Scaffolding and Differentiation

An Action Research project by Teresa Howe

My action research project was born out of a realisation that as a primary trained teacher I would naturally scaffold and differentiate for the pupils in my class. I could quickly establish their needs, and therefore adapt my teaching style and resources (often overnight). Transferring to teach in a secondary setting, teaching Year 8 and 9 English as well as SEND pupils in a nurture class, highlighted that scaffolding and differentiation were paramount in lesson planning. I felt that my skills in Scaffolding and Differentiation needed refreshing. I was also aware that there were many approaches that I still had to learn and try.

Rebecca Alber in her blog post ‘Scaffolding lessons- six strategies’ on explains both the difference and connection between the two clearly. Scaffolding is ‘breaking up’ the learning into chunks and then modelling or explaining the tool to help. For example, when scaffolding for reading you may do one or many different things prior to work on the text. You may discuss the nature of the text and key vocabulary. Alternatively, you may chunk the text and read and discuss each part as you go. Differentiation might involve you giving a different piece of text to a pupil, or you may give a shortened or altered version. You may also modify the writing task associated with the text.

In my opinion, there are many approaches used in primary teaching that are useful tools in secondary teaching. The most important approach, I feel is flexibility. It is having the confidence to adapt and change set lesson plans to best suit an immediate pupil need.

I heard a fabulous example of this given by a PGCE tutor, who observed a student using a block of post it notes. During a task, the student would assess the progress of pupils and jot a note of help/advice/challenge to pupils and pop it on the desk next to them.

The student explained this as ‘instant differentiation’.

One of the classroom management tools I find very effective, no matter what level a pupil is working at, or whether they have a particular learning need, is a visual lesson plan displayed to the class giving a brief LIST of the steps or activities to be completed in the lesson. This helps pupils (and you) to focus on what to expect and acts as a reminder as to how far the lesson has progressed. I have used this with all my classes, small groups and when teaching individuals. It has  worked especially well with challenging groups of boys who have a reading intervention with me.

I’ve also found this useful when needing to ‘change’ the lesson content / order / recording method to suit the needs of the group (flexibility). The pupils appear to appreciate that their needs have been taken into account when you are crossing through your ideas and writing the new ‘agreed’ task.

Scaffolds and differentiated tasks, including visual aids, benefit all pupils. I’ve found that when pupils become familiar with the variety and range of activities that form part of your everyday lessons, they are not seen as ‘the easier option’ but rather, a different way of working. A good way to introduce this is by using a ‘tick-tack-toe’ or ‘noughts and crosses’ grid. This gives the pupils a choice of 9 activities (on a 3X3 grid). They have to choose 1 activity from each row but they make the choice. (You select tasks that you know give all pupils in your class the ability to access the lesson and use prior learning). Other consolidating or starter activities could be loop games, matching activities or sequencing tasks.

Since starting my action research, I have become more interested and stimulated by the needs of Dyslexic Pupils, primarily, when I began working with a statemented pupil and others who showed strong dyslexic tendencies, particularly with regards to literacy. As a result, I adapted my activities (scaffolding and differentiation) for intervention with these pupils and assessed their impact. The area that is crucial for such pupils before expecting them to complete tasks is to ensure that they are organised in preparation for both their learning and then recording. The lesson plan plays an important role, as does giving them model answers and creating opportunities for shared writing. Mostly for me, this would be teacher/pupil shared writing which proved very successful with groups of boys. Shared writing is not cheating but a way in which a group can learn from and teach each other.

One important fact became evident from my initial work with groups.  I was not always ‘chunking’ information into small enough steps, I assumed too much as far as the skills a secondary aged pupil would have. I found myself revising initial tasks set, chunking information into smaller steps. I ensured step by step instructions with model sentence starters. Diagrams and mind maps proved to be essential in allowing the pupil to both access and complete the task. Another crucial discovery was that the time needed to complete an extended task was at least doubled. I became more realistic about the quantity of work output as well as the amount of practise time needed before independent work would follow. Consolidation exercises, such as loop games, were essential in raising the self-esteem of dyslexic and other SEND pupils.  All of these scaffolds and differentiated tasks contributed to the groups progress.


