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Don't Ditch Differentiation

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

By Catrina Lowri- Founder of Neuroteachers


Have you ever felt like this? Hopefully I can help answer some of your questions.

By Catrina Lowri, Founder of Neuroteachers

I really can’t blame teachers for either hating or totally misunderstanding differentiation.

It is very easy to get wrong. This is usually not the fault of the educator, but rather, leads me back to my argument that more training in Neurodiversity and additional learning needs is essential to improve learning for the most vulnerable.


When I trained, nearly 22 years ago now, we were expected to use 3-way differentiation where, for example the oblongs did the ‘easy’ work, the crescents did the ‘medium’ work, and the dodecagons did the ‘hard’ work. The children knew perfectly well which ‘level’ they were at and never had any ambition to rise above the status which their allotted shape afforded them.


The work was also highlighted by providing bespoke work sheets for each level. In addition, we’d need extra worksheets for children with visual impairment or English as an additional language and other specific needs. Which lead to one cynical, older colleague of mine referring to differentiation as “the death of creativity and ambition by 1000 worksheets.” Don’t get me wrong in some cases, changing the layout of work can be beneficial (in fact it’s number 4 on my list ‘stage the task’). It is useful for some children but is not the universal panacea some persist in believing that it is.


Worse still, very often Teaching Assistants (TA) or other support staff (even the librarian in one case I observed!) often find that differentiation falls to them. Sometimes with very little prior knowledge of the theme or topic. This is especially the case for some one-to-one TAs who must get together last-minute exercises on the fly, whilst simultaneously supporting their bewildered learner.


The good news is that excellent differentiation is neither ‘death by a 1000 worksheets’ nor is it handing responsibility to a member of staff, who although highly qualified, is not a teacher nor a mind reader.

The even better news is that you don’t need worksheets, 3-way differentiation, nor a psychic TA!


In the next section I have condensed down the 9 most common types of differentiation and how you can use them right away in your classroom. By the way, these are all things you already know how to do. The purpose of this blog is to have you do them consciously and, in a child, centred manner. So, as you read this, try, and have a ‘learner in mind’. Think of someone you teach regularly but feel you have not quite managed to reach yet. My aim is to help you tweak what you are already doing, so that you can connect with your learner, and make planning for them as part of a whole class easier.


I advise that you don’t buy special programmes or equipment, rather, work with one you have. To paraphrase Malala Yousef’s UN speech One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world


To help you I am using the example of Sophia a bright, year 7 autistic and ADHD girl with receptive language issues.


The 9 types of differentiation

1. Adjust the rate

This is one of the easiest adjustments to grant, yet most affective for those students who require it. It means either allowing more time to process, complete a task or demonstrate knowledge. It is great for children who need more processing time. This may include your autistic, ADHD, or dyslexic learners or those with receptive language issues, Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or new arrivals with English as an additional language.


Example of a question, “Sophia please think of the names of the 3 different types of rock we discussed last lesson. I will get back to you for an answer in 3 minutes”

Here the teacher has used Sophia’s name first to gain joint attention.

Now she has the processing time she needs, without the pressure of being on the spot, and you can discuss other aspects of the topic, with other members of class whilst all the time Sophia is included.


2. Adjust the volume

This involves changing the amount of material to process or produce. Changing the amount to process is about your use of questioning, teacher talk or what you set to read, view, or listen to. Changing the amount, you set to produce could be as simple as asking one child to write a list whilst another writes a paragraph.


As with number 1 (adjust the rate) this is helpful for learners who have receptive language or processing issues. In this example the work for both pairs are on a similar topic, but the amount of information given and the amount they are expected to produce is different


Example of a question, “Andrew and Mohamed, I want you to list all the different ways William the conquer went about subduing the Northern Lords. Discuss them and write them, then say which you think was most effective and why.

“Sophia and James look up the word ‘harrying’ in the glossary of the textbook. Discuss this and write what it means in your own words.’

3. Adjust the complexity

Here we change the number of details or complicated ideas to create or interpret. This can be helpful for children with executive functioning issues such as autistic learners or those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, or dyscalculia. This is because such learners often find it harder to carry out multi step instructions. They may also have working memory issues.


Example of a question “ Wictoria find a number which is a multiple of 6 and a factor of 72.”

“Sophia list the multiples of 6.” After receiving an answer “Sophia find the factors of 72”

4. Staging of the task

This is where we get to talk about all the worksheets.

In some cases, you will need to get work reprinted to a certain font size or style. For example, if a child has a visual impairment or other sensory need where this course of action is specified in their health plan. This must always be done in advanced of the lesson so that it is ready for the learner. In the case a set texts and course books it is far better to get the recommended easy read version as specified by a specialist medical sensory or visual impairment teacher.


You can also change the layout by using technology. For example, by using the Padlet or poppet application to produce and interactive task (see more on this in point 6 change the presentation). Importantly for student motivation and attention you can create a themed background or placemats. To help Sophia you could even do something as seemingly insignificant as placing model dinosaurs on top of your smart board in your science lab, because you know she is a budding palaeontologist and want to catch her attention.


