Differentiating Instruction for English Language Learners: An Interview with Newsela Teaching and Learning Manager Emily Lepkowski
Before Emily Lepkowski joined Newsela as our ESL expert and Manager of Teaching and Learning, she was a teacher who specialized in differentiating for English language learners (ELLs). At the New York City Department of Education, she taught and created programming for the K-5 ESL program of 70 students, and coordinated ESL testing and the transitional bilingual program for over 300 students. Differentiation was never straightforward, but Emily improved on her practice by discovering a key insight: It’s about more than just pedagogy. It’s all around you in the classroom, from the split-second interactions you have with students to how you lay out your desks. Note: Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What did you find to be unique about differentiating for ELLs?
I had luxury of having small groups, so I broke my students into groups based on English development and literacy development. From there, they would go to different “learning centers.” At one center, students might piece together words that rhyme, while another group’s folder might have them actually putting sentences together. When the rhyming group came to me, we’d read a book appropriate to their reading level and leveraged student background knowledge.
Every small group is on their own journey through learning that day. It’s all working toward the same goal, skill, and objectives, but on different paths and at different paces.
English language learners need super text-rich, well-chosen resources. I needed to be flexible, in both seating and spaces where students can spend time sitting to learn. Over and above the learning centers, I also had places in the classroom where students could listen to texts and record themselves, so they could speak instead of write to process. I tried to ensure the classroom was set up in a way where students can use those resources, where the setup would be useful and not disruptive.
What are some key takeaways that could help new or pre-service teachers?
To differentiate more effectively, there are a few quick shifts you can do from the get-go. Before your mini-lessons, you can conduct a “do-now,” or a “bell-ringer,” a quick check for understanding. Fast polls with Nearpod or Poll Everywhere can give you quick data you can use to impact your mini lesson. When you have that data instantly, it can send you to your toolbox faster.
Whenever you’re building a unit as a teacher, there should be several sources you can leverage throughout the unit, no matter what. The same is true for processes. Maybe you dreamed your students would all fill out their graphic organizer, but perhaps some students are confident enough to just start writing. Let them. It’s about being brave and recognizing that no one looked at your lesson plan other than you. No one is going to judge you for not sticking to your plan, and it’s OK to make a change. If you don’t differentiate, that will lead to a lot of reteaching that you may not have time for.
What resources helped you succeed?
I had access to a program called PebbleGo, an interactive reader you could put on your smartboard, and it would follow along with the words and provide pictures. It was science-based. What I liked about that was its interactive text features. I used Newsela primarily with my older students.
And then, I honestly did a lot of rewriting of text myself, and shared writing with students. Sometimes, I needed to share classics or other texts with my students. I would read it aloud to them, but wanted them to be able to access it independently as well, and the reality was that many weren’t at that ability level. So, I would summarize what was on the page into a single sentence, and even rewrite entire books so they would have a predictable structure to practice. No one likes to read the same book over and over, so becoming an author along with my students and writing new texts to engage them was something I also did out of necessity.
How can administrators help?
I credit my differentiated instruction success to my school leadership’s decision to invest in my early professional development.
They allowed me as an early-on teacher to visit classrooms where differentiated instruction was at play. I was lucky that those teachers welcomed me and my questions. You can read for days, but [differentiated instruction] is hard to conceive of until you see it in practice. Our school also gave us rich opportunities for professional development, and those also scaffolded my experience. I was really grateful for the ability to observe and work alongside veteran educators. This was key for my own development, and I think new teachers learned as much from these seasoned educators as their students did.
Looking for resources to support differentiated instruction? Learn about Newsela PRO.