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Department of Humanities

Differentiated instruction in the EFL Classroom

Accommodation for advanced students in Swedish Primary Education

Anne Loberg


Student thesis, Professional degree (advanced), 30 HE English

Study Programme in Education for the Primary School Diploma Work for Teachers F-3

Supervisor: Jessika Nilsson and Henrik Kaatari Examiner: Kavita Thomas



Classrooms in Sweden are heterogeneous and this is acknowledged in the curriculum, stating that all students have an equal right to education at their own level. Teachers must, therefore, design their teaching plan taking this into account. Previous

investigations have shown that the Swedish schools do not fulfill this completely for advanced students. The objective of this study was to examine how Swedish teachers differentiate their English as foreign language (EFL) lessons to reach the advanced English students in the lower grades, what challenges they experiences and how they assess the students’ learning outcomes. Information was obtained through a survey and semi-structured interviews with preschool class and grade 1-3 teachers. The survey and question about participation in an interview, was emailed to schools in 74 randomly chosen municipalities all across Sweden. A total of 156 answers to the survey and five interviews are included in the analyses. The results show that the majority of teachers with experience of advanced students differentiate instruction, by using several different strategies; they experience several challenges, the heterogeneous class room as the most common; and, they assess that differentiated instruction has a small positive effect on the advanced students’ learning outcomes in general.

Keywords: English as foreign language, primary education, advanced students, differentiated instruction


Table of Contents

1. Introduction ... 1

1.1 Aim and Research Questions ... 3

2. Literature overview... 4

2.1 Differentiated instruction ... 4

2.2 Challenges ... 8

2.3 Learning outcomes ... 11

3. Methods ... 13

3.1 Survey ... 13

3.1.1 Questionnaire construction ... 13

3.1.2 Participants ... 15

3.1.3 Procedure ... 15

3.1.4 Analysis ... 17

3.2 Interview ... 18

3.2.1 Interview question construction... 18

3.2.2 Participants ... 19

3.2.3 Procedure ... 20

3.3 Reliability and Validity ... 20

3.4 Ethical Principles ... 24

4. Results ... 25

4.1 The teachers ... 25

4.2 Differentiation strategies ... 28

4.3 Challenges ... 32

4.4 Learning outcomes ... 35

5. Discussion ... 36

5.1 Result discussion ... 36

5.1.1 Differentiation methods ... 37

5.1.2 Challenges ... 40

5.1.3 Learning outcomes ... 42

5.2 Method discussion ... 44

6. Conclusion ... 46

References ... 47

Appendix ... 51

Appendix 1, Knowledge requirements for grade E at the end of year 6 ... 51

Appendix 2, Survey questions ... 53

Appendix 3, Personal letter ... 57

Appendix 4, Interview questions ... 59

Appendix 5, Answers to open questions ... 60


1. Introduction

Teachers around the world work in heterogeneous classrooms every day, classrooms that include students with varying learning readiness, personal interests and personal views of the world (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 1). For this reason, it is likely that the

distribution of academic skills in a grade range across several grades. If teaching aims at meeting the student at the grade level of the class, some students could benefit but other groups of students will have a neutral or even negative effect on their learning with this approach (Hattie, 2012, p. 133; Stålnacke & Smedler, 2011). Differentiated instruction, on the other hand, has been shown to increase learning outcomes for all students

(Beecher, 2008; Good, 2006; McQuarry et al., 2008).

In Sweden, there are around 2-3% of the students in grades 1-3 that have an action programme (åtgärdsprogram). The action programmes are written for students in need of special support or scaffolding (Skolverket, 2019, April 16). Another issue is that 1.5% - 36.3% (with a mean of 7.8% ) of the students in the Swedish municipalities have lived in Sweden for four years or less and have parents that are born in another country (Skolverket, 2019a). Moreover, a group that also needs to be taken into account is the group of gifted or talented students. The size of this group can be assessed in different ways giving an estimate varying between 2-20% of the Swedish students (Skolverket, (2019b, p. 9). Presented in this introduction are three groups of students in the Swedish school system with need of modified teaching and they represent 4.5-59% of all the students.

The English subject in Sweden experiences the same heterogeneity as all subjects, and in addition there are other groups of students increasing the heterogeneity further.

English is taught as a foreign language but in the Swedish schools, there are students


that have English as their mother tongue or as a second language. This creates a new group of students who are in need of their teachers’ special attention. In the statistics on how many students in the Swedish school that are entitled to have the subject mother tongue tuition in English, it is shown that in the school year of 2018/2019, more than seventeen thousand students had this right, and this represents 1.7% of all Swedish students. English is therefore the third largest language in the subject mother tongue tuition (Skolverket, 2019c). The heterogeneous English classrooms in Sweden are observed in a study by Jensen Strandberg (2019). In this study, the teachers describe in interviews that one of the challenges with planning English teaching in grades 1-3 is that the students have very different levels of English knowledge when they come to class.

The different needs of the students in the Swedish school system are

acknowledged in the curriculum. Under the heading “An equivalent education” it is stated that:

Teaching should be adapted to each pupil’s circumstances and needs. It should promote the pupils’ further learning and acquisition of knowledge based on pupils’ backgrounds, earlier experience, language and knowledge (Skolverket, 2018, p. 6)

This text enforces Swedish teachers to plan teaching so that all students, including the advanced, are challenged. How the Swedish schools fulfill and implement the

curriculum is monitored by Skolinspektionen (The Swedish Schools Inspectorate). In one review, they state that it is clear that Swedish students that have reached far in their knowledge in various subjects are not given enough challenging and exploratory tasks.

In the same study they found that as many as a third of the students felt that there were not enough challenges in school (Skolinspektionen, 2017, p 5). This is also mentioned


in the review of English teaching in Swedish schools (grade 5 and 9) in which one of the conclusions was that most schools need to increase differentiated instruction. The teaching observed did not satisfactorily include students’ interests, previous experiences and needs (Skolinspektionen, 2010, p.19). The reviews by Skolinpektionen reveal shortcomings in the differentiated instruction in Swedish schools including the English subject. With this as a background, this study will focus on differentiated instruction in the English classroom in preschool class and grades 1-3 in Sweden. The study will contribute with an investigation of the current situation, regarding how the teachers work and the challenges they experiences.

