Introduction a learning environment that excludes no child



            As the world of education has
developed, the push for differentiation has been a key element to ensuring
progression with people developing their own understanding that ability cannot
be ‘mixed’ but instead that teachers would have to develop strategies for
teaching that meet an abundance of differences such as age, motivation,
learning style, specific learning difficulties, experience, gender and more
(Petty, 2017). As these strategies developed, ‘mixed ability’ teaching soon
became known as ‘differentiation’. From the National Pupil Database (2016) the
existing gap in attainment has been an issue in education for decades. In the
last ten years, the gap has been closing but at a slow and inconsistent rate.
The government has attempted to address this issue through the increasing use
of funding and targeted intervention programmes (Educational Policy Institute,
2017). Teachers need to be ensuring that provision is made to build on the
potential of all learners; meeting their level of understanding and pushing
them to reach that next step to ensure the development of understanding.

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  In the late 70’s,
Wynne Harlen (a science educator) proposed that for pupils to effectively
develop their thinking, the level of learning had to be matched according to
their levels of understanding (Blenkin & Kelly, 1981).  In order to be a successful approach to
teaching, differentiation must ensure success for all pupils, despite their
array of differences (Petty, 2017). It moves away from the one-size-fits-all
curriculum and recognises the differences in pupil attainment and responds to
these differences by effectively matching the teaching and learning to
individual needs (Tomlinson, 2003). Education is about providing the best
curriculum in the best possible learning environment which can encourage the
most satisfying achievements and progress for all pupils (Bearne, 2006).  It takes time to develop strategies that work
best for each teacher but once these strategies have been decided and the
outcome deemed effective, the learning must be developed in a range of contexts
in order for it to become successful (Slavin, 1993).  Algozzine & Anderson (2007) stress the
importance of developing strong relationships with pupils to create a learning
environment that excludes no child whilst providing the best opportunities for
all. Differentiation has the potential to be an effective tool on improving
achievement and attitudes of pupils towards their learning (Brighton et al.,


  This essay explores
how differentiation is used to effectively maximise the potential of writing,
with the use of concrete resources.  Firstly,
it considers my reasoning for researching this topic and puts the research into
context. Next, it evaluates the use of concrete resources and how this has an
effect on the progress of learning in writing and other subjects. Then it
considers the possible negative impacts that differentiation and the use of
concrete resources has on effectiveness of progress on learning. Finally, it
evaluates the effectiveness of using differentiation through concrete resources
in the context of my placement and the validity of this research overall.


Context of the Setting


my experience of working in schools, I have developed an interest into how the
use of resources effect the progress of learning for pupils in the classroom
setting. Particularly so in writing as there is so much emphasis on the effect
of concrete resources in Mathematics rather than English. Research suggests
that concrete materials are an effective way to develop pupil thinking and
understanding and aid with teaching whilst developing the mind set that we
should be considering what we want our pupils to understand rather than what we
want them to do (Thompson, 1994). Research
says that children who use concrete manipulatives ‘usually’ perform at a higher
standard than those who do not as the concrete manipulative gives the
opportunity for the pupil to make sense of a concept as they learn from it
(Sowell, 1989). I have seen how effective concrete resources have been during
my placement, specifically for lower attaining pupils but also for the higher
attaining pupils when learning a new concept. The research on the use of concrete
resources for English is far less than that of Mathematics which is why I
thought it interesting to explore based on what I have experienced on my

research was conducted in an Infants School in the South of England (named FIS
for the purpose of anonymity). The school is relatively large, as a four
form-entry and has roughly 350 pupils. The majority of children are from a
White-British background with a low percentage of Pupil Premium. The school was
graded as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED (2010) with an area of improvement being that
the school work as a team to improve the level of mathematical explanation to
achieve an even better outcome for all pupils. Following this, I am aware of
how the school progression documents for Maths are applied across the school to
ensure that all pupils are being taught in the most effective and that this is
continuous throughout the school. The school are keen to share the pupil’s
learning processes with them and this is exposed through the use of a learning
wall. The school found that this was an effective way of pupil’s seeing their
own progression of learning and how it is applied across the topic, so they
then adapted this for English too. I found it interesting how the CPA
(concrete, pictorial, abstract) approach has been developed to the English
curriculum too which is why I have chosen to conduct my research around this.







