How can a realistic and manageable approach to differentiation be implemented in the classroom particularly when there are children with literacy difficulties.
Tomlinson (2010) defines differentiation as “an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms”. This general definition is supported by others such as Petty (2010), who classifies it as “the process by which differences between learners are accommodated so that all students in a group have the best possible chance of learning”. Such definitions show that the core aspect of differentiation in teaching is adapting to individual learner needs rather than imposing a uniform scheme of work across a whole class. It will be argued here that such an approach is valuable as it can aid learning for all students. In order to consider how a realistic and manageable approach to differentiation can be implemented, however, a number of issues must be considered. After a brief overview of differentiation, this essay will consider its relevance for literacy and, in particular, its usefulness in aiding children with literacy difficulties. It will consider the categories of environment, lesson content, process and product in order to analyse the relevance of differentiation and literacy for each. It will propose some examples of tasks, look at Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligence’ and raise some critiques of differentiation. Finally, it will conclude that in order for a realistic and manageable approach to be implemented, differentiation, with its specific demands, must be more integrated not only at a classroom level but also at the level of teacher training.
The definition of differentiation is expanded in the Pearson analysis (2010), which argues that using ‘ability group’ teaching is limiting, and proposes the importance of delivering the curriculum in “a number of different ways” and presenting “a range of tasks”. The differentiated classroom has a number of distinct features that distinguish it form a non-differentiated classroom. “Teachers begin where students are, not the front of a curriculum guide” (ASCD, 2010) for example. This suggests a level of flexibility, allowing to account for varied student ability and need. The ASCD report also highlights other important factors such as the use of “different learning modalities” and “varied rates of instruction along with varied degrees of complexity”. It goes on to emphasise how, in a differentiated classroom, students will ‘compete’ against themselves rather than against other students. Such a classroom, in other words, is multiple and varied rather than strictly uniform and standardised. It is collaborative rather than competitive. It is dynamic with a teacher responding to individual student needs, and it understands and appreciates how different students learn at different speeds and at different levels. As pointed out in the Learning Live analysis (Live, 2010), relaxation and flexibility are key.
Literacy, including reading, writing, speaking and comprehension, is defined as a key aspect of English learning at Junior level (ACTION, 2010). It involves the interrelated elements of personal, social and cultural literacy. Difficulties in speaking and listening as well as just in reading and writing can be defined as literacy difficulties, leading to problems with “personal growth” and therefore the lowering of self-esteem (ACTION, 2010). In order to improve literacy and help with learner difficulties there are many strategies that can be employed. Following the logic and philosophy of classroom differentiation, different types of strategy for improving literacy may be more useful than others for individual students. Strategies can be generally divided into visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Visual strategies are based around the central premise of teaching through showing visually. This can include, for example diagrams and charts as well as images, films or written instructions on the board (Farwell, 2010). Auditory strategies would include techniques such as lectures, talking to students and varieties of reading aloud (Farwell, 2010), while kinesthetic strategies can be understood as those that involve “touching, feeling, experiencing the material at hand” (Farwell, 2010), learning, in other words, through actively doing. As both Farwell (2010) and Kelly (2010) have argued, some students prefer visual methods, some prefer auditory and some prefer kinesthetic. Different types may be more effective at improving the literacy of different students, and a thorough diagnostic assessment should be used to establish this for individual cases. The benefit of a differentiated classroom is that it can incorporate all of these elements, assessing and monitoring the individual learning capacities of students and employing appropriate strategy effectively.
In terms of literacy, there are a number of differentiation strategies that can be employed. These will be discussed under the general categories of environment, lesson content, process and product. Firstly, in terms of environment, a differential approach may challenge the accepted boundaries of the classroom environment, employing flexibility and creativity by for example moving lessons outside, incorporating walks and other outdoor activities. This could benefit students who have a more kinesthetic approach to learning and so benefit from a change from sitting in the classroom listening and writing. In terms of literacy, this can have obvious benefits, particularly in terms of the ‘cultural literacy’ proposed in the ACTION (2010) report. Projects such as the ELM (2009) pilot – exploring literacy through museums, show how non-traditional classroom environments have been used as a way of differentiating environment and improving literacy. Within the classroom itself, strategies of differentiation can be employed such as dividing up areas into spaces for group work, spaces for individual study and spaces for computer work. This not only allows for a variety of tasks to be undertaken but also allows for different levels of literacy to be catered for and closely monitored by the teacher. Group work is important as it provides an opportunity to develop collaborative activities, which reward helping each other and encouragement rather than competition, an important aspect of differentiated learning. Contrasting this with spaces for individual study also allows for the independence demanded within a differentiated environment. Tobin & McInnes (2008) discuss the encouraging of classroom group discussion as this enables those with literacy difficulties to gain confidence within small groups. The placing of those with literacy difficulties into groups of a smaller size could enable the teacher to give them more attention while continuing to implement differential classroom strategies. Further, the use of ‘mixed-experience grouping’ (Live, 2010) can provide peer support to those most in need.
