Top tips for differentiation

  • Top tips for differentiation

Effective differentiation needn’t mean spending every spare minute planning – Sue Cowley has some suggestions that can instantly make lessons more inclusive for children of all abilities...


Martin has been teaching in Key Stage 2 since 2009. This year, however, the children in his Y4 class have an especially wide range of needs and abilities. He’s asked his TA to support those who are really struggling, but Martin still feels he is failing to differentiate effectively for his pupils.

The makeover

Here are some simple techniques that Martin could use with his class:

Use lots of targets in your day- to-day teaching.

When Martin sets an activity, he should give his children a variety of targets, phrased in a way that suggests that they should all reach for their best. For instance, he could say, ‘I want you to find at least five ideas, preferably ten; and if you work very hard, you might be able to come up with twenty.’ He could also use the ‘must, should, could’ approach: all children must complete x, most should be able to complete y, and some could complete z as well.

To save time, focus on providing an extension task for your high achievers, and a support mechanism for those who struggle.

When planning activities, Martin should aim to differentiate for the top and bottom end of the ability range. So, on a literacy worksheet he could add a box with definitions of key vocabulary for those children who struggle with new words, and for the most able he could set a ‘thesaurus challenge’ to look for synonyms for these.

Think carefully about how you use support staff.

Remember, the teacher is the most qualified person in the classroom, so it makes sense that he works with those who most need that expertise. TAs should work with children of a range of ability levels.

Create flexible activities that can be accessed at a range of levels. Some activities naturally lend themselves to differentiation, particularly project-based learning and those tasks involving higher order thinking skills. Martin could create a project with a series of increasingly complex tasks, based around the children’s interests to ensure motivation. This can also act as an extension activity for those who finish tasks early.

Focus on resources as a key technique for supporting and extending children.

Have word banks so that the children can always access the right vocabulary; give an egg timer to an able child, and challenge her to complete an activity before the sand runs through. People are a useful resource too, so partner your children with ‘learning buddies’ to whom they can turn when they need help.

Use a variety of group formats for different kinds of learning. Group work encourages higher order thinking skills and creates chances for differentiated learning, but think carefully about how they are constructed. Martin could create some ability groups, particularly for literacy and numeracy learning; it’s also a good idea for him to establish a separate set of mixed ability groups, for topic-based work.

Use a variety of activities within any single lesson.

Your children have a variety of different learning styles and preferences. One simple way to differentiate is to offer a wide range of activities within the lesson: something visual, something to listen to, something to get hands on with.

Offer an element of choice to your children, helping them to differentiate their own learning. Finding ways for children to make choices about their learning helps motivate them and encourages them to become independent learners. For instance, Martin might offer them a choice of formats in which to complete a piece of writing (as a news report; a diary entry; a science experiment), or a range of tasks to try, or let the children come up with their own set of questions about a topic.

After ...

When Martin introduces an activity, he now gives the children a series of differentiated targets and asks them to aim for their best. He has started giving the children more choices about what they want to find out in class. Martin has devised a cross curricular project, to run for half a term, with a series of increasingly complex tasks to stretch the most able children, and he has asked his teaching assistant to work with a middle group in maths who are currently under performing.

Pie Corbett