How to differentiate to accommodate all learners

A new year more often than not means a completely new set of learners, each with their own individual ways of learning. Add into the mix those who do not have English as a first language, have additional needs or are more able, and it can be tricky to know how to pitch a lesson to suit everybody.

Having taught for 10 years in a challenging urban comprehensive, let me share with you the things that I found worked and the elements that can hold a child back. As a teacher and the parent of a child in school, one of the worst things that can happen in your classroom is when children are allowed to ‘coast’; even those ahead should be pushed to their full potential and each lesson is a new chance to engage and stretch their ability. Differentiating effectively allows this to happen.

Firstly I would suggest teaching through an aspirational model, rather than pitching lessons to your middle ability students and letting the top end sit unchallenged. Be sure to really push all learners and use your more able pupils to model. For example, when discussing a text ask them questions around empathy or how they respond to characters and go in for a second question, or a third in order to challenge them. This helps the rest of your class as they have a starting point for their ideas and they can see and hear what is needed for a more thoughtful and complex response. Try sitting your more able learners next to a learner whose work could benefit from a little more flair or analysis and see whether they can generate discussion between them to initiate this, perhaps by giving them a further question on a whiteboard or slip of paper during the lesson.

Differentiating for your more visual learners is also useful and will help both them and the wider class. I found great success in using image and colour associations to subconsciously help learners to compartmentalise ideas. For example, if I was teaching a set text such as Romeo and Juliet I would use an image (that I’d printed onto card and laminated) for each character whenever I spoke about them– remember too that this is a great visual prompt for your EAL students. You can also repeat this image on the IWB or worksheet. You could use a portrait or even a symbol that you would like the class to remember when referencing them – Juliet could be a white angel for example, symbolising innocence, naivety and virginity. It is also worth colour coding your text according to character, so that every time you mention Lord Capulet on the IWB the information about him is in the same colour. This colour can also be used when handing out worksheets, homework sheets or on displays and can be used when learners are highlighting text, for example ‘remember everyone, Lord Capulet has a quick temper and so we will use red to symbolise his anger, ‘Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch’. I found that all learners could then include this information in their responses to play.

Learners can often become ‘stuck’ when starting their own responses, so a good way to differentiate according to their needs is with sentence starters for less able students or with a word sorting activity for learners new to English. This is a way to lead into their work rather than expecting them to be able to start immediately. For more able learners I would display key words and connectives on the board that they may like to play around with first before delving in. The added bonus to displaying these is that the whole class could use them – perhaps adding them to their sentence starters or word sorts – which is a more inclusive way of ensuring their needs are met and avoiding them feeling that this work is out of their reach academically.

The use of Drama in the classroom is also an excellent tool and way of differentiating – all students can be involved regardless of ability. A differentiated way to look at a scene would be to have your less able learners with images of characters, asking them to respond towards each other as role play: they could use language from the text, their own adaptation of how a character would speak or act it out in their home language if this means they can be more expressive. More able learners could be acting out a scene or a chapter, but changing it into a more modern setting to make it more relevant when feeding back to the class – showing their ability to understand characters as well as empathise with character and context. When preformed you can then assess not only their understanding, pausing them to ask for justification of their ideas, you can also assess the class’ response and ask questions such as ‘do you think the character of Romeo is portrayed accurately here? Why? How would you show his response? ‘Is this how you saw the scene in your mind; what would you change and why?’

Finally, never underestimate the power of a post-it. Regularly ask for individual feedback and promote the power of pupil voice, I like to stick to these three points: What did you learn? What interested you? What do you need more help with? Use these responses when lesson planning, they can be used to inform a whole lesson – for example learners are telling me I didn’t clarify effectively in this lesson so I’ll be sure to go over that again in a different way next lesson. You can also identify learners who have similar needs and strive to help them in the upcoming lessons. If you ask for names on the post-its you can also immediately see how individuals are getting on and differentiate for them in the following lessons.

Differentiating for your students means that not only are their needs met, but they feel safe and listened to in your classroom. This creates a healthy classroom environment and an enjoyable atmosphere in which learners thrive.

By Joanna Fliski

Joanna Fliski has taught English Literature and Language to 11-18 year olds at an urban comprehensive secondary school for 10 years, she had the highest value added score for her students and was nominated for an outstanding teacher award. As well as teaching Drama and Media GCSE she was head of PSHE, trained teachers and is a behavioural specialist. Joanna currently teaches in primary schools in Bristol. She is also a freelance author, writing resources and teacher guides for the Cambridge IGCSE, creating schemes of work and contributing to a number of educational blogs.

View Secondary English resources from Collins.

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