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Differentiation will look different according to each individual student who receives it. It’s something many schools will do to support students in the classroom as a matter of course, but what does it look like when students are trying to develop their literacy skills at home?
The first question that needs to be answered is the extent to which students should be set work at home that differs from that of their peers. Ideally, different students shouldn’t be set fundamentally different work, as you want to scaffold students who find literacy tasks more challenging, so that they too can achieve their full potential. If, for example, the class is working on a comprehension passage, then by all means assign that same work to students who find literacy a challenge.
They may, however, need more support in order to complete it, especially when learning at a distance. It may be that they need the text enlarged, access to a coloured overlay, simplified text or to have the text broken down and run across more pages.
On the other hand, it’s equally possible that they can access the text itself in the same way as their peers, but will just require an extra step to be put in beforehand. If you’re aware that they’re likely to struggle with understanding key vocabulary, try adding in a word game that covers specific tricky words, so that when they come to the passage itself they understand what’s going on. This may involve looking at word roots, matching tricky words to pictures or examining challenging vocabulary in a familiar context.
The work that students do shouldn’t be fundamentally different – you’ll still want to reference the same skills, such as making inferences, and the same themes or texts. However, the way in which the work is presented may differ slightly, so that students with specific needs are able to access the content. It may be more challenging for them to complete work compared with their peers, and there may be more time involved in preparing resources, but between your help and their hard work, they can still get there.
It’s important to keep up the contact with parents throughout all of this. Remember that they may be new to this and unaware of the strategies you use. It’s worth attaching a note to families, suggesting when students ought to take ‘brain breaks’, what you expect of them and perhaps a reminder of resources, such as coloured overlays.
You can also format work slightly differently to support students – written text can be broken down across multiple pages, fonts can be made larger and visuals added to aid understanding. This may take a little more time initially but it shouldn’t be onerous, and will allow families to work at home more easily.
The most obvious benefit of differentiating work in this way is that it allows individual students to achieve their full potential, which is surely what we’re all shooting for. You can also deploy differentiation strategies for other purposes – to drive better engagement, or even access work at a higher level.
A great way to differentiate work for higher achieving students is to send them a few follow-up questions or a separate challenge. You could ask for their personal opinion to encourage critical thinking, task them with preparing a for/against argument or offer prompts for extra research. You could also encourage them to present their work in a different style, such as a speech or series of letters, or even a different medium, such as an audio recording.
In many ways, the differentiation strategies you might have previously used in the classroom can be just as effective for students now working at home, so long as you’re able to keep things similarly consistent. Many of us have had to adjust to a completely different set of working arrangements, in a very short space of time and under very challenging circumstances – so it’s okay to allow yourself and your students a little time to get to grips with what works best for them.
Joanna Boon is intervention and inclusion specialist at Cheadle Hulme High School
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