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7 Ways to do Differentiation Differently

Try these alternative methods from Sue Cowley to ensure maximum progress for all pupils in your class, regardless of varying abilities...

  • 7 Ways to do Differentiation Differently

The word ‘differentiation’ can cause concern, because it conjures up the nightmare of preparing three different worksheets for every lesson – one for the strugglers, one for the middle and one for those who need stretching.

But in reality, differentiation can come in lots of different forms, so there’s no need to stick to ‘differentiation by task’, especially as many of the alternatives are far subtler than the classic ‘differentiation by task’.

In essence, differentiation is about understanding what your children already know and can do, and responding to that knowledge in a way that moves their learning forwards.

Where a lesson isn’t differentiated, it is likely that some children will already know what you are teaching them, and that some will not yet be able to grasp it.

For everyone to make maximum progress in class, there needs to be enough support for those who struggle and enough challenge for those who might find the lesson easy.

A useful way to think about differentiation is as responsive teaching. Often, it is about adapting ‘in the moment’ as you realise how much (or how little) your children understand about what you are teaching them.

1 | Take note

When starting a new topic, rather than assuming your children know nothing about it, start by working out what they already know and what they want to find out.

You could do a quick assessment, or you might ask them to write down one thing they already know on one side of a sticky note and one question that they’d like answered on the other.

You can put these notes up on a working wall and use the questions as a stretch activity during your studies.

2 | Child teachers

Sometimes the children will have as much or possibly more knowledge than you about a topic – a child who is fascinated by dinosaurs, or a child who has visited or even lived in a country you are studying.

Get the child to ‘be teacher’ and incorporate their prior knowledge into your lesson by teaching their peers.

My child’s class began to study China as their topic, shortly after we had returned from three weeks in the country. The teacher sensibly asked my child to bring in some souvenirs and to tell the class about our experiences there, to bring the class topic to life.

3 | Time and targets

A straightforward way to increase differentiation in your lessons is to think about how you use targets and time limits. More is not necessarily better.

For instance, setting a target to write an explanation in 10 or 20 words is more challenging than writing a full paragraph.

Similarly, you might adapt the amount of time that you give different children to complete tasks, to increase the level of difficulty.

Differentiation comes to the fore during periods of teacher questioning. This could be as simple as considering which questions to pose to which children, or using open-ended questions to create challenge for children who already know a lot about what you are discussing.

4 | Synonyms

There is a lot of focus on widening children’s vocabulary at the moment and this is an area where you can easily differentiate, by layering the language that you use.

When you are explaining something to your class, you will usually repeat information or instructions several times.

As you repeat them, incorporate synonyms for some of the words to increase the level of challenge. For instance, you might use the words ‘writing’, ‘text’ and ‘prose’ or ‘word’, ‘vocabulary’ and ‘terminology’. 

5 | Three-column method

When you create worksheets, a simple way to embed differentiation is to use the ‘three column method’. Divide the sheet into three columns, and put a series of questions in the middle column that are pitched roughly at the average of the class.

In the left-hand column put easier questions and in the right-hand column more-challenging ones.

Ask the children to try doing a couple of questions from the middle column before self-assessing their learning.

They should move to the left-hand column if they find the questions too hard or to the right-hand column if the questions are too easy.

6 | Forms and perspectives

Another simple way to differentiate learning is to encourage the children to use different forms and perspectives in their writing.

Create challenge by asking them to come up with a recipe in the form of a poem, or to write a story from the perspective of the football in the World Cup final.

Add support by giving them frames and scaffolds or by offering them a word bank to use as they write.

Consider too when some children might benefit from putting their ideas down in a different format – for instance, with the teacher acting as scribe, or by recording a story rather than writing it.

7 | Self-stretching

Wherever possible, get your children to think about their learning, and how they can stretch themselves. For example, instead of the classic spelling test, where everyone learns the same spellings, they could focus on the five words they find hardest and test themselves on these instead.

Although it’s not easy to personalise the learning to each individual, it is always useful to consider what the ‘next steps’ for each child might be. Build your knowledge about the children in your class, so you can walk alongside them on the path to learning.


Sue Cowley is a teacher educator and author of The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation (Bloomsbury). Find her at suecowley.co.uk and follow her on Twitter at @sue_cowley.

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