It is a given that teachers in schools today must differentiate to accomodate the different learning needs of their students. The Teachers’ Standards, by which all teachers new and old are held to account, state quite clearly that teachers must:
5. Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils
– know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively
– have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn, and how best to overcome these
– demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development
– have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.
Differentiation can take many forms. It could be that some pupils are given extra scaffolding to complete a task. It could involve the teacher amending the question asked of a particular pupil, taking into account their level of attainment. Quite often also, differentiation takes the form of giving a different range of tasks to a class. Worksheets can be simplified to enable lower attaining students to access the work. And I’m sure we have all seen the Powerpoint slides with tiered tasks, usually three different iterations that are easy, average or difficult, masked under some euphemism or other.
Beyond that of course, there is differentiation in the form of grouping by ‘ability’, either setting by subject or streaming. This can take place as early as Reception year – that is four year olds going on five. I have observed first hand how setting works in Reception, and the experience has troubled me. The past few weeks and months, one question above all others has nagged at me and it is this: ‘When will they catch up?’
You see, these four or five year olds were put into different groups for their daily phonics lesson, based on their ‘ability’. Except of course, this has nothing to do with ability. Some children will have had the benefit of going to nursery (particularly the autumn born ones) and will have been exposed to phonics beforehand. Other children will have arrived in Reception having never been exposed to letters and their sounds. The problem is compounded when some of these children come from families where English is not the first language spoken, the EAL children. Right from day one, therefore, we are confronted with significant differences in attainment, and we know this gap will get wider and wider as these children progress through school (I read some stats about this somewhere, some time ago but forget where – maybe someone can remind me).
Phonics is the main building block of literacy in those early years, so having different phonics lessons means effectively that, right from day one, children are being given a different curriculum from one another. The differences are striking. I was given the lowest group, and tasked with teaching them the phase 2 sounds (basically all the individual letter sounds). I was told to focus on a particular letter each lesson (starting with s, a, t, p, n), to sing the letter song, name some words that start with that letter (e.g. ‘a for apple’) and get them to air draw the letter (or draw it on each other’s backs with their index finger, which I found did not work particularly well). I tried getting them to practise writing the letter of the day on their mini whiteboards, but was told off because apparently the children were not developmentally ready for this. Finally, we would attempt to decode some simple CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant).
At the other end of the scale, the ‘higher’ children experienced very different phonics lessons. As a cover teacher, I would occasionally teach them when the main class teacher was absent. These children were learning digraphs, split digraphs and tricky words. On their mini whiteboards (yes, they got to have them), they would write sentences using the digraph sound of the day. So when we look at how different the curricula are, we should not be surprised at the big differences in outcome. In a way, through our actions, we are ensuring that the gap not only remains but that it widens. And as I practised the split digraph sound a_e with the ‘highers’, my thoughts turned to the ‘lowers’ who had yet to be exposed to such sounds. How were they ever going to catch up? The truth is, there was no expectation that they would.
This saddens me. Actually, it angers me. Those ‘lower ability’ children are not born with learning deficiencies (at least none of the ones I had the privilege to teach). They are just as capable of learning as the others. They just haven’t had the same start in life that others had. They haven’t actually been taught what the others know. By labelling them as ‘low ability’ and giving them a simplified curriculum, we are denying them the opportunity to catch up. If they are behind their peers, the solution is not to give them less to learn but the opposite. For example, if everyone else is having one daily phonics lesson, then these children should have two. Ideally, they should be exposed to the same curriculum as everyone else, and then given extra intervention sessions to help them master what the others have already mastered. You do not close the attainment gap by giving the ones falling behind easier work. The logic of that is irrefutable surely? So why isn’t it happening across all our schools?