The same, but different: Adapting lesson plans for different groups

By Mark McKinnon and Nicola Meldrum

Category: Teacher Resources

In this post, we’ll set out some key questions you can ask yourself when adapting lesson plans with the same material or set of learning goals to fit learners of the same, but different level.

Why one lesson plan doesn’t fit all

Have you ever had more than one student, or group of learners at a similar level? If so, have you planned a lesson around the same idea or set of materials only to have it flop with one group and be a hit with the other?

If, like us, you have experienced this or heard something similar from other teachers, you’ll realise we’re all in the same boat. Similar group, same material, same level – what could go wrong?

Yet, as we have discovered, every learner is unique and each group is different. Therefore, our plans should be as distinctive and varied as our students. In a perfect world, we’d spend hours on lesson planning and coming up with fresh and exciting material for each group. Yet, as every busy teacher knows, time isn’t always on our side.

So, how can we adapt ELT lesson plans for different groups? Let’s take a closer look.

Adapting lesson plans for different groups

In order to effectively adapt ELT lesson plans to a range of groups, you should consider the following questions.

Let’s assume we are going to teach new grammar in our next lesson. Ask yourself:

  • What specific issues with meaning, form and sound might the different students in this group have, especially with L1 transfer, personal learning needs and levels in mind?
  • Will they need more help with the meaning, the form or the sound of the new language?
  • How interested will these learners be in this topic? Can I adapt the context/text/input to motivate them?
  • How fast/slow will they complete the given tasks? What tasks will they enjoy/dislike?
  • How can I balance the number of activities and complexity of tasks to make practice interesting and at the right level of challenge?
  • How can I personalise my teacher talk (questions, examples in modelling etc.,) to these students to make the lesson relevant?

These questions can help to inform how you will adapt one plan to meet the needs of different learners while achieving the same aim. We call this method of thinking Analysis Before Teaching (ABT). If we use ABT when planning a lesson, we will be better prepared. It is here to help us create a personalised lesson for each group of learners.  So how can we use the ABT method to adapt ELT lesson plans to a variety of groups? Let’s look at it in practice now.

Using ABT to plan the same lesson for two different groups

Imagine that you are working in a language school, or teaching online, and you have two groups of learners – both elementary. As the classes are similar, you have been asked to use the same material for each. Yet, as we know, it’s not always that simple. Let’s take a closer look at the similarities and differences between each group.

Group 1:
Elementary level, 8 students, 18-30 years old. 3 are students, 1 is a young professional, 4 are unemployed looking for work. 6 students are Spanish, 2 are Italian. They learn quickly and generally fly through tasks. Good grammar awareness.

Group 2:
Elementary level, 10 students, 25-65 years old. 7 students are in work, 2 are students, 2 are retired. 5 students are Spanish, 3 have Arabic as their first language and 2 are Russian. Older students take longer to do tasks and have weaker grammar and lower fluency. The younger learners who are in work want to move fast and improve quickly.

It’s easy to see that, while the general level of the groups is the same, there are a number of differences in student profiles. Therefore, in this case, one lesson will certainly not fit all. 

Let’s now review the lesson goals and materials you have for both groups.

Lesson goals:

  • Review of Wh~ questions in present simple and present continuous.
  • Exchange personal information and talk about jobs and tasks that week.


  • The input is a listening activity between two colleagues. One is new to the firm.
  • There are no pronunciation goals and the speaking task is a role play at work to get to know a new colleague.

While we can’t use the same lesson plan for each group, we can use the ABT method to successfully adapt it for use with both groups. To help, we’ve included an example of how you can use this method to analyse the group’s needs quickly in order to adapt your lesson to multiple learners.

ELT lesson planning with the ABT method

ABT provides us with a process and framework for ensuring we go into class prepared. It helps us create and adapt lesson plans by analysing language learning and motivational needs, as well as relevance to the given group or individual learner. Below is an example of the three steps involved in this analysis.

