (2002). Differentiating instruction for students with learning disabilities: Best practices for general and special educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Doyle, M.B. (2000). Transition plans for students with disabilities. Educational Leadership, 58(1), 46-48.
  • Paivio, A. & Desrochers. A. (1981). Mnemonic techniques in second-language proficiency. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 780-795.
  • Scruggs, T. E. & Mastropieri M.A. (1996). Teacher perceptions of mainstreaming / inclusion, 1958-1995: A research synthesis. Exceptional Children, 63(1), 59-74.
  • Stradling, B. & Saunders, L. (1993). Differentiation in practice: Responding to the needs of all pupils. Educational Research, 35(2), 127-137.
  • Tomlinson, C.A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Tomlinson, C.A., Callahan, C.M., Tomchin, E.M., Eiss, N., Imbeau, M., & Landrum, M. (1997). Becoming architects of communities of learning: Addressing academic diversity in contemporary classrooms. Exceptional Children, 63(2), 269-282.