The most ‘obvious’ point I learned when trying new approaches in my teaching is to not expect the pupils to ‘know’ what or how they want to do something – without first giving them choices and ideas. With a few hints and scaffolded activities they develop the confidence to ‘have a go’ and follow their own instincts. They know that, using my lesson plan, I will keep them focused if they go ‘off piste’.

The resounding success was the lesson plan/structure.

Next Steps

During my research, particularly of the US websites, I regularly heard the phrase ‘having a growth mindset’. I liked this quote which made its meaning clearer for me.

Carissa Romero’s Tch blog post:

“People with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is innate. This belief can make school a threatening place. It becomes a place to go to learn how smart you are — or how smart you’re not. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe intelligence can be developed. For these students, school can be an exciting place, as it provides them with an opportunity to learn and develop their intelligence.”

This will be the focus for my on-going research, with the hope that my teaching provides children with positive support and I contribute to school being an exciting place.


Featured image: ‘Scaffolding’ by 3112014 on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain

Supporting pupils with low-level literacy in Computing lessons

An Action Research project by Stephen Spurrell (Computing)

For my Action Research Project, I wanted to find various ways that allowed my Computing class in Year 7, which includes a number of pupils with low-level literacy and/or numeracy, to fully access the subject. Essentially, to differentiate for them and then use this research to modify future lessons.

I decided to write up my findings in a blog as I went along, and here are the posts from that blog in the period of this research project.

The blog can be seen at and I do intend to continue writing in it.

Computing and Low Level Literacy:An Introduction

Hello! Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog. This is something I am doing as part of my CPD at a secondary school in Bristol in the UK. One of the classes that I teach has a number of pupils with low levels in Literacy and Numeracy. Whilst that isn’t particularly unusual, all schools have pupils that struggle more than others, I have found it a particular challenge to teach this class Computing at the start of the year. Computing, like many subjects, is a subject where precision and accuracy are paramount. How, then, do you get pupils who struggle to read and write to compose a working programme where they will need to write accurately, spell correctly and work out where the errors are? How do you enable pupils who struggle to count to ten to experience the success of seeing something they have created work on the screen in front of them? I did a quick Google search for tips, advice, schemes of work even for Computing with low level and low ability pupils (note that it isn’t just SEND pupils although they do make up part of the group if they have low levels too). I had a look on sites such as the TES to see if there were any materials there. I came back pretty blank and still left scratching my head. So I thought that I would try out some ideas, see which things work, which things don’t. If they work, I’ll use that idea again. If they don’t, I won’t. With the support of the rest of the Learning Focus Group (the small group of colleagues who are working on similar issues with their classes as part of our CPD) I’m hoping that this will be a successful year. Expect to find blogs about things that fell flat on their face. Expect to find blogs of something that worked really well! I hope that you find it useful and are able to help me reflect on my practise and ultimately improve the pace and depth of my pupils’ learning.

