Twenty years of teaching foreign languages to low-ability groups, and 10 years' teaching children with special needs have convinced me that differentiation is crucial. Without it, pupils become increasingly demotivated, attention-seeking and difficult to control, let alone teach.
Most of these problems arise because pupils are struggling to understand what is being taught and have little experience of success. They get bored and eventually give up. Frustrated and resentful, they often vote with their feet.
WHAT IS DIFFERENTIATION?
* It is not a dumbing-down of the curriculum. It includes elements of simplification, but it should not patronise those with learning difficulties.
* It is not just for pupils with special educational needs. It is for all pupils whose difficulties prevent them from fully accessing the curriculum.
* It is not a rewrite of every scheme of work, course book and worksheet. This misguided belief has put off many teachers, who don't have the time.
* It is not a paper exercise tagged on to a lesson plan to keep the powers that be happy. It is an integral part of teacher attitudes, classroom management, teaching styles and lesson delivery.
* It is central to the content of the lesson, tasks set, homework, and assessment in general.
* It is about teacher expectations and realistic, achievable tasks and targets for pupils.
* It is about purchasing good-quality, published, differentiated material; the wheel needn't be constantly reinvented.
If you have a fundamental belief in the right of every pupil to access the full curriculum, you will have a head start in differentiation.
* Arrange tables so that you can move freely around the class and reach every child, to give help and encouragement through regular monitoring of their work throughout the session.
* Have a small wipe-clean board to display lesson aims. Children who struggle to understand, often have no real sense of what the lesson is about.
* Beware of using 20 words when 10 will suffice. Those with learning difficulties find it hard to sift out the essential from the peripheral.
Too much talk can lead to confusion just when the teacher thinks the point is being clarified.
* Ensure the classroom is a safe environment where no one is afraid to ask for help or admit that they do not understand.
* Allow time for pupils who work slowly to complete the tasks. They will become understandably frustrated and demotivated if their work is never completed.
* Identify the core content within a topic that everyone needs to know and understand. This will help you decide what to include in the written sources and linked tasks and activities.
* Display the key words for each topic to support those with literacy problems.
* Present material in short, achievable steps. Short spells of intense activity and a variety of tasks will help those with poor concentration.
* Create three different levels for a given task to cater for most needs.
Use a traffic-light system of colour coding these materials (green: easiest; amber: less support; red: challenging, often the original task, with little support). Let pupils choose which level to attempt. They enjoy recognising work that is too easy for them as well as being able to take an alternative route if the work offers too much of a challenge.
* Use the end-of-session plenary to bring pupils together, whichever route they've chosen. There is no stigma attached to differentiated work: it is a positive aspect of the lesson.
MAKING TEXT ACCESSIBLE
The reading age of some pupils may be two to five years below their chronological age, so the readability of many resources will be beyond them. However, there are quick and easy ways to improve their accessibility.
* Copy and enlarge key pages. The larger print will make reading easier for some.
* Underline key words and phrases which will focus the reader's attention on the essentials.
* If there are questions linked with the text, show where the answer will be found by putting the question number in the margin of the text. Too often, pupils re-read the whole text each time they attempt another question.
* If there are questions or activities linked to the text, cut the text into smaller chunks with the relevant questions or activities after each section.
* Replace questions with gap-filling sentences - a useful precis of the text for the student.
* If the resource text is still inaccessible, rewrite key paragraphs using shorter words and sentences, which will reduce the reading age of the original.
Children with motor or spatial difficulties find reproducing diagrams, charts and graphs in a larger format a problem.
* Use prepared diagrams so that pupils can get straight down to the task in hand and have a better chance of completing it in the allotted time.
* For those who have difficulties in organising written work, supply writing frames. A blank page is intimidating, but a clearly set out writing frame with prompts is more user-friendly and the pupil can immediately get started. Writing frames, with the beginning of sentences to complete or full sentences with gaps, will help pupils who have difficulty with literacy, spelling, grammar and sentence structure.
* Further support can be given in the form of a box of useful words and phrases at the bottom of the writing frame. (This can also be folded underneath by those who would like to try the work unaided.) GIVING INSTRUCTIONS
* Give instructions one at a time and repeat them.
* Ask pupils to repeat them in their own words.
* Write instructions down, clearly numbering each step (this also provides a checklist on completion).
* For those with difficulties in copying correctly from the board, have copies available.
* Wherever possible, follow instructions with modelling what you want the pupils to do.
If pupils need differentiated work they will also benefit from differentiated tasks for homework. Ensure homework follows the differentiation already started in class.
* Never dictate homework. Many pupils will be unable to write down from dictation. If it is written on the board, make sure you also have individual instructions for those who cannot copy correctly. Once home, even the most supportive families cannot help if they are unable to decipher instructions hastily "copied" by their child.
* It makes teaching and learning more effective.
* It ensures that all pupils are on task and there are fewer discipline problems.
* Pupils see progress, which increases motivation.
* It raises confidence and self-esteem because pupils recognise their equal worth.
Sue Crooks is an SEN consultant in Plymouth