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Scaffolding or differentiation…

 One of the biggest myths that I was taught during my ITT many years ago and started my teaching career with, was that our learners fit into three groups of differentiation – some are high ability, some middle ability and some low ability. These have been often based on SATs results or later on based on how students perform in the core subjects.

Throughout my teaching career, I became to realise that if I have in my class 30 students, I have in fact students of 30 different abilities with this ability prone to change depending on what type of skill, task or concept I am teaching, how much my students have recalled from their last learning episode, the time elapsed since this learning episode, the time of the day, the events that happened during lunch or break time, the amount of sleep that my learners have had etc.

‘Differentiation as an idea, in principle, is a good one in that we make the curriculum accessible in so far that it is possible for every child in the classroom.’ (Mary Myatt, The Stuff that matters, DynamicsDeps – Russ and Steve, Episode 44).


However, what do we understand under the word ‘DIFFERENTIATION’? We all might have a completely different definitions for it!

Many educators have understood differentiation as having to produce different work sheets for different groups of students, also influenced by the fads of VAK and the Chilli Challenges. Unfortunately, by giving one group easier work and another more difficult work we are widening the gap as we are pre-determining what some students can do and achieve and some can’t. The better students will get even better, but the weaker ones still won’t get any closer to them! 

Let’s think… how do our learners feel about being ‘labelled’ and ‘boxed’ in terms of: you can have this challenging work and you cannot because is beyond your ability! 

How can we know what a learner is capable of if we do not give him/her the chance to tackle the challenging work?

I remember once a colleague discussing in a meeting the difficulty of how to teach adjectival endings to her ‘bottom’ set and a suggestion being made to the extent that maybe the colleague could show the learners the declension table and mention how to apply this Grammar concept so the content is ‘covered’ (notes in the but not bother to practise it with them or get them to use it. 

Well, that is like teaching a student how to make a cake, but never actually allowing him/her to touch the ingredients and have a go at it…

In my teaching career, I have also gone through the tiered LOs: must, should, could; all, most, some…all suggesting that some parts of the curriculum are only for some – not all! I have realised that this intentional and explicit approach was widening the gap and underachievement, especially amongst disadvantaged students.

For me, differentiation is: me – the teacher applying different levels of support and scaffolding (through guided practice, questioning, writing frames, feedback etc.) to the needs of my learners to achieve the same aspirational goal. We all have the same goal, but some of us will need more help, more time or more guidance to reach it. Language learning is also a multi-sensory experience! There is not just one learning style for one student, we process information different ways depending on the content, skill or activity.

We should provide the challenging tasks to all of our learners and support them via scaffolding, where necessary. This scaffolding is only temporary and can be removed!

Instead of providing a poorer or diminished diet (Myatt) we should be providing different levels of scaffolding which is proven to be impactful. Students, if supported appropriately, like the challenging work, they embrace it and work really hard if the conditions are right and in my class I have seen a significant shift in attitude, confidence, engagement and achievements. Building a culture of high expectations is the key, ensuring our classroom is a safe learning environment where the students understand that learning is a complex process. 

We all learn at different pace, some of us learn faster then others. We have different working-memory capacity, some of us will retain more than others. This is completely natural and needs to be relayed to our learners. Even students who genuinely struggle to access their year group’s work should have access to the same curriculum, objectives and types of activities as their peers, they just need to be skilfully adapted/scaffolded. We should strive to avoid the ‘glass ceiling’ on learning at all costs.

We differentiate everyday in our classrooms – whether it is by carefully selecting the seating plan that is flexible and caters for students’ ability, SEN, physical difficulty (i.e. hearing or visual impairment), behaviour, personality or by circulating around the classroom providing additional support where it is needed, encouraging our students to work at their best level – building on the challenge.

So how do I differentiate in my classroom if not by creating different activities?

Differentiation by questioning: 

I recently wrote a post on effective questioning and the different ways students can be questioned using different styles of questioning here

Things to consider: 

  1. What language? L1 or L2 or both, cognates, key words, additional details.

  2. How many questions? The student has the choice or the teacher decides – be wary that some students will always go for the easy option, so at times the teacher as a professional might be better to make the choice. 

