Differentiation - guidance for inclusive teaching

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Historical Overview and Key Guidance

Key Research Findings

Video Resources

Implications for Practice

Key Resources





Teachers should seek to meet the diverse needs of children with SEN by being proactive in adopting varied approaches to learning, teaching and assessment (Vickerman, 2007).  Addressing the full continuum of children's needs involves teachers working flexibly and creatively through a range of ‘differentiation' strategies to design environments that are conducive to learning for all.  Differentiation is a complex issue which requires teachers to think about the impact that their learning, teaching and assessment strategies have for children including those with SEN.  An integral aspect of learning, teaching and assessment, is the need for teachers to modify and adapt their strategies to support the full range of children with SEN (Algozzine and Anderson, 2007).


Differentiation therefore requires teachers to recognise that:


  • All learners are different and are capable of some achievement
  • Every class is a mixed-ability group
  • Knowing individual pupils well is essential to good differentiation
  • Children with SEN like their peers are all on a ‘continuum of learning'.  This fact makes formative assessment even more important as we cannot assume pupils will always be operating at the same level.


In summary, differentiation has been extensively discussed and debated from both policy and pedagogical perspectives (See DCSF, 2007; Humphrey and Lewis 2008a; QCA, 2007) and involves consideration of diverse ranges of teaching, learning and assessment models.  Although these can at times become complex in their interpretation they all tend to be based around four central strands:


  • Curriculum adaptation - Changing what is taught
  • Instructional modifications - Changing how we teach
  • Environmental considerations - Changing where we teach
  • People resources - Looking at who teaches or supports teaching and learning?


Historical Overview and Key Guidance

Differentiation can be referred to as an educational philosophy that requires teachers to tailor their learning, teaching and assessment whilst adjusting the curriculum to the needs of children with SEN rather than expecting pupils to fit the existing curriculum (Cole 2008; Rogers, 2007). The history of differentiation in education can be linked to two influential psychologists. Firstly, Vygotsky proposed  that learning can be mediated through the intervention of others. This recognises that by having a knowledge of what a child already knows should inform the next stage of learning and what interventions are necessary  to enable successful learning Secondly, Gardner (1993) proposed a ‘theory of multiple intelligences' in which people have different intelligences and learn in many different ways. Gardner posits that schools should therefore offer ‘individual-centered education' (Florian et al, 2006; Humphreys and Lewis 2008b) in which learning is tailored to the child's individual needs. In summary a diverse range of psychological approaches to learning have been promoted (and criticised) by authors over many years. Some psychologists have questioned the scientific basis for a range of theories and models that have been proposed. Coffield et al (2004) for example identified 71 different theories of learning and questioned the research evidence that demonstrated any real impact on children's learning. 


For some however, notions of differentiation have been questioned.  Everest (2003) in an article in the Guardian newspaper comments "Different people have different learning styles - some like working with books, others prefer videos, others practical work and so on. We have to cater to them all. So now I am told by self-styled ‘experts' that my lesson plans must show ‘differentiation'. The implication being, of course, that all of my previous approaches were entirely inadequate. Differentiation is the latest buzzword to have infested education. Apparently I must use a variety of methods at every turn and I must present every topic and idea through a variety of methods and approaches. Nowhere in this obvious argument is consideration ever given to the nature of the material I am teaching. This challenging view on differentiation raises many questions related to the purpose and intentions of differentiation and the extent to which it is a government ‘buzzword or fad' and/or research informed educational practice that ultimately enhances children with SEN educational achievements. This glossary intends to therefore demonstrate the educational basis of differentiation in order to support you in ensuring all children reach their potential.


By far the most detailed analysis of teaching styles and behaviours (developed initially within a Physical Education context) has arisen from work originated in the United States of America by Mosston (1966). Mosston's Spectrum of Teaching Styles identified ten differentiated strategies involving both the pupil and teacher based on the extent to which the teacher or the pupil assumes responsibility for what happens in any given learning environment. The continuum ranges from direct teacher-led approaches through to more open-ended, pupil-centred learning in which the teacher acts in a facilitatory role. This approach differs to earlier models on learning in that the focus here is on teachers adopting models and approaches that differentiate their approaches rather than focus being on the child.

