Friday, 16 April 2021

Some thoughts on embedded differentiation

A couple of weeks ago, a mfltwitterati member, asked for advice on blogs about differentiation in MFL. Different lovely members of the mfltwitterati community suggested great publications and it made reflect on the issue of differentiation.

I have the same high expectations for all my pupils, regardless of their ability. What I provide is different levels of support and scaffolding, embedded in all lessons, which guide my students through their individual learning journey. 

The anchor effect

I believe in the anchor effect, as exposed by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby in "Making every lesson count"exposing my students to content always at a level higher of what is considered above national expectations, for EVERYONE.

This just  means having high expectations for ALL. I don’t like labelling learners in particular ability boxes: I believe ALL my pupils can achieve high goals and must aim high. 

Consequently, at KS3 I add elements of GCSE grammar that I expect all my students to master at some degree, and at GCSE we dip into ALevel. Students find this strategy MOTIVATING, as I place trust in their ability, and, as a consequence, they start adopting a growth mindset versus a static one, which is key for success in low ability students.

The Goldilocks effect

This means to challenge students at the correct intensity: I have one common objective for ALL and place the bar high, but at the correct level:

The expectations bar cannot be so high that some students may find it impossible to reach it, neither so low that it will demotivate and make students bored, after all, learning involves pain, which we call germane overload

The key is to plan tasks that are not too difficult, neither too easy but just right! In other words, to plan lessons with a desirable level of difficulty to create the perfect conditions for germane overload. 

Building blocks, scaffolding and embedded differentiation

Once I set up high expectations, my teaching will focus on careful planning of activities and support aiming to achieve a long term goal: for example, to master a model text with key structures and vocabulary by the end of a particular unit. 

I then plan all the micro skills and think of all the steps that will be needed for learners to achieve our long/medium term goal. My lessons are like building blocks and scaffolds aiming to reach that final goal. Sentence Builders are a great tool to do this as they provide a final, clear model for students and are easy to break up into small building blocks or little steps in the structured practice stage of language teaching and learning.

The power of questions  

Questions are powerful and are the engine of my lessons for embedded differentiation and retrieval practice purposes. I ask questions all the time: at the modelling stage of learning, but especially at structured production and automatisation stages. 

Cold calling and no opt-out

So everyone is alert all the time! If a student does not know the answer to my question, I move to someone else and I alert them that I will be back at them in 5 minutes. I always go back to those students who did not know a particular answer, and by then, they have worked out the answer: a particular structure, verb ending etc, because they heard it from someone else, encouraging active listening or because they actively looked for the answer themselves in their notes, encouraging curiosity! 

Say it again but better

This question technique is great to stretch those students that need to be stretched, in a simple way. That’s a good answer but how could we make it a 8/9 grade? Can anyone help?

Think, pair share 

Another great technique for easy embedded differentiation which allows students to reflect and use metalanguage with their peers. When I question is posed, I give students thinking time (remember that many students have issues with processing time), they share thoughts with partners and finally they get ready to answer a question as prompted by me.

Whole class responses

This must be one of my favourite embedded differentiation techniques, done via mini whiteboards, so I can check for progress at a glance, reinforce structures for those who need it while allowing high flyers, to extend their answers and show off their skills, differentiation at its best! 

For example, students may need to translate a sentence to practice specific chunks, but if found easy, they must extend the sentence using three tenses. I like this technique as it helps learners to reflect and decide where they sit in their own learning journey: shall I just stick to the translation or extend it?, while providing them with autonomy, which increases motivation. 

This technique allows me to differentiate in situ, with minimum preparation, and to put the ownership of the learning back at the learners, with my guidance. Suggesting alternatives to individual students, asking strategic questions in the process and encouraging students to look at each other responses, are all bonuses of this strategy and mechanisms of embedded differentiation. 

Providing different levels of support 

This is key for differentiation at all stages of the learning journey. My students have access to their sentence builders and grammar charts, if they are really stuck, and they are taught where to find these and how to use them, in our digital exercise book, Onenote. Key structures and expressions are displayed around the classroom with giant post-its on the windows with topical key structures in display which are changed periodically. 

When practising structures, especially during translation tasks, which we do a lot of, I use the initials of the required words in the target language for support. This is a very useful technique for translation tasks. Students may opt to ignore these initials, displayed in the big whiteboard, worksheets or digital apps but they are there to support those who decide to use them because they need them! 

When doing listening tasks, I plan lots of small tasks building up in difficulty: listening for individual words, listening while reading the transcript, filling gap activities with the transcript  and finally listening comprehension tasks without transcript. 

When doing oral or writing activities, students are encouraged to work from memory but they always have the support of their sentence builder and grammatical charts at hand if they need to.

Live modelling the thinking process 

After lots of structured practice activities, where support is given, via questioning and task design, students need to move to the more creative production stage. At this point, I do like live modelling a task as a whole class, so we go through the thinking process of creating such task. This could be a model oral answer or a 90/150 word writing task. Sonja Fedrizzi and Elena Díaz do this beautifully with tutorial videos for students.

We do write model answers as a class, using students’ ideas, developing autonomy, reflecting on what to add, the tenses to use while I ask strategic questions to specific students: how to make the text interesting or how to make it to a 7+ grade. This is another example that questioning is key for embedded differentiation and how differentiation happens naturally in all well planned lessons.

Templates are great for this and time for reflection in pairs is a vital tool too, as this will allow students to focus on metacognition (the way students plan, monitor and evaluate their own thinking). Adam Lamb, Silvia Bastow and Jane Basnett, all provide wonderful writing and oral templates in their blogs, to scaffold students' more creative responses. This is the template we follow to carry out this activity and which students are given to plan their writing/oral tasks, which is shared on Onenote. 

If you have come across Elena Díaz, you will know about her 20 keys to teach MFL. Using the 20 keys model also provides another great opportunity for differentiation and scaffolding. Jane Basnett, using the 20 keys model, has created this template for students. Click here

Spinning the plates

I Keep moving in the classroom when students are working in pairs or individually in my lessons and I step in individually or as a whole class as needed. In the current climate, Onenote is great for this, as it allows me to see what students are doing from my desk! 

I highlight mistakes, I direct students to the correct section of our Onenote for support, without giving them the answer. I make them think or check for understanding, with strategic individual questions. I may re explain to the whole class a concept that I can see is not well cemented. I may showcase a good piece work and analyse why it is good. I may have a chat with a particular struggling student and we set up a mini action plan to tackle a particular task. All these are examples of embedded differentiation techniques.

Removing support

It is important not to spoon feed students. The long term goal is to be fluent in the target language and remove any given support progressively and individually.

In fact, our main goal is to educate independent learners, that means leaving support behind, as in real communicative situations students will need to think on the spot! 

Despite having high expectations for all my students and focusing on challenge, I also accept that sometimes some students will not get there and that is fine. 

After all, many experts agree that 58% of academic achievement in pupils is down to genetics, leaving me only 42% to play with in my lessons. 

Still it is a very respectable percentage to instil high expectations and high goals in all students and making them believe that they CAN become fluent with the right amount of support from my part, which I remove, little by little and at different stages for each individual student. 

Differentiation, for me, means providing embedded scaffolded support to learning building blocks at all times to ALL.


  1. Excellent post, well written and spot on as usual. Thanks

  2. Excellent article! This is how differentiation should be done.

  3. Excellent article!!! This is what I call differentiation and how it should be done.

    1. Thank you for your support and glad you enjoyed it!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you so much for sharing it.


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