Scaffolding and Differentiating Instruction in Mixed Ability ESL Classes Using a Round Robin Activity

Margo DelliCarpini
Lehman College, The City University of New York (New York, USA)
Margo.dellicarpini [at]


One challenge many ESL/EFL teachers at the secondary and adult level face is teaching mixed ability classes. Issues that emerge for educators are successful differentiation of instruction, successful grouping strategies, creating well structured cooperative activities and integrating meaningful content for these older learners who may struggle with first and second language literacy skills. Using a Round Robin technique can help the teacher successfully address the aforementioned challenges and provide a meaningful, interactive activity that helps develop both Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) (Cummins, 1979), both necessary to the success of English language learners. This article will detail a technique that ESL/EFL teachers can successfully integrate in their mixed ability classes and facilitate the development of necessary skills.

Scaffolding and Differentiation of Instruction

Teachers of older secondary level and adult ESL students often find themselves in mixed ability classrooms where scaffolding and differentiation of instruction are necessary. This requires a great deal of planning and often the ability of the teacher to provide a variety of materials at different levels to address the needs of the learners in the classroom.

Scaffolding is a term associated with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978). ESOL teachers in constructivist settings can use scaffolding to support learners and facilitate the construction of meaning and knowledge (Berk & Winsler, 1995).  One way to scaffold instruction for English language learners is to differentiate learning tasks and materials and provide a variety of verbal and academic supports, from both teacher and more proficient peers, so that students are able to meaningfully engage in content area learning and acquire the necessary language and academic skills necessary for independent learning. Successful scaffolding includes a variety of components: First, teachers must provide continuity in the classroom. In this way teachers present tasks that are repeated throughout instructional sequences with variations and that are interconnected to each other and the curriculum.  Secondly, teachers must also provide support from context. Students should be encouraged to explore topics in a risk free learning environment and be provided with a variety of ways to meet learning goals and objectives. Finally, teachers must create learning contexts where learners increase their autonomy as their skills and confidence increase. Continuity of tasks will facilitate learners in being able to take over portions of the task and become independent learners.

In terms of differentiated instruction the ideas that emerge are those dealing with a move from "one size fits all" teaching, or "teaching to the center" to meeting the needs of diverse learners while maintaining high standards and high expectations for all learners. Differentiated instruction is not the individualized instruction that was popular in the 1970s, and it is not a technique that places less proficient students on a computer while the teacher works with the 'on level' students.  Differentiated instruction is well organized, well planned and addresses not only different ability levels, but also different needs, interests and strengths of the learners. Differentiation of instruction allows for whole group instruction, heterogeneous small group cooperative work, and individual instruction. It allows the teacher to create student centered learning experiences that focus on varied approaches to content, process, and product. In addition, it provides for ongoing, embedded, authentic assessment of students' skills, interests and learning style (Tomlinson, 2005).

Although rooted in research and successful practice, it is not a foregone conclusion that all teachers will have an easy time creating classrooms that offer the necessary scaffolds and provide meaningful differentiation of instruction.  What follows is a closer look at a teaching technique that will facilitate the integration of meaningful content, necessary scaffolds, and differentiation of instruction to meet the needs of a multi level classroom for older ESL students.

Round Robin Technique

Variations on the Round Robin Technique are found in a variety of instructional settings, content areas and grade levels. One way to implement this technique is to select a variety of poems, linked by a common theme. Poems should be of varying length. The teacher should rewrite the poems using four different font formats (Bold, italics, underline, plain font, larger size, different font, etc.). This will provide a variety of "roles" students can assume while working with the poems. The rules for the Round Robin are that only one student at a time speaks, and everyone must participate. However, a student may simply agree with another in the group. Rather than provide a full response, a student may say "I agree with Maria when she said ..." This can be written on the board so if a student is at first uncomfortable with the technique they can still participate without feeling pressure to come up with a novel response.

Prior Knowledge and Skills Necessary

The teacher should introduce vocabulary terms that are found in the poems and should model reading poems to the class prior to beginning this activity.  Students should be aware that poems may be of varying length, style and may or may not rhyme.


Teachers should first divide the class into four homogenous ability groups and name the groups "A, B, C & D." There should be no reference to proficiency levels when the teacher carries out this grouping task.

Heterogeneous groups of four students should then be created. Teachers can create these groups by placing one A, one B, one C and one D student in each group. The end result will be four mixed ability groups of four students each (modify as necessary to suit particular classroom context).


The following poems can be used in an integrated thematic unit on the seasons or weather. Other poems can be selected for other topics/themes. In addition, class created poems are an excellent way to integrate a Language Experience Approach to the instructional context and allow the teacher to integrate focus vocabulary. These poems should be retyped using the above mentioned technique. The teacher should create different numbers of lines for different font types and have some font types representing larger portions of the poem or representing more difficult language; for example, italics lines might be one-word lines or shorter lines within the poem or comprise only two or three of the poems lines.
Poster paper, markers in different colors, pencils, paper.

Here is an example of a re-written class created poem.


Large heavy drops
Falling to the ground like tears
Fresh smells and hypnotic sounds create a private space
Rain, drizzle, mist, sprinkle
Wet shoes and soggy grass make me think of spring
Water running along the road
Muddy puddles
Rain drops drumming a beat on the roof
Clouds covering the sky
It is a rainy day

Time Frame
One hour



 Students can engage in a follow up individual writing activity where they respond to the poem by (1) describing how the poem made them feel and (2) what information they obtained from the poem or what questions were created or answered for them. Students who are emergent writers can engage in a Language Experience Approach writing activity with the teacher or visually represent what the poem said to them through a drawing or poster.


Teachers are able to assess student progress and participation in a variety of ways. Teachers can observe groups working together, note the types of questions students create and assess the completion of the final product. In addition, during the presentation stage of the activity teachers will be able to assess the students' explanations of their poster as related to the poem they read.


This technique works well with other content material as well. Applications to math, science and social studies are suitable, using either subject area material or material that relates to the topic under investigation. This activity allows learners to work in mixed ability groups, work with different content related to the same topic, each contribute equally to the product, and engage in the process in a way that suits their ability level, interests and needs. The product, in this case the mind mirror posters, become work that students can reflect on (their own work as well as the work of the other groups) and becomes a published, finished, creative product as well.

In terms of the reading itself, it is important to allow students to always pre-read a selection to themselves before engaging in oral reading. This allows the students to process the printed word and create meaning before engaging in a read aloud. Having students share what the poem said to them allows them to draw on their personal schema, think critically, and connect what they have read to what they already know.  Fluency is also facilitated in that students have the opportunity to read and re-read the selection several times. In this particular activity students are reading the selection five times.  Creating questions about the reading engages the students in critical thinking and analysis and develops questioning techniques. The questions that the students create serve as a springboard for small group discussion and, combined with the character/item/topic that groups and individuals identified as wanting to know more about, these questions become the basis for a writing or research assignment.


Teachers of older ESL students who work in multi level classrooms often find successful grouping, differentiating instruction and materials selection challenging. It is not an easy task to find relevant, meaningful materials that can be modified to fit students needs in terms of levels and interests. Integrating a Round Robin technique with commonly themed poetry related to a thematic topic can provide teachers with the ability to meet the needs of diverse learners, successfully group students and integrate meaningful material into their classrooms.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII, No. 3, March 2006