The Spectrum of Teaching Styles developed by Mosston (1996) are described as:


  • Style A Command: Teacher makes all decisions.
  • Style B Practice: Pupils carry out teacher-prescribed tasks.
  • Style C Reciprocal: Pupils work in pairs: one performs, the other provides feedback.
  • Style D Self-check: Pupils assess their own performance against criteria.
  • Style E Inclusion: Teacher planned and pupils monitor their own work.
  • Style F Guided Discovery: Pupils solve teacher set problems with assistance.
  • Style G Divergent: Pupils solve problems without assistance from the teacher.
  • Style H Individual: Teacher determines content. Pupil plans the programme.
  • Style I Learner Initiated: Pupil plans own programme. Teacher is advisor.
  • Style J Self Teaching: Pupil takes full responsibility for the learning process.


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Alternative differentiation strategies

Many models of differentiation have been developed over the years all with their unique range of strategies. Renzulli (1997) identified five dimensions of differentiation that have become commonplace in any these proposed models.  These refer to differentiation incorporating aspects of: content, process, product, classroom, and the teacher.  In relation to the first dimension of content, this refers to teachers adapting what they want the pupils to learn or how the pupils gain access to knowledge, skills and understanding (Evans and Wareing, 2008; Mintz, 2007).  Thus teachers use flexible approaches to deliver lesson content in a manner which fits the needs of the individual child.


Differentiating by process refers to how a pupil comes to understand and assimilate facts, concepts and skills. Thus knowing individual children well and how they learn at their best is central to success. Teachers might also group pupils based upon their learning styles with the recognition that children with SEN are at different levels and learn in different ways so a teacher can't teach them all the same way. Caution in adopting such an approach for grouping does need to be considered though as learning styles may not be consistent. Thus teachers should regularly review the relevance of any approaches to grouping pupils. The third dimension refers to product or performance in which pupils are afforded various ways of demonstrating what they have learned. Thus children with SEN should be enabled to show what they learned based on their learning preferences, interests and strengths.


The dimension of the classroom refers to teachers establishing environments that are conducive to learning, teaching and assessment. This may involve the way in which pupils are grouped, where, and how they learn in order to maximise success. Finally the teacher dimension focuses upon the vital role teacher's play in facilitating learning and/or creating barriers to learning, teaching and assessment. Indeed Coleman and Gallagher (1995 pg 32) suggest teachers "must have an appropriate base of knowledge and skills to meet these needs, and should enjoy working with.... students". Thus the vital role of teachers in facilitating a differentiated learning, teaching and assessment experience for children with SEN cannot be underestimated and is central to unlocking the potential of all pupils (Ellis et al, 2008).


Government approaches to differentiation

Differentiation takes time with the aim of developing strategies that include all pupils including those with SEN. The Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) (Teachernet, 2009) suggest differentiated work needs to be built into the school's curriculum development and its accessibility plans. Thus enabling differentiated teaching at a whole school level. Many government publications by DCSF have been characterised by requirements to embrace differentiation but have not always been combined with advice on what or how it should be delivered. The categories of differentiation usually mentioned in publications generally all refer to three central factors that address differentiation by:


  • Task: Incorporating different tasks for pupils of differing abilities
  • Outcome: Involving setting open ended tasks which involve allowing pupil responses at different levels
  • Support: Involving giving more help and support (possibly by a support assistant) to certain pupils


In addition to the three aspects of differentiation above, the government drive towards ‘personalised learning' through their Change for Children agenda (Every Child Matters, 2009) seeks to ensure schools: support children with SEN by tailoring learning to their needs; and that the interests and aspirations of each individual tackle barriers to learning which are in turn central to allowing each child to achieve their potential. Furthermore, differentiation is an integral component of the National Curriculum (Qualification Curriculum Authority, 2007)in which it suggests there are three principles teachers should address in order to ensure they meet the needs of children with SEN. These refer to;


  • Setting suitable learning challenges: Teachers should recognise that in order to reflect the full diversity of children with SEN they should consider establishing different objectives for children based upon their individual needs and differences.


