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Every student, every day: A guide to differentiation

Differentiation is meeting the individual needs of every student in your class. But how does a teacher implement differentiation effectively, especially in a classroom with a broad range of needs?

Step 1: Get to know your students

Firstly, teachers must assess, observe and get to know each of their students. This takes place within the first few weeks of school each year, but must also occur throughout the year as children grow, learn and develop. At certain points throughout the term, teachers are often expected to formally assess students, but conduct observations throughout their daily interactions and instruction. These allow teachers to understand the needs of their students from an academic perspective, but also develop an insight into a child’s social and emotional wellbeing. It is important to contact and meet with parents and carers throughout each term in order to gain an insight into each students’ personal and home lives which impact on their learning and development. Here are ways teachers should get to know students:

  • Formal or standardised assessments

  • Anecdotal notes

  • Video recordings

  • Photographs

  • Student work samples

  • Parent/Teacher interviews or chats

  • “Tell me about your child” information sheet

  • “All about me” activities

  • “Getting to know you” games or icebreakers

Step 2: Organise groupings

After getting to know students, teachers should organise groupings and sort through their assessments and observations to group students with similar needs. Individual needs will be met within these groupings. It is easier and more efficient to plan and prepare for student learning when students with similar needs can be grouped. Sometimes teachers group students according to academic needs such as reading levels, social needs such as behaviour or emotional needs such as confidence/resilience. Most of the time, students are grouped according to academic needs when differentiating for learning. I find that having five groups for literacy and five groups for maths works effectively as this allows a teacher to work with each group one day a week. Depending on needs within literacy or maths, you may have separate groupings for spelling, reading and writing or according to the maths content. Also, I believe it is important to have three larger groups within the class to differentiate independent activities during all KLAs but especially for KLAs that are not literacy or maths such as science or history. I use stars or colours to represent the emergent group (one star), core group (two stars) and extension group (three stars). You could connect these larger groupings to your rubrics and success criteria where the emergent group is one star, the core group is three stars and the extension group is five stars.

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Step 3: Organise time

The next step is to organise your time and the time allocated to your class or individual students for additional support. Often students with personalised plans (PPs) will have an allocated amount of time each week to support them in the classroom. Personalised plans allow teachers to differentiate for students with additional needs and plan for specific goals for these students. Then, depending on the needs or funding provided to the school, each class may receive additional support in the classroom. Teachers must organise and plan for the time allocated to learning support so that this time is not wasted and used most effectively. I like to use teacher’s aides, learning support teachers or student support officers to differentiate for students that have needs outside of the groupings I have already organised. For example; you may have students at similar reading levels to group them in ranges such as Levels 0-3, 4-6, 7-8, 9-10, 10+ and so on. However, you may have students outside these ranges or with specific needs such as a child who may not know all their sounds, when the majority of the class does, or two children who are reading at a level far beyond the rest of the class. The additional support can be used as remediation work with students below the expected standard or can be used for extension work with students exceeding the expectations.

Organise time: groups
My literacy group timetable: during this time the remainder of the class is completing independent tasks or working with learning support teachers. With five groups, I am able to work with a group each day for 30 minutes for reading and writing.

Learning support timetable
My learning support timetable: SSOs are student support officers who work with groups of students or individuals during the literacy block. Here they have 15 minutes first thing in the morning to work with students well-below the expected standard each day or work with specific students with personalised plans. Then they work with particular groups for 30 minutes to practise reading and writing. At my current school, I have been allocated an occupational therapy SSO or EALD teacher to practise these skills with groups of students on an alternating roster each week. I am also lucky enough to have an extra SSO to work with extension students during the literacy block.

Step 4: Program learning experiences

When planning each lesson, a teacher must consider the needs of their class. Individual needs will be considered later, however, teacher’s must program with the needs of the three larger groups in mind. Instruction should be planned to cater for as many learning preferences of the class as possible and also allow for the gradual release of responsibility whereby students experience modelling, shared learning, guided learning and independent learning. For independent tasks within each KLA, differentiation is about catering to the needs of three larger groups. For example, if I am planning a lesson on healthy eating for an infants class I would consider the learning preferences first and attempt to teach the content in a number of different ways. I may introduce the content and engage students with a video or song about healthy foods and then use a hands on task to sort healthy and unhealthy foods using pictures or concrete foods. Here I am catering for auditory, multimodal, visual and kinaesthetic learners. Then as an independent task I may have the emergent students complete a cut and paste task or use the concrete materials and a photo. I would have the core group of students draw and label their ideas for healthy and unhealthy foods and the extended group could write the foods and explain in oral or written form what makes these foods healthy.

Emergent health activity
Emergent activity: photo of hands-on with picture cards or concrete materials.

Core health activity
Core activity: work sample of student drawings and labels.

Extending health activity.
Extending activity: work sample of student drawings, labels and explanations.

Step 5: Differentiate for individual needs

When students are completing independent work, it is the perfect opportunity for the teacher to either monitor and observe the class or work with small groups. If the teacher is monitoring the class, such as, during the above health lesson, the teacher is looking for students who may be finding the task challenging or have completed the task with ease. For those that are having difficulty, the teacher could withdraw them to work and may adjust the task to suit their needs for example; if a core student is having trouble, they could use the pictures or concrete materials to assist them. For those that complete the task with ease, the teacher may provide them with a question or prompt to extend their understanding of healthy and unhealthy foods such as, what makes those foods healthy? If the students are completing independent work during literacy or maths, this is a good opportunity to take small groups and cater for individual needs within these small groups. For example, you may have a literacy group reading at Level 5 but some students in this group may need help with tracking or using their sounds to decode unfamiliar words, while others may need support with understanding texts at this level and responding to comprehension questions. Similarly, they may all be reading at the same instructional level, but have different needs when writing.

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