The best tool all teachers have for differentiation

Standard
  • It’s free
  • It doesn’t require photocopying lots of different sheets
  • You can use it for any class and any age group
  • It requires minimal planning and even less as a teacher gains experience

What’s the best tool all teachers have for differentiation?


I made the ‘mistake’ this year of looking at some class data. I say mistake as I don’t usually look at student data unless I spot something in the first few lessons with a class.

I looked at reading ages and noticed that a student had the reading age of 7; they were year 8 (aged 12-13). I started to panic. How could I teach a student that wouldn’t be able to read some of the complex terms or access the new longer texts we are trialling this year?

I worried for about 10 minutes and then reflected that I’ve never had problems before so I’d just carry on teaching as I normally do.

And nothing happened. No disasters. Everyone in the class seemed to be learning. In our recap quizzes at the start of every lesson, all the students, including this one, were giving the correct answers.

So what’s the tool? It’s what we say & how we say it; teacher exposition.

I’ve already written on the importance of teacher exposition here but didn’t stress the importance of it being the best differentiation tool a teacher has.

I’m still saddened to hear teachers promoting the use of different worksheets, tiered learning objectives (must, could, should) and different activities for different students, and thinking they are good differentiation tools; they’re not.

On the other hand, teacher talk has been discouraged and in some cases limited to set maximums.

What you say and how you say it to students is probably one of the most important things that can differentiate between students learning or not learning. But it’s a subtle form of differentiation that many observers (especially if not the specialism of the lesson) may not spot. So the box for ‘differentiation’ on the observation proforma goes unticked.

The key is to tier your language and explanation to start from the foundations of a concept and build on it over time, using retrieval to help embed the separate ideas. A kind of verbal scaffolding.

I think scaffolded exposition is the key to good ‘mixed ability’ teaching (That’s not to say this isn’t true for set groups). Having to start with what everyone can access, brings every student on board and then, the development of concepts and the links between them can gradually build.

If using a piece of text, regular stopping, discussion and annotation in simple terms makes it more accessible. I always use my visualiser for this so they can copy but students can also make independent notes.

Class discussion also contributes to differentiation. If any student can ask ‘any’ question about the topic, the teacher response is already differentiated as it should respond to their question; it’s already at their ‘level’ and extending their understanding.

How do you know it’s worked?

I listed these in the other blog but with my initial anecdote the student can equally talk to me about the concepts. They may not be able to write them fluently due to their written literacy but writing isn’t the only way to assess. I would say they’ve progressed as the other students have in what they’ve learnt.


Whilst this blog is about exposition, it’s also about not obsessing over prior data. It could limit our expectations and in turn not allow all students to be challenged.

One thought on “The best tool all teachers have for differentiation

  1. Thanks for writing this blog. It validates the way I teach. Reduce teacher talk shouldn’t be a target anymore:) as long as students can show they have understood & can explain a “concept back” to me.

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