1.1 Aim and Research Questions

The main aim of this study is to examine if, and how, teachers differentiate their English teaching to meet the needs of more advanced students, and what challenges they


The second aim is to investigate how the teachers assess that their differentiated instruction affects advanced students’ learning outcomes. To address the aims of the study, the following questions will be answered:

 Do primary teachers differentiate their English instruction for the advanced students?

 How do primary teachers differentiate their English instruction for the advanced students?

 What challenges do primary teachers experience in terms of differentiated instruction during English lessons?

 How do primary teachers assess that their differentiated instruction affects the advanced students’ learning outcomes?


2. Literature overview

This chapter presents previous studies related to this subject. First, studies considering differentiated instruction are presented; secondly, studies investigating challenges teachers meet working with English and heterogeneous class rooms; and finally, studies related to learning outcomes in relation to differentiated instruction.

2.1 Differentiated instruction

Differentiated instruction can be described as an instructional model that addresses the students’ individual readiness, interests, and learning profile to meet all students in a class (Tomlinson, 2000, p. 287). It is a way of teaching holistically, including everyone in class and in this way it is different from occasional modifications or individual planning. Differentiated instruction should be used in the planning process when asking the didactic question “how” (Dahlman et al., 2008; Tomlinson, 1999, p. 9).

Teaching for the advanced learners in the English as Foreign language (EFL) classroom is facilitated with differentiated instruction with tasks that focus on higher level thinking. Examples are described by Chien (2012) as “activities that ask students to consider reasons, compare alternatives, find similarities and differences, form opinions and analyze evidence.”

The differentiated instruction strategies can be divided into three categories:

content, process and product (Chien, 2015; Tomlinson, 1999), depending on where the teachers plan the adjustment. When adjusting the content, different material is offered to the students depending on their starting level; adjusting the process means altering the methods used to facilitate the individual learners’ needs; and adjusting the product means enabling different ways for the students to demonstrate their knowledge.


Planning with adjustment in content can be done by using supplementary material such as books, comic strips, different audio and 21th century technology (Chien, 2012;

Rakow, 2007). To challenge the advanced students in a Taiwanese class, Chien (2012) engaged them with additional content after they had been introduced to the material used with the whole class. In this lesson the students should practice vocabulary through different types of riddles. The adjustment was to give the advanced students additional riddles that included words that were not included in the list of words all students have to learn, but words that could challenge those with higher proficiency levels. This strategy, offering material at different levels is called tiered learning and can be an effective method to reach all students in the classroom (Adams & Pierce, 2003). To achieve this, lessons can be tiered based on students’ readiness level, learning profile or interest. If using supplementary materials based on the students’ interests, the learners’

motivation for working and learning can increase. Williams (2008) describes tiered math lessons in grade 3. The goal for the lesson was the same for all students but the complexity of problems for them to work on varied. By having the students work on the same kind of problem but on different levels it enabled a whole class discussion that all students could participate in. This study indicates that tiered learning support equity in the classroom, because all students could participate and contribute to the discussion. In a study with a struggling learner, the teacher used the students’ interest for tractors in all the language work they did. Results show that not only the reading and writing skills of the student improved, but also the motivation for learning. This was a study focusing on struggling readers, but they conclude that using students’ interests is a way of

improving literacy skills of all learners (Stover et al., 2017). Another way of thinking about adjusting the content to meet the needs of an advanced student is acceleration.

When using acceleration textbooks or tasks are used that, according to curriculum,


belong to a higher grade (Skolverket 2019d, p.6). Acceleration has been found to be an effective way of improving high-ability learners’ learning outcomes as Steenbergen-Hu (2009) concluded in a Meta-analysis of research covering the effects of acceleration.

However, if the advanced student is a gifted student, acceleration could be a temporary solution because acceleration alone is not challenging enough (Kim, 2006). Using differentiated instruction through different materials is supported in the curriculum where the heading for parts to cover is “Core content” and not “Content” which gives teachers the possibility to widen the content or dig in deeper (Skolverket, 2019d, p.7).

Differentiation in process means that students work on different activities at the same time. This can be achieved using open-ended tasks, where the students can work on the problem in varying ways from simple to complex (Good, 2006). Different activities could be offered through learning stations in the room, enabling students to work on activities at their level (Wu, 2013), or by giving the students choice boards (Chien, 2013a). Choice boards can be created in different ways but the common feature is that they enable the students to choose which task they want to work with. Chien (2013a) studied students’ responses to choice boards in grade 4-6 EFL classrooms in Taiwan. The students were given a choice board with tasks related to vocabulary instruction, sentence instruction, phonics and dialogue on four different levels. The results showed that the students felt that they were given more chances to practice English with this method but they also responded that it was important with the teacher following-up for them to stay engaged. Another way to differentiate process is tiered activities. A tiered activity could be planned using the image of a ladder; differentiating the activity up or down depending on the current group of students, for readiness the levels could be above, at, and below grade level (Levy, 2008; Tomlinson, 1999, p.84).

An example of tiered activities is given by Chien (2013b). In this paper a picture book


reading lesson is described and examples of how to differentiate the tasks are given.

One example is that, after the book reading, all students should answer some questions about the book. The questions prepared should be at different levels. In this example the reading comprehension strategy Question Answer Relationships was used to tier the questions. For the advanced students, the common questions will be easy and they can easily answer them and continue with more challenging questions. If a student finishes all prepared questions, the task was to generate new questions, adding yet another level.

This way of using authentic books with well-prepared follow-up activities allow all students to engage in activities at their own level. In the case where the student knows everything in the module the rest of the class is working on, one option could be to give them an independent study, an opportunity to dig deeper into an area of interest. It is important when doing this that the grade of independence is in relationship with the students’ abilities, and that they are not left without teaching and support. (Rakow, 2007; Tomlinson, 1999, p. 92; Van Tassel-Braska & Stambaugh, 2005).

When adjusting by product, the students work on the same material and process but with individual end points. Having the students choose how they want to express their knowledge can be a good way of having the students expresses their

comprehension of a text. By making the choice free, different types of learning styles and work habits can in addition to the skill level be used by all students (Sandström, 2013, p. 133).