  3. How difficult are the questions? what – yes/no, true/false, who…, multiple choice, why & how -opinion or justification questions, open-ended…

Differentiation by instruction and scaffolding:

  • Scaffolded translation tasks: more on translation activities here. Consider CLT and Dual coding (I don’t mean icons/pictures, but how you design your resources so they are maximising learning and not causing distractions). For early finishers translating into different tenses or an extension question provides differentiation with minimal prep for the teacher – the effective teacher responds to the needs of the learner and places the ownership for learning back on the learner. Activities inspired by Gianfranco Conti.

  • Scaffolded writing tasks: I would model this also live on my laptop (see below ‘live’ modelling) or under a visualiser. Also consider the more advanced learners who might not need any scaffolding at all!

  • Scaffolded listening and reading tasks:

  1. students annotate the sentence builder/parallel text/KO to support pronunciation and phonics awareness

  2. students repeat after the teacher

  3. students highlight the sentence the teacher is reading or write it down

  4. the teacher starts the sentence – the students finish it – aural gap fill

  5. one student starts to read a sentence another student finishes it

  6. the teacher asks questions students use SB to answer them

  7. the teacher uses SB without L2 translations – students highlight the sentence that is read out.

  8. Disappearing text

  9. listening for individual words/cognates/ word groups – parsing skills

  10. reading the transcript whilst listening

  11. gap fill exercises and finally comprehension questions. More on listening skills here.

  • Scaffolded retrieval tasks: more on retrieval here. You might want to instruct the students to choose one from each colour to avoid some students going just for the easy option – the outcome might be different – one word answer vs. a full sentence answer. However, all students have the same level of the challenge.

  • Differentiation by assessment, feedback or remediation: Elena Díaz’s 20 keys writing frame – supports assessments and feedback. You could also create your own rubrics. More on feedback here.

  • ‘Live’ modelling: drawing ideas from students, providing a clear structure. Students are being taught and completing GCSE style writing questions from year 7. This, however doesn’t mean teaching to an exam, but students knowing that we trust them to be able to tackle this type of challenging task…

  • Visualisers: These are absolutely fantastic for differentiated feedback – I often choose 4-5 pieces and ‘live’ mark them in class with students marking and correcting their own writing  simultaneously, drawing attention to common mistakes/misconceptions but also to excellent examples of vocabulary, variety of language and structures asking my students to explain why it is good and how it can be made even better. I consider this type of feedback extremely powerful.

  • Taking differentiation outside of the classroom: In my post on Effective and meaningful homework, I wrote about using Quizlet for learning homework. I find that this type of homework has made a huge impact this year in students’ engagement and motivation. It provides my students with a routine, the activities available provide choice of difficulty/challenge (matching activities, multiple choice to more difficult, like write and spell), so students can build their knowledge and confidence. I often also set some vocabulary before I have taught it (flipped learning) thus priming my students and giving some of my learners a head start.

In conclusion, gradual removal of scaffolding to nurture independent and confident learners is essential. Sometimes, the mistake is made that we leave the scaffolding for too long.

For me, differentiation is not giving my students different coloured work sheets, but about knowing my students (in secondary education it might take a bit more time with teaching more classes) and being flexible to adapt my teaching through support, constant formative assessment and feedback to ensure all of my learners reach their potential. This might be harder for our ECTs as this level of teacher – confidence comes with the experience. 

An important factor for us to consider is to include our students in the differentiation process and provide them with autonomy which in my experience reflects positively on their motivation.

I have definitely not cracked ‘differentiation’, it is in my view still one of the most difficult concepts to implement and I also have to acknowledge that despite all of my best efforts to support my learners, some still might not get there, but it’s the effort and ‘no-opt-out that counts…

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Mary Myatt: The Curriculum – Gallimaufry to coherence

The research Ed Guide to Education Myths

Doug Lemov: Teach like a champion 2.0

Shaun Allison, Andy Tharpy: Making every lesson count

Activities: Gianfranco Conti – E.P.I

If you find my ideas and resources useful, you can show your appreciation by buying me a☕. Link here.

1 Comment

Nov 28, 2023

What a rich Blog post. I will have to study and suggest this properly over a liter of coffee

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