Differentiating the responsive way


In last week’s post – here – I looked at how we might mark students’ written work strategically, considering not just the feedback we will give them, but also the practicalities of how we expect them to respond to our feedback. This week I am going to backtrack a little to consider how we might ‘differentiate’ our feedback during the writing process.

Differentiation was once my teaching bête noire. The very mention of the word would immediately feed my perception that I was a terrible teacher for failing to ‘meet the needs of every child’ in every lesson. To compensate, once in a while I would be seduced by the insidious ‘differentiation by task’ trap. Three different tasks (one for the top, one for the middle, one for the bottom), and a hell of a lot of pacey group-work later, the lesson would end with an unsightly pile of worksheets and a few scrawled lines of writing. It was completely unmanageable and completely pointless. My ‘top’ got no better (the task was often so challenging that they spent most the time deciphering what they were being asked to do); my ‘bottom’ got no better (how can you become a good writer by filling in spaces in sentences?); and my ‘middle’ were left bemused by the fact I had totally ignored them.

Discovering Carol Dweck’s Growth Mentality – John Tomsett’s post was particularly inspiring for me – triggered a much-needed epiphany. All students have the capacity to be successful as long as they are challenged and encouraged to work hard. Yes, I can finally justify getting them all to do the same thing! These days, after setting the bar high, I then consider the support and scaffolding required to nudge them all in this direction. It is unreasonable to expect every student to reach the ‘bar’, but removing the bar for some in the name of ‘differentiation’ defeats the object. Key, too, is how I will respond to the complex range of difficulties and needs that will, inevitably, arise as they are writing.

Differentiation, in my opinion, lies in the skillfulness of our response to the anticipated and unanticipated difficulties our students will encounter along the way.

Anticipated response.

By modelling and deconstructing the writing process slowly and carefully we can second-guess many potential misunderstandings – see my modelling post here. Tick-lists and procedural instructions that focus on the minutiae of the writing process are also invaluable. Below is a paragraph structure I have used to help Y9 students write about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

  • State where, when and to whom.
  • Embed a short quotation and mention ‘Shakespeare’.
  • Pick out a word or phrase and analyse it.
  • Pick out another word or phrase and analyse it. (Optional.)
  • Using sentences starting with ‘despite’, ‘although’ and ‘even though’, evaluate your understanding of Shylock.  (Thanks to David Didau – here – for the ‘golden sentences’ idea.)

Anticipated response, therefore, is really just conventional lesson and task planning with our understanding of our students’ capabilities at the forefront of our thinking.

 Improvised response

This is where teaching becomes a craft, not a procedure. In responding to whole-class and individual needs, the knowledge, expertise and experience of the teacher is key – as is the willingness to except that our best laid plans often go awry. This is easy to exemplify with a hypothetical example. Let’s take my Y9s again:

  • Students have been writing for 5 minutes when Callum puts his hand up and asks to spell ‘traumatised’. I tap the dictionary on his desk and smile, but repeat the word for the whole-class to reinforce my expectation that students employ challenging vocabulary.
  • Grace’s hand shoots up. I smile and motion it down. She smiles wryly back, sensing that, once again, I am encouraging her to be more resilient.
  • Katy, ‘less-able’, has not written a thing. I verbalise the first half of a sentence and she finishes it. Then she writes it down and off she goes.
  • My TA and I circulate for a couple of minutes armed with highlighters. We randomly zoom in on misspelled words and either highlight them or put a dot in the margin for the student to work out.
  • On my rounds, I have noticed the clunky overuse of ‘this’ at the start of sentences. I stop the class and explain how we can use ‘which clauses’ to combine sentences and help with fluidity.
  • I come to Matt, who is incredibly able, but prone to prolixity. He must cut out 10 unnecessary words before continuing.
  • I notice Megan has used the word ‘shows’, which is banned from my classroom. I refer her to the sheet below, which is stuck on her folder:


  • Graham has written a page and a half of scrawled nonsense and is swinging back in his chair. I hand him a piece of paper and tell him to redraft the first paragraph, this time using the paragraph structure I have given him. I sense potential defiance and remind him that it is break time after the lesson.
  • Next a student puts his hand up and asks, “Was Shylock married?” Quickly explaining Shylock’s elusive mention of the name ‘Leah’ , I consider it wise to avoid a whole-class discussion at this stage.
  • There are 10 minutes to go and the class are working hard. Do I stop for the peer-assessment task I had originally planned? Absolutely not. We can worry about this next lesson. The bell goes and I thank them for their hard work. Off they trundle.

(As a footnote, I am beginning to experiment with an idea I gleaned from Alex Quigley’s excellent questioning blog post – here – which is to give students post-it notes to write down their questions on. If I limit it to one question per student, then it helps to build resilience and challenge learned helplessness.)