To facilitate differentiated instruction, students can be divided into flexible

groups. These groups are, as the name implies, not fixed but depend on the activity, and students are grouped by their readiness level, learning profile or interest. The groups do not have to be the same size and should solely be based on the current situation and activity (Adams & Pierce, 2003).


2.2 Challenges

Differentiated instruction has the possibility to create inclusive classrooms, increasing student learning outcomes and motivation. There are, however, challenges in

accomplishing this.

In a study of differentiated instruction used in Swedish preschool class, the teachers experienced it as challenging to differentiate instruction because the classes were very heterogeneous with students with many different needs (Abrahamsson &

Svensson, 2004). This was also seen in a study in Finland where teachers’ views on differentiated instruction in content and language integrated learning was investigated.

But in this study, the teachers’ views on the heterogeneous classroom were divided;

heterogeneous classrooms were seen as a great challenge for 39 % of participants and a minor for 24 % of participants (Roiha, 2014). The challenge of heterogeneous

classrooms is also seen globally. In a study investigating English teachers’ overall challenges in many different countries, the challenge of differentiated instruction was one of the most chosen by the included teachers, meaning that many teachers meet students at different levels with varying needs (Copland et al., 2014).

The English classroom can be even more heterogeneous than other subjects, because, among beginner students, there can be students that have English as a first or second language. Furthermore, studies have shown other reasons behind students’

different needs in the English classroom. In Belgium, de Wilde & Eyckmans (2017) investigated the English proficiency level of 30 children with no English teaching. They measured listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing ability and

speaking ability with the Cambridge Test for Young Learners. What they found was that a significant number of the children without any English training at school could


perform tasks at the A2 level (CEFR, The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, 2020). The children had learned English through input of various media, mostly gaming and computer use. These findings are relevant for the Swedish school because Swedish students have this type of media exposure to a large extent. The ELLiE study, a large study of European EFL teaching, shows that Swedish students are exposed to the English language outside school on average 8 hours per week, as

estimated by parents. The included activities are: watching TV, playing computer games, reading and speaking with someone (Enever, 2011, p.110). Another reason mentioned for being an advanced English student in the global perspective were private English language classes outside of school (Copland et al., 2014).

Jensen Strandberg (2019) found that one major challenge for Swedish teachers is insufficient time for English in the curriculum. In this study, interviews were performed with teachers in grades 1-3, and these teachers answered that the limited time English has in the curriculum made it hard for them to plan meaningful lessons. In a study by Andersson (2019), the results show that the majority of participating preschool class and grade 1-3 teachers have 30-40 minutes of English each week. The time restraints in the curriculum can make it harder to implement differentiated instruction. This is because time is needed to effectively implement differentiation strategies (McQuarry et al, 2008, p. 20). Besides the challenge of performing effective lessons because of limited lesson time, there is also a challenge for teachers to find enough time to plan their lessons (Chien, 2015; McQuarry et al, 2008, p. 23; Söderman, 2008; Van Tassel-Braska &

Stambaugh, 2005). To plan differentiated instruction takes time, especially, the first year (Wu, 2013). In a study in Finland investigating teachers’ challenges in

differentiated instruction, 90 % of participating teachers indicated that lack of time and resources was a challenge (Roiha, 2014). To find the time to plan, and preferably in


collaboration with colleagues, is important to create meaningful lesson plans (Chien, 2015; McQuarry et al, 2008, p. 22; Van Tassel-Braska & Stambaugh, 2005)

To be able to adjust the content, teachers need access to appropriate material to use. This has been shown to be a problem in Swedish (Jensen Strandberg, 2019), Taiwanese (Chien, 2015) and American classes (Rodriguez, 2012). Similarly Van Tassel-Braska & Stambaugh (2005) highlight the challenge for primary teachers to find material at the appropriate level that is age-appropriate when teaching gifted students in their study on serving gifted learning in the regular classroom.

Furthermore, there are challenges related to the teachers themselves. In a review by Van Tassel-Braska & Stambaugh, (2005), teachers’ knowledge is highlighted as a critical point. To be able to differentiate instruction and give learning opportunities above grade level, the teacher needs to have sufficient subject knowledge. They also need to have enough classroom management skills to be comfortable allowing students to work on different tasks in the classroom. In a study by Reis et al. (1998), they investigated why teachers did not differentiate their instruction. What they found was that 61% of the teachers stated that the reason for not differentiating instruction were that they had no training in meeting the needs of high-achieving students in a

heterogeneous classroom. In a case study performed with elementary EFL teachers in Taiwan, they found that not even after a course in how to differentiate instruction in EFL teaching not all teachers that participated was confident enough to do it in their classroom practice. This suggests that how to differentiate EFL instruction should be included in the professional training of teachers (Chien, 2015). These results found by Ries et al. (1998) and Chien (2015) are not supported by Roiha (2014) who found that knowledge of the practical differentiation strategies was one of the least challenging


issues for Finnish teachers. For the Finnish teachers lack of time and resources was the most challenging issues.

2.3 Learning outcomes

To differentiate instruction for the needs of the students that know and understand more than the others is important not only for their academic growth but for their wellbeing.

Gifted adults have in research described very bad experiences from schools, feeling among other things that it was a waste of time (Stålnacke & Smedler, 2011). It has also been seen that the level of readiness might not increase for the students starting school at a high level of readiness if they are not taught and challenged at their level (Reis et al., 1998).

Implemented differentiated instruction has showed increased learning among students as Good (2006) found in a literature overview. In a research review from Canada, focusing on the learning outcomes from schools after implementation of differentiated instruction, it was concluded that differentiated instruction helps teachers to reach all students. It was seen in several projects that when the differentiated

instruction was targeted towards a special group, e.g. gifted students, the general student population was assessed positively for learning (McQuarry et al., 2008, p. 15). A more specific example is the study by Beecher & Sweeny (2008) where an increase in the learning outcomes of a whole elementary school is shown. This school, located in America, implemented differentiated instruction and enrichment in many different subjects over an 8-year period in all classes. To assess the student progress, assessments were done regularly and in multiple ways and the results showed improved achievement across student groups in reading, writing, and mathematics.


