First step - From one extreme to the other

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Faced with a mixed-ability class? Effective use of differentiation can give pupils the best possible chance of learning

At the beginning of his third term as a full-time French teacher, Dai Llewelyn found himself in a situation he had not encountered during his training.

"I was faced with a group with a vast range of abilities from A* pupils to those who could barely stutter 'bonjour'," he says. "I began to think in more detail about factors such as the time of day the lesson was planned for, and the different types of pupils and learning styles I was catering for."

'Differentiation' is a term that you will no doubt have encountered during your training. However, really understanding the term, and effectively putting it into practice, can be one of the greatest challenges in the NQT year. "Differentiation a big issue for NQTs, mainly because they try to differentiate everything all the time and swamp themselves with too much," says Kate Aspin, senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University.

According to the Training and Development Agency for Schools, 'differentiation' is the process by which differences between pupils are accommodated so that all students have the best possible chance of learning.

There are three categories: differentiation by task, which involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities; by support, which means giving more help to certain pupils within the group; and by outcome, which involves setting open-ended tasks and allowing pupil response at different levels. Ideally, you should be using all three types of differentiation in order to accommodate the different learning styles in the classroom.

Mrs Aspin advises new teachers not to rely on differentiation by outcome. "This is not seen as best practice and can mean that some children may only write the date or one sentence, which is not acceptable," she says. "I suggest making a list of all the forms of differentiation and putting it up on a wall somewhere. Every now and again, look at it and check that you use them all."

Use the data you have at hand to gauge where the pupils are in their learning and start to construct a profile of the learners in your class. "This includes those with SEN, the more able, but also those 'in the middle' who are often neglected because they fall into neither category - they quietly get on with their work and participate only when asked," says Verna Brandford, who teaches at the Institute of Education at the University of London.

Take a practical and realistic approach to differentiation. "When planning group work, try to plan so that groups can access work at different times in the week, so that the less able cover the work set at the middle group level by Wednesday for example - this saves planning four different types of work for each group, each day," says Mrs Aspin. "Think of group work using a traffic light system: green for work they can do unaided once explained; amber for work that may require support; and red for work that requires a teacher or TA to 'scaffold' it. Then you can plan around the support staff that you have."

Always have an extra activity on hand for finishers and the most able. "Open-ended activities are good, as well as games and questions which ask children to apply the knowledge they have just gained or rehearsed," says Mrs Aspin.

Remember that it is not just the core subjects that need differentiating - be creative with resources and support, as well as how you group pupils, to ensure you are not spending excess hours planning.

It is important to vary the ways your pupils access lessons and achieve learning success, so be creative.


- Try to use all three types of differentiation to accommodate the different learning styles.

- Try not to rely on outcome as a differentiator.

- Be creative with resources and support to ensure you are not spending excess hours planning.

- Think about liaising with colleagues to assess which pupils are in need of differentiation.

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