Differentiating FIRST things first


Mike Gershon states that “differentiation is simple. It involves planning and teaching in a way that takes account of all learners in a class.”

Differentiation encompasses a whole range of strategies, activities and techniques.

We hope this Blog post will help you make differentiating lessons that little less stressful and increase the productivity and pupil progress in every lesson.

First things FIRST

Whilst searching twitter for inspirational CPD ideas- I came across a wonderful acronym created by Caroline Spalding @MrsSpalding and it worked perfectly for our weekly T&L briefing on ‘differentiation made easy.’

Think FIRST for Differentiation

First marked?

Identified on context sheet?

Relentlessly challenged?

Seated strategically?

Talked to and questioned? 

We found this such an easy but though-provoking question to ask ourselves.

First marked– a lot of teachers admitted (including myself) that we have markinga tendency to put the most messy books to the bottom of the pile. However- are they not really the books we should be spending the most time on? Should we always go to the brightest pupil who is finished first to mark, or the pupil who has fulfilled their best potential and could do with constructive feedback?

Identified– We use G04S and it has an array of go4sinformation for teachers about FSM/ PP/ SEN/ Religion/ G&T- but are we using this information in the right way? are  we using this information to base our lessons? to provide scaffolding? To include challenging stretch? Are we using our amazing SENCO and asking for advice?

Relentlessly challenged– and we are not always talking behaviour here. What we mean is- is your questioning on point?questioning Are you using a variety of higher vs lower order questions? Are you ensuring that every pupil has understood the objective and is on the path to make progress? Are you phoning home for pupils who aren’t working hard enough? are you constantly praising the hard work and efforts? but most importantly, is this a consistent habit?

Seated strategically– have you used your best strategy when placing pupils in your room? Are the weaker students appropriately placed near you? or beside a stronger pupil? Have you grouped them according to ability? seating planDoes this work? if it isn’t, are you adapting? Have you talked to teachers of the same class- how do they seat them?

Talked to and questioned– sometimes this can be as simple as asking thtraffic lightsem how their day is, showing that you care about them as well as their grades. If you are using AFL strategies and they are confused- are you asking them how you can help them? Are you allowing them to vocalise their misunderstandings or concerns? Are you enabling them to be independent? Do you try and question every pupil in a lesson? How is this working for you?

By using FIRST as a daily go-to practice, teachers can simply but very effectively, ensure all pupils are appropriately differentiated and supported.

Simple and effective differentiation strategies:wagoll wall

  1. Modelling best work- Model EVERYTHING- especially when it is exam-style questions
  2. Providing stretch & challenge to all pupils- Extension work should be explicit and not optional! It should never be an addition PEEL or Qs- make it more CHALLENGING!
  3. Sentence starters or key word banks every lesson (consistently)
  4. Using min whiteboards to help pupils’ confidencemini whiteboards
  5. Asking purposeful and stimulating questions
  6. Moving around the room- marking or questioning on the go.
  7. Aware of the needs of all learners in your class (using the class context sheet)
  8. Checking understanding at every given opportunity and adapting where necessary (killer questioning)
  9. Create classroom displays with model work and examples

These FIRST principles are the foundation stones for what we what to embed in all Westfield classrooms this year.

From this we really can achieve Accessible Learning, 

‘The best classrooms are those where nobody feels anonymous, unsupported or undervalued- and that includes the teachers & teaching assistants.’


How we can improve T&L within your department:

  • Make T&L a weekly talking point
  • Share ideas and teach each other segments of your lesson- feedback on different strategies you could use
  • SHARE resources and team plansharing is caring
  • Carry out  informal coaching and informal observations- where you can see differentiation happen there and then
  • Create a twitter account- it is the best place for free CPD ideastwitter
  • reflect on best and worst lessons- talk about what you would do differently
  • Do not judge each other- support one another to be the best- teaching is not a competition.

I have attached an audit we have used in our departments to help see where we can improve our differentiation- please feel free to use and adapt.

Differentiation audit 

Emma Keys

Lead practitioner of T&L Westfield Academy

Many thanks to Caroline Spalding and TeamEnglish.