Content is important as the varying of classroom material, rather than applying a uniform standard to the whole class, allows for student needs to be differentiated and those with learning difficulties to gain confidence at an appropriate level. Strategies can involve giving students more choice in the materials they use, encouraging motivation as well as enabling an assessment of their literacy levels. Such a student-centred approach also allows the students to choose visual, auditory or kinesthetic material from which to most effectively learn. Working with general thematic content, a variety of levels can be differentiated. Activities, in other words, can be ‘tiered’, as Tobin and McInnes (2008) propose, allowing for different levels of complexity. They argue that this kind of tiering is effective in encouraging students to independently advance to an appropriate level without needing much teacher support. In terms of process, one of the key strategies to emerge from literature on differentiation in teaching is that of constant open feedback between teacher and students. Leipzig (2000) for example, makes a useful distinction between ‘differentiated’ and just ‘different’ teaching. Where ‘different’ teaching may, for example split the class into groups all working on different material, the differentiated process would involve the teacher constantly moving around the class, picking up on how students are working, actively responding and modifying groups and work along the way. This is important in terms of those with literacy difficulties as a way of monitoring what type of difficulties they have and how these may be improving, rather than just giving them a lower level of work to complete. Tobin and McInnes (2010) point to ‘wrap-around activities’, or those where pupils have freedom to move to another task when one is completed as an effective way of improving literacy. This is also relevant to strategies of product, or how the student shows the teacher what they know. Differential techniques may avoid conventional assessment procedures and use techniques such as individual personal communication in order to make more detailed and nuanced observation.
In terms of implementing a realistic and manageable approach to differentiation in the classroom when there are children with literacy difficulties, the biggest difficulty is reading comprehension. Specific strategies could be employed in order to implement the development of literacy through differentiation. Tasks such as ‘partner retelling’ (NSW, 2010) would be useful. In this task, half of the class work as storytellers, while the other class work as listeners who must summarise the stories. This allows for the development of comprehension strategies in some students while focusing on aural strategies for the others. As the groups can be subdivided into smaller groups, it allows for peer support and encouragement as well as teacher monitoring and modification. The ‘patterned partner reading’ task (NSW, 2010) would also be useful as it allows for independent student discussion and input in the type of patterns they engage with to help with comprehension. Another useful task is the ‘coding strategy’ task (NSW, 2010) where students develop symbolic codes for their reactions to written material ranging from ‘I know this already’ to ‘I don’t know this at all’. These codes are then shared with other students, effectively creating a differential environment. The mixing of tasks allows for a variety of visual, kinesthetic and auditory strategies as well as differentiated tailoring of learning tasks, providing different strategies of comprehension for students of different ability. Farwell (2010) argues that “every person has one primary learning mode”, or it may well be the case that through experimenting with tasks, teachers can establish what combinations of learning modes are most appropriate for students.
The importance of differentiation in the classroom is supported by the idea that different children learn in different ways. Intelligence, in other words, is not a universal marker which can be measured through universal standards but can be understood, as Gardner has proposed, as ‘multiple’, He proposed “linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and naturalist” (skline, 2010) as varying forms of intelligence which may exist at different levels in different students. Assuming this model, it can be seen that differentiation is a vital element of classroom teaching. It may also prove problematic however. One problem may be that there is not enough time, in a busy classroom, to devote to those students who have literacy difficulties. Although differentiation, in this sense, is useful in theory, it may be difficult to put into practice with available time and resources. It also raises other issues such as the ability to accurately assess literacy. When teaching in a ‘non-differentiated way’, the teacher has a readymade structure and is able to devote time to making sure this is taught effectively. In the ‘dynamic’ model proposed here, a lot is required of the teacher, not all may be capable and it may be difficult to focus on other issues such as basic classroom discipline. It may be the case actually that there is a mismatch between current teacher training and the demands of differentiated teaching. On the other hand, however, this should not be used as an excuse to abandon differential approaches. Rather it is the case that differentiation exercises should be incorporated into teacher training, making their implementation more effective. As the ASCD (2010) report suggests, teachers in differentiated classrooms begin with a clear and solid sense of what constitutes powerful curriculum and engaging instruction”. This can be developed through training. Such training can include things like the organization and planning of differentiation. As the Pearson (2010) report suggests, the ’80-20’ rule can be inverted meaning that, if planned effectively, differentiation can mean that pupils do 80 percent of the work while teachers do 20, leading to more energy for teachers and less dependence from pupils. Methodologies of differential planning and organization should, therefore, be incorporated into teacher training, allowing for realistic implementation in the classroom.
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