Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 17, 2018
Nicholas McKay

Students doing an activity in a classroom in China.

As teachers, we are often trained in how to teach the whole class, rather than the individual.

Considering how large your classes will be when teaching in China, this is no surprise. It will be very difficult to teach every individual student something different.

However, this is sometimes what’s needed, for every student learns in a different way.

In every class, there will be students who are academically gifted, and there will be those who struggle to keep up.

To help your Chinese students who are experiencing difficulty with the content, you can use a process called differentiation. Read on to find out more!


Say it with me: differentiation. This is the process of making challenging work easier for students having trouble.

Of course, you wouldn’t go round telling your Chinese students the task is easier. This will lower their self-esteem. So instead, just say the task is ‘different’.

As soon as you begin teaching a new class in China, you will be walking in blind. Often, you will have no idea what your students are capable of.

So, it’s a good idea to test students in the areas you will be studying. This way, you can immediately identify your high-fliers, and those who will require more assistance.


Okay, I just tested my students – now what?

Once you have the results of the tests, you can compile this information into a Guttman Chart.

This can be easily achieved by using a table in a word processing tool, or through an Excel spreadsheet (or other like programs).

This chart is designed to ascertain a student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), otherwise referred to as what they are ready to learn next.

A completed Guttman Chart is demonstrated in the image below.

Guttman Chart for an ESL class in China.

Note: this Guttman Chart is best viewed on a mobile device in landscape mode or on a desktop computer.

In this chart, student names on the left are sorted from the most proficient student at the top, to those experiencing the most difficulty at the bottom.

Going lengthways across the top are the questions, arranged from the easiest on the left, to the most challenging on the right.

Every ‘1’ signifies a correct answer. A ‘0’ represents a question answered incorrectly, or not at all.

First, by looking at the Guttman Chart, we can deduce that the test given was too easy for Chen, Li and Wang, who require a more difficult test to analyze their abilities.

On the other hand, the test was too hard for students like Yong and Zhao.


For students like Wang, Ma and Fan, among others, who occasionally received a ‘0’ for an easier question, yet were capable of completing harder questions, we can fill in the blanks here.

As an example, perhaps Wang was away when we studied for question 1. Moreover, perhaps Ma and Fan become stressed when doing tests.

The same can be said for students like Yong and Zhao, who answered a challenging question correctly. In their case, maybe they were simply guessing.

By knowing this, I can focus on what they don’t know, rather than revising what they already do.

With this information in mind, I can begin to sort students into groups, based on their ZPDs. The image below demonstrates how students have been sorted.

Guttman Chart with ZPDs for an ESL class in China.

Note: this Guttman Chart is best viewed on a mobile device in landscape mode or on a desktop computer.

As you can see, I have grouped the most adept students, and those who need more help, into separate groups. In doing this, your Chinese students will learn only what they are ready to.

Make sure groups are not too large. A maximum of six is probably sufficient.

The right content for the right student

Rather than having to explain something over and over again for individual students, by moving your students into groups it will make it easier to guide them to meet their full potential.

By doing this, you also won’t have to tailor-make a worksheet for each student, but rather, one per group.

You can also use this strategy when analyzing results from student assessment tasks.

Imagine the following scenario: the students in one of your classrooms in China just completed a summative task.

The assessment was for students to plan, and write, a two-page mystery narrative, using the language, grammar and punctuation conventions studied in class.

The rubric you were marking students on is demonstrated below.

Rubric for ESL class in China.

Note: this rubric is best viewed on a mobile device in landscape mode or on a desktop computer.

After grading student results, you discover that four students did very poorly. You alone know that these students consistently put in a lot of effort. What do you do?

When this happened to me, I analyzed the work students submitted to identify what they could do, rather than what they couldn’t.

Using this information, I developed a rubric that suited their abilities, and asked them to undertake the task a second time.

Below is an image of the new rubric.

Rubric for ESL class in China designed to suit students' abilities.

Note: this rubric is best viewed on a mobile device in landscape mode or on a desktop computer.

What if I were to tell you, the student whose rubric is shown above, failed the assignment the first time? You would be shocked, of course, considering they received such a great mark when they attempted the task a second time.

This is because the second rubric is assessing the student on what they know, rather than on what the rest of the class is capable of doing.

In no way does this mean the child is ‘dumb’, a word students just love to associate themselves with when they cannot do the work.

It just means they learn in a different way. As their teacher, it’s your job to discover how every one of your students learn, so they can successfully complete the task.

A Guttman Chart is worth the time

Developing a Guttman Chart is time-consuming – we’re talking an extra couple of hours spent assessing work, not to mention time spent developing activities suited for students’ ZPDs.

However, to pick up your life and move across the ocean to teach in China clearly demonstrates you have a love for teaching.

Teaching is hard work – but studying is just as hard. As the age-old saying goes, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This expression can also be applied to your students.

Even if one of your Chinese students presents with serious academic difficulties, never give up on them. Just try something else – for none of your students are failures.

Have you used a Guttman Chart in your classroom before? Please share your experience below.

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