Introduction have developed, ‘mixed ability’ teaching is



            As the world of education develops,
the push for differentiation has become a key element to ensuring progression
with educators developing their own understanding that ability cannot be
‘mixed’ but instead that teachers would have to create a range of 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 have developed, ‘mixed ability’ teaching is
now known as ‘differentiation’. The National Pupil Database (2016) has shown an
existing gap in attainment, which 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

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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). To be a successful strategy
to improve learning, 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 in improving
achievement and attitudes of pupils towards their learning (Brighton et al.,

  Arthur & Cremin
(2014) state that differentiation is meeting the diverse needs of all pupils
whilst ensuring that what they are teaching meets the knowledge, skills and
understanding of all pupils in a way that suits their individual differences
and previous experiences. They continue to add that differentiated resources
are a key way of ensuring that individual differences are met. Furthermore,
they state that once the range of learners have been identified, a teacher is
then able to plan and teach lessons that are both successful and effective.

  Hall (2002) proposed
that pupils need to have a range of options when expected to absorb information.
He went on to state that this could only be made possible if instructional
approaches to learning are varied and adapted to meet the needs of all pupils
in a classroom. The purpose of using differentiation is to ensure that each
pupil is capable of succeeding and reaching their maximum growth in learning.
This idea dates back to the work of Vygotsky (1978) and the zone of proximal
development (ZPD). Research by Fisher et. Al (1980) strongly supports this
theory and has found that students who are working in their ZPD were more
likely to develop a confidence in the concept they were learning.

  In a study conducted
by Beecher & Sweeny (2008), differentiation was chosen as a
method to improve pupil’s learning by using the pupil’s own interests and
adapting the curriculum to allow for differentiated instruction. They found
that this was only made possible by offering staff development in how
differentiation could be used, was made available and a significant amount of
time was devoted to it. Teachers were given training, modelling, coaching and
planning ideas of how to best fit differentiation into their lessons. The
teachers learned how to differentiate the lesson content in a way that the
students would learn best and the procedures to ensure this was possible
through their instruction. 

  The Department for
Education (2011) created a new set of teaching standards that ensure ‘teachers
make the education of their pupils their first concern, and are accountable for
achieving the highest possible standards in work and conduct.’ Differentiation
is specifically linked to Teaching Standard 5: Adapt teaching to respond to the
strengths and needs of all pupils. Teachers are expected to know how and when
to differentiate appropriately to ensure pupils are being taught effectively.


  This piece 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 influences
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 the effectiveness of learning progression. 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 in how the
use of resources effects the progress of learning for pupils in the classroom
setting. This is particularly prevalent 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. They are used to assist teaching whilst developing
pupils’ mind sets of what they are being expected to understand, not 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 infant 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 pupils receiving Pupil
Premium funding. 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 way and that this is continuous throughout the school. The
school is keen to share the pupils’ 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 pupils 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 pupils’ 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 group, 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. Although the research
above is quite dated, it is still sound and can be carried into current
teaching practice to ensure that teachers are using differentiation in a way
that meets the needs of both the lower and higher attaining pupils.

  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, 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 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 used.

    In my placement school, there is an
emphasis on the use of concrete resources for both maths and English. The
example that I have seen used 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 emerging research which shows why this may not be the
best option. 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, over how they used the steps taken to get to a required
answer. Although the CPA approach is developing rapidly, research suggests that
the use of concrete resources alone, is not wholly 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
teaching. Utall, Scudder & DeLoache (1997) made the point that even if the
concrete manipulative being used can assist the child in their initial
development of learning by relating the manipulative to the concept, it does
not guarantee that this learning, or the understanding of a concept will be
retained. This is particularly noticeable when children are then expected to
apply their learning in variation (Resnick & Omanson, 1987).




            It must be considered that my own personal observations
regarding concrete resources have been taken from an example of one school, so
can not therefore be applied to other teaching practice. Furthermore, I have
taken into account a variety of research as to both the positive and negative
use of concrete manipulatives, most of which is quite dated and therefore can
not be applied to current teaching practice. However, I have noted how the use
of concrete resources has developed dramatically over the years, and hope to
see further research and new ideas emerging in relation to this idea. As for differentiation,
although the research I have used in this study has been taken across a period
of over fifty years, the research used is similar in its viewpoints and it
shows that the idea of differentiation is an important one in education and
will continue to be so as education continues to develop.




            This piece
considers how the use of concrete resources have developed and their importance
for pupil progression, specifically for understanding mathematical concepts.
From my own observation of the application of concrete resources to English, I
have seen how specific resources such as sentence cubes (multilink), word mats
and pictures follow the CPA approach and have had a positive impact on the
progression of pupils’ writing. However, this has only been applicable to lower
attaining pupils. Although all pupils are given the option to use concrete
resources in maths, only certain children are given this option for writing. This
links back to the research of Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns,
and Salvin (1993) who noted that differentiation is provided more so for the
lower attaining pupils, without considering how the same resources can be used
for higher attaining pupils also. Although higher attaining pupils at FIS do not use sentence cubes or
pictures to represent and orally rehearse sentences, they are offered word mats
which they use as a ‘word bank’ and to ensure correct spelling. The National Curriculum (2014) has a
set of expectations for writing, covering the two strands of transcription and
composition and ‘it is essential that teaching develops pupil’s confidence in
these two dimensions’. The use of concrete resources specifically links in with
the second strand of composition as it aids in the development of articulating
ideas, structuring these ideas before applying them to writing. I have seen how
the use of concrete resources have had an impact on pupils’ ability to
articulate and communicate their ideas before organising these ideas into
sentences made specific to their writing.

This piece has
demonstrated how differentiation could become an effective tool to improve the
achievement and attitudes of pupils’ learning (Brighton et al., 2005). It has delivered the
importance of using manipulatives so that pupils are able to ‘make sense’ of
their learning whilst progressing in other areas of a concept. However, it must
be noted that for sustained learning to be made possible, it must be fully
understood by teachers delivering the learning (Sowell, 1989).

  Linking back to the
study by Beecher & Sweeny (2008), effective differentiation can only be
made possible if teachers are given the correct amount of time and guidance
into how to best use of effectively within the classroom setting. Of course,
this was only ‘One School’s Story’ but this could determine the next step for
teachers and the application of differentiation to ensure progress for all is

  In addition, for
differentiation of concrete resources to be used effectively, the next step is
for teachers to deepen their own understanding of how these resources can be
used to maximise the learning potential of all pupils. Until this is made
possible, differentiation will not be an effective process to challenge all
learners (Robinson, 2008).



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