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Lesson differentiation made easy - a sustainable strategy! Like, 'actual' :)

Lesson differentiation

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each ability level in your class.  Here’s an easy way to break your lesson into three hard-harder-hardest parts to ensure it caters for everyone - lesson differentiation made easy!

Lesson differentiation is all about whiteboard cues!  There are two different sets, and you need both. 

This trick is so easy, you can walk into class and design a brilliantly differentiated lesson right off the top of your head.  (Not that I ever did that of course, I was so brilliantly planned. (Cue eye-roll...keeping it real.)

Set 1: Must do – Should do- Could do

  • There’s always something you want every student to know and do.  These are your 'must do' tasks.  These things are the bottom line, the non-negotiable bare minimums. 

  • If time and ability allow, students should really get onto the next phase, right?  These are your 'should do' tasks.

  • Finally, your blue-sky thinking.  In your dreams, every student would throw themselves into these on their way to a Nobel prize. These are your ‘could do’ tasks.

Notice how the modals (must, should, could) don’t suggest anything about students’ ability.  They’re more about ‘if there’s time’, and ‘if you want a challenge’ rather than ‘strugglers’ through to ‘high fliers’.  Good grief we don’t want to send messages like that to students!

There’s always something you want every student to know and do. 
These are your 'must do' tasks. 
Lesson differentiation
An example of whiteboard cues for must, should and could do activities.

Kiwi teachers – if you want these in te reo Māori:

  • Mahia (must do)

  • Me mahi (should do)

  • Me ngana (could do)

Set 2: Students 'Pick Their Poison'

Here’s where students don’t all have to do that ‘bare minimum’. There's not something you want every student to get done.

Instead, with this set of whiteboard cues, students choose which activity level is right for them. I prefer 3 levels. If students feel confident in this skill, they head straight for the cross-fit work. If they feel wobbly, they grab the walk-fit work. They decide.

Get creative with your theme!

I began by learning about Carol Ann Tomlinson’s:

  • Straight ahead (for the least challenging activities, but still has positive connotations, right?)

  • Uphill (a bit harder)

  • Mountainous (which I love because it kind of lays down a challenge – are you up for it, kind of thing).

lesson differentiation

Later, to cater for my sporty class, I produced:

  • Walk-fit

  • Yoga-fit

  • Cross-fit

Later still, for the Aotearoa New Zealand spin:

  • Pipi-fit

  • Tui-fit

  • Taniwha-fit

lesson differentiation

lesson differentiation

lesson differentiation

Finally, when Matariki came along, students could decide if they wanted to ‘be’:

  • A star – whetū

  • A star cluster – Matriki

  • A Galaxy – Ikarangi (kind of sounds like supreme masters of the universe).

I particularly love this theme because it means that all students are stars. Awwwww...

So, what themes might you create for your classes?! Super-fun, right?!


How to divide your work into levels

This is often the pointy end for teachers!

When you’re using must-should-could:

I’m all about getting back to books and having students refer to these throughout the year.  Their exercise books are treasured, kept in class and marked.  My must do activities nearly always revolve around writing ‘how to’ notes and examples in their books and completing an example themselves.

These are the non-negotiables every student must know or be able to do.

Should do and could do tasks will involve more practice and/or taking it a step further, requiring an extra little skill or more critical thinking (think Bloom’s taxonomy).

Remember, for this set, every student begins at 'Must', then each sees where they can get to from there.

When you student choice:

Take your cues from reading approaches:

  • Reading on the lines is simple.

  • Reading between the lines (inferencing) is harder.

  • Reading beyond (wider world/human behaviour) and behind (purpose) the lines takes some complex critical thinking.

It actually doesn’t matter what your activity is – could be writing or designing – you can use these reading approaches as a great reference point to create activities.

Take your cues from Bloom.

Solo would work just as well, but I’m more a bloom girl.  Whatever floats your boat.

  • For students who feel pipi-fit / walk-fit / just want to walk a straight road:

    • Have them retell, find, describe...

  • For students who feel tui-fit etc:

    • They can go straight to tasks requiring them to explain, summarise, create an infographic for example.

  • For students who feel taniwha-fit etc:

    • How about a bit of comparison work, or have them respond and justify that response?

Lesson differentiation
An example of what your worksheet template could look like. Just fill in the gaps!


  • Whiteboard cues: design, print, laminate, then add magnetic tape so they stick to your whiteboard. Once they're made (and laminated), you've pretty much got them for life and they're there waiting for you each lesson (...errrr...and reminding you to differentiate).

  • Easily write tasks under much-should-could / student choices levels - students read the board and decide on the task they’ll do.

  • Once you’ve got your labels created, screen snip them into worksheet templates (which I encourage you to create in PowerPoint - just resize slides to an A4 page). Head to your template and type in your activities easily and quickly.

  • Add your labels to a PowerPoint presentation (ie, for your big screen) too, so that's nice and handy too.

Hot tips:

  1. Have your student 'avatars' in mind.  I always had my ‘low’, ‘average’ and ‘exceptional’ students in mind when thinking of tasks for each level.  What could my low student manage...what would excite my exceptional student?  Those same student avatars were my reference point long after I left their school.

  2. Use PowerPoint with slides resized to A4 pages (or Canva) to create your labels.

If you want awesome graphics for your differentiation whiteboard / worksheet cues, head to Green Grubs Garden Club! (No, this is not an affiliate link! I just love her stuff!)

lesson differentiation

Lesson differentiation

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