At the beginning of my teaching career, I believed that effective differentiation consisted of sitting students in ability groups and producing three different level worksheets for each lesson. I soon realized that this could produce a self-fulfilling prophecy in students who believed that whichever group or worksheet they were assigned defined who they were. Even the parents were aware of who sat at the “top” or “bottom” table.
I felt very uncomfortable with this kind of labeling, especially in children so young, so I began to research and experiment with a range of strategies that could make sure that everyone was challenged and taught at an appropriate level.
It often feels like spinning plates in the classroom, but these ideas have helped my students make accelerated progress without feeling disillusioned. Sometimes I differentiate by ability, by social skills, or by confidence in performing.
The key for me is to ensure that every child gets the chance to shine and reach their potential.
1. Differentiation by task
Far from the three-worksheet option that I mentioned, I try to make my tasks more open-ended. If I’m differentiating work in three ways, I’ll give all the options to all the groups and suggest a starting point for each group. A student who finds an assignment too easy or finishes early can move onto the trickier tasks, and the reverse goes for children who are struggling. The Target Your Maths series is an easy way to achieve this if you’re in a hurry.
I often let my students check their answers with a calculator as they go along, providing guidelines like “When you have five in a row right, you can go onto the next set of questions.” This really appeals to the more competitive students in the class, and it’s something that can help increase their output.
It helps to share expectations for each child with their parents without the pressure of grouping them in class, and Remind is a great way to suggest individual starting points. I also try to make sure that my higher-ability group doesn’t rush through material—their challenge is to use and apply what they’ve learned to take their learning much deeper. Addition is one example. Instead of giving students larger numbers, let them try problem-solving, word problems, or missing number problems with the smaller numbers first.
2. Differentiation through group work
Working collaboratively with peers is an excellent way to challenge every student in your class. A great example of this is the reciprocal reading program, which assigns roles to each child during reading activities. You can provide scaffolds like question prompts and sentence starters for lower-level students, and they’ll learn from the modeling provided by their peers as well. Higher-level students often enjoy sharing their knowledge, and they’ll enjoy the challenge of trying to impress their peers with well-structured and thought-out responses.
Children love learning from each other, and they can thrive on the support and example of their peers.
It’s why peer tutoring has proven to be a successful, low-cost strategy for supporting students—they gain from both tutoring and receiving tutoring support.
3. Differentiation by outcome
I’m a strong believer in student-led learning, so this is by far the most-used technique in my classroom. I start all students at the same point but with clear expectations for the different abilities in the class. My tasks are often open-ended, student-led activities with a few different options to choose from, and the students I teach are very clear on their next steps in learning. When differentiating by outcome, I often sit my students in mixed-ability groups so they’re learning from each other.
My favorite instruction when differentiating by outcome is “Show me a ____ that no one else will have thought of.” I once did this in an inspected lesson and asked students to show me examples of halves that no one else would have thought of. There’s a great example of this in this video clip—my class loved it when I recreated this lesson with them. I can also send prompts home with students through Remind.
Giving students different options for showing what they know is a great way of providing challenges that help them progress. I love the Takeaway Homework idea from Teacher Toolkit because it encourages students to apply their learning in a range of contexts.
4. Differentiation by resources
I always combine this approach to differentiation with carefully targeted resources. For example, my lower-level students might have a word bank, sentence starters, or a glossary of terms on an iPad or on paper. Meanwhile, higher-level students might have access to a thesaurus or iPads to complete their own research.
My goal as a teacher is to help students become independent learners and direct them to the resources they may need in order to ensure success.
I’ve always had a “Helpdesk” in my classroom where students can access a range of equipment to help them. I spend a few weeks at the beginning of each academic year training my new class to be resilient if they ever get stuck. This minimizes interruptions during the rest of the year, freeing me up to work with targeted groups of students.
5. Targeted teaching
Once a class has been trained to work independently, it’s possible to move away from traditional whole-class teaching and move towards what’s called, in my classroom, “master classes.” During these master classes, I select groups of students to come and work with me on areas I’ve identified while assessing their work. A quick way to organize these groups is to sort students’ books into groups when grading: One pile for students who need to revisit the assignment from the beginning, one for students who need more practice but are nearly there, and one for students who are ready to be extended.
Students learn that they won’t always be in the same groups, so there isn’t the same stigma of being in the “bottom” group. In an hourlong lesson, I may have up to three “master classes,” each one catering to a different level of learning. It would be very difficult to send all this information home, but Remind is an excellent way of quickly communicating with parents and families about the areas that each child is working on.
6. Assessment and feedback
Continual assessment and feedback is key to successful differentiation, while questioning in the classroom is a crucial part of making sure that students are challenged and stretched. Bloom’s Taxonomy is an excellent starting point for extending the questioning you use in class—when I’m teaching, these flowers are displayed where I can clearly see them to make sure I provide my students with a range of thinking skills. Teacher Toolkit also has an excellent guide to successful questioning.
Feedback on student work is another opportunity to use questioning to extend children’s learning. When I’m grading, I’ll choose one group a night and write them a “gap task.” This is usually a quick question that helps move students on to the next level in their learning, and they’re given time to reflect and respond to feedback. Examples of next-step marking can be found here.
On iPads or other mobile devices, students can also provide instant feedback through Remind, which helps with formative assessment. For younger students, parents can reply instead to indicate that they’ve reviewed a particular topic with their children.
Differentiating for every child’s ability may seem like an impossible task. At the beginning of every academic year, I spend a few weeks feeling this way until I learn the needs of my students and put effort into training their learning behaviors. Doing this in the early days with each new class pays off dramatically throughout the year. It creates better-than-expected progress, helps me see the successes in all of my students, and reminds me why I became a teacher.