The first of three SENCO Weeks to deal with differentiation, which refers to all the processes involved in learning which deal with differences in learners and attempts to motivate and assess positively at all levels of achievement

We’re starting a three-part mini-series on differentiation this week. Helping colleagues to match pupils with appropriate tasks, resources and support is a big part of the SENCO role and influential in developing effective whole-school approaches to meeting special educational needs. If you can crack this, you’re well on the way to minimizing the barriers to pupils’ learning and achievement, and will certainly make your own job much easier.

Support for SENCOs

There is a wealth of published material on differentiation and various ways of approaching it. Good teachers do it all the time, without really having to put in a lot of extra planning or preparation and there are small, often quite subtle approaches that they use. How you phrase a question for example, can make the difference between it being appropriate for a high achiever or for a pupil who is struggling. There is a skill to this, as with all aspects of pedagogy, and incorporating differentiation into everyday lessons without seeming to single out the less able, is part of being an accomplished professional.

Over the next three weeks, we will be considering how to differentiate effectively in the classroom by input, by support and by output. We’re looking at different ways of thinking about input this issue and provide below some notes for colleagues – and/or for you to use in putting together some CPD.

Support for teachers

1. Think about the learning objectives for the lesson and what you can expect from different groups of pupils. You may use a ‘must, should, could’ model, where all pupils must cover certain ground, learn some facts, acquire a basic level of skill and/or understanding, most pupils should be able to attempt slightly more exacting work and some of the most able pupils could work at higher levels of abstract thought/problem solving/creativity (see the examples for the recycling topic referenced below). The skill in this approach is avoiding pre-determined outcomes, where ‘glass ceilings’ are in place.

2. Make it clear to all pupils what your expectations are in terms of outcome (examples of completed work from a previous year can be useful here), time allowed and success criteria.

3. Differentiate the task: this can be done by presenting a ladder of short tasks of increasing difficulty, with some students being expected to get further up this ladder than others (more able pupils perhaps starting half way up).

4. Open tasks (with no right or wrong answer) allow all pupils to achieve at different levels – but make sure that those with SEN have appropriate structure and support for this type of work (more on this next week). An example of an open task might be to design a poster encouraging people to recycle their waste. Less able pupils would benefit from talking this through with an adult first: what are the main messages to convey? How can we get the message across? How can we present this in an easily accessible way? For example, we could provide key words to act as prompts and to help avoid difficulties with spelling.

5. Choice may be given, or different tasks set for different students. Pupils learning about poetry could complete a comprehension exercise to demonstrate their understanding, or write their own poem using some of the same features, or analyze one poem in detail, with reference to other poems as well.

6. Resources can be differentiated in terms of complexity, length, varied types and quantity.

7. Help sheets can be provided to break tasks down into small steps or otherwise make them easier. For example, a science practical could be set as a challenging investigation: ‘How could you use this apparatus to measure the surface tension of water?’ A step-by-step recipe-style help sheet could be provided for those who need it.

In preparing activity sheets/help sheets for pupils with limited literacy skills, you need to consider:

  • color of paper/print (black on white is least helpful for many readers)
  • size of font – 14 point or 16 point is good
  • leaving plenty of space around the text
  • clear direction of text, with helpful subheadings/signposting
  • visuals (illustrations, clip art etc); these can be helpful but can also be distracting
  • clear language (using the first person is often helpful).

Whatever strategy you use, remember to check frequently on pupils with SEN as the lesson progresses (even when they are working with a TA): have they understood your instructions? Are they moving on? Do they need help? Have they got distracted? Do you need to modify the task or your expectations?

Useful resources

  • Barrington Stoke produce photocopiable differentiated work to support their novels
  • Sherston provide ideas on how to differentiate lessons using their software packages such as ‘Captain Co-ordinate’ (Maths, Geography KS2)
  • Take a look at English Teaching Online
  • The National Geographical Society’s Theme Sets, published by McGraw Hill/Kingscourt. Topics include: Extreme weather; Animals in their habitats; Cells at work; Cultures and celebrations; Energy; Life cycles. The sets include texts at four levels of reading development (RA 7.6 to 11.9). Teaching notes give clear guidance on how to provide scaffolding and challenges to match a wide range of ability, with photocopy masters providing useful structure for ascertaining prior knowledge; developing vocabulary; checking understanding and organizing ideas prior to writing.

Differentiation 2 – support

Differentiation 3 – output

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2009

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.