A factor for learning is inner motivation to learn. In a study investigating if teachers’ motivational practice in second language teaching has an impact on students’

motivation to learn, Guilloteaux & Dörnyei (2008) found that it did. They used both classroom observations and a student self-report questionnaire with 27 teachers and more than 1,300 students. The study was conducted in South Korea and teachers had no special training and taught in rigid classroom traditions, without much space to include new strategies. The results suggest that even small efforts by the teachers give results in students’ motivation. Some of the motivation strategies found to have been used most often was: establishing relevance, connecting tasks to students’ everyday live, and elements of interest, creativity and fantasy. Examples can be activities that contain ambiguous or problematic material and connect with students’ interests or fantasy.

Observed behavior among motivated students was for example: focusing on the teacher, participated in oral repetition and working on assigned tasks. The importance of

motivation is also seen in a Greek study (Agaliotis & Kalyva, 2019) investigating motivational differences between gifted and non-gifted high-achieving and gifted under- achieving students. What they found was a significant difference in motivation between the high-achieving students and the under-achieving students. One conclusion drawn from the study is that even though the high-achieving students perform well in a traditional learning environment, as the one in which the study took place, an implementation of more student centered learning context is needed to increase motivation among the under-achieving students. They recommend increasing goal orientation and including students’ interests and desires in the teaching.


3. Methods

In this study, both a quantitative and qualitative research method was used. The quantitative methodology described by Bryman (2001, p. 78) includes collecting data that can be numerically analyzed to answer a question. The qualitative methodology, on the other hand, focuses on open ended questions and can be described as interpretive and inductive (Bryman, 2001, p.249). The quantitative data in this study comes from a survey and the qualitative data comes from interviews.

This study aims at investigating differentiated instruction in English as a foreign language in relationship to advanced students. An advanced English student in this study is defined as a student in pre-school class or grade 1-3 that fulfills one or several knowledge requirements for grade 6 (Skolverket, 2018, p. 38). A description of the knowledge requirements in grade 6 can be found in Appendix 1.

3.1 Survey

The use of an online survey enables asking questions to a large group of primary school teachers. The survey tool Survey Monkey (SurveyMonkey Inc., 2020) was chosen and used to create the survey, because it had all the features needed, for example different types of answer choices and readability on all types of screens. Survey Monkey also has good customer reviews and complies with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

3.1.1 Questionnaire construction

The survey includes nine questions (see Appendix 2), all written in Swedish because the answer rate was assumed to increase by using Swedish instead of English. Questions 1-


4 in the survey were constructed to obtain descriptive statistics about the included teachers and their experience of advanced English students. The options in Question 5, are examples of reasons for a student to be an advanced English learner. The options were chosen based on previous knowledge about groups of students that could have an above average knowledge of English and on the assumption about which factors teachers would know about, such as if the student has English as a mother tongue. For other reasons, the options “do not know” and “other” were available. The responses given to question 6 “What or which of the following strategies have you used to

differentiate your instruction for the students that already in preschool class or grades 1- 3 reach one or several of the goals in grade 6? (Author translation)” gives data that is meant to answer the research question if, and how, teachers differentiate their teaching for the advanced students. The responses given to question 7 “To which extent do you experience that your differentiation strategies for the students that reach one or several goals in grade 6 contributes to their continuous learning? (Author translation)” gives data to answer the research question how the teachers experience that their teaching increases the advanced students’ learning. Lastly, the responses given to question 8

“What or which challenges can you see for differentiating your instruction for the students that reach one or several of the goals in grade 6? (Author translation) ”, and question 9 “What or which factors do you think would help you to differentiate your instruction for the students that reach one or several of the goals in grade 6? (Author translation)” gives data to answer the research question about the challenges that the primary teacher experiences for differentiating their instruction. The options to choose from in questions 6, 8 and 9 were included because they are strategies and challenges of differentiated instruction mentioned in previous studies (Abrahamsson & Svensson,


2004; Rodriguez, 2012). An example of a strategy is the use of material at different levels and a challenge can be finding enough appropriate material.

3.1.2 Participants

To select participants for the survey, a systematic randomization method (Bryman, 2001, p.105), modified from Oder (2014), was used. This method creates a

representative group of Swedish primary teachers working in preschool class and grades 1-3 (Bryman, 2001, p. 101). In the statistics over teachers in Sweden from Skolverket (The National Agency for Education), a data set with teachers working with the subject of English in grade 1-3 was chosen. The data set includes 288 municipalities, a total of 13,782 teachers out of which 6,495 teachers have a degree in teaching English; almost half of all the teachers (47%) (Skolverket, 2019e).

In the randomization process, the first selection was to show all schools

independent of principal organizer. Secondly, to assure a distribution across the whole country, the list was ordered based on the county code and lastly the list was ordered by municipality in alphabetic order. From this sorted list, every twentieth municipality was chosen starting with the municipally on row nineteen giving a total of 14 municipalities and 715 teachers. After an initial low answer rate, the group of respondents was

increased. To increase the number of targeted teachers, the selection of municipalities was repeated. This time, with starting points on row one, four, six and fourteen adding up to a total of 74 municipalities and 3,015 teachers, out of which 47% have a degree in teaching English. In total, 168 teachers answered the survey.

3.1.3 Procedure

The survey questions were written to generate data that could answer the research questions and give background information on the respondents. An information letter


was also written that explained the aim of the study to the respondents and informed them that the survey was anonymous (see Appendix 3). To further increase the chance of teachers answering the survey, the respondents were encouraged to send an email after responding to the survey to receive a copy of the results of the study and additional material related to the study. These factors are all measures for increasing answering rates in surveys proposed by Bryman (2001, p. 149).

The first version of the survey questions and information letter was sent out as a pilot study to test the survey questions for any ambiguities (Bryman, 2001, p. 171). The group selected for the pilot was teachers in other municipalities than the ones included in the survey. After the pilot, the information in the survey was extended in two ways.

The description about which students that count as more advanced was developed further, and a sentence was added informing teachers without experience of advanced students that they could finish the survey after question four, because all questions after question four were aimed at the teachers with experience of advanced students.

