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Defining Differentiated Instruction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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 (89)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Britney's picture
title teacher, Ohio

I have never looked through my students files before. I teach title so I never really thought about it. I always thought the way you get closer to your students was by talking, listening, and asking questions. This was a great insight!

Kathy's picture

Stephanie, I understand your frustration. It is extremely difficult to manage a classroom with such varying levels. It always seems like someone is getting left out. Unfortunately, it is often those who do not present challenges or who are at a higher level. It takes practice and trial and error to set up a differentiated classroom. The use of groups and partner work is helpful. Sometimes I will pull my higher level thinkers aside and let them be the teachers. It has been successful because they learn it first and then present it to the group. Another thing that has worked is providing choices in how to demonstrate knowledge of a concept. For example, one student could build a model of an atom showing protons, neutrons, and electrons. Another student could write a report. Another student can draw a picture and explain it out loud. I have found that by changing it up and always having the students involved in some way, that it is making a difference. I have a long way to go and it does not always run smoothly but, the students know I expect them to try. The higher and the clearer I can make my expectations, the more likely that they will succeed.

April Malone's picture
April Malone
8th grade Language Arts Inclusion Teacher from Hattiesburg, Mississippi

I also found this helpful. As a special education inclusion teacher, I find myself faced with this problem all of the time. My school district not only hold me accountable for the special education students but also the general education students as well. So many of my activities include differentiation. I also co teach in an accelerated English classroom which also has special education students.

Gina Hill's picture
Gina Hill
First Grade Teacher from Marietta, Georgia

I have also been struggling to differentiate the higher level students. I agree although time consuming a teacher must truly get to know their students. Searching student files, asking previous teachers and student/parent surveys can be helpful. Knowing a student's background can provide insight of how to better address his or her needs. I would also be open to any sugggestions of how to manage a first grade classroom to keep the other students actively engaged when I am teaching small groups in order to better meet the needs of all the students.

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'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 ]

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