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Is differentiation a swear word?

Differentiation. A perfectly innocent concept which snuggles comfortably in the common sense zone of your brain; camouflages itself in the sidelines of your classroom; makes regular, modest appearances in your day-to-day teaching…

But then rears its huge ugly head twice a year to instill fear in even the most talented and experienced of teachers across the land!

Je m’appelle Differentiation


There it is, on your lesson plan, all pumped up  with self-importance. You are going into battle and differentiation might be the deciding factor between a good and an outstanding judgement.

‘But every good teacher differentiates!’ I hear you cry. I know this. The observer knows this. Ofsted know this. But what we all also know is that differentiation is something you do naturally, automatically, sensitively and spontaneously.

Why should it become explicit? Well… do you trust your observer to notice how discreetly you switch your questioning from one pupil to the next? Do you trust that your observer be alert enough to notice that you have slipped one pupil a support sheet? Do you trust the observer to get inside your head as you mentally assess a pupil’s level of response and decide if a) praise or b) further challenge is required?

I don’t have that trust. So I play the game. I make my differentiation explicit. Whenever somebody else walks into my classroom, ready to pass judgement on my teaching, differentiation becomes a swear word! And this is how I tell it to **** off…

  1. Support and Challenge idea: Cardboard folders stapled to the wall. IMG_6897One for ‘support’, the other for ‘challenge’. Inside the support folder I usually put a one-page-learning sheet relevant to the topic. (Maybe add a little something extra on the observation day specific to that lesson ?) Inside the challenge folder I usually find an article from If it is related to the topic even better. (Again, for the lesson observation I would find something très specific). You need to make this a habit for the pupils, give them permission to access these folders without checking with you. They should seek support or challenge automatically, leaving you to sit back smiling smugly in the general direction of the observer. In your face differentiation, 1-0 to us!
  2. Support idea: Survival Kit. Designate a table, shelf or box to this. Fill it with the essentials for that lesson- it could contain model answers; tense help sheets, checklists, dictionaries…. I personally find that pupils accessing the survival kit usually select a model answer and can adapt the version with success. Consider highlighting the words they should adapt.
  3. Challenge idea: Surprise Eggs. image1This little gem comes via Twitter from the brilliant Carmel Bones @bones_carmel. Hide challenges or extension tasks inside plastic eggs. (I use my kids’ empty kinder egg cases but you can get similar from Pound shops). I add a sweet for extra reward. Have these in a box on your desk and make a show of chucking them a plastic egg/ball when they ask for a challenge or task extension. For a lesson observation I would ensure that the task relates directly to the lesson objective ie. Highlight all of the adjectives you have used/recognised and look up an alternative in the thesauras.
  4. Support and Challenge idea: Buddy/mentor medals. Once the more able pupils have finished, get them to support the others?  Great strategy, but it can result in what looks like chaos. What looks to the observer like reduced engagement- the observer doesn’t know who is a buddy and why they are wandering around the room. The pupils in need of support don’t know who is there to help. Solution: get the buddies them wear a special medal or badge. They might protest but they love the attention really. Perhaps all the badge wearing buddies earn themselves an extra reward at the end of the lesson?
  5. Challenge and Support idea: Playtime! Slide1I have spent ages designing board games that I can use as a support or challenge task. If I identify a struggling pupil I ask them to attend a play date. (I invite them via their books, great DIRT technique). They are sacrificing their own time because I need to support them outside of classroom time but they know they will spend that time ‘playing’ a board game with me and a small group of pupils. It’s a great way of revising vocabulary, consolidating grammar and developing speaking and listening skills. I have board games for sale here at my TES store. I use them for early finishers as well- usually as a way to introduce the new topic.
  6. Challenge ideas: Task cards. These are something I have stumbled upon since selling my resources to US teachers. I believe they are used for literacy centres- a concept I have been experimenting with in my French classroom. I love that they are often grammar focused (which will become even more important with current Y9s) and therefore ideal for stretching the more able pupils. You can find some great task cards here at Madame R’s store.

Ofsted claim to endorse typicality. So I cling to the security of my visible and explicit differentiation techniques, train my pupils to routinely access them and have faith that I can walk into battle with my best foot forward.

I would love to hear how you differentiate on a day-to-day basis and how you pull out the big guns for O-Day!


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January: a teacher's second September

September. Day 1. An INSET day to ease us in gently. A fresh new planner full of crisp white pages to fill. A little surge of excitement as I look forward to filling in the register pages at the back and the anticipation of writing out all my plans neatly in those little boxes 5 times a week is almost too much.

Day 2. What the hell was I thinking? Last night I selected my favourite pen, you know the one, fine nib, sexy black ink. But that was me done. Pass the wine, I can’t really fill in my class registers tonight can I? What if last minute amendments are being made to the class lists? Better wait till the weekend.

Anyway, kids get here in a bit. I can’t wait to throw myself back into it. I wonder if they will still do what I ask them to do? Do I still know how to write on a whiteboard? F***- how am I going to fill a full hour?God, I need moral support, better head to the staff room!

S**t. Shouldn’t have done that. Pigeon holes are being crammed full of meeting agendas, the photocopier is going at full throttle and about to scream something about toner, the nucleus of hard core complainers are in full on whinge mode in the corner and to top it all off the PE department have stolen all the milk.

Anyway, lesson 1 is assembly. Lesson 2 I have planned a thoroughly outstanding lesson, if I do say so myself. Lesson 3…err. B******. What should I do lesson 3? Maybe I have something on the system from last year.

Why oh why have I let myself live in a world of denial for the last 6 weeks? ‘This will be the year’ I had told myself, ‘my year’.

This time (like every bloody time since I started this thing way back in 2005) I had intended to have everything prepared. A whole half term at a time. Maybe even all the way to December- wouldn’t that be nice?

My vision, my fantasy, my holy grail is this: a wall to wall unit- think Ikea meets haberdashery store. Every little compartment and pull out drawer would house a whole host of goodies. Writing frames; role play scenarios (with props!); grammar board games; past papers (with mark scheme attached); assessments; vocab lists; extension tasks; support sheets; project booklets…

You name it, it would be there- everything would be there! And it would be….oh yes, you know where I am going….laminated!!!!!

Days 3 and 4. I religiously file each worksheet and resource by topic. But I know it won’t last. I will soon fall victim to the incessant, insurmountable number of OTHER THINGS that every teacher, TLR or not, has to deal with.

In no partcicularly order: day to planning; baseline assessments; medium term planning; researching authentic and fresh resources; watching you tube clips ahead of the lesson to ensure content is suitable; marking books; finding things for classroom displays; phone calls home; form tutor duties; break and dinner duties; running extra curricular clubs; running inter-house competitions; giving assemblies; organising fundraising events; lesson observations; delivering consistently good and outstanding lessons; moderation and standardisation; conducting exams; parents’ evenings, open evenings….

I always fall short of my September resolutions…

and then I start again in January.

This WILL be my year!

And the fruits of my labour will be available to buy from my tes store.

I teach French by the way. And my resources are pretty damn good.

I will be posting about how I use my resources in the classroom; blogging about teaching and learning in general and sharing my insights into this crazy, hectic, challenging, exhausting… but above all rewarding profession of ours.

Now I’m off to tackle one of my other #teacherresolutions- Sunday afternoon wardrobe prep. Take one freshly ironed shirt, add pencil skirt, select colour coordinated accessories, group together on one hanger and repeat  for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…yeah right!

Happy New Year!

Please feel free to share your #teacherresolutions below

Betsy ‘brand new to blogging’ Belle