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How to Teach Students with Different Learning Abilities

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Teaching students on different learning levels can be difficult. However, learning to differentiate learning abilities can help teachers present materials in a way that will engage all students on all levels at the same time.

Teaching Students with Different Abilities

Teaching students with various learning abilities involves creativity, time and a desire to understand how a student learns best. With the right tools, teachers can reach each of their students no matter how different the styles of learning may be. Here are some examples of how teachers can teach a class of students made up of different learning abilities.

Methods of Approach

Student Assessments

One of the best places to start is by assessing students, both formally and informally. A classroom may be filled with students of the same age, but their learning abilities will most likely vary over a broad spectrum. For instance, some students may be visual learners, while others are audio learners. Some students may be able to read exceptionally well, while others may not be able to read at all. Conducting assessments can help teachers identify a student's individual academic skills, learning styles and interests in mixed-ability classrooms.

Student Assessments

Differentiated Teaching

Once teachers have a feel for the type of students in their classrooms, they can plan curriculum and course activities accordingly. This process is often referred to as differentiated instruction, which involves teachers purposefully planning for students' different learning abilities. As author and educator Carol Ann Tomlinson (Ed.D.) explains, teachers using differentiated instruction vary their teaching methods 'in order to create the best learning experience possible.'

According to Dr. Tomlinson, differentiated instruction is 'an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for and attention to student differences in classrooms, in the context of high quality curriculums.' Although the term may be new to some, it's actually a concept teachers have been using for quite some time. For instance, most teachers automatically decipher which students learn which ways during the first few weeks of class. The differentiation method just narrows that skill down to the four basic classroom elements that Dr. Tomlinson defines as content, process, products and learning environment.

Setting the Methods into Motion

With a plan of approach and a method to follow, teachers can put their newfound knowledge of their students into practice. This can be done through Dr. Tomlinson's four elements.

Content

Content is the actual material that students need to learn within the curriculum. When looking at new material, teachers should ask themselves how they can present the content in a way that will be accessible to all students. Planning different ways to deliver the material can make this happen.

For instance, teachers can present the material to the class as a whole using a variety of delivery methods, including computer programs, hands-on craft projects, video clips and even visual demonstrations, like cutting a cake or pie to demonstrate fractions. Just make sure the delivery methods used speak to each level of learning found in the classroom.

Hands on learning.

Process

Process involves the way in which students engage with and learn content. This is key as it allows students to take the time to let newly obtained knowledge sink in. Process also gives students the opportunity to figure out what they may or may not understand.

The process can also be used as a way for teachers to monitor and assess a student's progress. For instance, educational consultant John McCarthy recommends that teachers design 'one or two processing experiences for every 30 minutes of instruction'. These experiences give students a break and teachers time to find out who needs additional instruction and who doesn't.

Ways to implement the process experience can include group time, where students can talk with one another about the material learned. Journaling can also be used as a way for students to process and digest material. Rewriting what they've learned can help them retain the information as well discover parts of the material they may not have understood.

Products

Products are the projects or assignments that encourage students to apply content in situations inside and outside of the classroom. For example, once content is presented and processing time has been given, ask students to develop a project of their own that best exemplifies what was learned. For instance, younger students may create a poster board with pictures and labels, while older students develop a short skit or make drawings. Teachers may want to give students a set of options to choose from and even allow them to work in groups.

Student presenting a class project.

Learning Environment

The learning environment simply refers to the classroom environment and how it works or feels to students. It's important that teachers create a classroom that will serve all students, no matter their learning abilities.

For instance, if in-class assignments are given, develop a general list of requirements, and then give students additional instructions on an individual basis so that it addresses their learning abilities. Make sure there are quiet places in the classroom where students can concentrate and focus. Or give them the option to work with partners. Make sure the class understands that the options are provided because each student works best in a different setting. As Dr. Tomlinson points out, 'some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly.'

Learning Results

Differentiating the various learning abilities within a classroom can take time and often involves extra preparation. However, once teachers have a basic idea of the learning levels within their classrooms, they can create curricula and settings specifically designed for their students. Individually, students will flourish because of the teacher's ability to meet each one on his or her own learning level. As a whole, the class will maintain a sense of unity, as no particular student is singled out or left to catch up on his or her own.

By Amanda Johnson
January 2017
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