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Defining Differentiated Instruction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Updated 01/2014

When I lesson plan with teachers, out of earshot from their fellow teachers and their principals, I can't tell you how often I'm asked, "what exactly does it look like?" when it comes to differentiated instruction.

In the education world, differentiated instruction is talked a lot about as a policy or as a solution, but rarely do educators get opportunities to roll up their sleeves and talk about what it looks like in practice.

The definition begins with this: Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly sounds overwhelming, I know. So I'd like to suggest a place to begin and provide some examples.

Start with the Student

If a child in your class is really struggling with reading, writing, organization, time management, social skills or all of the above, the first step is to find out as much as you can about her educational history and anything else. This includes learning about her interests, cultural background, learning style, and something about her home life (The youngest? Foster care? Single parent home?)

The fact is we are mainstreaming a larger number of our students to general education classes, who, 15 years ago, may have instead been assigned to a special education class. That's good news in so many ways but makes a teacher's job more challenging. This is also one of the reasons why differentiated instruction has become such a hot topic.

Several years ago, in one of the general education language arts class I was teaching, 8 of the 34 students enrolled had an Individualized Education Program (IEP). When a child has an IEP, it is required that all teachers provide accommodations and modifications to assignments and instruction for that student. Speaking of overwhelmed. I definitely was, to say the least.

So, I learned. I spent many of my conference periods combing through student files. It's amazing what you can discover about a child from doing this. For instance, I had a student with perplexing behaviors then I learned he suffered from schizophrenia. How did I find out? Looking at his file. I was a much better teacher for him after gaining this information. Of course, he had an IEP, and someone should have told me in the beginning of the year, but we all know how things -- and children -- fall through the cracks of large public schools in enormous school districts.

A Classroom Example

Making an assignment, task, or objective different for one student than the rest of the class is meeting that child where they are in their learning journey. It's okay, you don't have to feel bad or feel as if you are being unfair, or lowering the bar. You are the child's teacher and you spend enough time with her to understand what she needs. And remember, equality is about meeting the needs of the individual.

Here's an example from my teaching:

It's a high school language arts class, and students are reading a novel. The daily objective is practicing inference and application of this skill. They are writing a brief essay predicting what the character Crooks from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men might do next. They must pull textual evidence from the book to support their predictions and claims.

But Diana is seated over there, frustrated. She is struggling with the concept of inference, partly because she is reading below her grade level. Knowing this about her reading abilities, and other challenges indicated on her IEP, do I expect her to stay the course, or do I admit that success for her with this assignment as it stands is not likely? I decide to give Diana the task of listing five adjectives to describe the character Crooks. She has to find one quote from the character in the book to prove one or more of the words she has chosen. There are similarities to these two assignments, but different enough to ensure a higher probability of success -- and learning -- for her.

A Matter of Fairness

Differentiated instruction for Diana, and for other struggling students, may mean providing a handout with sentence starters or a graphic organizer to help them with constructing meaning. It may mean providing extra time to complete an assignment, giving directions again, reducing the length of an assignment, or offering alternate assignments or projects altogether. You can also provide struggling students with leveled text -- less difficult reading that contains the same content.

(For more differentiated instruction ideas and examples from the classroom, check out this Edutopia group discussion on the topic.)

Do I pre-plan variations of an assignment? Not always, but when I know my struggling students and their challenges well enough to predict road bumps ahead for them, I'm ready.

One way to be ready? Create file folders filled with various graphic organizers, visual aides, and sentence starters for different types of thinking (cause and effect, chronological, compare and contrast, to name a few). You can quickly pull out one of these in a pinch. If a student finishes a differentiated assignment with time left, then assess if it was too easy, and add a step. If a differentiated assignment is too difficult, break down the directions even more, give them one-on-one time with you, or remove a step.

I've heard teachers suggest that making an assignment less difficult for one student is not fair to the others. But I ask: Is it a matter of what is fair, or what is right?

What are ways you differentiate instruction for the grade level and content you teach? We look forward to hearing from you!


Comments (83)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher

Gina, Great idea - knowing your students.

A bit different here. I teach computers to 750 students every 6 days. I get 45 minutes for each class.

The ONLY thing that will save us [educators] is 1) getting away from state standards, 2) work up ability grouping and 3) teach some values. No one can individualize lessons for every student in the class. It just won't happen, as much as we want it.

At present is an NEW unfunded state mandate on Bullying. The paperwork will crush the administrator in charge, and there is no consequence for the bully ! Duh!

I think I will work up a lecture on: "Differentiated Coddling". I'm sure it will be the rage on the Speaking Circuit.


Johnna's picture
Third and fourth grade special education teacher in Chester, West Virginia

I really enjoyed reading this post! As a special education teacher, differentiating instruction is a core component in my classroom. I constantly have to differentiate the content, process, and product for my students all the time. I provide additional pull-out supports for my third and fourth grade students who are on IEPs, so I have to differentiate in order for my students to be successful. My students are all on different learning levels, and what might work for one student does not necessarily work for another. I differentiate the process by incorporating visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic components in my lessons as much as possible. I use graphic organizers, as was mentioned in the original post, very frequently to aid in comprehension and to map out ideas as we cover a key skill. I use picture cards to correspond with the vocabulary words so that the students have a visual support to picture the word's meaning in their mind. I use manipulative objects in Math class quite frequently, also. And then, of course, I also have to modify assignments and assessments for some of my students, but they are still focusing on the same skills and concepts that their peers are working on. Basically, I would say that my classroom structure is centered around differentiated instruction, and I provide the necessary accommodations and modifications that my students need in order to achieve their fullest potential. I still make sure to set high expectations for my students, though; I appreciate each of my students' learning styles, and I take each student into consideration when I am developing lessons and lesson goals. Starting with the student is indeed a major point of ensuring that differentiation is successful. This was a very insightful discussion topic.

