How to differentiate in the French language class

Article digest

  • Heterogeneity in class?
  • Managing the heterogeneity without frustrating the homogeneous elements of the class
  • The reef of differentiated learning
  • Subgroups work
  • Learning by teaching
  • Edutainment
  • Followup and evaluation
  • Conclusion

Heterogeneity in class?

Talking about a language class, the problematics of heterogeneity should not be alluded to,

since the definition of “class” per se is supposedly permitting the grouping of learners who

demonstrate approximatively similar levels and language skills. As evidenced by Sabine

Kahn, the notion of “class” has been understood since the 15th century as a crowd of learners grouped based on their advancement within a given curriculum. Therefore, heterogeneity should not exist.

This perspective is, alas, way too idealistic, as well as too simplistic.It is idealistic, for the language classes do not systematically gather learners with similar levels or skills, as groupings are constrained by economical, and logistical issues.It is simplistic, for the heterogeneity does not rely only on levels. In the hypothetical event of a class where learners would have the same level and the same competencies, other elements would disturb the potentiality of homogeneous teaching:

  • The cultural origins of learners, on which have been built different learning strategies. Beatrice Bouvier provided an insightful analysis of the reasons why Chinese-speaking students are reluctant to talk in public, hand out or expose their productions to others or ask a question because asking a question would be proof that either the learner has failed understanding clear explanations, or that the teacher has failed to provide clear explanations. When grouped with learners (especially coming from Europe or the Americas) used to perceiving the classroom as a place for interactions, the teacher is facing particularly diverse learning strategies.
  • The linguistical origins of learners. Hispanic learners learn with more ease than e.g.,Arabic-speaking or Russian-speaking learners, given the proximity of French andSpanish, both belonging to the Romance languages. It is noticeable that those differences of ease do not vanish after the first steps of language learning. The complexity of each individual’s linguistical path.
  • The learners’ educational background. Frello has partners in the associative world,who accompany exiles in their learning of French. Hence, we witnessed the extremely diverse educational backgrounds that the learners have, some never having gone to school, while others detaining Ph.D.’s, the latter demonstrating more ease elaborating learning strategies. Facing those diverse educational backgrounds, it is obvious that a teacher cannot fulfill the needs of every student in a group by providing homogeneous teaching.
  • The motivations of the learners. Be the learners willing to enter the professional world, or be they willing to access higher education, or be they willing to learn the language as leisure, they do not have the same needs.

We have been providing a non-exhaustive scan of the factors potentially enhancing heterogeneity in classes. Given all the factors at stake, we state that the homogeneous group is an exception, if not a utopia, the norm being heterogeneity within the classroom. Therefore,the issue of managing the heterogeneity of French-language learners is a problem affecting every single French-language teacher.

Managing the heterogeneity without frustrating the homogeneous elements of the class 

Managing heterogeneity within a classroom implies that the teacher is flexible enough to be capable of any adaptations. We all know that a good lesson never unfolds the way we planned it to. Special needs come up during a class, and, be they identified by the teacher or expressed by the learners, they demand care.

There is however a reality, too rarely referred to since Puren’s article on differentiation, that we need to mention.

In a given group of fifteen learners, if only three students out of fifteen have special needs towards a given element, the problematic question that strikes the teacher is not “how will I manage to remediate their needs?” as much as it is “while I am taking care of those three students’ needs, what do I do with the other twelve ?”.

Reinforcement and differentiation may have virtue, however. It cannot systematically be implemented within the classroom as these remediations are not integrated within a didactical interaction.

The difficulty that the teacher is facing while managing the heterogeneity of a group, is not remediating the special needs per se but answering some diverse needs, while ensuring that no learner feels left aside.

Christian Puren notes a difference between variation, which entails the diversification of tasks, and differentiation, which implies that learners are doing different tasks within the same time slot.

We are discussing differentiation here, not variation. To Puren’s work on defining differentiation, we are adding an enrichment. We will look into how Frello eases the simultaneous realizations of different tasks, and also how it is possible to differentiate learning while submitting the same task to all learners.