What I have described above is nothing strange. It goes on in the classrooms of good teachers worldwide. Response is inter-personal and forms part of the existing dialogue between the student and teacher (which may have been ongoing for years). It is almost impossible during a graded observation for the observer to understand the complexity of the social interactions they are viewing; a subtle raise of the eyebrows at a student can be loaded with meaning. You will notice that some students go ‘ignored’ – that’s fine, I will check up on them next lesson and, of course, this task will be assessed and they will be expected to respond to my marking.

I have become a lot more relaxed about planning for differentiation. We must have confidence in the reflex judgements we have honed over time. Only last week, I had a delightful, yet surprising, email from a speech therapist who is treating a student of mine with a serious speech impediment. I was praised for “offering to record her, giving her more time to speak, reassuring her that she speaks more clearly than some others, and placing an emphasis on the content of what she says.” The thing is, I hardly even realised I was doing these things!

To misquote John Lennon: differentiation is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.

Strategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher


This academic year has heralded a profound change in my approach to assessment. I now mark with feedback strategies in mind. Some classic blog posts have influenced my thinking: Tom Sherringtons, David Didaus and Mary Myatts.

It is not easy to mark and plan simultaneously. If our students are to both respond thoughtfully and ‘close the gap’, our assessment must be detailed, purposeful and strategic. The structure and organisation of the improvement lessons and tasks has to be at the forefront of our minds at the point of marking. Without rigourous planning, these improvement lessons, which are a test of our flexible thinking, can become and I am speaking from experience here a complete shambles. Remember this too: DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time) is dedicated to learning that students have already struggled with. This inevitably has implications on how smoothly the lesson will run.

 Try asking these questions:

·         Which is most suitable – a redraft of the original task or a new approach to the learning?

·         How much curriculum time do I realistically have available and how can this be best used?

·         How will I model and scaffold the learning again (taking into account that we have identified weaknesses and not strengths)?

·         What will I do if the initial improvement task is unsuccessful?

Below are some strategies I am developing in my English lessons.

10 minutes of gritty editing. The first thing I always do – the ‘starter’ if you like – is that I get my students to respond to spelling, punctuation and grammar errors which I have circled and coded. I insist on complete silence (to avoid 25 helpless cries of ‘Sir’) and ensure that dictionaries, thesauruses, green pens so that I can easily identify their editing – and post-its are available. They must edit alone. If students want to ask a question – only one each – then it can be written on a post-it note and stuck on my desk. I also highlight any words I feel they could find a better alternative for and indicate with questions and symbols where they need to elaborate. My colleague, Kate Bloomfield, uses asterisks in the margins to indicate the number of errors per line this encourages students to seek and rectify the mistakes themselves.

gritty editing

Redrafting. If we just ask students to redraft, they will inevitably rewrite their original with better handwriting. A pointless waste of time. First we must model the editing process carefully. Some students may need help with concision. David Didau’s post this week – here – on encouraging his students to cut 20% of the content is a great strategy. Others struggle with elaboration. My colleague, Gav McCusker, asks his students to edit creative writing in layers – add a layer of similes, a layer of vivid verbs etc.

When can I find the time for redrafting? Time in our modern curriculum, unfortunately, does not allow for redrafting everything. Instead, we can quickly redraft at paragraph or even sentence level (see my post on the sentence escalator here for some ideas). Setting DIRT as homework has been incredibly successful I have found, especially if I mark the first draft only for improvement, withholding levels for the final draft produced at home. My less-able year 11 group use our fortnightly Friday, period 5 lesson to type up and improve a piece of work I have marked from the past two weeks. The line “the weekend does not start until you have improved” has become my refrain.

Creating new tasks focused on target areas. Allowing ourselves to become completely blinkered by the power of the redrafting process might be a mistake. If a students work is based on poorly conceived ideas, or simply does not cut the mustard, starting from scratch on a new or similar task creates a useful clean slate. New tasks show students that writing knowledge must be remembered and transferred to new contexts; they also enable us to manage the process in a  faster, sharply-focused way. After feeding back on a Y9 creative writing task written from the  perspective of a WW2 soldier, I asked students to write a descriptive paragraph in response to a wartime photograph using the following improvement targets (I had written the ‘t-numbers’ in their books):

 DIRT targets

Modelling and scaffolding.  This is where DIRT gets hard. How do we model and scaffold improvement strategies with a mixed-ability class who may need signposting in a multitude of directions? How can we simultaneously  provide 30 students with the individual guidance needed to ‘close the gap’? You will notice from the above slide that I have found one way of solving this. The improvement task is linked to the targets as well as 10 italicised scaffolds.

Another strategy that I have mentioned in a previous post is DIRTy modelling. The teacher writes a paragraph or so with the whole gamut of improvement areas covered and shares it with the class – students identify how they can improve by seeing how the teacher has met their targets in the model.

