Differentiated Learning is an approach to teaching which acknowledges not only the difference in ability levels between children but also the difference in learning styles. The intent is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is rather than expecting students to modify themselves for the curriculum. (Hall, 2002)

The theory of differentiated learning provides an explanation for why formal phonics instruction succeeds with many students but fails with a significant minority who should in principle be successful. It also suggests that merely hammering the kids with more of the same will not work and that an approach fundamentally different from phonic instruction might succeed with those students not because it is inherently superior but because it is simply different from the approach to which they were not susceptible.

Logic clearly dictates that mastery of any alphabet-based orthography depends on the phonics correspondences being learned but logic also suggests that given the wide differences in human nature, the idea that one size can be made to fit all is unlikely ever to be able to deliver universal literacy. We know that the significant number of people who do not readily respond to formal instruction can nevertheless successfully acquire a particular body of knowledge perceptually - which is the biological mechanism by which the perception of all creatures develops as a result of exposure to non-systematic perceptual stimuli.

The Literacy Toolbox makes it practicable for teachers to deliver the perceptual component of properly differentiated approach to teaching literacy. This results in those students innately predisposed to learn perceptually internalising completely the letter-sound correspondences in the same way they would have done had they been receptive to formal phonics instruction.

I introduced this resource to an number of schools with often quite spectacular results. In one project which included a 10% sample of a local authorities primary schools, the authority subsequently sanctioned its use in all of their schools from the beginning of this year. Perhaps the most exciting development took place in a Palmwoods State School in Queensland, Australia where staff added a short, daily differentiated learning component to their existing phonics programme in the final term for their reception class of 75 children with quite spectacular results and every child now ends Year 1 as a competent reader. Other schools where the idea was successfully introduced were a mixture of mainstream secondary and primary schools, schools which teach in Welsh, primary schools with a high proportion of EAL pupils, independent and international schools and the results produced are invariably quite spectacular. Some participants were so enthusiastic about their results that they produced short videos which can be seen on the internet by searching for Perceptual Learning in Action.

There is no question that phonics needs to be well taught to all children but similarly teachers need to be aware of the importance of differentiation in their approach to teaching phonics. The Literacy Toolbox provides an easily manageable means of delivering a different strategy which is particularly effective with those who learn more readily from experience than from formal instruction.

Hall, T. (2002). Differentiated instruction. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum.

Tomlinson, Carol (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Differentiated Instructions provides access for all students to the general education curriculum. The method of assessment may look different for each child, however the skill or concepts taught will be the same. Classrooms (2 ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ISBN 0871205122.

Ministry of Education. (2007). Differentiated instruction teacher’s guide: Getting to the core of teaching and learning. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Strickland, C. A. (2007). Tools for high quality differentiated instruction. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Willis, J. (2007). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher.