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.


37 thoughts on “Differentiating the responsive way

  1. Another brilliant blog. You make an often confused idea transparently clear. When we do a lesson on drawing graphs I make sure I have a template with scales and axis drawn in. This is placed upside down at the back of the room. This is just me anticipating a response in the lesson. Anticipated and improvised responses- brilliant.

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  28. Hi,

    I have just discovered the idea of growth mindset and really looking to implement it into the classroom, however my biggest problem is differentiation and it has been nice to read your above blog. I have always decided my classes into three groups (based on end of year target grades) and then provided three different tasks for each group. SLT (and Ofsted) had commented on how good this was as I was providing material that was challenging each student. I did a survey with the students about their groups and this is what I found:

    Low ability students felt like they were having dumbed-down work and just failures
    Hight ability students also felt like failures….Sometimes the tasks were so hard they count’t complete them and because there were meant to be ‘intelligent’ therefore they must now be ‘stupid’.

    My problem now is where to go from here. I hear many people talk about growth mindset and choice – the idea that, like before, I have 3 tasks but students select which task is suited to them (which on the face of it looks like good Differentiation!). On the other hand I hear this idea of one (challenging) task fits all and differentiation is offered to students who may need supporting in completing it. I then had a third idea that all students complete a ‘core’ activity and move on to a choice of ‘extension’ tasks which are graded.

    Can I be cheeky and ask for your opinions on this? After 5 years of planning 3 different tasks for each lesson my head is spinning a little!

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