The reef of differentiated learning

Before exploring a few paths that permit the implementation of differentiated learning, it is crucial to define what differentiation is not. To do so, we are referring to the works of Philippe Perrenoud:

Implementing a differentiated learning system does not entail exhaustive planning. Skill repositories cannot be held for truth.

An upfront planning of the needs and specificities of the learners is not realistic and cannot work. Differentiating the learning paths does not mean offering an individualized path for every single learner.

Differentiation should not be envisioned as something that repairs the learners’ shortcomings. Instead of correcting the fossilization of errors, differentiation is meant to prevent its emergence.

Perrenoud considers that, since differentiation cannot be a proactive regulation, nor a retroactive regulation, it must be envisioned as part of the pedagogical process, adapting along the progression of the curriculum. This demands :

  • An active pedagogical approach
  • A display of content, that is qualitative rather than quantitative
  • The entrenchment of differentiation in the daily work of the teacher and the learning strategies for the students

These demands intervene before, during and after the class, which unsurprisingly render the teachers unable to provide a diversification of content that would answer the needs of their students. As David and Abry wrote it:

The upstream work is very important since there is a need to prepare at least two or three hours of content, for just an hour of class.

The traditional manuals of French find themselves trapped by their editorial choices and by the physical limits of manuals. That is the reason of our existence: offering the teachers a set of tools that can help them differentiating instruction by letting them decide how they want to exploit the resources provided, without further time allowed to preparation, and a follow-up on the work of their students given by the digital tools.

Subgroups work

One of the first paths teachers think of when they want to differentiate instruction and answer special needs is working in small groups. Aside from the benefits of the differentiation, this approach helps the learners develop autonomy. As Catherine David underlines it, implementing group work to differentiate instruction enhances “group dynamics that are not always seen in homogeneous classes”, hence the powerful added value of this practice.

However, it bears in itself the potential left-out feeling that we were referring to earlier: 

These dynamics provoke a complex relation to the didactic time, since the teacher has to carefully balance the moments where the whole class works together, and the moments where the learners are divided into subgroups. The teacher also has to be careful to allocate the same amount of availability to every student, since learners do not appreciate working solely autonomously. The teacher also has to find activities that last approximately the same time for each group so that no group finishes their activities way earlier than the others. Finally, the teacher has to anticipate every unexpected event that could come up in each subgroup. We have empirically observed, that the multiplication of small group work is necessary but that it provokes complex management of time.

The digital tools provided by Frello have been developed aiming at resolving these problems.

  • Availability of contents: Frello offers over 800 modules (by October 2019), targeting the four communication competencies as well as the linguistical skills, from level A1 to B1. These contents can be examined in our skills repository. They do not aim at bringing a revolution to the teachers’ practices, but at helping them along the way. The teachers will still have to identify the needs of their learners and assign them content towards acquiring the targeted competencies. However, the contents are already didactical, respecting our pedagogical approach that relies on three pillars: authenticity, contextualization, long-lasting digital learning.
  • Managing groups: the teacher is allowed to assign different activities to students from the same class. The possibility of assigning activities during presential learning sessions spares the teacher the logistics of preparing and organizing work in subgroups. :
Assigning blended learning tasks
  • Managing didactic time: it is also possible to assign multiple activities to a group of learners. Students also have access to the rest of the content, even though it has not been assigned. The students’ autonomy is reinforced by the automatic corrections of Frello’s activities, as well as the possibility to have a peek at the solutions.
self-correcting exercises french

Through the availability of the contents and the possibility of minimizing the time allocated to managing the logistics, we aim at allowing a simpler implementation of subgroups work, without any student feeling left out.

The activities can, at the discretion of the teacher, be undertaken individually, or within a subgroup. Within a subgroup, the learners could be asked to think of solutions as a group, encouraging interactions and public speaking..

