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Make the difference through effective differentiation

By Stacey Kirk

What does it mean to differentiate?

Differentiation, by simple definition; is the tailoring/adapting of teaching instruction to better meet the individual learning needs of children. Effective differentiation seeks to:

  • Improve learning outcomes
  • Increase self-awareness within individual learners
  • Support learners in their ability to learn more efficiently through ease of access to information with a deeper understanding
  • Increase learner engagement and participation
  • Inspire a greater enthusiasm for learning

As many a dedicated and hardworking teacher will know, at the core of our practice is the desire to reach each and every learner in a way that unlocks potential and enhances their individual learning experience. We also know that not every child is able to learn in exactly the same way given that they each possess their own ‘toolbox’ of strengths and weaknesses, interests and skill sets. All this coupled with the reality of growing class sizes, limited resources and the pressure to reach curriculum demands; means that it is becoming increasingly more challenging to make the necessary connections and reach each child on an individual level. For some, the very idea of differentiating triggers nightmares of having to plan a different lesson and activity for each learner, as well as having to spend long nights preparing and grading. Having been there, I can honestly empathise with the plight of so many who feel like it is near impossible but having experienced life in a remedial classroom, I have made a drastic shift in my own mindset and would like to offer some hope and inspiration to a seemingly dire situation.

Yes, to teach effectively takes hard work and a fair share of preparation, but it also is driven by a passionate and inspired heart that embraces the concept of what it means to truly differentiate. I am a firm believer that the practice of differentiation is more of a mindset and way of thinking and not so much about a pre-planned list of strategies and ‘must do’s’. Very often, it involves smart decision making in the moment – decisions based on our relational understanding and professional judgement of what the needs of our learners are and how best to respond to them. Take the time to really try to get to know your learners first as this is crucial to knowing how best to respond to them.

Carol Tomlinson famously talks about being able to differentiate in four ways:

  1. Content
  2. Process
  3. Product
  4. Environment

Teaching to content could be as simple as allowing learners to select their own topics and prompts. In doing this, it is important that us as teachers remain focused on what the learning objective is and the various roads that can be used to get them there. For example, if the outcome is to expect learners to write a newspaper article using all the relevant features, let them select their own topic to report on rather than restricting them to one of your choice but that hinders both their interest and enthusiasm – and ultimately, their output..

Teaching to process could mean changing up how students are grouped while completing tasks – not every task needs to be done individually and utilising the support of one another is a smart way to lessen the teaching load. Try group learners into both mixed ability and same ability groups depending on what the nature of lesson calls for. Also try levelling texts for individual tasks such as prepared reading and book reviews.

Teaching to product involves an understanding that the major demonstration of learning doesn’t always have to be a standardised test, essay or worksheet. As mentioned before, always keep your eye on the prize and focus on the learning objective. In instances where the objective is to gauge understanding and interpretation of content, allow for variances in presentation of work. Some may find they are able to show their demonstration in written form, others may want to orally demonstrate and discuss, and some may even find project based learning suits them better. Remember what your focus is and allow yourself to be flexible in your expectation of the product.

Teaching to environment means ensuring that the learning environment is one that comfortably accommodates for all. Sensory interventions such as pencil grips, glasses, wobble cushions, thera-bands; exercise balls, headphones, slant boards etc. are just some of the physical accommodations that can be made. However, part of teaching to environment also means creating a strong classroom culture that is supportive and transparent. It is important for the learners in your class to know that should they be making use of different accommodations or resources, they understand why and are empowered by this.

None of the strategies and ideas provided creates any additional work but they DO require a relationship with and understanding of each learner’s own unique profile of strength, interests and challenges. For learning to be fair it does not need to be equal – not every text needs to be presented exactly the same way, not every task should have the exact same expectation. Differentiated teaching is fundamentally fair because it assists in meeting each learner exactly where they are and helping them to access the next level when ready.

In a nutshell:

Sources: The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. (2nd Ed.) Carol Tomlinson, 2014.

Additionally, consider keeping a ‘toolkit’ of strategies on hand that are both supportive and easy to implement when necessary (a certain level of preparation is required for these):

  • Extension work: more complex tasks such printable word searches, puzzles, reading texts, vocab builders, timed challenges etc.
  • Sentence starters – helping some get started will most likely lead to them feel confident enough to see a task through to completion
  •  Fewer questions – be flexible and modify the expectations of output depending on the learning objective
  • Graphic organisers – number charts, planning maps, word and procedure lists are all great tools for everybody to use but this does not mean that everybody needs them. Have them on hand and available to those who need them.
  • Engineer the text- eg. create white space between paragraphs, add headings, add word boxes/dictionary features for key vocabulary at the bottom of the text. All of these features are helpful to everyone and doesn’t necessarily mean that a text has been simplified but rather enhanced to allow for greater access of information.

Stacey Kirk is currently practicing as a Grade 4 remedial teacher at a remedial school in Johannesburg. Having entered into a remedial teaching environment four years ago after gaining four years prior experience in a mainstream school as a Grade 6 English teacher, she found herself in the fortunate position of living out her passion while enriching her knowledge of practice on a daily basis.

She recently obtained her Masters Degree in Education with a specialization in Inclusive Education from Wits University and she is deeply passionate about providing effective learner support to those who experience barriers to learning.


Stacey has a heart for sharing knowledge of practices and effective
teaching strategies with fellow teachers out there.

For more articles and information about Stacey, visit here awesome blog, Reaching Beyond the Blackboard here or visit her Facebook page!

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