• is a method of organising learning activities
  • is the match of what is offered to what is needed
  • considers the stage of learning that the learner has reached
  • considers their own skills and abilities

The National Curriculum Council (NCC) defined it as:

“the process by which curriculum objectives, teaching methods assessment methods, resources and learning activities are planned to cater for the needs of individual pupils”

Differentiation is the recognition of and commitment to plan for student differences. A differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquire content, to process or make sense of information and ideas, and to develop products. The goals of a differentiated classroom are to maximize student growth and to promote individual student success.

Differentiated lessons allow the struggling learner, advanced learner and on the on-grade-level learner to experience appropriate levels of challenge as they work to master essential information, ideas, and skills. Teachers target instruction at the readiness level of students and lead them to learn new ideas and gain greater understanding by building on a sound framework of knowledge. The students begin their learning experience at an appropriate level for them and chart their individual growth. Since differentiation assumes that students have different levels of knowledge and experience with different curricular goals, students may need to experience the curriculum from varying entry points. Differentiation not only recognizes that students are at different levels of readiness, but it also recognizes that students vary in their interests and learning profiles or preferred ways of learning. Differentiation aims to make appropriate accommodations to ensure that the curriculum is engaging and appropriate for all learners.

In a Differentiated Classroom

  • Learning experiences are based on diagnosis of student readiness, interest, and/or learning profile
  • Content, activities, and products or other assessments are developed in response to differing needs of varied learners
  • Teaching and learning are focused on key concepts, understandings and skills
  • All students participate in “respectful” work
  • Teacher and students work together to ensure continual engagement and challenge for each learner
  • The teacher coordinates use of time, space, and activities
  • Flexible grouping ensures consistently fluid working arrangements, including whole class learning, pairs, triads, and quads, student-selected groups, teacher-selected groups, and random groups
  • Time use is flexible in response to student needs A variety of management strategies such as learning centers, interest centers, compacting, contracts, independent study, collegial partnerships, tiered assignments, and learning buddies are used to help target instruction to student needs
  • Clearly established individual and group criteria provide guidance toward success
  • Students are assessed in a variety of ways appropriate to demonstrate their own thought and growth


The following aspects of differentiation were discussed and considered to be valuable starting points for work with trainee teachers.

  • Differentiation by Topic
  • Differentiation by Input
  • Differentiation by Outcome
  • Differentiation by Product
  • Differentiation by Resource
  • Differentiation by Response
  • Differentiation by Scaffolding
  • Differentiation by Intervention
  • Differentiation by Progressive Questioning
  • Differentiation by Grouping
  • Differentiation by Task
  • Differentiation by Optional Activities


Differentiation by Topic

Teach different but related grammar points to different students

Differentiation by Input

Teach different words to different students.

Differentiation by Outcome

Learners are given the same task and resources, tackle it at their own level and produce outcomes that reflect their understanding of the task and ability to carry it out. An acceptable method for activities in art perhaps, but it is not helpful for learners who need a more structured approach.

Advantages Disadvantages
Easy to plan. Some pupils may be restricted in what they can do without support.
Useful Summative assessment shows different levels within group. Not much diagnostic assessment is possible.
Pupils can be allowed to work cooperatively. Failure is inevitable for some as pupils measure their performance against their friends and some realise they fall below class average.
Teacher assumes success for all as no criteria for failure is set. Perceived failure may lead to bahavioural problems.

(Baumann, 1997)


The same task is given, for example to prepare some writing to persuade an audience, but different learners are asked to present it in different ways e.g. in the style of a poster, handbill, pamphlet (these require different amounts of text and different relationships between the illustrations and the text). This allows for more demanding features to be introduced for some.

Advantages Disadvantages
A highly differentiated form of teaching. Makes heavy demands on the teacher.
Excellent vehicle for using Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Bruner’s scaffolding and Woods five levels. Difficult to provide for whole class.
Useful for helping pupils to work on their own weak areas. Time-consuming way of covering the curriculum.
Excellent as a method of working with one part of the class at a time. Requires detailed record keeping.
Makes full use of pupils creativity.

(Baumann, 1997)


Although the task may be similar, different resources are made available for different learners. This will be more successful in helping learners to access the task (the use of counters in early number work) and can be used as a way of challenging the more able through, for example, the use of advanced written material.