Differentiation using Concrete


            The Mathematics Mastery Programme is a whole-school
approach to teaching Mathematics in order to raise the attainment level of all
pupils. It aims to use a variety of sources to develop, sustain and deepen
pupil’s understanding of mathematical concepts. (Vignoles, Jerrim & Cowan,
2015). This same approach has been adapted by FIS to the English curriculum to allow
for pupils to structure a sentence using sentence cubes or pictures whilst
developing pupil’s concepts of what makes a sentence before applying this to a
written piece of work. Much research shows that pupils who are given the
opportunity to use concrete manipulatives (specifically higher attaining pupils
who use them to deepen their understanding) usually exceed those who do not.
This applies across the levels according to year, attainment level and topic.
(Driscoll, 1983; Greabell, 1978; Raphael & Wahlstrom, 1989; Sowell, 1989;
Suydam, 1986). Concrete objects have been suggested to advance the thought
processes for every level of pupil, from lower attaining to gifted. This shows
that the CPA approach could be applied across the curriculum to support the
needs of all pupils to appropriately aid learning. The use of a manipulative
enables pupils to ‘make sense’ of their learning whilst progressing in other
areas such as retention and problem solving. However, this is only made
possible when their use is fully understood and carried out appropriately by
teachers (Sowell, 1989). The approach uses the kinesthetic learning style of
‘learning by doing’ and has been notably effective for the development of key
skills and concepts as pupils engage and explore these manipulatives to deepen
understanding of specific concepts by constructing meaning and understanding
through the use of them (Hoong, Kin & Pien (2015). The teacher’s role in
using this approach is to guide the pupils through each stage appropriately
modelling how the approach is adapted to each concept to fully develop the
understanding of the pupils whilst providing necessary feedback and scaffolding
techniques to expand learning potential. Good & Brophy (2000) note that it
is more effective to provide necessary, high-quality resources for all pupils
rather than to provide these resources for a select few individuals. This way
all children will be able to make progress from the same resources. From my
experience, I have seen the effectiveness of offering the same resources to all
children as it develops the child’s independence if they then choose to accept
the resources, whether it be to develop understanding or deepen it. Considering
Piaget’s concrete stage of learning, much research has emerged of how children
can best develop their learning when interacting with concrete objects. This
has led to the development of the CPA approach to which practitioners believe
that before an abstract thought can be learned, or the concept applied to a
higher level of understanding, children must develop an initial understanding
of why and how the concept works (Ball, 1992). Furthermore, Kennedy & Tipps
(1994) believe that these such manipulatives make it possible for the most
difficult of concepts to be accessed and therefore understood. They allow for
children to make the link between the abstract concept and a real object. When
children use a concrete material to aid them in problem solving, it is a means
of representing an idea or thought process which will then be transferred to a
written/abstract version of that problem. This is the same as what I have
witnessed with writing in English – for a child to write a meaningful sentence,
it helps for them to orally rehearse this sentence once it is visually
represented. Of course, this takes repetition and practice from both the
modelling of the representation and the child performing the task themselves,
to sustain the understanding of what the concrete resources are being used for.
Uttal (1997) noted that children who are in the concrete-operational stage of
learning are unable to perform mental operations on abstract ideas until the
idea is made perceptible by that child.

