Differentiation

The following post is a staff CPD session run at my school, The Ebbsfleet Academy, by our incredible Director of Learning for English, Briony Thomas. Briony, who eschews social media, has kindly allowed me to publish her work on this blog. I think her advice is invaluable to teachers, and a good reminder of all the excellent practice that happens in schools beyond Twitter!

I used to think that differentiation meant creating a whole range of fancy resources for a lesson…perhaps three different handouts to match my colour coded lesson objectives/outcomes of ‘All, Most, Some’ or ‘Good, Great, Outstanding’…

Four years into my teaching career, and my approach to differentiation has completely changed.

Now I am very wary of providing differentiated resources. Making individualised handouts is exceptionally time-consuming and for that reason, an unsustainable burden on your time (your work-life balance matters!). Instead, in my opinion, differentiation should be more fluid; based on addressing the misconceptions of specific students when they arise. Yes, you should plan how you will differentiate a task if you need to; but do not provide scaffolding until you know a student really needs it. You don’t want to assume that a student needs more help than they really do!

Problem 1: Task time

Students finish tasks at different times. Some speed through to the finish and then sit around twiddling their thumbs and distracting other students. Others work at a snail’s pace and can also lack resilience, give up and resort to distracting others too.

Solutions

Set a basic task completion expectation: “At the end of these four minutes, I expect everyone to have completed at least questions 1-3.”

Reward those who complete the task fully: “At the end of these four minutes, if you have exceeded my expectation and completed questions 1-5 to the best of your ability (crucial if you don’t want them to rush for sake of it!), then you will be rewarded with a merit.”

Make sure you always include a challenge that requires a longer answer to stretch your high ability students and ask them to share their responses with the class at the end (this can be their reward in addition to the merit they have already earned).

During the set time limit, give them frequent reminders of the time they have left and ask for hands up when they have completed certain questions to gauge the overall speed of the class and adjust your timings if you need to (they rarely notice when 7 minutes becomes 10…).

Problem 2: Teacher time

Certain students find it very difficult to get started or keep going without any direct teacher input, but you can’t be in more than one place at once.

Solutions

Group your most needy students at the very front of the classroom so they always feel like they are your priority. After explaining the task to the rest of the class, you can give a quieter, more focused second round of instruction to this group.

I know this arrangement isn’t always possible in different classrooms, especially when you have to consider behavioural concerns, so another way of doing this is to have mixed ability pairs (I would avoid larger group work generally as it is far too easy for students to be off task without you realising). For example, split your pairs into As (higher ability) and Bs (lower ability). After giving your instructions to the class, ask the As to explain the task again to the Bs. You could vary this by asking Bs to ask As any questions they still have about the task or by asking Bs to explain the task to As and getting the As to check if they understood it correctly. You want to vary it so as far as possible the students aren’t aware why they are either A or B.

If a student is consistently needy during a task and you are sure that they have understood the instructions but are just lacking confidence, then remind them of the hypercorrection effect, whereby if they have a go at a task and get it wrong, they are far more likely to remember the right answer next time than if they didn’t attempt the question at all. If this problem is more widespread across the class you can have a ‘no hands up’ time period for 5 minutes or so and encourage them to ‘save’ their questions by writing them down, by which point they might have figured out the answer or find it easier to just give the task a go anyway.

Rather than having a challenge ‘question,’ make the challenge task to become a class expert who acts like the teacher would and circulates the class helping those with their hands up.

Problem 3: Simplifying

You are trying to teach the class something really complex that you know they are going to struggle with but you’re unsure to simplify it.

Solutions

As experts ourselves, we can often forget how complex certain concepts are for our students to understand. When planning to introduce a new concept, think about all the different parts of knowledge students will need to know to understand it and separate this knowledge into manageable chunks of learning. A basic formula is to activate the students’ prior knowledge. For instance, before reading Oliver Twist with a class, they need to have a good understanding of Victorian London. Starting with an open question like: ‘what are cities like?’ is attemptable for everyone in the class. You don’t want any child to read the first question and think, ‘I can’t do that’. It will immediately disengage them from the beginning and it can be really hard to get them out of that negative mindset. From this starting point, you can then gradually make the questions more difficult, for example moving to: ‘What do you already know about London?’ to ‘How do you think London might have been different in the Victorian era?’

Multiple choice questions followed by choral answering (whole class answers A, B or C together) can be a really useful way of ensuring that all students feel confident enough to participate. You can also correct misconceptions immediately by asking those students who answered correctly to explain how they came to the right answer without making it clear which students got the answer wrong in the first place. As students are far happier to take a guess with multiple choice questions, this can also be a great way of making use of the hypercorrection effect explained earlier.

Problem 4: The word gap

With an increasing number of EAL students and with a high percentage of students who come from ‘word poor’ backgrounds, sometimes their lack of vocabulary can seem like an insurmountable burden.

Solution

The word-gap is such a huge problem that it is often the reason why there is such an apparent disparity between students in your class.  To address this problem head on, in your planning, it is so important to decide which words they are likely to find problematic. In the lesson you can gloss over the meanings of these words quickly so they do not provide a barrier to your students later on. For instance, “‘The west end of London was particularly prosperous’, I say you say ‘prosperous’. Prosperous means wealthy and successful. What does prosperous mean?” Keep these definitions as short and simple as possible. Often dictionaries use words in their definitions that are far too complex for our students to understand. To differentiate for students who already have broader vocabularies, you can use them as your ‘human dictionaries’ to provide these definitions themselves as you go along. This is a handy habit to get into when you are talking to the class to as well as reading with them because again, the most important thing when setting a task is to make sure they understand your instructions.

For words that they need to understand in more depth, providing images to illustrate their meaning can be really useful. This can allow students with already broad vocabularies to deepen their knowledge of a word by seeing how it could be applied in different contexts as well as making the lesson more accessible for EAL and word poor students who could really benefit from a visual aid.

Problem 5: Writing

You have students who can verbalise their answers clearly but really struggle to get their thoughts down on paper.

Solutions

Writing scaffolds are essential for a mixed ability class. You can write these up on the board during the lesson when the need arises and signpost only the students you want to use them, to make use of them. Providing sentence starters is a great way of helping those who need an extra hand to get started e.g. ‘The daughter of Henry VIII was…’

When you want students to provide a longer, more detailed response ‘because/but/so’ can be a really useful way of encouraging them to develop their explanations. E.g. ‘Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon because…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon but…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon so…’

Providing sentences or paragraphs with missing words ensures that all students will put pen to paper. They can even leave the gaps blank initially and then fill these in later when they’ve had a chance to think about them. Then, when you go through these answers with the class, they can complete any missing words in green pen.

To stretch the high ability, you can challenge them to use words from their knowledge organiser to improve their vocabulary. This is an extension that can be pretty much be used whenever they do extended writing.

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