Most frequently used form.
(Question from pupil / answer by teacher)
Each answer reflects a differentiated response to that pupil’s needs

Advantages Disadvantages
Provides opportunities for the teacher to give structure and advice which is specific to that pupil’s needs. Very demanding on the teachers time.

(Baumann, 1997)


Model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed.


This may take the form of: different levels of supervision, additional requirements for some learners, different levels of teacher questioning, selective use of technical language, modification of the task when possible failure is identified. It is important that this is planned and not simply reactive to the immediate problems. Good differentiation by intervention ensures that one group or set of pupils receives attention one lesson and another during the next lesson.

Progressive Questioning

This technique is adopted during core lesson, introductory sessions or plenaries. The teacher explores the children’s understanding and introduces new concepts through interactive dialogue. The earlier questions relating to the simpler aspects of the work are directed towards the lower attaining pupils. As the concepts become more complex the questioning is directed to the higher attaining pupils.

The technique can also be adopted when writing activity sheets. Easier question/concepts introduced at the start…


The grouping of pupils is an important aspect of classroom management. Pupils can be grouped according to:

  • prior attainment
  • gender
  • social preference
  • preferred learning style


Different tasks are given to different pupils to reflect their needs. These can focus upon the same topic/theme of may be entirely different work (but ensuring entitlement, pupil tracking and equal opportunity issues arise).

Advantages Disadvantages
Work can be chosen which is suitable for each pupil. Pupils may slow down to avoid finishing an allotted task.
An efficient way of covering the curriculum. Labour intensive for teacher as much organisation is needed.
Failure is unlikely, behavioural problems may be reduced. Work schemes for individuals may impede social learning and highlight differences.
Can be related to the National Curriculum levels. Summative assessment is difficult, needs to be carried out separately.
Useful for formative assessment.

(Baumann, 1997)

Optional activities (in class tasks or homework)

Supporting those pupils wishing to extend their work in class or in their own time is an important aspect of differentiation.


Scheme for developing differentiated activities

(Capel et al, 2001: 136)

Key Questions

  • Are the objectives for the curriculum/software designed to ensure that the work provides an appropriate challenge for all learners?
  • Does the work offered build on prior learning?
  • Does the work offered allow for learners to succeed at their own level?
  • Are activities planned to remove any barriers to learner participation?
  • Are a range and variety of quality resources available?
  • Do the activities reflect attention span and pace of work?
  • Are all learners participating in the activity?
  • Is the activity(s) the most effective way of achieving the outcome?
  • Are the resources matched to the needs of the learners?
  • Can all learners access and use the resources they need?
  • Can the learner work without continual reference to the teacher?
  • Are learners helped to access resources and work at their best pace?
  • Is the available adult time used differentially according to the needs of individuals or groups?
  • Is the process of assessment an integral part of the learning?
  • Are learning outcomes used to plan future work?
  • Is the learner involved in an assessment of their learning and progress?
  • Does the process result in the learner gaining a greater understanding of their future needs?

Planning Activities

Consider having A, B and C type activities. When you have focussed upon the theme/topic of the lesson list a number of activities that you know ALL pupils will be able to do. These activities ensure that the lowest attaining pupils will have succeeded at some tasks during the lesson. These are the activities. Then design some activities that will extend the most able – these may enrich the topic or they may be the same topic but of a more difficult nature. These are the C activities. The B activities are what you consider to be the purpose of the lesson.

Another way to consider this form of differentiation is to divide the work into the categories:








Baumann, AS et al (1997) ‘Becoming a Secondary School Teacher’ Hodder and Stoughton

Capel, S, Leask, M and Turner, T (2001) Learning to teach in the Secondary School Routledge/Falmer





Further thoughts http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/hottlinx

Discussion notes 21st April 1999. Professional Mentors: Lindy Barclay (Redbridge), Tim Dennis (Itchen), Mark Handly (Sholing), Julia O’Kelly (Petersfield), Cathy Squires (Wildern) and John Woollard (RGSE).

These notes are descriptive but require further exemplification. They then can form the basis of discussions identifying the strengths and weakness of each approach.

They were further enhanced by Michael Stephens, PGCE trainee by including references to Baumann, 1997.