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Differentiation Education

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According to Wringe (1989), an important aspect to consider in order to effectively differentiate is the class and its individual needs. Learners differ in ability and aptitude and may also come from a vast spectrum of social and cultural backgrounds. The National Curriculum (NC) recognises these differences and the teacher should therefore attempt to meet these individual needs in the classroom. There are many different teaching and learning strategies that can be adopted in order to develop the capabilities of the pupils. The teacher can attempt to do this through differentiation.

What is Differentiation?

According to Deane and Tumber (1998), ‘Differentiation is a planned action on the part of the teacher at every stage of the process of teaching and learning, from the inception of a scheme of work to the production of language by pupils’. Its aim is to allow all pupils to reach their full potential and to speak independently.

Convery and Coyle (1993) believe that differentiation takes on board the fact that pupils differ in various aspects, not just ability. Creating pleasant classroom relationships and learning environments for these learners to become active and autonomous is paramount to successfully use differentiation. Differentiation will only be successful if the teacher knows his or her class well. Only then can an effective action plan be created for the pupils.

Differentiation in practice

Wringe (1989) states ‘Not only do groups differ according to age but also according to ability and motivation’. He also believes that ‘Though classes may often have their own distinctive group personality, individuals within them will also vary widely in their capacity and response’.


According to Convery and Coyle (1999), differentiation by text is useful since ‘learners work with spoken or written materials at different levels of difficulty on the same subject or topic area’. The teacher can ensure that all the pupils cover the same ground, whilst matching different levels of complexity to the differing needs of pupils. Using authentic material from a newspaper, for example, as opposed to an article from a course book.

Additionally, differentiation by task would involve grading tasks according to difficulty and matching the differing needs and abilities of the pupils. When carrying out a reading activity some pupils could be required to only understand the ‘gist’ whereas others would be asked more searching questions. Convery and Coyle (1993) also propose that when engaged in a listening activity, the less able learners may be required to identify a minimum amount of information whereas more able learners could be set a more open-ended task.

Again, according to Convery and Coyle (1999), differentiation by outcome would involve learners working on the same task but producing widely differing end results. For example, when working on a differentiated worksheet, some pupils may only complete one or two tasks and others may work quickly through initial tasks and go on to answer more open-ended questions.

Convery and Coyle (1999) have also looked at the following types of differentiation:

Differentiation by ability – learners are grouped by ability for teaching and learning purposes. This could be across a year group (setting) or within one class. Work is then organised to match the ability of each class/group.

Differentiation by variety – an emphasis is placed on the importance of motivating learners by providing them with a ‘varied diet’. A teacher should extend his or her teaching repertoire, style and strategies in order to provide a stimulating learning environment.

Differentiation by range – this involves focussing on the learning styles of pupils, and providing a variety of approaches and activities will ensure that a variety of preferences is catered for over a period of time.

Deane and Tumber (1998) and Dickinson and Wright (1993) (taken from Deane and Tumber (1998) have identified six types of differentiation as follows:

Differentiation by content can involve covering a broad range of work from schemes of work, which are decided by the MFL Department within the school. This could incorporate which books will be covered and how they will be covered. If each teacher is using different books within the school this can cause confusion and lack of continuity, both for pupils and teachers alike. When differentiating by resources, the teacher may select resources that allow pupils to work with materials of interest. These may be set according to the pupils’ abilities.

Outcomes from set tasks may vary. In this way, differentiation by support may be adopted. In order to accurately gauge learning the teacher could therefore set a gap exercise for those pupils who need more support and structure, and a question and answer exercise for more able pupils. Depending on the pupils’ needs the teacher can differentiate according to the amount of support provided. The following are some possible forms of support:


Another adult or peers

A foreign exchange student

Introduction of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) activities related to the task(s) in question

Differentiation by choice involves the pupils being given alternative activities and tasks, which they can choose from in order to consolidate and extend learning. Differentiation by management involves the teacher providing an array of styles, strategies and approaches to teaching and learning so that the pupils’ preferred learning styles might be met and challenged. Differentiation by response involves the ways in which the teacher responds to each individual and where the teacher guides the pupils in order to ensure progression.

Finally, Morgan and Neil (2001) have illustrated two other types of differentiation:

Differentiation by interests can involve different levels of activities for pupils of varying degrees of ability and interest. In the course of a series of lessons, differentiated activities can be provided, either in individual, pair or group work. It is suggested that differentiation by timing can involve pupils taking as much (or as little) time as they want for homework activities. We believe this could also be utilised within the classroom when working with mixed ability levels; for example, one could differentiate by timing when setting tasks. The higher achievers may have a shorter period of time to complete a worksheet and maybe complete a further activity and the lower ability pupils could be given extended time to complete their work.

Teaching and Learning Styles

According to Convery and Coyle (1999), learners have an individual way of processing information. Each learner has his or her own particular learning preference, for example, there are learners who do not wish to speak out in class, but prefer to reflect ‘privately’ on classroom events. Concentration span and gender are other aspects, which should be closely scrutinised in order to create effective working structures for pupils’ abilities to be stretched and challenged. In particular:

Some children have attention span and visual and mental focus problems; others do not easily acquire concepts, though one has to stretch one’s imagination a great deal to say that any child is

incapable of acquiring any concepts, for concepts can range in complexity from abstract grammatical points to a simple awareness of difference.

(Cajkler and Addelman 1992, p.7)

Sidwell (1993) believes that teaching through teacher-centred activities has some disadvantages such as the pupils losing interest and not feeling as if they are in charge of their own learning. However, when an active learning style is adopted and learner-centred activities are undertaken the learner is able to gain more autonomy over his or her own learning. Varying work and teaching styles can therefore greatly increase the chance of successful classroom management and achievement of learning and progress by the pupils.

Convery and Coyle (1999) suggest that when introducing a new topic, vocabulary and grammar may be presented with the aid of overhead transparencies and flashcards. In order to allow for a variation in learning paces on behalf of the pupils, an information search activity, cassette or video can make for a more interested and active class. The pupils can also be split into groups working on different tasks, thus, allowing them to move around and carry out various activities. For those who have a low concentration span this can combat boredom, restlessness and, in turn, bad behaviour.

Harris (1997) talks about providing extension activities at different levels, not only for high achievers, and emphasises the importance of achieving and maintaining pupils’ motivation. Pupils feel that they are able to accomplish more and are focussed on the task in question, and the following task. The NC (Section 3c) (taken from Convery and Coyle (1999)) states that ‘pupils should be taught to develop their independence in language learning and use’. This covers a broad range of classroom approaches, for example, pair or group work. Pupils should be encouraged to use a variety of materials, resources and equipment, including ICT and should develop independence in their choice of task. All of these factors combined are the sum of the main practicable parts of differentiation in the class.

According to Jones et al (2001), in order for differentiation to work there should be clear aims and objectives on behalf of the teacher and learner as well as discussion of personal progress on a one-to-one basis. With boys in particular this clarity and discussion can greatly augment their aptitude for MFL learning. Pupils who are conscious of themselves as learners are able to make informed choices that will affect the value of their knowledge and experience. According to Jones et al (2001), ‘when learners do not understand why they are doing what they are asked to do they lose interest’. It is interesting to see how pupils view some of the tasks they are required to carry out, as follows:

… she writes a load of stuff on the board and you just copy it down then you don’t really get to learn it, you just have it in your book to revise from, copying words we haven’t seen before and (don’t know) what they mean; copying from the board or OHP … then doing gap fills … it’s boring.

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