Jamie Kociuba's picture
Jamie Kociuba
doctoral student

I often find that people ask what it looks like. I am beginning research for a doctoral program I am in and it is based on transitioning the knowledge base of educators from traditional styles of teaching to utilizing a differentiated instructional model; such as employing Multiple intelligences, following the concept of Jung's learning styles, experiential learning, etc. do you believe that differentiating instruction for the diverse needs of a classroom can be achieved by offering lessons that do employ these strategies?

Jamie Kociuba's picture
Jamie Kociuba
doctoral student

I have a question about differentiating and scoring student work. I have several students in my classroom who are receiving inclusion and speech services. I modify their work and level it to meet their needs and abilities. In doing so I can assess how well they are performing at their instructional level. My administrator, however, has made an issue out of the fact that they are passing my class and doing well but not passing the state assessments. Her point is that I am not holding them to high enough expectations, because if I were, their classroom grades would reflect the same as the assessment scores. Isn't the goal of differentiation to allow students opportunities to excel and feel successful?

Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher


Just remember at ALL TIMES -- It's the government test that counts, and will determine your ultimate evaluation, ranking and raises. So....

Lets get those standardized test scores UP so you can work again next year. Oh, if you are PHD student you many not have to worry.

yea... education is not quite what it used to be LOL
Bruce cattanach.org

Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher

Jamie, Take a look at constructivism. It has validity, actually makes sense but won't help raise the govenment test scores. [ Ah DRATS almost works ]

Jamie Kociuba's picture
Jamie Kociuba
doctoral student


Right you are. It seems as if it isn't about the students learning anymore, it is about them achieving the scores necessary to maintain government funding....and so I can keep my job. If they do not achieve government expectations, we shut down and really lose our chance to make a difference. Forget offering experiential opportunities to students and allowing them to choose a path for themselves by becoming skilled in different areas. The state tests go against what America stands for...that we are all unique individuals, differnet and talented in our own unique ways. The test is a machine that seeks out who is fit for the game and who is not; not allowing, offering, or considering entertainment of the idea that certain populations of students are skilled in different areas other than the mundane and rigorus content of thier exams. It is through my development into higher education at the doctorate level that I discover how important it is for students to become involved in differentiated instruction, experiential learning opportunities that make them successful. This is preached at the college level, yet in some schools it cannot be completed because teachers are struggling to push children to reach the expectations by the state. Students are not at reading level or comprehension level in the classrooms I am in, however, I cannot focus on building their levels individually or meaningfully because with the time constraints and pressure of passing a test, the priority becomes preparation, and not the building of real lifelong learning skills. It is all too much of a chanllenge that burdens us at the educational level.

Deborah's picture
Pre-K Teacher from North Carolina

When I first started teaching differentiating was just a term I read about in my education books. However, when I started working in a Head Start Preschool facility 3 years ago, I was totally immersed into a diverse and differentiated learning/teaching environment. I have some students who do not speak English and others who are ready to move onto Kindergarten, possibly 1st grade. Needless to say differentiating is a must in order for my students to make progress throughout the year.

I enjoyed reading this article because in our facility differentiated learning is consistently discussed and we are always looking for ways to improve our planning and implementation of our differentiated activities. I totally agree with Rebecca in regards to starting with our students. Generally, within the first couple of weeks I can get an idea of what prior knowledge my children have retained and what direction I need to begin with them. However, my first action is reviewing student's files and finding out as much information as I can prior to their arrival into my class. As teachers, we have to be prepared for the various leveled learners in our class. Differentiate in your class and watch your students soar.

Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher

What does DI really look like? It looks like a one room school house of old. It also looks like special education students being "peer tutored" by Gifted and Talented students. It "LOOKS" like we are scrambling to be everything to everybody and failing miserably. If you want to serve all the students think about ability grouping.
Individual lesson plans for 700 1st - 5th graders who you see once every 8 days.... you get the picture? I doesn't happen.

Lynda Linley's picture

Thanks, Rebecca for your article. It was extremely insightful. I too, am a special education teacher in the resource room setting. Many of my students would have been self-contained years ago, however, with the new mandates for inclusion, they are in the general education setting for the vast majority of their day. Presently, I am doing all the differentiation for my students, as well as any other struggling learners in grades K-4. However, this year with the huge caseload I was just given, I informed the teachers that they would have to do their own differentiation. I will be doing a workshop for them in the fall, and I want to share your article with them regarding differentiation. For some reason they have this huge fear that it will consume all their time, and that the students will complain that things aren't fair...neither of which are true. Your suggestions are excellent and easy to fit into the classroom. I love how you stated that in order to do the best differentiation you need to find out about your students' interest, culture, learning style, and home life. I think general education teachers often don't realize the importance of this. So I am going to recommend they do a student survey at the beginning of the year to find out all they can about their students. They also don't realize the importance of "leveling the playing field" when it comes to learning. As you indicated, equal is not all students getting the same, but getting what they need. I think some teachers avoid differentiation because they either don't know how, or don't realize how necessary it is. Either way, differentiation is crucial for student success and it is our professional obligation to make sure it is provided. Thanks again for your insight.

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