NQT Special: Effective differentiation and inclusion

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Inclusion and SEN expert Garry Freeman offers new teachers advice on achieving effective differentiation in their classroom

As new teachers, all of us have had times when we felt like putting our head in our hands, elbows on the table, thinking that we didn’t know how best to meet the inclusive needs of our students – how to differentiate effectively.

Less than 20 years ago, at the beginning of the 21st century, the accepted way for a teacher to differentiate in any way for various needs in a class was to provide different worksheets. Teacher input was the same, presentational language was identical, and impact went largely unmeasured. Differentiation by outcome was the norm.

As effective professionals, we now appreciate that there is a myriad of ways to differentiate for a wide range of needs within the same class so that all of our students feel included. And that is the key to inclusion: someone needs to feel included.

Where do we start?

Effective differentiation is founded on the principle of equity, a graduated response to the needs of each child so that each has the same opportunity to partake, to be involved and to succeed.

We can base our differentiated approach, our equity strategy, on three straightforward questions:

  • What do I need student X to be able to do (in whatever timescale we choose)?
  • What do I need to do to help them to achieve it?
  • Who else do I need to work with in order to help them achieve it?

The second of these is the crucial one. This is where we can think creatively and choose how to differentiate for our students in a visible way so that, as NQTs or new teachers, we can feel more confident about the methods we use, our students can feel that we are doing things to help them, and any observer can more readily make the connection between differentiation and impact.

Aim for excellent teaching, leading to excellent learning: good teaching every day, knowing your students, meeting needs, having aspirations and expectations, building self-esteem and self-confidence.

Effective strategies

So, what strategies can we use to achieve this, to differentiate effectively?


It is crucial to make clear your expectations and stick to them. Link your expectations directly to the learning objective or learning outcome. Give your students an option of different ways to evidence their learning and show how they have understood and learned.

Your learning objective could be “I will show that I...” because this gives each student some flexibility to demonstrate understanding in a way that suits them. Equally, keep the learning objective simple and straightforward: “I will show that I understand how the First World War started” and “I will show that I understand how to ask and tell the time in German” are good examples.

If you have classroom rules, remember to differentiate with them too. The idea of “less is more” is always an effective one to keep in mind with behavioural expectations. You may need to reduce your school’s code of behaviour to five or fewer rules to support the understanding of all your students. Keep your expectations positive: “We will listen” and “We will only speak when someone else has finished speaking” are both good, workable examples.

Written and spoken language

Thoughtful use of language can promote motivation, engagement and access to learning – the linchpins of effective differentiation, which can in turn lead to improved attainment, especially for children with special or additional needs.

If you have keywords or word-walls around your teaching room, review them to ensure that they are accessible to the students who should be benefiting from them. This accessibility includes:

  • Where you position them on the wall and in the room.
  • The use of a clear, legible font.
  • Plenty of white space between and around lines of text.
  • Eye-catching colours and illustrations to draw the eye in as appropriate.
  • Remembering those students who need coloured backgrounds because of Irlens Syndrome for example.

Room layout

Think about how you can use room and group layout to differentiate. There is almost an infinite variety of room lay-outs which you can try in order to differentiate for your students.

Remember that you should always reflect on why you place certain students in proximity to each other or away from each other. The deciding factor should always be the quality of their learning and progress.

Some possible lay-outs are variations on a theme of group work, others are evidence of your strategic thinking about, for example, where you place your most able or most needy students in the room.

It may be that some of your students become more engaged, more motivated and make more progress when they are seated alongside or near their more focused, higher-achieving peers.

Peer evaluation

The selective (not over-wordy) use of responsive marking can be a real boost for your students who need differentiation. This evaluation does not need to be from you as the teacher or from any additional adults such as teaching assistants.

Peer-marking within a framework of positive support (i.e. no negative comments) can be an excellent way to get students to reflect on their learning. This can have most impact when we provide a template for evaluations, when everyone assesses everyone else’s work, which can then be typed up and given to each member of the group to be stuck into their book or file alongside the work in question.

The template could focus on what went well in the work and how it could be even better. Emphasise that this is a way to help everyone improve what they do and make more progress.

