Inclusion, ESL teaching & The Activity Theory Model

How does inclusion in the ESL classroom happen? Is it even possible? The basic principle of inclusion states that all children have equal rights to education, regardless of their personal characteristics, cultural, or religious background. Let’s talk about the activity theory model! 👇

Savić (2009b: 11) adds that “humanistic teaching principles can be used as
guidelines for respecting diversity and creating an inclusive environment”, and suggests applying the principle of individualization through differentiation of tasks and activities.

According to Olinghouse (2008), there are four major strategies for making EFL classes more inclusive. Learner’s diversity was largely centered on race in the past, but today it includes a broad range of personal characteristics, from social background to possible learning difficulties.

A 4-step-strategy to develop as an inclusive practitioner

  1. Developing intrapersonal awareness is a step that needs to be completed in order for a teacher to genuinely understand and connect to his/her students. Teachers should examine their ideas, teaching approaches and the relationships with people around them.

2. After introspecting, teachers need to develop interpersonal awareness and get acquainted with their students. Overcoming prejudice and focusing on student’s viewpoint is important in building a positive long-term relationship with the students.

3. Forming an inclusive pedagogical approach and developing an inclusive learning environment is the natural extension of the first two inclusive teaching strategies. The inclusive pedagogical approach needs to be a part of every lesson, regardless of the type of learner diversity in the classroom.

4. Finally, and possibly the most important strategy for making the classroom more inclusive is the curricular transformation. The course content needs to be adapted so that it is relevant to all the students in the classroom, not just to the majority of students as it often happens in the teaching practice.

What other things besides teaching and learning strategies can make your classroom more inclusive?

Other than teaching and learning strategies that can make your classroom more inclusive, a teacher should also develop management strategies and have a variety of materials and objects at hand. (A large table for group work, various cards and board games, visual aids, technology, realia, classroom ‘job’ assignment for each student, interesting books for bibliotherapy storytelling sessions and positive behavior management system for effective classroom management.)

The activity theory model in an inclusive classroom

The activity theory model consists of the environment surrounding the participant and all possible factors which could impact learning, not just the participant itself – but the whole learning system. It focuses on the environment, history of the person, culture, role of the artifact, motivations, and complexity of the real-life activity. The biggest strength of the activity theory model is that it overcomes the gaps between theory and practice, putting the activity in a real social context. 

The activity theory model consists of a subject, object, and a tool through which they interact. Engeström, Miettinen, Punamäki, and Lena (1999) state that, ”these tools are exteriorized forms of mental processes manifested in constructs, whether physical or psychological. AT recognizes the internalization and externalization of cognitive processes involved in the use of tools, as well as the transformation or development that results from the interaction.”

RSP Teacher Angela Olton and Math Content Teacher Claire Moore team teach a lesson on writing ratios to their middle school students. Using the team teaching model within an inclusion model of special education, the two teachers provide direct instruction on the first day of the unit and then show how they differentiate instruction later in the week by offering student choice in their grouping strategy.

ToT Module on Inclusive Education

According to UNICEF’s ToT Module on Inclusive Education (2015), which was based on Cooper and Harries (2002), ”teachers can only support children in their learning if they develop an understanding of the situation from the child’s perspective. The focus of this activity is to highlight the importance of the context in which the activity is carried out. ” (p. 10)

Since teachers focus on task completion, they often forget to reflect on the contexts in which these tasks are done. The activity theory model puts the task completion in a daily life situation and includes contextual factors. This helps teachers address each student individually and it can personalize tasks and teaching. The research concluded that certain places and activities trigger memories, so the given task could be completed more easily if the location or the activity is familiar. These results are very helpful when it comes to understanding differentiated instruction in an inclusive classroom.

UNICEF (2015). ToT Modules on Inclusive Education. Module 3: Enabling environments for personalized learning. Zurich: University of Zurich, Switzerland.

What children’s perspectives tell us about inclusion?

What children’s perspectives tell us about inclusion, is that we are all experts in different ways and that our different experiences and understandings are of value. Inclusive education is presented and discussed as under construction, both in educational settings and as a concept. The materials in this course are largely rooted in the social model of disability and human/disability rights frameworks.


  1. Savić, V. (2018). Principles of Inclusive EFL Teaching, PPT
  2. Savić, V. (2018). Teaching Sensory Impaired Students, PPT
  3. Savić, V. (2009). Creating Inclusive ELT Environment Through Humanistic Teaching. In Popović, R. (ed.) Responding to Diversity in Teaching Young Learners. Jagodina: Pedagoški fakultet u Jagodini.
  4. Savić, V. & Prošić-Santovac, D. (2017). English Language Teachers’ Attitudes towards Inclusive Education. Teaching Innovations, XX, 2017/2, 141-157.
  5. UNICEF (2015). ToT Modules on Inclusive Education. Module 3: Enabling environments for personalized learning. Zurich: University of Zurich, Switzerland.
  6. Salazar, Norton, & Tuitt (2009) Weaving Promising Practices for Inclusive Excellence into the Higher Education Classroom
  7. Olinghouse N. (2008). Designing Lessons for Diverse Learners, retrieved on 16.01.2019.
  8. Engeström, Yrjö; Miettinen, Reijo; Punamäki, Raija-Leena (1999). Perspectives on Activity Theory. Cambridge University Press. 

What do you think of the theory activity model and its implementation in the ESL classroom to promote inclusion? Is there a place for inclusion in the ESL classroom and how should we apply it? Write in the comments or via the contact page, I would love to hear your opinion.

About Alice Glass

Alice is a 27 years old preschool teacher (Pre-K) with a B.Ed. She is currently enrolled in her Master studies, with a double major, one of them being English teaching methodology. She is also an online ESL teacher and blog writer for British Council. Last but not least, she is a mother of a very energetic toddler.

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