  • Responding to the diverse needs of pupils: This places a requirement on teachers to acknowledge difference and diversity of children with SEN and work towards addressing their individual needs.


  • Differentiating assessment and learning to meet individual needs of pupils: This suggest that if teachers are to set differentiated objectives and recognise children with SEN are all on a continuum of learning, they should also offer alternative methods of assessment which maximise opportunities for children to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.

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Key Research Findings                                                                                                                         

Algozzine, B; Anderson, K, (2007), Tips for Teaching: Differentiating Instruction to Include all Pupils, Preventing School Failure, 51, 3, 49-54

This research paper provides evidence based research to support a range of learning, teaching and assessment strategies that support the full continuum of children's learning. The paper also offers practical tips for differentiation that will be of particular use to experienced and newly qualified teachers alike.

Harris, R, (2005), Does Differentiation have to mean Different? Teaching History, 118, pg 5-12, http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/15590

The article questions common assumptions about differentiation and encourages teachers to avoid accepting too readily the view that pupils of different abilities must be given different resources or activities. It argues for a more complex and inclusive model based on deliberate teacher decisions about where to place the challenges and where to withdraw them.

Hoover, J, (2004), Differentiating Standards-Based Education for Students with Diverse Needs, Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 25, 2, pg 74-78

The need to differentiate or adapt curriculum and instruction to meet special needs continues to challenge educators of students with high-incidence disabilities. The current emphasis on teaching and assessing standards requires knowledge and skills to differentiate standards based education to successfully meet diverse needs in the classroom and this paper suggests strategies to meet this agenda.  

King-Sears, M, (2008), Differentiation and the Curriculum: Facts and Fallacies: Differentiation and the General Education Curriculum for Pupils with Special Educational Needs, Support for Learning, 23, 2, pg 55-62

As policy makers and educators there is sometimes confusion about why inclusion of children with SEN is being advocated. This research paper identifies two categories of fallacies, or misunderstandings. The first fallacy is that children with SEN are incapable of learning the general education curriculum. The second fallacy is that teachers are required to 'cover' the entire curriculum, sometimes at a pace that leaves pupils with SEN behind. Facts are presented following each fallacy and the facts describe research-based pedagogies that are effective for students with and without disabilities.

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Video Resources                                                                                         

Primary Special Needs: Differentiation - 15 minute programmed accessed from Teachers TV at: http://www.teachers.tv/video/5413

This programme shows the practical steps taken by teachers and staff to ensure that pupils with SEN are not only included but also perform to the best of their abilities. In their pursuit of inclusion staff at the school take great care over their own vocabulary, avoiding terms like ‘unit' or ‘special needs rooms'. Attention is paid to pupil grouping and pairing, with children with SEN matched with other pupils in class to their mutual benefit.

The school has pioneered a ‘smart system' of planning, involving splitting pupils into three broad bands with an extra column on the planning sheet for pupils with SEN. Teachers and support staff spell out how these strategies have been developed and how they are put into operation. The programme also features a literacy lesson which demonstrates many of the techniques used. (see the research on pupil grouping - on ttrb perhaps make reference to it


Secondary NQT's: Differentiation 15 minute programme accessed from Teachers TV at: http://www.teachers.tv/video/2709

This programme looks at how two newly qualified teachers approach differentiation for two very different classes. Tracey is teaching science to a Year 7 group, where several of her pupils have SEN and the programme follows her as she plans a lesson to make sure all her pupils take an active role. Secondly, the programme follows Clare as she teaches a mixed-ability GCSE group where grades range from A+ to G and shows how she makes sure she caters for all the class


Special Needs: Differentiation in Action - Primary: 15 minute programme accessed from Teachers TV at: http://www.teachers.tv/video/21992

Shahnaz Khan believes in working in an inclusive classroom, with activities appropriately differentiated. In this programme she works with her Key Stage one class to recognise speech in text. Shahnaz adapts her teaching style to encourage all the children to participate, and uses differentiated questioning to ensure every pupil benefits from the lesson. With a wide range of pupil achievement, it is also important that she is able to to spend time with all pupils rather than concentrating on those who have special educational needs, by having flexible working groups.