Reflecting on what went well. If you double-tick excellent passages and sentences, students can reflect and write analytically about why you have ticked here. It is a great way not only of helping students to reflect on positives, but also of reinforcing  analytical writing techniques – the analysis, in this case, is of their own writing. Comparative writing techniques can be worked on through highlighting a good and not-so-good sentence and asking students to write a comparison of the two, explaining why one is more sophisticated or accurate than the other.

Drills. Certainly not fashionable, but probably very effective. Write out your spelling mistakes 5 times. Write out 5 sentences with a correctly used semi-colon. Write out 5 sentences beginning with an …ing verb etc.

Re-teaching. Why are we so frightened of repeating ourselves? Why not just go over all the learning once more, irrespective of who got it the first time round? The research that Hattie and Yates have surveyed convincingly argues that we should repeat learning, that students should over-learn. If we repeat something that some students already know, we are reinforcing and strengthening this learning, so that it is not forgotten. Cognitive science research demonstrates this, yet many of us are frightened that repetition means no learning. As long as this kind of feedback is speedy and focused, surely it has a place, particularly when we need to feed back quickly.

Flexible curricular. If we are serious about improvement, we must centralise the feed-forward process thanks to David Fawcett‘s post for introducing me to this term – in the curriculum, streamlining superfluous subject content where we can. Our ruthlessness will be to our students’ benefit. Not only should our short-term planning be directed by assessment, so should our long-term planning. The next unit of work we plan, and even next years curriculum, must be informed by our findings. Over-prescriptive curricular and schemes-of-work can be the enemy of learning.

Ultimately, the planning and management of improvement tasks is more challenging than it first appears. I am very much a novice. My hunch is that the more strategies we have at our fingertips, the more skilful we can become at ‘closing the gap’.

Related blog posts:

My post – Marking: minimum impact for maximum pleasure.

Harry Fletcher-Wood – Slovenly language and foolish thoughts: howcan I help my students get better at writing history essays?

Canons Broadside – DIRTy ToEs – Differentiation by Assessment

Shaun Allsion – Marking Matters

Mark Miller – Revision Before Redrafting

Belmont Teach – Fast Feedback

It takes time to write


‘Less is more.’

‘Quality over quantity.’

‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’

Such aphorisms may be common parlance, yet I wonder how much heed we take of them in our day-to-day teaching practice. Time, as we know, is precious; learning time is easily frittered away on meaningless trivialities.  My question is this: are we using time effectively in our classrooms and, in particular, how well are we helping our students to manage the time they spend writing?

Students who struggle with writing seem to fall into two camps: they either write too little or they write too much. Either they cannot – or, at least, believe that they cannot – imagine the next step on the journey, or they fast-forward to the finishing post ignoring the steps a good writer must take to achieve genuine success. So, how do we encourage our students to write at a pace conducive to both quality and quantity?

Recently, I have been experimenting with slowing down. In my English department, we have found one of David Didau’s ‘slow writing’ strategies to be revolutionary – read his post here. In short, the teacher gives students a series of instructions about how to form each sentence within a paragraph (begin the first sentence with an adverb; begin the second sentence with a simile; write a third sentence of only five words etc.). It works so well because students have to stop and think between sentences. Each sentence becomes a ‘sub-goal’, a necessary stage in the procedure of writing.

Here are two examples from one of my students, a reasonably able year 9 boy. In the first creative writing task I had not given explicit sentence instructions; in the second I had. The difference in quality is clear to see:

 Example 2

Example 1

Last weekend, when reading a chapter on how knowledge is stored in the mind in Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn, I was struck by the concept of ‘procedural knowledge’:

“Procedural knowledge implies a sequence of sub goals. A task is broken down into components where each component is a distinct step to be defined and mastered. This entails a series of if-then contingencies.”

To what extent, then, can the writing process be classified as a procedure of ‘if-then contingencies’? If a complex sentence has been used, then follow it with a short, simple sentence. If a verb has been used at the start of a sentence, then follow it with a sentence starting not with a verb, but perhaps an adverb… and so on.

Yet surely, you might reasonably claim, writing is about free-thinking and fluency, not about adherence to hard-and-fast rules?

Based on the evidence from my own classroom, I am not convinced that relying solely on a free-thinking approach helps the novice writer to learn or retain anything meaningful. I have often been guilty of setting tasks such as ‘write an essay on’ or ‘write a crime story’ with the knowledge that my students can barely form, let alone organise, their sentences.

Consider this analogy. If you were to give a learner driver, who had had some basic training in the use of the foot-pedals and steering-wheel, a set of car keys and ask him to drive from London to Newcastle, he might, with luck, arrive safely. On the journey, he might hone some coping strategies, and perhaps as a result might think himself a more competent driver. Yet many complex driving skills that take time and practice – say negotiating a roundabout or learning how to reverse park – would have been overlooked totally. That’s why we have driving lessons: to teach, slowly, the complex procedural knowledge of how to drive. And do you know what? Almost all of us eventually pass.

