Something we do – Differentiation

Successful differentiation was always the pipe dream of my teacher training.  How could I ensure that all of the pupils in the class were able to successfully access and retain as much of the content of the lesson as possible?  Even when I taught sets, there was a wide variety of abilities.  What I found was that ‘ability’, in the context of language learning, was down to speed of understanding and memory.  Some kids were really quick to pick things up, and could remember them long afterwards; others were much slower, or had memories like colanders.

Here are some things that I tried:

  1. All/Most/Some objectives: this made me feel better, because I could set the ‘All’ objective deliberately low and, by ensuring that they all got there, fool myself into thinking that it had been a decent lesson.
  1. Differentiated worksheets: these were usually printed on different colour paper, not to make it clear to the kids who was doing which, but to help me when I gave them out (but of course the kids knew exactly what they meant). There were so many worksheets.  Cost to the school, the environment and my sanity: huge.
  1. RAG: after the ‘presentation’ and ‘whole-class practice’ phases, the kids would hold up their planners displaying red, amber or green cards, and then be set a differentiated task based on how they felt about the content. The kids knew that red was the easy ride, so the bright lazy kids would pick that.  Sometimes, I would have the energy to split off the red group from the rest of the class and do some further explanation and group practice.  In the meantime, the kids would almost certainly not be beavering away at the lovingly created tri-partite activities, preferring instead to fuss over pens and love triangles while I was supporting the weakest kids.
  1. Extension tasks: I made a wall display with plastic pockets pinned up, containing extension worksheets for different topics and year groups. The idea was that if the kids had finished their own sheet, they would have the excitement of getting up out of their chair to collect another piece of work that would challenge them further.  These were not used as eagerly as I’d hoped.
  1. VAK. Ack.  Yes, this was still a part of teacher training in 2013, and yes, I still tried to do a number of things as a result – running dictations, in which the kids actually ran around; prodigious use of pictures and funny voices…  I’d prefer not to dwell.
  1. Sticker marking: when a task was completed, I would review and, rather than writing an in-depth comment, place a coloured sticker dot on the work, which would then tally to a next step that the pupils would write next to the dot, and then pick up yet another differentiated activity to tackle that next step.
  1. Differentiated questioning: this did, and still does, work, but not in the way that I started using it. From 2013 to 2015 I used lolly sticks with coloured dots to indicate the level of question I should be pitching at each child (like I didn’t already know what each child could answer).  I would direct the simplest questions to the weakest kids – recall questions of simple words, as mandated by Bloom’s.  I would ask the bright kids ‘find the link’ or ‘guess what’s in my head’ questions, because I thought that would make them think more.  It usually elicited an answer that made sense but was wrong, or that was right but lacked real understanding.

I re-read this list and think, ‘God, did I do all that?  I must have been some kind of superwoman!’  The unfortunate truth is that I did some of them a lot, but the rest only once or twice, being too frazzled and exhausted and overwhelmed and disorganised to commit to them – those arduous, time-consuming, resource-heavy strategies – in the long term, and thereby habituate them.  And even if I had habituated, they were not having the desired effect: my weakest kids were not learning as much as the rest, and the strongest were bored because they were being sidelined in favour of the weakest.  And the middle kids, bless them, were just bimbling along unnoticed.

Flash forward to 2016, and this is how I ensure that all pupils access the content of the lesson:

  1. I tell the kids – all the kids – exactly what they need to know, all the time. This is the single greatest leveller in terms of accessing the content of the lessons.  No guess-work, no choosing from multiple possibilities, just the stuff.  This is supported by parallel texts, dodgy English translations, complete clarity in the presentation of all language.  The kids who don’t need the constant reference points don’t use them; the ones that do, do, and their peers aren’t any the wiser.  We give them lots of support to memorise spellings and meanings (SOMEONE’s coming to visit QUeen ELizabeth, it’s another QUeen with a ‘ in her hat, riding a UNicorn!  Hey, WHY are you POURing your QUOIffee over me?  Okay, that last one’s a bit of a stretch, but they love a bit of New York), and we repeat things all the time.
  1. Then there are the things we do to support their pronunciation and reading: silent letters, underlined vowel combinations, lots of listening to the teacher read. It’s for this reason that the weakest kids in the class have very good French accents, which is the minimum that we should be aiming for.  The strongest kids, well…  You can hear them on the Michaela YouTube account.  They’re absolutely stunning. But everybody is better than I was at their age, which is great.
  1. Loads and loads and loads of practice questions: this way, the quickest kids have plenty to be getting on with while the slower kids make their way methodically through the activity. The words and phrases we’re teaching them are all, without exception, useful and interesting and exam-winning French, so it doesn’t matter that the weakest are going more slowly, they’re still learning the most valuable stuff.  Past, Reasons, Opinions, Future, Subjunctive.  Proverbs, Idioms, Expressions.  So, we have activities with 100+ questions, to keep them all thinking, and reading, and checking, for as long as it takes.
  1. Differentiated questioning: I estimated this week that I ask an average of 500 questions a lesson – these range from instant recall (Yesterday – hier – I went – je suis allé – to the stadium – au stade – but frankly – mais franchement – although I am – bien que je sois – rather sporty – plutôt sportif – it is rare that I go – il est rare que j’aille…) to asking about grammatical patterns (qu’est-ce qu’il faut faire pour que ce soit féminin? Pupil: Mademoiselle, ça crève les yeux, il faut ajouter un ‘e’ à la fin), as well as other things. Yes, I will ask Travis to translate longer sentences than Allie, but the questions usually differ only in terms of length, or in terms of the amount of time we’ve spent reading and practising particular phrases.  At the moment, my year 7s are brilliant at ‘bien que je sois/il est rare que j’aille/il faut que je fasse’, but less good at ‘bien qu’il soit/il est rare qu’ils aillent/il faut qu’elle fasse’ so I’m asking those questions more frequently (at the moment) to the ones who’ve mastered the former.  The rest will get there.

And that’s it.  No worksheets.  No extra time spent preparing resources.  More time thinking about questions, and creating and practising patterns, but that’s the work of a moment when compared to the time I used to spend making powerpoints, worksheets, writing activities, creating wall displays and thinking about how to incorporate the various strategies I was exhorted to use during my training.  I am calm, and focused on what my pupils – all my pupils – are learning.  My energy goes on that.  And their French – even that of the pupil who struggles the most in the weakest class – is really good.

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4 thoughts on “Something we do – Differentiation

  1. This is great; thank you. I love this: “I tell the kids – all the kids – exactly what they need to know, all the time. This is the single greatest leveller in terms of accessing the content of the lessons.”

    Would you mind speaking a bit more about what you mean by “practice questions” in #2? Is that specific to the exam systems in your country? Do you mean written activities that you make, or premade activities for exam prep?

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    1. Thanks, Ellie! By practice questions, I mean a variety of things: finding words in texts, translating single words or short phrases (e.g. il faut que je fasse) into or from French, translating sentences… Lots and lots of translation! We also do some error correction activities, but we tend to do those orally so that kids are constantly saying ‘il faut enlever la lettre ‘f’ et il faut ajouter les lettres ‘ve’ parce que c’est feminin’, stuff like that. We’re going to experiment with GCSE exam-style questions later on, just to get them into the habit of seeing and using those formats, but for the moment it’s pure language! My boss, Barry Smith, writes a lot about the kind of things we do in his blog, https://hackingattheroots.wordpress.com/ – scroll to some of the earlier posts. I hope that’s helpful!

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