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Implications for Practice

a)    For teacher educators including mentors

It is important for teacher educators and mentors to promote the importance of differentiating learning, teaching and assessment in order to meet the full spectrum of children with SEN. This can be achieved through personal practice and evidence for trainees who may be observing them, as well as showing a clear expectation when observing those new to teaching that differentiation is central to successful teaching. Teacher educators should be able to speak confidently about a range of strategies for differentiation and how they apply to specific children and educational settings. In doing so they should also be able to direct trainee and recently qualified teachers to relevant subject and pedagogical resources for further guidance.


Teacher educators and mentors should also promote differentiation both as a policy and practice matter within schools and actively support discussion of related issues as part of continuing professional development days and mentor sessions. Furthermore differentiation should be linked to children with SEN individual Action Plans (IAP's) alongside a need to match activities to their Individualneeds (Every Child Matters, 2009). Thus, teacher educators should expect trainees to consider how differentiation links to any aspect of SEN planning, IAP's and or statements of SEN. In doing so teacher educators and mentors should openly seek to see trainee and less experienced teachers lesson planning and preparation to ensure full consideration of strategies for differentiation.


b)    For trainee teachers

Trainee teachers should be able to identify the policy and practice rationales for differentiation and how they link to successful learning, teaching and assessment of children with SEN. Trainees should be able to identify relevant pedagogical research articles that refer to differentiation and link these specifically to their practice. Trainees should also therefore use opportunities whilst in school to discuss with mentors the implications of differentiation and how policy and research articles impact in practice for children with SEN.


Trainees as part of their evidence of their ‘standards' should seek to identify a range of differentiation models and strategies and evaluate how they can be applied to their subject and/or children with SEN. In addition trainees should speak with Special educational Needs Co-ordinators whilst in school about any particular whole school approaches to differentiation of learning, teaching and assessment and how this is implemented in practice. Furthermore, as part of their training trainees should be prepared to experiment with a range of differentiation strategies and how they apply to specific educational contexts. It is only through active experimentation of differentiation that confidence and success in meeting the diverse needs of children with SEN can be met (Vickerman, 2007).


c)    For experienced teachers

Experienced teachers should be able to talk confidently about differentiation and how it can be applied to a wide variety of children (including those with SEN). They should be able to link differentiation to government practices such as the National Curriculum (QCA, 2007) and the Every Child Matters Agenda (2009). Furthermore experienced teachers should then be able to apply government policy to educational practice whilst applying diverse methods and strategies to varying contexts.

Experienced teachers should demonstrate differentiation through their planning and delivery and expect the same of the less experienced colleagues. They should also be able to demonstrate inquisitive approaches to differentiation and be prepared to challenge (See Everest, 2003) existing practices in order to ensure success in learning remains central to all learning, teaching and assessment for children with SEN.

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Key Resources 

National Curriculum Statutory Inclusion Statement: http://curriculum.qca.org.uk/key-stages-1-and-2/inclusion/index.aspx

Schools have a responsibility to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils. This statutory inclusion statement sets out three principles for developing an inclusive curriculum which provides all pupils with relevant and challenging learning.


Supporting pedagogy: Teaching and learning models (DCSF): http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/97996

Research and practice suggest that learners' attainment can be enhanced by the consistent use of specific teaching and learning models.

A number of teaching and learning models have been developed as a direct consequence of theories about learning. Each can be expressed as a tightly structured sequence that is designed to elicit and develop a specific type of thinking or response.

Well-founded understanding in this area means developing knowledge of a range of models and how the choice of the appropriate teaching and learning model (or combination of models) is determined by the nature of the learning objective


Teaching and learning (Teachernet):  http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/teachingandlearning/

This area of the site carries information about teaching and learning: teaching strategy, teaching and learning tips, learning psychology, and links to thousands of resources. 


