Differentiation: Education For All Abilities

Reading time: 3

Jodie Jasmin

Jodie started her teaching career in the further education, moving to mainstream secondary education in 2011. Since qualifying with a degree in Health Studies with QLTS, she has worked mostly in the West Midlands across Key Stages 3, 4 and 5, working in deprived areas...
Read more about Jodie Jasmin

With ever increasing class sizes and aspirational target grades, how do you meet the needs of each learner so that they can make progress? 

Last term I witnessed fellow colleagues dismiss the support students “with additional needs” required in order to be successful in every lesson. The underpinning reason for this being, “it takes up too much of our time to tailor lessons to meet each students needs”.

This was disappointing, especially when some of those students are also under local authority care. However, it made me think and set myself a personal challenge. I wanted to see whether those students being discussed so frequently across the board was really as “bad” as teachers say they are, so bad they are now on a reduced timetable or isolation.

My first thoughts when I hear a student is consistently misbehaving are:

1. What’s happening at home?
2. Do you have a good teacher-student bond?
3. Does your teacher speak to you with respect?
4. Are the lesson activities engaging and tailored to your needs?

Taking point 3 into account; unfortunately there are teaching staff that speak to students who pose “too much of a challenge for them” in a demoralising manner.

Differentiation Is Key

This frightens me; not only as a teacher but also a parent. Sure, I want my child to grow to be well-rounded and knowledgeable in many areas! However, being a realist I’m aware this may not be the case. He may grow to be a child considered having “additional needs”, he may not be very academic or even care to learn. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect the quality of my child’s education or teacher to differ.

For six weeks, I taught these “bad” students for 2 hours a week; in a classroom of other “bad” students, who the head of year suggested “not seating them together as they are disruptive”, a class size averaging at 23-24 with no additional supporting staff.

How many problems did I have with these “bad” students? Zero.

Stretching and challenging every ability is possible and differentiation is the key to unlocking the true potential of all.

How do you differentiate a lesson where you have such a wide range of abilities?

Background of the student:

I always read up on my students background using the school system. I like to see the reasons for behaviour and reward points and also to see the most reoccurring teacher giving the sanctions. If you find reasons for behaviour points being “off task” or “consistently disruptive” – this can be an indication of the student simply not being academically stimulated OR is being challenged beyond their capability.

Short, sweet and snappy:

Keep activities short, with variety, with pace, with Q&A, and with an element of independent learning.

There is simply nothing worse than two worksheets to last for 120 minutes with or without a classroom of “SEN” students; even the “more abled” deserve more than two worksheets.

Differentiation by outcome:

I don’t necessary have blue sky thinking when planning lessons. But what I do ensure is that my outcome is reached by all learners, though they may need different routes to get there. For example, an average worksheet with questions can be used in many to differentiate:

1. Some higher ability learners may be required to read an extract to gain the answers to their question sheet.

2. Some students such as EAL/SEN may be required to look at a set of prepared images with key terms highlighted to help answer the questions.

3. Some (the students who find it hard to keep bums on seats) may need to collect their answers from around the classroom (which of course we have all used but it works a treat with the younger, energetic students).

4. Some may even need to watch a video to help answer their questions.

From one worksheet you can have 3-4 individual tasks taking place. Depending on the class, all students could start with the same task – working their way up gradually to the more challenging tasks which ensures you are stretching the “most able” whilst adding challenge for the “weaker” students. There is room for both independent and collaborative learning to suit the needs of your students.

The Literacy Box:

My special little box follows me to every school and classroom. What’s inside?

Additional support tools for students to collect freely whenever they feel necessary when they are ‘stuck’ on a task such as coloured overlays/acetate sheets and reading guides. These are great for students who may have dyslexia or sometimes for those students who simply become visually distressed by reading long text.

The overlays saves printing on coloured paper and they are also extremely cheap to purchase. Many of my current students are thankful for this and comment frequently on how useful they find them. Other equipment includes specialist vocabulary mats, sentence scaffolding, dictionaries and spelling, punctuation and grammar mats.

Mind Blowing

Overall, ideas for differentiation do not have to be mind-blowing. Let’s be honest, we don’t have the time to blow minds!

It’s about taking simple ideas and seeing how we can deconstruct a basic task to recreate a better idea in support of all students learning – knowing them and what they need in order to focus, because they truly are all worth it.

11 thoughts on “Differentiation: Education For All Abilities

  1. What you have outlined as strategies is closely linked with a concept I call “Learning Intelligence” – finding strategies to manage your learning to meet your own needs as well as the four learning needs. I use the acronym PBCF to remind people of these needs “Please Be Child Friendly” is a catchy way of recalling Power, Belonging, Choice and Fun.

    Good to see evidence and experience that corroborates my own work. I will re blog this on my own site.

    In the meantime check out:
    Introducing LQ http://wp.me/p2LphS-3p
    LQ and lesson planning http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6
    Understanding learning needs http://wp.me/p2LphS-4


  2. I wonder if you could explain what your overlays look like and do? I am interested in trialling this idea, but am not sure what I need to create or how the kids would actually use them?

  3. Thanks for the blog post! I also really liked the “reading time” section because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the article right now, but the 3 minute tag tipped the scales 🙂

    I also thought it was cool that I found your blog on the Teach 100 best blogs list and the first post I saw was this, which resonates a lot as I am a special educator. I look forward to reading more posts.

    In regards to the article, I had a bittersweet feeling seeing what teachers were saying about differentiation taking too much time. On the one hand it is hard to hear them taking that stance. Yet on the other hand I like to hear them being honest about how they feel. Differentiating is indeed hard, so I guess a first step is for them to admit that they aren’t doing it, and then we (special educators) can go from there, right 🙂

    At the end of the day, your point about not having problems with the students when you are hitting their needs, essentially, is key.

    1. Absolutely right – I appreciate some teaching staff simply haven’t got the time or sometimes confidence in being able to differentiate accordingly for students.
      For some they are willing to learn and to understand but the true problem is when they refuse to do so because they don’t feel they should…

      That’s something that saddens me the most. But I suppose it is a part of the profession, what can we do?


  4. Dear Jodie,

    I found your article particularly interesting as I teach very weak students with a variety of SEN and EAL requirements. I would be very interested to hear what, exactly, you put in your literacy box as I really like this idea and think my students would really benefit from this as they would feel they were in control and taking ownership of their learning. I did follow the link above but I could only see a slide about the coloured overlays you use.

    Thank you again for your useful and interesting ideas.

  5. Miss Jasmin

    I found this article extremely interesting and thought provoking. You have given a real insight into the modern teacher student relationship and the change needed to ensure each pupils needs are met. On a personal note it’s nice to see how passionate you are about student support and I can only hope there are more teachers like you

    Miss Cummings 🙂

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