One effective way to do this is to use a carousel or roundabout system: each student sets out the work to be evaluated in their place and, starting with their own work, each person in the group or class spends an agreed, set amount of time evaluating everyone’s work. The class move around, stopping at each work place to evaluate the work of their peers. When each student types, cuts out and gives out their evaluation comments to their peers, this encourages ownership and responsibility. Finally, give the class dedicated improvement, reflection and thinking (DIRT) time to respond to their peers’ comments, focusing on which aspects of their work they will try to improve, and how.

Dyslexia and Dyspraxia

It is well worth mentioning a classic and effective approach for those on the dyslexia and dyspraxia spectrums – which can also be highly effective for those with autism spectrum conditions.

In most classes, there will be a range of needs. One of the keys to effective differentiation is to use simple strategies which can simultaneously remove barriers for students with different needs. One such approach is to chunk tasks into smaller, achievable steps to make it more likely that students can:

  • Understand what they are being asked to do.
  • Experience success because they only need to focus for a shorter time.
  • Develop a sense of achievement to make them feel better before they move on to the next activity.

Break down as many tasks as possible into the structure of: Who, What, Why, Where, When, How.

If you get into the habit of using this approach, your students will soon think along these lines without you necessarily reminding them. Guide your students through the process of breaking down a larger task, including a piece of longer writing, into smaller achievable steps. You can show them how to use evidence or quotes, depending on the subject, to illustrate each point.

Further dyslexia advice

How else can you help students who are on the dyslexic spectrum? Well, your room and your approach is dyslexic spectrum-friendly if:

  • You chunk tasks.
  • You support students with scaffolded tasks, especially with regard to written activities.
  • You reflect on your choice of language when giving instructions and information, i.e. you repeat and amend.
  • You find different ways to give, repeat and embed instructions/activities; this in itself can be a differentiated intervention.
  • You promote shared reading activities and support reading by, for example, highlighting text on a whiteboard (laser pointer/using an electronic reader).
  • You find ways of students working which give dyslexic spectrum learners rest or quiet time.
  • You find ways of supporting learners with their understanding, retention and completion of homework.
  • You understand that dyslexic spectrum students are not always able to copy from the board for more than a few minutes.
  • You stress the outcome in learning rather than simply completion of a fixed amount of work, i.e. a mastery approach over completist approach.
  • You provide a structured environment and give notice of changes in ways of working.
  • You allow time for in-lesson transitions.

Further dyspraxia advice

Some useful strategies for helping students on the dyspraxic spectrum include:

  • Children on the dyspraxic spectrum will often work better one-to-one, so provide this where possible. If not with an adult, then pair them with a more focused, more organised peer.
  • Be clear and concise when giving instructions and always make sure you have their full attention before doing so.
  • Avoid disturbing the child when they are concentrating on a task.
  • Give plenty of notice regarding any changes to classroom routines.
  • Explicitly teach play skills such as turn-taking, model how to play imaginatively (e.g. in a home corner).
  • Provide pencil grips and line guides to help with hand-writing, which is often poor.
  • Use visual timetables so the child knows what will happen and when.

In conclusion

Awareness and understanding of your students’ needs is an absolute prerequisite for success. We can never meet all needs all of the time. However, what we can all do as teachers is show our willingness and our ability to adapt our pedagogy to meet as many different needs as often as possible. We can show to our students that we want them to feel included and that our practice reflects that.

Remember that the best, most effective practice in differentiation is also collaborative: with your students, with parents and carers, with your colleagues, your governors and your fellow professionals from health and social care.

  • Garry Freeman is director of inclusion and SENCO at Guiseley School in Leeds. Find him @GS_gfreeman

NQT Special Edition

This article was published as part of SecEd's NQT Special Edition on June 30, 2016. Published with support from the NASUWT, the Special Edition features eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at NQTs as they come to the end of their first year of teaching, and trainee teachers as they prepare for NQT life in September. Download a free pdf of the Special Edition, via our Supplements page at www.sec-ed.co.uk/supplements or directly via http://bit.ly/290nqhD


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