ABTGroup 1Action pointsGroup 2Action points
1 Grammar analysis (assumed knowledge, potential problems, common mistakes)
Meaning/Form OK in this strong group.
Pronunciation issues with intonation and sentence stress. ‘Where’ and ‘were’ sound the same.
Skip the grammar focus stage and instead use board to CCQ grammar.Meaning: difference between simple and continuous tenses problematic for all students. Spanish: word order, mixing up auxillary verbs.
Arabic: verb be omitted, present continuous overused.
Russian: problems with auxiliary verbs.
Group learners to do practice tasks: peer teaching strong-strong/weak-medium.
Prepare concept checking questions (CCQs) questions for different L1s and group them for practice: peer teaching and extra teacher support
2 Topic/Context analysis (relevance and needs)
Relevance to needs/
Motivational aspects/World knowledge
High relevance, students motivated by work related topics. Unemployed can’t talk about current work tasksAdapt role play to focus on current non-work tasks and interests/
2 Students retired.
Unemployed learners are sensitive about the topic of work and can’t talk about work tasks that week.
Adapt role play to focus on current non-work tasks and interests/
3 Task analysis (relevance to needs and motivation)
Language needs supported?
What’s missing?
Listening is a useful pronunciation model. Some tasks on form are too easy. Tasks for role play need adapting to unemployed/
students. Lack of pronunciation practice tasks.
Use listening to elicit question context, question forms and for pronunciation work. Insert intonation drilling after listening in pairs. Skip practice tasks on meaning and form.
New pairs for role play x2.
Extend with a pair reporting task: What are your previous partners working on?
Listening will be challenging for some learners as it will affect pace. Different levels of challenge required to recall grammar and then use it. The role play needs adapting to unemployed/
Do listening as a reading or do a quick presentation of mini dialogue on the board.
Stronger learners can think of extra questions to ask in the role-play. Or write about someone else’s week.

Once you have these three areas for ABT internalised, you can make simple notes on any materials you are using to quickly personalise lessons to the same but different groups.

Key questions to ask for effective adaptation of a lesson plan

To help prepare and adapt ELT lessons for any given goal and learners, use the following questions for each step of the ABT method at the planning stage. Above all, they will help to pinpoint any issues with using the same lesson plan for more than one group/learner. They will also help to adapt that plan effectively, leading to overall planning efficiency.

1 Grammar analysis (assumed knowledge, potential problems, common mistakes)


  • What do these students already know?
  • How is this different from the other students?
  • If one group already knows this language, what other language could I feed in?
  • What will each group have problems with in terms of meaning, form and sound?

2 Topic/Context analysis (relevance and needs)

Relevance to needs/Motivational aspects/World knowledge

  • Is this topic relevant to the backgrounds and goals of all groups of learners? If not, how not?
  • Will students be motivated by the topic?
  • Are the examples of target language appropriate for this group culturally and knowledge-wise?
  • If not, how could I adapt this topic/context easily to make it more relevant/motivating? What alternative text, image, audiovisual content, examples could I use?

3 Task analysis (relevance to needs and motivation)

Language needs/Pace/Challenge/Appropriateness/Missing

  • Which tasks are most useful for scaffolding the main speaking/writing task for these learners?
  • Which tasks could I skip (because they already know this/can do it/it’s too hard)?
  • What tasks are missing, e.g., pronunciation?
  • Do I need to extend any tasks to give more practice or use?
  • Are the tasks challenging enough? If they are cognitively too easy, can I give them more complex tasks? E.g., change a multiple-choice activity to a gap fill?
  • Do I need to simplify any tasks?

Moving forward…

In future posts, we will dive into ABT again to show how you can apply it to all ELT lesson plans. Additionally, we will give more tips and examples of how to differentiate within a group, how to make sure you are making the most of feedback, and we will explore reflection and review as a key aspect of lesson planning. Stay tuned.

By Mark McKinnon and Nicola Meldrum

Mark and Nicola are writing a methodology book for Garnet Education called Lesson Planning for ELT: New Principles and Frameworks

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