5. Prioritisation

This is where we talk about textbooks.

If you know me, you’ll know, I’m a huge fan of a well written textbook. I’ve personally found them hugely helpful for differentiation. When we prioritise certain task components or de-emphasise others during a complex activity it can be helpful for leaners with processing needs, such as any with specific learning difficulties or autism and some with medical and sensory needs.


Example “Andre and Ifor concentrate on questions 12, 13 and 14 on the role of plant cells in photosynthesis.

“Sophia and Brent look at the diagram on page 73 and answer questions 9 and 10 about the parts of a plant cell

During feedback you would then have Sophia and Brent explain their answers to the class first, and Andre and Ifor would then follow up so that all 4 learners would be able to contribute different pieces of information, all of which are useful to understanding the topic.


6. Change the presentation format

This is where we talk about smart boards, tablets, and chrome books

When we change format, we could change the way we present information so that pupils can process it more effectively. Your smart board or other technology can be helpful here. You can also use software such as Communication in print 3 or even just PowerPoint to create a graphic. Everyone loves a graphic, that’s why social media is full of them, many of which can be purchased or borrowed. If you are going to create them yourself, the best way to go about this is to think of a learner with sensory needs such as visual impairment, or dyslexia and produce graphics as they need them.


Hint – I’m dyslexic. I use dyslexie font, white on black in font size 14. This format is unlikely to cause visual disturbances for you VI students nor is it going to be jarring or anyway harmful for neurotypical peers. Sophia, our ‘learner in mind’ like clear texts so it would work well for here. If you are in doubt about which font style or background to use you can always start with the one, I recommended as this is perfectly acceptable to use as your standard font.


7. Change the production format

As an ND learner myself, one of the best days of my life was when a twitter acquaintance of mine took half an hour out of her day to explain accessibility tools. Right then, at the age of 45, I finally found ways to make the world of literacy come alive. I should point out I already had a degree, PGCE and master’s degree as well as 21 years of teaching by then, but I did not enjoy reading or writing.


I’ve written some of this using voice to text and I’ll use text to voice to proofread it. Even examination boards allow the use of reading pens and scribing technology within certain guidelines. Which is great because you could teach Sophia, our learner in mind to use these in class from year 7 so that by the time she gets to GCSE these will be well established as her ‘normal way of working’.


As you can tell, I’m very keen on using tech. I know of and use many different applications and programmes with my learners, and I could talk about them for hours, but I risk going dangerously off topic, so I’ll save that for another blog.


8. Change the evaluation method

For some reason this is super controversial amongst some mainstream teachers. Although it does chime well with Einstein’s (other) theory that everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.


The Department for Education publish several different assessment criteria. For example, in England we have pre- key stage assessments. These can be helpful for children with cognition and learning needs such as global delay. You can also use scheme such as the engagement scales which can work well for learners with social and emotional needs. The Autism Education Trusts’ Progression Framework can be used to assess and monitor non-academic needs such as sensory needs and communication.


Also, if we go back to my original 3-way differentiation groups (oblongs, crescents, and dodecagons). If you use your relational skills, you may know that one of your oblongs is a star of her church choir and a crescent is a volleyball champion. You can find incidental ways to work this into your lessons or just let it be known that you know they have talent in other areas and are impressed. Relational practice goes a long way towards motivating your learners. Even in subjects they find difficult



9. Use support or aids

I’ve talked a lot about high tech solutions but there are also some low-tech ways of facilitating better learning; the most obvious of these is to make optimum use of your seating plan. Your classroom and its furniture can be a great way to improve concentration.


For example, think about seating Sophia at the back, right hand corner of the class with a wall beside and behind her. This is far enough from the door, which makes her anxious if someone arrives late or unexpectedly in the lesson. It is also away from the window, which she is likely to look out of and daydream, because she has an amazing imagination. If there is no one behind her, she can’t turn around and chat to anyone.


Other low-tech solutions include use of sensory equipment. I would strongly caution against spending valuable school funds on these as, without a full sensory screener, or input from an occupational therapist, you risk giving your learner equipment that may over stimulate the hypersensitive or under stimulate the hypo sensitive. I will go into more detail about this in other blogs. There is also a sensory series in the video library which will be launched soon on the website and available in the shop. https://www.neuroteachers.com/shop


If you want to calm an individual or class, as a rule, firm, deep pressure works well. You can ask them to collect the milk for snack time or carry a box of dictionaries to Mr X’s classroom upstairs. Or give them exercises such as seat push ups. But please avoid unprescribed weighted blankets, they can be dangerous if used incorrectly.


Finally, I’ve provided a table, because, as I said earlier, everyone loves a visual.


This blog is just a brief, whistle stop tour about how to carry out better differentiation, which is both simple for you to teach, and effective in helping our mythical learner Sophia progress and enjoy learning.


If you are interested in training on Neurodiversity and Differentiation for your school please visit https://www.neuroteachers.com/contact









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