Differentiate Your TESOL Syllabus

Teacher educators, myself included, often encourage preservice and in-service teachers to differentiate for their ELLs. While ELLs tend to be seen as one school “subgroup,” they may actually be the most diverse! Some of the ways in which ELLs will vary are by: L1 and L1 literacy level, exposure to English, time in the new country (if they are also immigrants), socioeconomic status, aptitude, learning style, motivation, background experience,  and parents’ L1 and L1 literacy level, just to name a few. As such, they are a population that definitely warrants the use of differentiated instruction to meet their varied needs and ensure access to high-level content and language development (see Colorín Colorado’s post on Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners).

While ELLs are certainly diverse, the cool thing about TESOL as a field is that our teachers are almost as diverse as our learners! In a TESOL teacher education class, you will most likely see a mix of L1s, countries of origin, length of exposure to English, and teaching experiences among the current or future teachers. As such, just as we tell our teachers to differentiate for ELLs, I think an excellent way to model differentiation is to “walk the walk” and differentiate our own syllabi for the teachers in our classes or professional development sessions. All learners of any age require multiple routes to access content, and I argue that teachers-as-learners are no exception.

Tomlinson and Allan (2000) encourage teachers to differentiate three things:

  • the content of your class,
  • the process by which the content is learned, and
  • the products that students create after learning the content.

Tomlinson also reminds us that content, process, and product can be differentiated according to students’ interest in the material, their readiness to learn it, and the learning profile that dictates how they best learn. Below, I offer some suggestions for differentiating content, process, and product for the university-level or professional-development courses for TESOL educators.


Some ways to differentiate content might have to do with the context in which your future teachers see themselves teaching. For example, TESOL educators who teach preschool ESL, high school language arts, or adult EFL internationally will all need to know about second language acquisition theories. However, after they learn the theory, they might all read a different research article that highlights SLA in their respective contexts. A menu of articles rather than a set list will likely cover more contexts and allow for diverse perspectives to emerge during group discussions. Another common activity is to interview an ELL to hear how they learned English. Teachers who will work in multiple contexts might choose an ELL from the context or age span in which they plan to teach; students can then compare how the English learning experiences differed among ages and/or countries of origin. Another way to differentiate content is to allow for curriculum reviews or textbook examples from varied contexts and proficiency levels, and then have participants discuss the similarities and differences among them.


Process might be differentiated via the media used to learn about TESOL methods and their theoretical underpinnings. Video clips from different contexts and levels can be used, or better yet, TESOL pre- or in-service teachers can be tasked with finding their own online videos that they feel accurately depict a TESOL theory or activity from their context or level. TED talks and taped lectures also vary the way that information is received, and can help break up the monotony of listening to only one voice in the classroom. TESOL teacher educators can also offer different levels of scaffolding for an assignment—for example, more novice teachers might need a detailed lesson plan template; more experienced teachers might appreciate more freedom to apply what they know from their own experience. Providing options for working individually, in partners, or in small groups can also be an avenue for differentiation.


Products are easily differentiated by providing future or current TESOL educators with some degree of choice as to how they show their learning. Instead of having everyone do the same written lesson plan, allow educators to create semantic maps, infographics, Prezis, or narrated PowerPoints that pose the same requirements as the traditional plan, but allow for the use of visuals, media, and/or more spatial approaches to showing one’s thinking. Another excellent way to differentiate a portfolio for a course or professional development is to allow teachers to choose which products they would like to include rather than having everyone include the exact same thing. A learning contract is a unique adaptation of this idea, wherein participants in a course earn a grade by completing a certain number and type of tasks articulated in a contract between student and teacher. Some excellent examples of learning contracts can be seen here.

If you are a TESOL teacher educator, do you have any other ideas for differentiating the teacher-as-learner experience?  Or, if you are a teacher, what are some differentiation strategies that you’ve tried?  I’d love to hear how differentiation looks all over the world!


Tomlinson, C. A., & Allan, S. D. (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms. ASCD Press.

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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