Some children will just sit in front of us and soak everything up. They don’t need extra adjustments to the curriculum content or the way it is delivered. It does appear though, that the number of these students are somewhat diminishing. Going back to nearly twenty years ago, the standard number of students requiring additional assistance usually sat between 1 to 5 (at the most and these are not based on research studies, but general observations!). As teachers, we all know and appreciate that there are potentially a thousand reasons for this and that is not the aim of this post. What I will show you is how easy it is to tap into those students, who sit outside the box, and are such reluctant learners and engage them with the content. I will call these my “differentiation tweaks” for now because it’s not huge and scientific. Any teacher can literally apply these minor “differentiation tweaks.”
To begin with, you need to find out what interests that student. What are they passionate about? This might be challenging to find out, especially for students with learning disabilities. You may need to actually ask them. As simple as saying “What do you love? Trains, bikes, elephants, dinosaurs?” Give them some time to process this question and they will usually start their own list. Notice how I actually listed some ideas for them so they get the concept.
I’ll give you a couple of real-life situations that have worked for me. Firstly, my daughter was obsessed with the tomatoes that grew in our back yard. I was teaching in a remote community and the soil there was amazing. We grew the most amazing vegetables and they grew quickly (this has never been replicated!). As a teacher-mum, I also knew that I needed to get her to start counting and develop her vocabulary skills as she was a little two-year-old at the time. Every week she would go outside with a bucket and we let her pick the tomatoes (she called them “omanoes”). She brought the bucket inside and counted them with our guidance. In a very short time, she could easily count to twenty all by herself. So, she went to Kindergarten (preschool in America?) as a three-year old, already having quite good number counting skills. She had 1-1 counting correspondence, said numbers in order, knew that ten was more than five and could conserve number. We would aslo use a wide range of vocabulary by describing the tomatoes. This could be as simple as sorting the tomatoes that were huge, average, and small and so on. We used her interest to develop her mathematical and literacy skills.
In a school setting, I had a role as a Literacy and Math Support Teacher, and was asked to work with a very reluctant student. He was in Year Two and had literacy and math skills similar to a Pre-Primary student. Let’s call him “Fred.” I asked *Fred to tell me what he loved to do on the weekends. It turned out that he loved fishing with his Dad. I knew that he couldn’t count above ten. I made some A3 sized fish, numbered them, laminated them and took him outside every day to count them. We did all sorts of counting activities with those fish. He loved being outside and he loved fish. By doing this very simple activity, he ended up telling me that math was now his favourite subject at school. He also began to improvements in his classroom behaviour because he felt more confident. What a win!
We all have hundreds of stories like this, I’m sure. My point is, that you can get students to learn so much more when you find out what they love. My current class of Year One love minions. I was trying to get them to remember the /oa/ grapheme and really engage in it with not much success. I made up a poster with a minion in a floaty and said our action for the /oa/ grapheme would be to pretend to be a minion on a floaty. Of course, it worked! Phew!
Here is a super quick strategy to engage students at a class level. When I taught Kindergarten a few years ago, I was struggling to get them to engage in the Phonological Awareness Power Points that I created. Obviously, I did vary my instructional method but sometimes they just needed to sit down, focus and engage in an Explicit Direct Instruction lesson. So, I knew this particular class were obsessed with superheros. Great! So, what I did was find pictures of superheros and put those pictures onto my Power Point slides. We discussed the sound they started with, what their name rhymed with and so on. They absolutely loved this. This success was simply because I added a few pictures that they were interested in.
Another really easy way to differentiate is to plan out your questions. During group discussions, I differentiate my questions. For example, our class had been learning about antonyms. I wanted to check for understanding so, the following day (during role-call) I asked them to give me the antonym (opposite) of my given word. For a student with a learning difficulty, it was as simple as reflecting on their current use of vocabulary and providing a more “simple” word (such as, cold). For a student who required extending, I provided a more complex word (such as, miniature). I made these questions appear quite random, as if it was just the “luck of the draw” with the word they were provided.
Another benefit, aside from the students engaging more with the curriculum content, is that knowing the student’s passion is a way of connecting with that student. When I am on duty, I often see a student that I taught the previous year. I always ask him how his Corgi is going. He immediately lights up and begins telling me all sorts of funny stories. Relationship building is so important and this is an easy way for me to connect with students.
Differentiation tweaks in a nutshell:
- Find out what your “difficult to reach” student is passionate about (even if it’s scratch and sniff stickers or a random thing like apples!)
- Use that topic and incorporate it into your lessons or even clipart on worksheets or Power Points
- Differentiate your questions during discussion times
I have intentionally kept this brief. As teachers, we are busy. Sometimes, just quick and simple strategies are all we need and we all need to start somewhere. I hope these two “tweaks” will assist you!
All the best,