top of page

Differentiation: one EASY strategy to differentiate lessons in minutes.

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

In a hurry? Cut straight to the summary!

Differentiation is a dumb word but a common-sense concept. It's about making things different for different students. If you’re like me and hate the toss-pot words, have a little fun with, 'differenting', or go glam with 'bespoking'!

‘Different’ or just different?

You might already know Digby Wolfe’s poem, “Here’s to the Kids Who Are Different”.

Here’s to the kids who are different,

The kids who don’t always get A’s.

The kids that have ears,

twice as big as their peers,

Or have noses that go on for days.

Here’s to the kids that are different,

The kids that are just out of step.

The kids they all tease,

Who have cuts on their knees,

And whose sneakers are constantly wet.

Here’s to the kids that are different,

The kids with a mischievous streak.

For when they have grown,

As history has shown,

It’s their difference that makes them unique.

I get the sentiment, but it's bit of a throw-back to times when every kid's greatest fear was standing out. And - the title. Teachers, you don’t have 26 students who are the ‘same’ and four who are ‘different’ in each class. You have 30 students who are all different. The poem implies there are a select few who don’t fit in, while the rest are 'the same'. In fact, every kid is different. EVERY kid. But don't panic, read on!

Keeping it real

Short of cloning yourself, you can’t create bespoke resources and activities for every student. You need something that’s:

· Tangible – a specific tool or trick

· Useable now - like next period, without any fuss thanks!

· Sustainable (quick and easy or you don’t have time and you don't have the brain-space, right?)

Read on for THE trick - The Rules of 3.

Rules of 3

You can differentiate various stages of your lesson

  1. When information comes in – the levels of information given to students.

  2. When students are processing – the activities and questions students complete.

  3. When understanding comes out – how students show what they know.

Each of these can be broken up into threes again, as shown in the image below.

ONE: Differentiate the ‘incoming’.

Decide what students:

1. Must know

2. Should know

3. Could know

Unit/lesson planning:

Consider what students must know to have a basic understanding or to pass an assessment, then work up from there. That is, what should they know to illustrate a deeper understanding? What could they know to enable a higher level of critical thinking and discussion later? Plan accordingly.

Reading, listening, viewing:

What information will you give them. For example, your class novel is set in World War I, and you want students to learn more about life in the trenches. As you do your quick Google search (let’s face it, that’s how we roll!) save hyperlinks or copy and paste into 3 different folders: must know, should know, and could know. The information you choose will increase in detail and complexity/level.

TWO: Differentiate the processing.


Decide what students:

1. Must do

2. Should do

3. Could do.

Have all students begin at the must do, then they can work on from there as ability and time allows. The must do activities are ones that students simply must do to understand the basics. Should and could do activities require more thinking. A helpful guide when designing differentiated questioning is to consider on (must do), between (should do), then beyond the lines (could do) questioning.

Themed levels – student choice:

If you’re feeling the love, create activities and worksheets where students choose the level requiring the skills and critical thinking that best suits them. For this, students learn the same concept, but the demands of each level are different. I prefer my themed tiers for this (roads, sports, terrain, whatever you prefer) to show the activities get harder. For example:

1. Smooth road

2. Winding road

3. Rugged road

With this theme, students decide how ‘fit’ they are and therefore what they feel capable of tackling. This means some students might head straight for the rugged road activities if they’re feeling confident.

If you're wondering how to pitch this, again, you can use the on, between and beyond the lines concept or good old Blooms taxonomy to guide you.

Having said this, I’d just as often get all students to walk before they run, then build their fitness from there, just as I discussed above for must, should, could do. (This is mostly how I differentiate my essential mini lessons sets.) So with themed labels like smooth, winding and rugged, or walk-fit, yoga-fit and cross-fit, you could:

· Get students to choose and work on just the level that works for them, OR

· Begin slowly, then work on from there if they can (scaffolding as you would with must, should, could).

Working smart. Keeping it sustainable.

Have ready-made whiteboard cues and worksheet templates so all you need to do is fill in the gaps! Make your own or click on the links below for instant gratification and a tonne of time saved.

~~ Note, if you're more familiar with Teachers Pay Teachers, see my differentiation catalogue here. ~~


  • Beware of simply giving more proficient students more work, they should get different work. (It’s not called moretiation, it’s called differentiation). These students should work on something that involves more complex skills and more rigorous thinking.

  • Keep it age appropriate. Resources tailored for strugglers don’t need to look babyish. Make an extra effort to make these look professional, serious...but still teenage funky!

THREE: Differentiate the ‘outgoing’.

Differentiate the process:

The beauty of teaching is that you get to work in a team some of the time, with a colleague in other times, and on your own a lot of the time. Different processes sit different people and different tasks:

  • Group

  • Pair

  • Individual work.

Mix it up a little for your students too. Where possible, avoid dictating that they MUST work in a group, a pair or alone, though. Remember, we all have our preferences.

Differentiate the method:

No two people in your department keep notes, diaries or lesson plans in the same style using the same tools. Give students options, where appropriate, to show their learning:

  • Visually (graphic organisers, videos, static images)

  • By speaking or

  • In writing.

Recently, I read somewhere that ‘learning styles’ aren’t the thing anymore. What a load of @#%*. Give students the choice where possible.

Differentiate Notetaking:

  • For those who struggle, use templates. Graphic organisers such as tables, Venn diagrams, T-charts and partially completed mind-maps are less daunting than a blank page.

  • Second tier – guided notetaking. Have students write in their books/docs but give them guidelines as to what to look for. Eg: who was involved, dates, three causes, three consequences etc. Or, for a chapter analysis, three words or phrases describing the setting, two quotations that show how a character reacts to that setting, a T-chart to compare x and y setting etc.

  • Top tier – free-form notes on their own paper. Discuss the purpose of notetaking (this is key), then let students go for gold. Encourage them to use appropriate note-taking strategies as they work.


Differentiating is so easy, it’ll become your norm if you just think in threes.

There are three stages you can differentiate:

  1. Information in

  2. Processing

  3. Information out

ONE: To differentiate information coming in, divide it into:

  1. Must know

  2. Should know

  3. Could know

TWO: To different the processing stage:

Scaffold students. Decide what they:

  1. Must do

  2. Should do

  3. Could do

Alternatively, differentiate the processing stage by letting students choose their level. Eg:

  1. Smooth road

  2. Winding road

  3. Rugged road

(Although, remember you can also use these thematic labels for scaffolding - as you would with must, should and could do/know - by asking ALL students to begin at the simplest stage.)

THREE: Differentiate information going out with 3 x 3:

  1. The process:

    1. Group work

    2. Pair work

    3. Individual work

  2. The method:

    1. Written

    2. Oral

    3. Visual

  3. Notetaking:

    1. Templates to complete

    2. Guided – tell students what to look for

    3. Free-form notes.

Give it a shot with free differentiation must, should and could do cues and a helpful cheatsheet (with examples) by logging in to my site here. You'll access a growing library of freebies and receive email updates and ideas that keep it real.

157 views0 comments


bottom of page