The time period when the survey was sent out corresponds to the period in Sweden when a one week school holiday occurs. All municipalities in Sweden do not have their holiday the same week; the holiday is spread out over a four week period. For that reason, the link to the survey was not emailed out to the schools the same week.

Initially, the plan was to send out the survey over a two week period but this period was extended to four weeks after a decision to include more municipalities. For most of the schools, the email was sent to the principal or assistant principal which was asked to forward the email to the teachers in preschool class and grades 1-3. If no email address was found to the principal, the email was sent to the “contact us” email. In a few municipalities, there were only phone numbers to the schools. In these cases, an email was sent to the municipal office with a request to forward the email to the primary


schools in the municipality. One or two weeks after the initial email, a reminder email was sent out to all schools.

3.1.4 Analysis

The results from the survey were collected and analyzed using the software Microsoft Office Excel. The survey had a total of 168 respondents. Before starting the analysis, the incomplete answers were deleted. The respondents that had not answered question 4, if they have had experience of advanced students, were considered incomplete and deleted. In total, there were 12 respondents without answers to question 4, leaving 156 respondents. If the respondent answered “No” to question 4, they did not have any experience of advanced students, and if they had answered the following questions 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, the answers to these questions were deleted. The answers were deleted for the reason that those questions are only applicable for teachers with experience of advanced students, because, the data should answer questions regarding differentiation for advanced students and not differentiation in general in the English classroom.

Free text answers given to the “other” options in questions 5, 6, 8 and 9 were divided into groups for clarity. The groups were created based on previous research when feasible, if not, the groups were divided based on patterns. In Question 5, asking if the teacher knew why the student is advanced in English the free text answers relating to English as a second language was grouped together and the other free text answers became one group. In Question 6, teachers were asked about differentiation strategies used. The free text answers that fit the description about acceleration (Skolverket 2019d, p.6) were grouped in one group, the ones answering no differentiation in another,

answers that were similar regarding how the student helps the teacher were grouped and, the fourth group was answers divergent from the other groups. In Question 8, the


free text answers described challenges experienced. Again, one group was based on relationship to acceleration (Skolverket 2019d, p.6), the other two answers were

grouped together. In Question 9, factors that could help with differentiation were given.

Most of the comments were related to collaborations and therefore grouped and, the remaining free text answers were grouped together.

The answers to all the questions were presented in bar charts. The free text given to the different “Other” options was collected in Appendix 5.

3.2 Interview

The second part of the study was a semi-structured interview. A semi-structured interview can be described as an interview with pre-decided open questions giving the respondents freedom in answering (Bryman, 2001, p.301). The purpose of the interview is: (a) to gain an understanding about how teachers might think when answering the survey questions; (b) collect more detailed information about the way teachers

differentiate for the advanced students and how they experience the learning outcomes from their differentiation.

3.2.1 Interview question construction

The interview questions were designed so that questions 1–5 give descriptive information about the respondent. Question 6 gives examples of proficiency skills among students assessed as advanced. Question 7 gives more information about how teachers differentiate their teaching for the advanced students and question 8 contributes information about how the teachers experience that their teaching increases the

advanced students’ learning. The questions can be seen in Appendix 4.


3.2.2 Participants

The participants of the interviews were chosen on the grounds of convenience. Using this method of choosing participants could be problematic because it is hard to know if the sample is representative for the whole population (Bryman, 2001, p. 114). In this case, the risk of not asking a representative part of the population is minimized due to the randomization process when choosing the municipals to include in the study.

In total, five teachers participated and they are named Teachers A-E in this study.

Teacher A is in the age group 50-60 and has over 30 years of teaching experience. She has an education in teaching in the lower grades and teaching English was part of her education. She works in grade 3 and has experience of students that reach at least one of the goals in grade 6 already in grade 3.

Teacher B is in the age group 40-50 and has 20 years of teaching experience. She has attended a teacher training college and works today with teaching both children and adults and has experiences of mixed-ability classes.

Teacher C is in the age group 30-40 and has 10 years of teaching experience. She has an education in teaching in the lower grades and teaching English was part of her education. She has worked in preschool class and grades 1-3 and currently works in grade 3.

Teacher D is in the age group 40-50 and has 20 years of teaching experience. She has a degree in teaching English grades 1-3 and currently teaches a mixed class grades 2-3.

Teacher E is in the age group 20-30 and has 1.5 years of teaching experience. She has a degree in teaching English grades 1-3 and is currently the mentor for a class in grade 3 and she also has English teaching in grade 2.


3.2.3 Procedure

In the information letter sent out with the link to the survey, there was a question asking the teachers to volunteer in the interview part of the study. Three teachers answered via email that they would participate in this second part of the study and one of the three did. Because the low answer rate of teachers able to participate in the interview study, a question asking for participation was also distributed in a pedagogic Facebook group focusing on discussing gifted students in school and in an email to the teachers that had answered that they were interested in the results of the study. These teachers were emailed the questions so that they could prepare their answers and were informed that they would be anonymous in the study. In communications with the teachers, it was agreed that they could answer the questions in written form instead of an oral interview.

3.3 Reliability and Validity

The reliability of a study indicates to which degree the results are reproducible at another time (Bryman, 2001, p.43). A way to assure high reliability in a survey study is to use “test-retest”, which means sending out the same survey twice and then evaluating how similar the two results are (Bryman, 2001, p.88). In this study a “test-retest” design was not implemented because of time constraints, instead a pilot of the survey was sent out. The aim of the pilot study was to investigate if the information letter and the questions in the survey were understandable for a representative group of teachers. By ensuring that the questions are understandable the reliability and external validity

increases because it makes it more likely that a respondent would answer the question in the same way a second time.

The validity of a study describes to which extent a study measures what it intends to measure (Bryman, 2001, p.88). The validity of a study can be described as external


and internal validity. The external validity measures how well the results from a study can be generalized for the whole population and the internal validity measures the validity of the research design, how well the research design assess what it intends to assess in order to accurately answer the research questions, also if there is a cause and effect relationship between included variables (Bryman, 2001, p.44; McKay, 2006, p.