Computing and Low Level Literacy: Using Worksheets

The first module that is covered in the Year 7 Computing Scheme of Work is Online Safety. Not just spreading the message that children shouldn’t talk to strangers, but looking at how they keep their information safe, how to avoid plagiarism and the importance of reporting things when they go wrong. One lesson looks at scam emails and how we can identify them easily. A really useful skill that the pupils will then have to avoid giving their personal information away and to ensure they are not a victim of identity theft. There is a really good worksheet that goes along side this lesson which is provided by Common Sense Media. The worksheet lists the features of phishing emails such as being too good to be true, spelling errors (as phishing emails are often written by people who don’t speak very good English) or asking the user to confirm their password. It then gives three examples of a phishing email so that the pupil can highlight the feature and tell me what it is. Now, I knew that there would be people in the class who would struggle if I just put the worksheet in front of them like I did for my other class. They would struggle because perhaps they can’t read or because perhaps they struggle to understand concepts. So to make things easier for everyone, I read the instructions of the worksheet word for word, slowly and clearly, making sure I paused every few sentences to ensure they all understood what was expected of them. I had also created an ‘alternative’ worksheet for some of the pupils where I had already highlighted the feature or features in each email, they would just need to tell me what that feature was. After giving the pupils an opportunity to complete the worksheet and going around the room and helping them, being honest it is hard to see how this activity was in any way a success. The pupils who can’t read fluently (a surprisingly high number) still couldn’t tell me which feature had been highlighted because of course they couldn’t read it. Those pupils who can read still struggled because they can’t understand concepts so couldn’t make the link between a statement such as, “You have won £10,000,000 in the latest raffle” and it being too good to be true because they hadn’t entered the raffle. They would just guess which feature was which. Of the 15 pupils in the class, I would say only 3 or 4 made any real progress with understanding what to look out for in a phishing email. Interestingly that wasn’t through a lack of trying on the part of the rest of the class, they just couldn’t do it. Although I did notice their heads drop when I pulled out the worksheets at the start of the lesson, an interesting reaction, almost as if they knew this was going be like pulling teeth. As soon as I realised this task was not going to work, I had a swift mooch round Google to see if I could find a video that would explain this for me. I found one and put it on for the last 10 minutes of the lesson. Back to the drawing board then! Worksheets appear to be a big no-no for this class. I am aware though that I do not want to have too many videos. They need to do some written work, and need to be able to understand what is on the screen in front of them when they are at home. Otherwise they won’t be prepared for the real world.


The class I am working with who have low levels in Maths and some with Maths and Literacy are moving on to a topic of work that requires them to research, to write and to design an interactive quiz aimed at other people their age. Although on the surface a topic that might seem easy, for a child with low literacy/Maths and probably low confidence, this probably seems quite daunting. There is a lot of logic needed (which button goes to which location etc.) as well as having the confidence to use their imagination. The topic requires them to use specific knowledge – to know the answers to questions such as “How do I…?” Leading them to these answers, or giving them the opportunity to discover these answers involves demonstrations from the class teacher. So, how best to go about this? Recall is something that isn’t the best for pupils with low level literacy and low levels in Maths. So it is likely that they will be able to do something in one lesson, but then forget how to do it in another. I have decided to trial making videos available to them so that they can replay a demonstration over and over if they need it, or pause it when they need to think about an instruction.

It is also important that they are able to see a demonstration clearly, so I make use of Impero to broadcast my computer screen onto theirs so that they don’t have to strain or don’t end up too far away to see a detail. This appears to be working well although the proof of the pudding will be in the eating!

Helping Pupils with Writing

One of the many things I have noticed with teaching this low ability set is that they gain a lot of confidence from having things written down in front of them. This could be a word, a sentence, an instruction, information they need to copy or log in information. One of the pupils who has an LSA assigned uses a small whiteboard when he can’t spell a word they are researching, or when they need to remember an instruction for later. I tried this out with another pupil, and said to him to write down anything he didn’t know the meaning of whilst he was reading, or anything he wanted to ask me. Conversely, I wrote down things he needed to know or anything I wanted him to copy out. This massively boosts their confidence because they know that their exercise book will then only contain the right spelling, or the correct information and so be something that they are proud of. Perhaps this is because this is something they only associate the more able children with? It also helps them to plan a little bit more, as in think further ahead about something that they want to put into their work. As a consequence, I will be giving these boards to a couple of other pupils in the class. It will become a standard piece of kit for their lesson.