Teaching strategies and approaches for pupils with special educational needs: A scoping (DCSF):  http://publications.dcsf.gov.uk/default.aspx?PageFunction=productdetails&PageMode=publications&ProductId=RR516&

Since the 1997 Green Paper, Excellence for All Children, the Government has made a firm commitment to a high quality of education for pupils with SEN. It has recognised that building the capacity of teachers and schools to teach pupils with a diverse range of SEN is key to raising the achievement of these pupils. This research report provides an overview of teaching strategies and approaches for pupils with SEN, the theoretical underpinnings of these strategies and approaches, and the role of specialist knowledge in teaching these pupils.( This is a TTRB review- we can link to this and other related resources.)


Glossary item written by: Philip Vickerman

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  1. Algozzine, B; Anderson, K, (2007), Tips for Teaching: Differentiating Instruction to Include All Pupils, Preventing School Failure, 51, 3, 49-54
  2. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
  3. Cole, R, (2008), Educating Everybody's Children: Diverse Strategies for Diverse Learners, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Google Books, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ixmW-porsOAC
  4. Coleman, M; Gallagher, J, (1995), Appropriate Differentiated Services, Gifted Child Today, 32-33
  5. Department for Children, Schools and Families, (2009), Personalised Learning, http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/personalisedlearning
  6. Ellis, E; Gable, R; Gregg, M; Rock, M, (2008), REACH: A Framework for Differentiating Classroom Instruction, Preventing School Failure, 52, 2, pg 31-47
  7. Evans, C, Wareing, M, (2008), Trainee Teachers; Cognitive Styles and Notions of Differentiation, Education and Training, 50, 2, pg 140-154
  8. Everest, C, (2003), Differentiation, the new Monster in Education: Differentiation is just another Pressure Meted out by Managers, The Guardian, Tuesday 18 February 2003,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2003/feb/18/furthereducation.uk4
  9. DCSF DOH  (2009),Every Child Matters, http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/
  10. Florian, L; Hollenweger, J; Simeonsson, R; Wedell, K; Riddell, S; Terzi, L; Holland, A, (2006), Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Classification of Children With Disabilities: Issues in the Classification of Children With Disabilities, The Journal of Special Education, 40, 1, pg 36-45
  11. Gardner, H. (1993b). Multiple intelligences. The theory in practice. New York, Basic Books
  12. Humphrey, N; Lewis, S, (2008a), 'Make me Normal': The Views and Experiences of Pupils on the Autistic Spectrum in Mainstream Secondary Schools, Autism, 12, 1, pg 23-46
  13. Humphrey, N; Lewis, S, (2008b), What does 'Inclusion' mean for Pupils on the Autistic Spectrum in Mainstream Secondary Schools? Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 8, 3, pg 132-140
  14. Mintz, J, (2007), Attitudes of Primary Initial Teacher Training Pupils to Special Educational Needs and Inclusion, Support for Learning, 22, 1, pg 3-8
  15. Mosston, M, (1966), Teaching Physical Education, Merrill Publications, Columbus
  16. Qualification Curriculum Authority, (2007), The National Curriculum Key Stages 1-4, QCA, London
  17. Renzulli, J, (1997), Five dimensions of differentiation, Keynote presentation at the 20th Annual Confratute Conference
  18. Rogers, C, (2007), Experiencing an Inclusive Education: Parents and their Children with Special Educational Needs, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28, 1, pg 55-68
  19. Teachernet, (2009), key messages for schools, http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/wholeschool/sen/schools/accessibility/accessibilityplanningproject/schools/Schoolskeymessages/
  20. Vickerman, P, (2007), Training Physical Education Teachers to Include Children with Special Educational Needs: Perspectives from Physical Education Initial Teacher Training Providers, European Physical Education Review, 13, 3, pg 385-402




  1. Teachers TV http://www.teachers.tv/videos/special-needs-differentiation-in-action-primary
  2. Teachers TV http://www.teachers.tv/videos/differentiation