12). To ensure as high validity as possible for a study of this size included questions were based on previous research, participating teachers were randomly selected and measurements were taken to assure highest possible answering rate.

The survey questions were constructed on the basis of previous research to ensure that the results can be generalized outside of the study (Bryman, 2001, p. 44) and enable comparisons between the results from this study with previous studies. Because when formulation of the question and included answer options are based on previous research this mirrors the concepts used within the field (Bryman, 2001, p.89) and that is what makes it possible to compare and discuss results from different studies and increase external validity. A shortcoming of the study that might affect internal validity negatively is that a large part of the theoretical framework is based on the theories of differentiated instruction described by Tomlinson (1999) and others. These theories are to date not discussed to a large extent in Sweden and the assumption cannot be made that the participating teachers know about differentiated instruction as described by Tomlinson (1999).

The systematic random sampling in the selection process creates a sub-group of teachers without any known biases within the whole population of teachers. The survey was sent out to reach 22% of teachers working in preschool class and grades 1-3 in Sweden. The distribution of included municipals is wide, including all parts of Sweden.

Most types of Swedish municipalities are included in the survey: there are larger and


smaller municipalities, as well as urban, suburban and rural; they are located from north to south, and along the coastland as well as in the inland of Sweden. This wide

representation of municipalities increases external validity to the study if we assume that the advanced students are evenly distributed across the country, because it decreases the sampling error (Bryman, 2001, p.102).

To assure high answering rate the survey was designed to be easy to complete.

This was done by keeping the information letter short and concise and the questions in the questionnaire are closed and there are only nine questions. The pilot study assured that the survey was easy to complete, with the teachers completing it within 3-4 minutes. Informing possible respondents that the survey only takes 3-4 minutes to complete was assumed to increase the answer rate. The higher the answer rate is, the smaller the error rate will be and small error rates give higher external validity of the results (Margin of Error Calculator, 2020) because the margin of error is a measurement of how well the results reflect the entire population. One problem with having a survey with a few closed questions could be that the questions are ambiguous and the data from them hard to interpret, hence, reducing internal validity. Question 7, about the teachers’

experience of how their differentiated instruction influences the students’ learning outcome, is an example of that. The answers will give an estimate of the teachers’

experiences, but it will be impossible to know if the teachers’ answer is based on a general feeling or if they are thinking of methods that they experience as better or less effective. The answers from the interview question “How do you think your

differentiated instruction has contributed to the students’ learning outcome? What works well? What is less successful?” gives insight into how teachers could think about differentiated instruction and learning outcomes. The data will not give the reasons behind teachers’ estimates of learning outcomes, but it will give an indication of how


the teachers think about the learning outcomes for this group of students in the English classroom in relationship to differentiated instruction. By doing this the internal validity is increased because it gives a higher understanding about the included variables in the study (Bryman, 2001, p.44).

To further increase the validity of the results retrieved from the survey, the complementary method interviews were included in the study. By collecting data from closed survey questions and open interview questions to answer the same research question the prospect of interpreting the answers correctly increases. Internal validity increases if a second source can confirm that the first source answers the intended question (Bryman, 2001, p. 89). This was done in interview question 6, by having the teachers describe the proficiency skills they base their assessment on for the advanced students. Alternatively, teachers could have been asked to test their students for their proficiency level. The results could then be used in the study to increase validity because a test is an objective measurement of the students’ proficiency level and if it is high enough to reach the knowledge requirements in grade 6 (Bryman, 2001, p. 88).

This type of test was not included in the study, because of the assumption that asking the teachers to conduct a test would decrease the answer rate and by doing this teachers’

experiences of previous students would not be included. That type of study also falls outside the scope of this paper. The interview part of the study includes information about which proficiency skills teachers base their assessment on but there is no question about how they perform their assessment. By adding a question about this the internal validity of the study would increase.

To increase external validity in the interview part of the study, the initial call for participants was done among the randomized survey participants. The second call for participants in the social media group targeting people interested in the teaching of


gifted children decreases the validity because there is a known bias, the above average interest in gifted children (Bryman, 2001, p. 102). There could also be a decrease in the external validity in the initial call. Participation was voluntary and it can be assumed that teachers that answer a call for participants are more than averaged interested in the subject, and in that aspect not reflecting the total population of teachers. To eliminate that effect collaboration with randomly selected school principals could have been initiated. The principals could have allocated time for randomly selected teachers to participate in the study, and as a result reduced bias and increased external validity. The number of questions were kept low to make it possible for the teachers to participate in the interview without taking too much of their time. To be able to describe to the teachers that it was a short interview was assumed to increase participant rate and the external validity.

3.4 Ethical Principles

The basic ethical principles in research include the demand of information, approval, confidentiality and usage (Bryman, 2001, p. 440). This study was planned and

completed following these principles. The participants were informed about the aim of the study and that their participation was voluntary and that they had the right to terminate the survey without finishing. The survey participants were informed that all answers were anonymous and that the data collection followed GDPR. The interview participants were informed that they would be kept anonymous in the study. After this study is finished, the data collected will not be used for any other purpose.


4. Results

The results from the survey and interview studies are presented below. First, the participating teachers and their experience of advanced students are described.

Secondly, the results are presented based on relevant research question.

4.1 The teachers

Among the respondents, 67 teachers (43%) had between 0-5 years of teaching experience and 39 teachers (25%) more than 15 years of experience (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Number of teachers divided according to years of teaching experience

78 of the respondents (50%) answered that they have a degree in teaching English. Most of them have had their English teaching training during the teacher education 70

teachers (90%), the others have had training organized by a school they worked at or in other ways. Other training was mentioned as:

 “English, primary school + high school”

 “Course as professional teacher”

 “20 points in English”

 “Teacher in English”

 “Have been Au-pair 6 months (USA) as well as being a student in USA, during teacher education 6 months”


28 22

39 0

20 40 60 80

0-5 6-10 11-15 15+

No. of teachers


 “Partly, I’m a student” (Author’s translation) The original text in Swedish is presented in Appendix 5.