In the same way, we need to teach our students to write in careful stages, so that they avoid racing to the finishing line and learning little en-route. That is why at KS3, and when possible with KS4, I am breaking writing into smaller sub-goals and attempting to reinvent the notion of ‘finishing’.

Hattie and Yates’ also assert that “the simple truth is that procedural learning (a) is slow and (b) requires much feedback and extended practice.” ‘Slow writing’, therefore, should not become a selection of nifty strategies to be used once in a while; instead, if it is to have genuine and sustained impact, it should be extended into a fully-fledged teaching philosophy.

So, in a world and educational climate in thrall to the concept of ‘rapid progress’ and silly quick-fixes, how can we sell slow to our students? Here are a few strategies I am working on (in no particular order). These are about getting students to think more carefully at the point of writing, not about the redrafting process:

·       Limit ‘end thinking’ and focus on ‘stage thinking’. We should create meaningful obstructions that force our students to stop and think about a sentence or paragraph before – and while – writing it. David Didau’s example discussed above works brilliantly. As students become more proficient they can design their own sentence descriptors. Another incredibly simple strategy is to enforce the rule that no sentence in a piece of writing should start with the same word.

·       Provide more structure so that students focus on the how and not just the what. When writing creatively, students can be given a fixed storyline that they must follow in a set number of paragraphs. Alternatively, write the first and last paragraphs for them (or together). Both strategies help to alleviate the ‘cognitive load’ created by having to tell the story and craft fantastic sentences simultaneously. If students are planning themselves, make sure that each paragraph is planned thoroughly in terms of both content and technique before they begin (modelling the process in detail is also vital).

·       Pause writing tasks regularly for critique. I find this to be particularly useful after the first paragraph is complete so that any bad habits are weeded out as early as possible. This only need take a few minutes. At the moment, I am photographing paragraphs with the CamScanner app on my iPhone, uploading them onto Dropbox on the PC and then critiquing them as a class. I tend to pick an above average piece that still needs some work – that way the critique is useful to all.

·       Focus on handwriting and presentation. We must ensure that  the act of writing is given an elevated position. A student’s attitude towards writing can often be inferred from their handwriting. A couple of tips. Get the student to rewrite it if you cannot read it (this worked brilliantly only last week for me). Let them know that their work may be chosen for the class critique and that the rest of the class will desperately want to be able to read their great ideas. Nevertheless, it is important that students recognise that the messiness of editing is to be applauded.

·       Create maximum quantity limits rather than minimum expectations. I am sure that we have all looked at the exercise books of our colleagues’ classes and experienced a pang of failure when realising that students in other classes have written twice as much as ours. This teacher mindset, however, is damaging. Simply telling students that they need to write 3, not 5, paragraphs, will take away unnecessary pressure and give them the time to think about improvement. Effort only equals success when the effort is pin-pointed on deliberate improvement.

·        Control the pace of writing – Tell your students that they must not move on to the next paragraph until 10 minutes (or another arbitrary figure) is up. Ensure your classes know a range of editing strategies so that those who ‘finish’ first can improve their work. It is important that a correlation between ‘coming first’ and ‘success’ is not encouraged in the classroom.

·         Broaden the ‘slow writing’ approach to all writing. As an English teacher, I now teach ‘reading’ skills by focusing on the language – or ‘genre’ – of literary analysis. One of the most truly liberating things I have done of late is to kiss farewell to PEE. It is far too clunky and simplistic. Students do not write sentences like the one below if they are only taught PEE. (See my post on the ‘sentence escalator’ for more ideas.)

new doc_1


·        Cut out unnecessary lesson and curriculum content.  To allow the time for genuine deep learning, we need to pare-down our practice so that we can give reasonable time to the curriculum areas that make a difference. See Alex Quigley’s brilliant post on curriculum design and ‘threshold concepts’ – here – for fantastic thinking in this area.

·         Repeat learning. A wealth of cognitive science research – as well as what we experience with our own eyes – makes it abundantly clear that students recall only a small percentage of what we hope they will learn. Joe Kirby’s brilliant post last weekend on creating a ‘mastery assessment’ system based on memory – available here – is a must-read. We must not be afraid to return to the same writing skills over and over again – not only to hone them, but just to get the students to remember them.

You may have read this post and wondered whether I am advocating ‘spoon-feeding’. I am not. Independent, imaginative and resilient young writers are what we all hope to create.  The strategies above are designed to scaffold the very best writing from all. I have found them worthwhile when teaching the full range of abilities.

There is no such thing as perfection; everyone can improve if they are given time to write…