Learning by teaching

Learning by teaching, or “Lernen durch Lehren”, is a teaching technique developed by Jean-Pol Martin, and implemented in Germany since the 80s. The aim is to ask a student to play the role of the teacher, this approach demanding that the student masters the targeted skill. From time to time, this technique can allow the implementation of a kind of differentiation, when combined with small group work.

We as teachers often naturally form subgroups to make the class less heterogeneous and regroup students that have the same set of skills and competencies. We reckon that punctually or when necessary, the repartition into subgroups should not be made that way. For example, instead of forming a group composed of A2 students, the teacher can choose two A2 students and two B2 students to work together on a module. The B2 students, will not be asked to solely complete the module but to accompany the A2 students : then they will have to formalize, to explain and to explain their knowledge under the supervision of the teacher, who will navigate from group to group to provide them with complementary pieces of information and answer questions if needed.

This practice can be implemented when using structural activities such as the following:

structural exercises french class

The weakest students will then construct their knowledge thanks to the help of more advanced students, who are then in a process of remediation, allowing them to identify the limits of a competency they thought they mastered. Moreover, questions and explanations are the occasion for more interactions, richer, more numerous, but overall more authentic. The goal here is not only the completion of a structural exercise but the accompaniment towards its completion, which places this technique within the task-based approach. Since the speaking intentions are authentic.

It is also possible to ask a heterogeneous subgroup to collectively complete a production task :

Collective production activity french class

Here, each student does what is adapted to their level, the more advanced supervising and explaining any linguistical, cultural, or pragmatical elements that are needed to complete the task.

The experience of this approach shows that often the interactions go beyond the task asked: the students discuss, the more advanced getting satisfaction in explaining to others, while the least advanced construct more autonomous learning strategy.

It is therefore not the content that fixates the limits of an activity, but the role that the teacher assigns to each student.


The tools provided by Frello offer a large range of educational games. These activities do not focus on the language in itself but on the ability of the learner to solve a problem, an enigma or find cultural information. During these activities, however, the learner has to use the language to understand and suggest solutions. Language then becomes a mean and not a goal.

Beyond the well-known benefits of these activities, they also provide an opportunity for differentiated instruction. We elaborated on these activities so that, even when submitted for the A1 level, they can be interesting to more advanced students. Indeed, the difficulty of the activity lies in its completion, and not in the language used.

edutainment activities
Blended learning edutainment activities

When completed collectively, those activities once again allow interactions, where formal questions take place. The teacher then becomes a coordinator among the students.

Follow-up and evaluation

Implementing differentiated instruction constantly requires the analysis of the students' needs, therefore evaluation. On the platform, the evaluation is made possible thanks to the follow-up tool, that allows teachers to have a vision of their students' progress on a wide range of scale: overall class progression, individual progression, detailed or granular results. These progressions are displayed on the following skills diagrams.

Pedagogical follow-up model


Perrenoud states that in the contemporary literature on the matter, in the official texts ad reforms, there is an ongoing split regarding the role of the teacher. There is a shift from the traditional vertical instruction where the teacher has a top-down approach, towards a vision of the teacher as a resource person whose mission is to organize the learning situations. However, he states that within the field “the representations of instruction and learning remain very traditional”.

The reasons for this remanence are numerous and complex, partly due to the lack of teachers training, and partly due to the availability of means and tools, as Catherine David and Dominique Abry state:

The teacher has to elaborate on the activities submitted to each subgroup but also the whole class group and to anticipate time-compatible activities that allow spending time with the subgroup while the others are working autonomously. The teacher also has to anticipate the corrections, that will necessarily be more numerous and of a greater variety than in a “homogeneous” class, and to organize activities upstream and downstream the class.

The purpose of Frello is to make such tools available. Useable before, during or after the class, the Frello tools allow the implementation of a qualitatively differentiated instruction, taking into account the needs of all students. Not only is their progression accelerated but they also experience a huge gain in autonomy and motivation. The digital tools answer a pedagogical problem that both teachers and students experience. We reckon that the resort to digital solutions within a classroom must be motivated by the will to answer actual pedagogical needs. If this requirement is not met, there is no way the implementation of such tools can work.

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