Question 4 in the questionnaire asked if the teachers had any experience of advanced students in their English classroom. 59 (38%) of the teachers answered that they have and 97 (62%) of the teachers answered that they did not

In survey question 5, asking the teachers about reasons for their students to be considered advanced, it was possible for the teachers to choose more than one option if that was applicable for them. 45 teachers gave one reason for having an advanced student, whereas, 15 teachers gave two reasons and 2 teachers gave three reasons. The reasons for the students to be advanced in English given by the teachers are presented in Figure 2. In 32 cases (42%), the respondent answered “Mother tongue”, in 18 cases (23%) “Lived abroad” and in 14 cases (18%) “Gifted”.

Figure 2

Reasons for the students to be advanced English learners

The other reasons given by the teachers why the student is an advanced English learner could be grouped into two groups, one based on the students’ family members and one based on the students’ own interest. In the first group the teachers answered:

 “One parent with English as mother tongue”

 “English speaking grandparents”

 “English speaking parent” (Author’s translation)


18 14

6 7

0 10 20 30 40

Mother tongue Lived abroad Gifted Do not know Other

No. of students


In the second group the answers were:

 “Great interest”

 “Speaks English at home, plays a lot of computer games”

 “Use advanced English in the computer world”

 “Learnt from games and youtube” (Author’s translation) All answers in Swedish can be found in Appendix 5.

How teachers can assess that a student is advanced was investigated in the interviews. The interview question 6 asked what skills the student shows to have the teacher consider him or her to be advanced. All teachers mention that their students have good oral communication and four of them also mention that the students can read in English.

In the interview, Teacher A answered that the reason why she considers her students to be advanced is that they speak fluently, read well and in some cases have good spelling. Teacher B answered that it was their vocabulary, fluency in speaking, pronunciation and listening comprehension that made her consider them as advanced.

Some of the students also had higher grammar and writing skills. Teacher C answered that she has two students that reach the goals in grade 6 because they understand the most essential content in both spoken and written English and that they can express themselves more than understandably with spoken and written English. They have working strategies for their reading and can also make simple comparisons with their own experiences. Teacher D answered that her students understand spoken and written English. They can present content in both English and Swedish and they can read instructions in English. They can make written presentations with phrases and sentences and they are also good at spelling. Teacher E answered that her student is from Canada


and has a developed spoken and written English language. The student also uses and understands the basics of English grammar.

4.2 Differentiation strategies

In question 6, the teachers were asked to choose the differentiation strategies that they have used with their advanced students: use of a more advanced textbook (textbook), use of supplementary material such as books and movies (Suppl. material), have the student work in a small group (Small group), use different web based materials (Web sources), have the student work on the same task as the rest of the class but with more advanced material (Adv. material), have the student work on the same material as the rest of the class but with more advanced tasks (Adv. Task), use station work (Station work), agree with the student on a personal list of tasks to do (Personal list), have the student choose how to present their knowledge (Ind. product) or something else (Other).

Figure 3 shows that the most common among the participating teachers is to use one, two or three strategies. One strategy is chosen by 17 teachers (24%), with an equal number of teachers with and without English education. Two strategies are chosen by 15 teachers (25%), seven with and eight without English education. Three strategies are chosen by 15 teachers (25%), 11 teachers with and four teachers without English education.


Figure 3

The number of differentiation strategies the teachers chose depending whether the teacher has education in teaching English (w edu) or not (w/o edu)

Figure 4, illustrating the differentiation strategies used by teachers, shows that 32 teachers (54%) use supplementary material such as films and books, 24 teachers (41%) use more advanced material for the same task and 19 teachers (32%) use more advanced tasks with the same material. No respondents answered that they had used station work in their English differentiated instruction.

Figure 4

Differentiation strategies used by teachers

The responses given by the teachers to the option “other” could be divided in

acceleration, no differentiation, and teacher’s help and other. The answers given by the teachers that in different ways describe acceleration are:

0 2 4 6 8 10 12

0 1 2 3 4 5 6

No. of teachers

No. of differentiation strategies

w edu w/o edu



6 9



0 7 7


0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35

No. of teachers


 “The student had English teaching in grade 5”

 “The student has class with older students at school”

 “Have had English with a higher grade”

 “Level based groups in grade 3, students in grade 2 have English with grade 3 “

 “Been part of higher grades’ English teaching”

The answers about no differentiation are:

 “Haven’t had possibilities to use other methods because the student didn’t know how to read”

 “There are no differentiations”

 “The student works in a small group with other material to some extent but because there are deficiencies only to some extent and has to be with the regular teaching.”

 “Because we only have 20 minutes of English per week we mostly do oral and the same for everyone, so nothing special. Only that the student shows knowledge and gladly speaks English.”

The answers about teachers help are:

 “The student got to help the classmates on some occasions to develop the skill of explaining so that others understand”

 “The student got to plan a lesson, for example about body parts and then lead that lesson. The student loves it.”

 “Help-teacher and writing book in English”

The answers about others are:

 “Read books and recall it, different projects and presentations”

 “Talk and discuss more in English” (Author’s translation)


All answers in Swedish can be found in Appendix 5.

Question number 7 in the interview asked the teachers how they differentiate their instruction for the advanced students and what examples they could give from the classroom. The teachers that were interviewed have had their advanced students in the ordinary class and they have used different differentiation strategies. Two of the teachers use textbooks from a higher grade, two teachers use books written in English and one teacher uses different material for atask similar for all students. Teacher A describes how she comes to class once a week to have an English lesson. She works in grade 3 and for the advanced students she has a grade 4 textbook. The textbook is often used when she has a presentation for the class that she thinks is too basic for the

advanced students. When the class plays games or walks around interviewing each other, the advanced students participate for the sake of interaction. When the class watches movies, the advanced students can chose if they want to see them. They are too basic for them but they could be seen as entertainment or as a way of hearing different types of spoken English. The teacher wishes she could use more digital teaching

materials but it is not possible because of the technology available. Teacher B describes a lesson about imperial measurements (IM) with three different levels of reading

material. The students could choose between reading about IM in Swedish and two different texts in English with varying complexity. After reading, they work on a task utilizing what they learnt from the reading. Teacher C uses a textbook and workbook for grade 5 for her grade 3 students that need differentiated instruction. She introduces new chapters to the students and after that the students work independently with it. The students ask for help if needed. Teacher D answers that the advanced students instead of glossary homework (words that they already know) have had an English book to read at home. They have also had study questions to answer in written form. When the rest of


the class writes simple texts, the advanced students have to write more. Teacher E answers that the advanced students attend the regular classes but are given additional tasks. These tasks could be reading more challenging books with advanced language.

