The importance of differentiation for children with special educational needs

There have been a number of articles in the media recently discussing the changes to the National Curriculum and teaching.  Just this morning I was reading an article about a recent meeting between teachers and civil servants discussing the new National Curriculum and the removal of National Curriculum levels.  I was pleased to see that the issue of differentiation was mentioned, although equally concerned that the some people mentioned in the article didn’t see the need for it. This message was mirrored in Elizabeth Truss’ speech – “Differentiation is just low expectations, the assumption that children won’t make the grade”.

So what do we mean by differentiation and why do I think it is incredibly important? The National Curriculum sets out which skills, topics, ideas etc a child should learn each year they are at school.  It is quite fast paced and challenging at times for any child.  We know that children with language and learning issues benefit from having the information presented at a slower pace, with more time for repetition and preferably visually.  This is differentiation: Any way that you modify the topic or environment to help the child.  A child with glue ear may benefit from sitting near the front of the class or a child with ASD may benefit from a visual timetable to help them focus. Equally a child with learning difficulties may benefit from using more pictures and simpler language to explain a topic.  Differentiation doesn’t necessarily mean 1:1 sessions or removing the child from class.

school table
Image: Lexie Flickinger. CC

The government keep talking about the gap between children starting in reception with some children being 18 months behind their peers.  How do we expect these children to achieve the same levels as their peers just by putting them in the same classroom?  These children will need some level of targeted support and differentiation. You can not expect a child functioning at a lower level to understand age appropriate topics if they don’t yet fully understand the vocabulary and concepts? Differentiation is also important for the children exceeding expectation; the gifted and talented. You need to modify the curriculum appropriately to stretch and challenge them as well.

I have worked intensively with pupils and staff in a language centre attached to a mainstream school for over 10 years.  I have also had the privilege of working with some fantastic teachers over the years, who truly understand the need for appropriate differentiation.  Working closely with skilled teachers has changed the way I work with and set targets for school aged children.  My language assessments show me which words or concepts a child understands and which they need support with.  However understanding their National Curriculum levels means I can make my targets directly impact on their academic progress, rather than teaching a child to pass my language assessment.  The massive jump between National Curriculum level 2 and 3 e.g. the end of Key Stage 1 moving up to Key Stage 2, which is challenging for any child, is compounded if you have language difficulties.  Suddenly you are expected to use and write an extensive range of adjectives (wow words or describing words) and really hard conjunctions (words to link sentences together). Just using ‘and’ or ‘because’ to link your ideas is no longer good enough, you are expected to use words like ‘so’, ‘if’ and ‘when’.  You are also expected to make inferences about what you have read and predict events and emotions.

An example I have seen numerous times is when children have severe speech disorders to the level where even familiar adults struggle to understand everything they say.  I have often had the conversation with people about how to help these children read.  Jolly phonics, saying the letter sounds and blending, just isn’t going to work for these children.  But just because we may not understand the words they say, does not mean we can’t check their understanding of the written word.  Through a combination of images and whole word reading you can check their reading ability and encourage them to generate sentences.  You just need to do things a little differently.

Children’s ability to learn never ceases to amaze me.  I recently saw a science lesson teaching evaporation – now this is a tricky topic, particularly for children with language and learning issues.  However, when appropriately differentiated the children were able to explain to me what evaporation was and how they had observed it.  The lesson started with the teacher pouring water onto the table – immediately every child was engaged and listening as they thought it was funny!  They then each found different materials e.g. paper, sponge, cotton etc and put them in the water.  The lesson proceeded, and the spoke about water being a liquid, but that it could change into a gas, but they kept checking back on their materials in the water to see what was happening.  So by the end of the lesson they could SEE that the water had gone and also that it went faster from some materials than others.  Now they may not fully understand about molecules, but they know that evaporation is when water disappears, because they saw it.  Those children were ‘doing’ science and were so proud that they could tell me what they had done.

But this is where the true skill of differentiation lies.  I would not have thought it was appropriate to try and teach evaporation, but by using visual support and language that the children understood, they were able to access the work.  Being able to pitch the information in a way they understood, but still challenging and pushing them is so important.  All children have the potential to amaze you with what they can do.  It is extremely challenging to create the correct environment to enable teachers to do this with the current financial restrictions and the everyday pressures of teaching. But it is amazing what can be achieved if done correctly and surely every child, whatever their ability level, should be able to access this? If you are truly ‘freeing’ teachers to decide how to teach, then differentiation must be a part of this.  Differentiation doesn’t mean having low expectations, it means having high expectations but giving the child the means to achieve them.

Elizabeth Gunner SpeechBlogUK


  1. Catherine Hall

    Every teacher and educational decision maker should read this article. It is insanity to put children of hugely different ability in one class without giving teachers tbe time and resources to differentiate what is being taught. All 3 of my sons are on the autistic spectrum, all 3 had delayed disordered language. They all needed time to develop at their own pace, they needed different levels of therapy intervention, they needed lots of visual support. My eldest was labeled low IQ, slow learner at age 7, he is now 19 heading off to Uni in the autumn! Living proof of what tbe right support and differentiated teaching can achieve ( he was home ed until age 12 then educated at Bredon School in Glocestershire).

    1. Jo

      Thank you for sharing this. I needed to read it today. I am homeschooling my little guy who has some developmental delays. Thanks to some wonderful therapy and me he is doing well…Exactly what you say here he needed therapy help and time to develop….

  2. StephsTwoGirls

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! Loved this article, all common sense but brilliantly written. Just wish every teacher/school could read this. More importantly, can I send my girl to you to learn please?! Or where do I find your clones? Willingly to pay ludicrous amount of money 😉 Seriously, differentiation is SO important. My girl CAN learn, just not in the same way as the majority of her peers. Doesn’t mean she should get forgotten about, or spend all her time in the corridor… thank you for highlighting this.

      1. Jo

        I think some children require 1:1 to help develop those skills they need. Perhaps the problem is there is too much expectation for schools to be the providers of everything. It is a complex topic. Teachers are restricted by the need to follow the national curriculum and there is an assumption all children at the same age develop in the same way. I am not sure the new reforms acknowledge the complexity of child development.
        Some children like mine need a quieter, small class environment. We even tried private and that did not work.
        So for now home school is our way forward.

  3. Hi Jo,
    I agree it is a very complex situation. Teachers are expected to support a great range of ability and need with little extra support. It’s such a shame that specialist provisions are being shut as many children benefit from a smaller class room environment and specialist teachers. But this is the whole point of differentiation – being able to give the child the support they need.

  4. Dr Smith

    I think part of the difficulty with differentiation is that there can be SLTs and advisers who dogmatically believe the only differentiation is differentiation by task. Your evaporation lesson example does not sound like it would meet their requirements. Differentiation by task grinds down teachers who have to invent the different tasks to prove to an observer that they are differentiating (rather than to benefit the learners). Moreover, it tends to impose ceilings on learning; little Johnny won’t ever master X because his differentiated task does not practise X, helping ensure he falls further behind.

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