Coding with Low Level Pupils

One of the topics we have been looking at lately is coding. We use a fantastic website called which is full of resources, challenges and different types of coding to help teach this module of work. The great thing about is that you can easily differentiate the work pupils do because you can set them different courses depending on their ability. So the higher set that I teach will have a different course given to them than this low level set. The way works is to give some instructions either via a video or written text. These instructions then need to be carried out over a series of 15 small tasks which get increasingly complex as they go along. Once they have completed these 15 tasks, they then move on to the next level and the next series of instructions. This website was very popular with the class. It allowed them to work at their own pace, it allowed them to correct their mistakes instantly (as the website told them whether they had built the code correctly or not) and allowed them to make games which they had seen previously (such as Angry Birds).  By marking their work instantly, the website also allowed the pupils to see what level they were at as I put the success criteria on the board each lesson. They were then able to know whether they were working below, at or above target and what they needed to do to keep progressing. It was also a really good tool for me too as it allowed me to look at what they would be encountering in that hour and help them to succeed by giving them a little bit of knowledge before they started (e.g. keywords or examples of this bit of code being used already). All in all a really successful topic because:

  • Pupils worked at their own pace
  • They were given instructions broken down into small chunks
  • Instant feedback
  • Constant context of their level 

Importance of Routine

It has become apparent over the past few weeks and months that routine is incredibly important to a class who have low levels and as a consequence probably low levels of confidence too. They need to know where they stand.  To establish routine, I always structure the lessons in the same way so that there are never any surprises or something that unsettles the class. Essentially the structure looks like this: – Come into the class and stand behind their chairs – Sit down and log in – Whilst logging in, think about a question on the board (I would have read this question out) and write the date, title and objective in their book. – Go through keywords for that lesson (usually a matching exercise using the internet to help) – Introduce the main task, often with a demonstration – Complete the task – Plenary activity This routine has helped the pupils to settle quickly, to not worry if they can’t log in quickly (they know that the others are busy and not waiting for them) and help to make the room a ‘safe’ place.

Short Instructions

When completing the module on Scratch (a coding program that allows the user to create games or puzzles), there were lots of instructions that needed to be remembered such as which block of code to drag in or which object to add code to. Giving too many instructions confused the group – they needed to have a short series of instructions (two or three things) written down or explained carefully. Once they had completed these instructions, they were given some more. This meant that they did not have to worry about what was coming but just concentrate on that small particular section. When it came to the end of the module and they needed to build a game to be assessed, we used videos from the website to help the pupils. This would have an impact on the level they could achieve (maximum level 5) but by pausing the video every 15 seconds or so, allowed the pupils to experience success by building a working game well above their target level. This method made me realise that all tasks needed to be broken down into small chunks that were easily remembered.

Featured image: ‘learn school usb’ by geralt at Pixabay.  Licensed under CC0 Public Domain

Differentiation for Mixed Ability Teaching

An Action Research Project by Helen Reed (Science)

“The problem with mixed ability classes is that there are students with different needs but not always differentiated teaching”

“Differentiated instruction and assessment is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning”

“Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products or the learning environment, the use of on-going assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.”

Why I chose differentiation for my Action Research Project

I decided to research differentiation in mixed ability classes as a direct result of the great diversity in some of my classes. Last year, I had a year seven class which had a boy with significant learning needs who was just managing to attain a level 2. The same class also had students with the potential to achieve level 7. I struggled to find ideas that would engage, motivate and stretch the whole class at the same time that didn’t take all night to plan!

Through my research I also came to realise the need for differentiation in all of my classes, even my elite triple Science students – despite the majority of them being able to achieve a grade A. Differentiation in this top set of extremely able students was still necessary – to cater for the particular needs of all. Although all of the students were able to access the challenging work I set, as a class they needed different teaching/learning approaches to cater for all of their learning preferences and so maximise their potential.

To summarise the reasons for my choice, I wanted to learn quick and effective ways to differentiate in my Year 7 mixed ability class. However, this quickly extended to the need to differentiate in all of my classes.

What I learnt…

In a large class, differences between students may seem too numerous to count but differentiation works on 3 key areas….

  1. readiness to learn
  2. learning needs
  3. engaging interest

A variety of techniques are needed to cover all three aspects of differentiation…

On-going formative assessment: to continually assess and identify students’ strengths and areas of need.

