18 FEBRUARY 2015



Differentiation means taking account of the different strengths and needs of every student in a class so that they can all make progress in lessons. Even a class which is set by ability has different levels within it; English cannot be as selective as more objective subjects, and student understanding and performance varies between the many aspects of English, e.g. receptive versus productive skills; creative versus informative tasks.

There is a tendency to aim towards the middle level of a teaching group, which means that more and less able students, or faster and slower workers, can fail to complete tasks and feel discouraged, or finish early and become bored. In a classroom where differentiation is not practised, there is a danger that both ends of the spectrum - roughly half the class - will become disengaged and fail to make adequate progress or achieve their potential. Even an A student has room for improvement and must be stretched to avoid overconfidence and complacency.

The following aspects of English lessons can accommodate differentiation:     

* group ability - when students are put into groups (and it is generally desirable that the teacher should determine the group), the ability level of the groups, and perhaps their size, can differ so that their specific needs can be catered for

* roles within groups - single gender groups behave and perform differently from mixed gender groups, and the roles of note-taker, chair and spokesperson are examples of roles which can be allocated by the teacher according to the needs or skills of the students

* teacher support - teachers are a human resource and can circulate and support those who need them most, e.g. by standing behind a struggling student and quietly indicating the next step or asking a pertinent question. Likewise a fast-working and able student who thinks they have finished the task satisfactorily may need the teacher to point out ways in which it could be improved

* scaffolding -  some students are able to perform a task by following a general instruction, while others need help with the structure or content of the response. For example, some students are able to write a narrative composition when given just the topic, whereas others need to be provided with ideas or a writing frame

* type of resource -  students can be issued with a different task stimulus, as some of them benefit from an audio, visual or digital resource rather than one in a printed format

* level of resource - worksheets, handouts and texts can vary according to which group or individual student they are to be distributed to. For instance, the whole class may be going to work on arguments, but some students may need a shorter text or one containing less difficult vocabulary or grammatical structures

* type of task - students might all be practising the same skill in a lesson, but this does not mean that they all need to use the same method, e.g. vocabulary can be practised replacing words in a text, gap-filling, rank-ordering synonyms, using words in sentences to show their meaning

* type of response - texts can be responded to in a variety of ways to show understanding and appreciation. A response to a poem, for instance, could include a careful oral reading, paying attention to voice and tone; a diagram or drawing of the content or structure of the poem; analytical comments about form or language; the addition of another verse. Students can be asked to respond in the way they most need to practise or are most likely to fully engage with. The variety of contributions will make the experience of the text wider and more enjoyable for the whole class

* difficulty of task - even within the same task, e.g. summarising an argument, it is possible to work at different levels and stages of difficulty: identifying key points; deleting irrelevant material; paraphrasing main ideas; forming sentences from notes. The amount of text to be summarised can also be a differentiator. (Comparative tasks are more difficult than those dealing with single texts, so these may be given to stretch the more able)

* number of tasks - it is sometimes appropriate to ask stronger, faster-working students to do all the tasks in a set of choices, whereas slower-working students can be asked to do only one or two of them

* length of response - word limits or other length expectations - e.g. the number of  exchanges in a dialogue - can be different to indicate how much individual students should write or prepare to speak

* time allowed - students or groups are likely to work at different paces, so different time limits can be set, and those who complete their work early, and satisfactorily, should go on to an extension task

Differentiation should be implemented subtly in the classroom, thus avoiding feelings of inadequacy or superiority among the students. It is worth the extra effort involved in planning, as differentiated teaching makes it possible for the teacher to be aware of exactly how each student is progressing, to be able to set individualised targets for future improvement, and to make more accurate assessments

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