4.3 Challenges

In question 8, the teachers were asked to choose one or several aspects that they thought were a challenge when it came to preparing teaching for the advanced students. The options were time available for English in the curriculum (Time), a heterogeneous classroom with students with varying needs (Diff. needs), teachers’ own knowledge in differentiated instruction (Knowledge diff.), teachers’ own knowledge in the English language (Knowledge Eng.), access of materials (Material), amount of planning time (Planning time) and an open option (Other).

Figure 5 shows how the teachers answered the question about the challenges they experience in differentiating instruction for the advanced students. The challenge chosen by most teachers was a heterogeneous classroom which was chosen by 35 teachers (59%). Limited time in the curriculum was chosen by 25 teachers (42%) and lack of material and not enough planning time was chosen by 22 teachers (37%) each.

Figure 5

Challenges teachers’ experience regarding differentiating instruction for advanced students



9 4

22 22

5 0

5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40

Time Diff. needs Knowledge diff.

Knowledge eng.

Material Planning time


No. of teachers


In the open option “other”, three teachers wrote comments in relation to acceleration by higher grade collaborations. The teachers’ comments were:

 “Need to leave other lessons to attend English in a higher grade”

 “To find common factors for teaching with a higher grade”

 “No challenges with our current solution”

The other free comments relate to the students inner motivation as well as the interaction in the classroom.

 “The students’ own motivation for differentiated instruction”

 “The student must simultaneously have an interaction with the other students in class, because there is also oral part of the teaching. If friends know very little English, the dialogues are meager and at a too low level for the student.” (Author’s translation)

All comments can be found in Swedish in Appendix 5.

In question 9, the teachers were asked about the factors that could help them in differentiating instruction for the advanced students. The options were more support from the school administration (School adm.), access to more material (Material), more planning time (Planning), better support among colleagues (Colleagues), more

knowledge (Knowledge), more experience (Experience), professional training (Training), and last an open option (Other).

Figure 6 shows the factors the teachers chose that could help them in their work to differentiate their instruction. The option most teacher chose is access to more material with 33 teachers (56%). The option more time to plan teaching was chosen by 24 teachers (41%), the option knowledge was chosen by 17 teachers (29%) and, the option professional training by 15 teachers (25%).


Figure 6

Factors that teachers believe could help with differentiating instruction for advanced students

Other factors were chosen by 8 teachers (14%), factors mentioned were mostly related to collaboration in the school between different classes (5 teachers):

 “Collaboration with other classes and teachers”

 “If there is collaboration between classes as we have I don’t see any problems”

 “Preferably these students should work with other students at the same level”

 “To be able to schedule classes so that the English lessons are parallel those lessons the student had in another class.”

 “Joint planning working with teachers in grade 4-6”

There were also other types of comments:

 “Little time to have English in pre-school in the curriculum”

 “More adults in the classroom to enable more activity and participations in individual modifications”

 “When there is 1 student out of 28 there is not much time in a lesson for that student that needs extra challenges” (Author’s translation)

All comments are in Swedish in Appendix 5.






13 15

8 0

5 10 15 20 25 30 35

School adm.

Material Planning Colleagues Knowledge Experience Training Other

No. of teachers


4.4 Learning outcomes

Figure 7 shows to which degree the differentiated instruction increases the students’

knowledge, as estimated by the teachers. The option “to some extent” was chosen by 35 teachers (64%). The option “high” was chosen by eight teachers (15%) and “very high”

by four teachers (7%). The option “low” was chosen by four teachers (7%) and “very low” by four teachers (7%).

Figure 7

Teachers estimated increase in the students’ English knowledge

In the interview, the teachers’ answers to question 8, how they think their differentiated instruction have contributed to the students learning, show that they see different learning outcomes for different aspects of their students’ language proficiency.

All answers are translated by the author. Teacher A said that her differentiated instruction clearly contributed to the students’ vocabulary and spelling. For the oral communication, she is not sure if it has been developed or not because there are too few students at the same level. Teacher B said that a positive outcome from her

differentiated instruction was that the uninvolved students became participants. Teacher C thinks that it is good that her students meet more complicated texts and tasks than the rest of the class. It is also good that they can discuss and help each other. It is not as good that she as a teacher does not have more time to teach them individually. It would

4 8


4 4

0 10 20 30 40

Very high High To some extent Low Very low

No. of teachers


not have worked as well if the students were less independent. Teacher D said that the student thought that the book reading was interesting and exciting. It has developed the students English and the student also has had an opportunity to be challenged with writing. It is not ideal that the work is so individual in the textbook and with the other tasks not done by the whole class. The oral communication is mostly only with the teacher because the other students have not reached that far in their language

development. Teacher E states that her differentiated instruction is not as good as she would have wanted. She wishes that she could create improved differentiated

instructions for the student. Most of the focus has been on the ordinary teaching for grade 2 and the student has practiced a lot of writing. For example, if the other students write words, the advanced student writes whole sentences. The student is also given a lot of space to communicate orally. She wants to test different types of differentiations strategies to challenge the students’ use of the English language. She says that it can be a challenge in its own right but, academically, her vision is to develop her differentiated instruction in the classroom for the students in need of support or challenges.

5. Discussion

5.1 Result discussion

The first aim of this study was to examine if and how teachers differentiate their English instruction to meet the needs of more advanced students, and what challenges they experience. The results of the survey show that the majority of participating teachers use a variety of differentiation strategies. The survey also identifies different challenges that the teachers experience. Secondly, the study aimed to investigate how teachers’

differentiated instruction affects advanced students’ learning outcomes. The result from


Figure 5 shows how the teachers answered the question about the challenges they  experience in differentiating instruction for the advanced students
Figure 7 shows to which degree the differentiated instruction increases the students’


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