  Beulah (1961) considered the same effect of
using concrete manipulatives in writing, derived from the research of the same
effect from learning concepts in Mathematics. He began to develop the idea of
using cubes or blocks to represent the ideas and concepts in the written form
of sentences. He claimed it to be ‘a new and useful process’ to expand the
skills needed for reading and word placement whilst developing the fluidity of
forming a high-quality sentence that could be comprehended by the sentence structure

The example that I have become
to use and seen to be effective with the pupils I have worked with is using a
green cube to represent the capital letter at the start of a sentence followed
by the complete, orally rehearsed sentence in a different coloured cube and
ending with a red cube to represent the full stop. This way, children are able
to make the sentence, rehearse it then write it with the visual aid that the
sentence block depicts. This idea has the potential to be adapted to meet the needs
of children of all levels and ages whilst allowing for both high and low
attaining pupils to visually represent their thoughts before moving onto the
abstract form that is ‘the sentence’.  Differentiation
of colours and size, made readily available to all pupils, shows how the blocks
can meet the needs of all pupils whilst allowing for independence. Difficulties
of Applying Differentiation and using Concrete Resources


            A substantial body of evidence has developed
which identifies the strain that teachers are faced with when expected to teach
to the curriculum whilst delivering learning with resources at a multi-level to
match different levels of attainment (Ayers, 1999; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1998;
Kwong, 2000; Lo, Morris &. Che , 2000; Mamlin, 1999; Schumm and Vaughn,
1995; Scott, Vitale &. Masten, 1998; Wang, 1992). Differentiation itself
comes with many misconceptions. Some believe that to achieve differentiation,
specific learning tasks should be an ‘addition’ to the lesson. Petty (2017) disagrees
with this and states that differentiation should be what a teacher ‘does’ and
it should not be possible to point out where differentiation lies in a
classroom. However, Hertberg-Davis (2009) noted
that many teachers appear opposed to the thought of differentiation as they
believe that it is highly time consuming and takes more planning time in order
to ensure the lessons being taught are meeting the needs of all pupils. She goes
on to state that of course, with more experience, this planning time becomes
less as the teacher becomes more familiar to the processes involved in using
differentiation effectively in the classroom.

  More research from Westberg,
Archambault, Dobyns, and Salvin (1993) shows that
differentiation is provided more so for lower attaining pupils than for those
who are in the bracket of higher attaining/gifted and talented as teachers
believe that pupils in those groups have a lower ‘need’ for differentiation. Fullan
(1993) believes that with the correct change in teacher attitude towards the
use of differentiation, all children will benefit from the use of this process,
allowing for the ongoing challenge and thoughtfulness of learning to continue
for children working at all levels. This links back to Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of
Proximal Development’ theory that pupils are likely to achieve their very best when
working in this zone. When a pupil is engaged in their ZPD, their learning is
advanced at a level just ahead of their current level of understanding (Petty,
2004). Fullan (1993) continues to note that teachers are not given the correct
amount of training to allow for them to fully understand how differentiation
can be used effectively across all learners. He states that the experience of
working in a classroom and gaining experience does not necessarily allow for
the developed understanding of how differentiation can be distributed
effectively to develop pupil learning to a maximum. In order for deep and
sustained learning for all pupils to be achieved, teachers need to deepen their
own understanding of how ‘big ideas, resources, sequences and questioning’ can
be used effectively. Until this happens, differentiation can not be an
effective method to challenge all learners (Robinson, 2008).

  When considering how multi-level resources
can be used alongside differentiation to allow for all pupils to learn
effectively, there is much research which shows why this may not be the best
option also. Thompson & Thompson (1990) suggest that pupils use concrete
manipulatives in a procedural manner, carrying out the correct steps but
learning little about a concept. Pupils are less likely to be able to describe
the concept they are learning than how they have gained the answer by using the
steps taken. Although the use of the CPA approach is developing rapidly,
research suggests that its use (specifically in the concrete stage) is not
adequate in ensuring the development of meaningful learning (Petty, 2017). Clements
(1999) agreed and stated that concrete resources are not enough for pupils to
deepen their understanding if used alone but instead used alongside a variety
of learning tasks to ensure that pupil’s thinking is guided by a teacher to
ensure motivation and engagement. Sowell (1989) found that pupils are less
likely to learn a new concept using only concrete manipulatives, but they could
aid in a child’s understanding when used repeatedly and in variation. He goes
on to state that research into the effectiveness of concrete resources has been
unsuccessful in establishing a clear advantage over more traditional methods of