Recognition of the diversity of learners: The students we teach have diverse levels of expertise with reading, writing, thinking, problem solving etc… On-going assessments allow us to develop differentiated lessons to meet every student’s needs.

Group Work: Students collaborate in pairs and small groups which enables them to engage in meaningful discussions and to observe and learn from each other.

Task: Teachers can offer a choice in the tasks they complete. This is one of the core methods of differentiation, setting different tasks for students of different abilities. An obvious way to do this is to produce different sets of worksheets or exercises depending on ability. However, this makes things difficult for the teacher in terms of delivering the material – how do you distribute the different worksheets without it being painfully obvious to the whole class who gets which sheet? Aside from these social difficulties there is the sheer time it takes to organise and produce such material. So, an alternative method is to produce a single worksheet comprised of tasks which get progressively harder. The more advanced students quickly progress to the later questions whilst the less able concentrate on grasping the essentials.

Choice: Whilst it is a good idea to produce one single differentiated sheet to avoid social difficulties, the sheets still need to be made. When there are perfectly good separate resources already available on hand in the department it seems an awful waste of time to reproduce the same material. So the alternative here is to give the students a choice of resource to work from. In my experience students like to challenge themselves and rarely, if ever choose the lower ability option out of ease.

Outcome: Differentiation by outcome is a technique whereby all students undertake the same task but a variety of results is expected. Instead of all working to one ‘right’ answer the student arrives at a personal outcome depending on their level of ability.

Differentiation in practice

Based on my findings I decided to try out a few new ideas….

Group work/Student choice

My Year 9 class, with levels ranging from level 4-7, were working on a topic about renewable energy resources. After they had learnt about the different resources (through internet research and class discussion) I put them into groups of 3. Each group were given a basic map of an Island with key features such as mountains, coastal regions, exposed open land etc….. As a team they had to decide which type of renewable energy resource would be best to supply the island with electricity. They had to do 3 things…

Draw a map detailing what type of energy resources they would use

Write an account of how the renewable energy resource would produce electricity

Verbally justify their decision

It was up to the group to decide who did which job.

The students were very engaged throughout this whole activity – it led to a whole class debate when the students tried to justify their decisions!

Differentiation by task (i)

By far the quickest and easiest method I frequently adopt is differentiation by task – but with the students choosing their task. The Science department has levelled assessment tasks at levels 4-6 or 6-8. I make both available to students and let them choose. I would say that 95% of the class make the choice that I would have chosen for them. Where a student has opted for the lower ability task as they aren’t very confident I will ask them to try both if they don’t suggest this themselves – which they usually do.

Differentiation by task (ii)

Another favourite approach of mine is to have levelled work set out ready for the students. After learning about a particular topic they will level themselves and then go and choose a level appropriate task. This means they are starting work at a level that is challenging for them – they can then move on and progress to the next level as and when they are ready.

Variety of Teaching/Learning Activities

Whilst teaching about the heart to a year 11 class where the students were working within a narrower range (grade C-A), I chose to experiment with differentiation by teaching/learning activity. Previously, I would have stood at the board and drawn a diagram explaining as I went. This time I did the same thing but then proceeded to go into the lab and show them the parts I had been discussing before challenging the students to dissect and investigate themselves. On returning to the classroom I asked the students to verbally describe what they had seen before labelling a diagram and finally answering exam questions on the heart using a text book. So the students experienced a range of auditory, verbal and kinaesthetic learning.


As an experienced teacher, nothing I read was completely new to me. However, It opened my eyes to the absolute necessity of versatility in the classroom for ALL classes. Differentiation isn’t about making lots of worksheets for all of my classes it’s about alternative teaching and learning styles that include every student. It’s about using the students and the strengths that they have to help each other. It’s about really knowing your students and providing challenging work whether it be by questioning, task, outcome etc.. It really doesn’t matter how you do it because there are so many options but it needs to be done for every child to achieve – although it doesn’t need to keep you up until midnight!

Featured image: Original image ’15 Rule of Great Teaching’ by Sylvia Duckworth, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

15 Rules of Great Teaching