When I run online workshops and free PL I often ask, “who finds it difficult to manage the range of student needs in your classroom?” Every single time there are masses of green ticks and thumbs up in the reactions. It’s usually not that teachers don’t know how to meet students where they are up to, it’s that the quest to do so can leave us feeling like an instructional plate spinner and just when we feel like we’ve got it covered, something else is introduced threatening to bring all of the plates crashing down.
There are no ‘one size fits all’ tricks guaranteed to solve all of your challenges, but it does help to know what options are available to us. When it comes to differentiation, there are a few different ways that we might do this.
- Content (determined by data) - different children may not be ready to work with the same content as their peers. In literacy, this is especially true for phonics and becomes more challenging to manage the older children get. When you teach year 2 or 3 and have a few children still consolidating the basic code (with working memory and attention challenges), the majority of the class working a fair way through the complex code and a couple of students who can read and write everything, it can be tricky to plan lesson that meets the needs of the students. In this case, you might do some grouping or train your classroom paraprofessional colleague to deliver high quality phonics lessons so that you can both teach a lesson and prevent loss of instructional time. Of course, there will be children who can participate in those complex code lessons and consolidate the basic code at the same time. There will also be students who will benefit from the review of the complex code, with you extending the complexity of words and sentences in lessons, but this won’t be the case for everyone. Knowing your students learning needs is really important so that they can actively and successfully engage in learning.
- Process (determined by knowledge of the student’s learning profile) – Students may be ready to learn the same content but do better with different kinds of teaching processes. Some children may need additional opportunities for repetition and review. This may involve you teaching that complex code lesson, then having your classroom colleague re-teach the lesson or review previous learning. You then run your daily review and include that content as well as having a quick catch up with your spotlight students after lunch during ‘quiet reading time’. Investing this time in your spotlight children means that they will be able to keep up with the rest of the class rather than having to catch up later. Ideally, this level of support is provided from the start of foundation to eliminate the need for that pesky group work, but if you have a class this year with a massive range of levels, do the best you can knowing that everything you do to help will make a positive difference. This is as important for our high-flying students as it is for our spotlight students. Children who fit the gifted and talented profile may well be frustrated and bored by highly structured, step by step lessons when what they really want to do (and can do) is get on with the task at hand on their own.
- Product (determined by data and knowledge of what the student has been able to do previously) – This type of differentiation come into its own during writing, whether that is sentence writing or text level writing. Writing lessons should be grounded in rich narrative and information texts where students engage orally in all aspects of language and concept development. Unless a student has a significant disability that involves serious language challenges, every child can participate in our syntax, vocabulary and writing lessons regardless of wobbly decoding and transcription skills. The key is making sure that everything is done orally and then children are supported as required to represent their learning at whatever level of transcription they have. To help clarify what level of transcription you might expect from different students, have a watch of the video below.
It can be really enlightening to map out who can read and write at subword, word, sentence and paragraph level. When deciding who should go in which box, focus on their independent level of writing. That will help you pinpoint exactly what support and scaffolding you will need to provide.
- Environment (determined by students’ sensory, personal and social needs) – there are so many factors to consider when thinking about managing the learning environment for children. Some of these include:
- Acoustics and reverberation in the classroom
- Outside noises and auditory distractions in the classroom
- Proximity of the teacher to the student
- Whether the student is able to participate in and learn from whole class lessons or whether these need to be small group (this is particular to students with additional needs)
- How distracted students might be by visual stimuli (hanging displays, goings on outside the window, other child in their line of sight)
You might find the following clip useful in considering proximity and student placement in the classroom useful.
Effective differentiation helps our students to engage fully in learning and also lightens our own cognitive load. Knowing your students and what they need and then being realistic about what you can do given the people resources at your disposal will help you to make realistic plans for your teaching. When setting goals for your students consider all four areas of differentiation and how each one contributes to the learning experience of the student. There aren’t any magic solutions, but there are options when supporting the students in our care. For further reading about differentiation, you might like to read this post from late 2021.