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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!


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Erin's picture

I understand completely that there needs to be this level of differentiation within my classroom. I know all children learn differently, and I most certainly understand the importance of meeting each individual's needs. However, when it comes to the "it's not fair" issue that will most certainly occur, how do you make it understood that you are not playing favorites, or helping some children more than others. I think this is a very delicate subject and I would be curious to find out the strategies used to eliminate this potential problem in the classroom while still being able to have other children feel motivated to strive for their best, even if some children are not expected to do as much.

Shelley's picture

I am a first grade teacher and for the last three years have been grappling with how to include differentiation in my instruction. The school I work at has provided several professional learning seminars on differentiation and I attended a Learning Focused Differentiated Assignments workshop two years ago. I found your article very insightful. I could relate to having the knowledge of what DI is but not knowing how to fully implement it into my classroom. I feel that in order to make it successful I will be spending a lot of time planning at least three activities per lesson to meet the needs of all students. Don't get me wrong I think that differentiation has the potential to be a great motivator for all learners, if used correctly. Most of the DI I have implemented is helping the "low group" and, like others have stated, I give extra work for the "high group". My goal for the upcoming year is to be able to meet the needs of the high performing students. That is one of my biggest weaknesses as a teacher. I am always spending so much time with the kids who need interventions that the high students get left in the dust. Thanks for refreshing my spirit and reminding me what DI is all about.

Stacy Haroutunian's picture

I have been able to differentiate reading lessons by using a (school purchased)guided reading program. In the beginning of the year I use the district assessments and the guided reading program assessments to group students by their reading abilities. After collecting data and grouping them, I am able to teach, reteach, and practice reading comprehension skills(predicting, inference, cause and effect, context clues, etc.)at their reading level in a small group setting. I formally assess students 3 times a year. As they progress and make improvements in their reading abilities, I can make adjustments to the groups. This benefits all levels of skills: low, average, high, and gifted.

S. Meyer's picture

I thought this was an excellent posting. I work with many "seasoned" teachers who do not modify lessons to meet the needs of each child. This was a skill I was taught in college. We need to realize that every child learns in a different way. Each child comes to us with a different schema. We are their teacher. It is our job to do what we can to teach them and to make them successful. I thought your examples were great. I, too, have many handouts on hand in case one of my students is better suited for a graphic organizer or any other helpful sheet.

Peter D. Ford III's picture

One concern I have with differentiation is results. When you have students who need support to access the curriculum, where is the data that shows these students, too will be 'proficient' at the end of the year? When you have a 14-15 year old who cannot multiply efficiently past multiples of 5 or 6, can you 'differentiate' instruction enough so that child, after 180 days, will be 'proficient' in Algebra? While I fully believe a student can grow within differentiation, as teachers we have performance goals are students must meet that may be difficult given the depths of their deficiencies. We always reference 'research'; I would love to have a specific report that shows the specific differentiation that took high school students with 5th-6th grade mathematic skills and after 180 days they were 'proficient' at Algebra.

Erin's picture

Those are some great ideas, especially having a binder of graphic organizers, etc available at any time. Thank you!
I teach high school English, and one thing I do when teaching novels is to utilize a graphic novel for students who read at a lower grade level. One graphic novel that I have found to contain challenging vocabulary, while at the same time focusing on the main points of the plot is The Last of the Mohicans. My students with special needs enjoyed being able to use the illustrations and read the novel at the same time. It kept them engaged and interested in the story the entire time. After reading the novel, my students watched the movie and they all said that they enjoyed the book much more than the movie because the movie didn't stick to the story!

Kym F.'s picture

Thank you so much for all your ideas! I am a new teacher it is can be challenging to use differentiated instruction in the classroom. It will be beneficial to have a folder with different graphic organizers or papers to help students who need extra support. I will use this technique in the classroom and become more aware of those students that need more help. Also, thank for the idea of looking through students cums to find more information about students. It is very easy for students to "slip through the cracks" and it is our job as educators to provide the necessary education for all students.

Jim Snyder's picture
Jim Snyder
Math Coach and Interventionist

Moving a student into higher level math concepts when they depend on calculators to perform the most simple math functions is counterproductive.

It also hampers their ability to perform in recognizing math patterns prevalent in standardized testing situations.

Our test standards were amended to include a pre-printed squares tables.

This acknowledges the existence of the gap but until remediation drops back to this level of basics you can't push students to process factoring and determine roots of polynomials.

I assess individual capabilities; establish drills to move basic skills ahead and enhance success in math pattern recognition and performance on standardized tests.

Susan Henry's picture

I teach Pre-K in P.G. County, MD. My schools population is very diverse and over half the population consists of ESL students. We use the Houghton Mifflin curriculum which I find to be very beneficial. In this curriculum they provide different ideas for differentiated instruction. We also have supplemental materials that we use that relates to assessment data. I look at what my students data shows, the individual child, and their learning style. I base how I teach off these characteristics. I incorporate music and art into my teaching style and extension activities. I also use sign language to help my ESL students learn English. My paraprofessional and I also use flash cards, repetition, and modeling to help our students.

Raelyn Fuqua's picture

I can relate to this article from the school that I was just recently employed at. I had never been involved in differentiated reading or anything like it. When the principal interviewed me and told me that I would do reading rotations based on differentiated levels, I was completely lost! After several observations, questions, and feeling my way through the first part of the year I wouldn't teaching reading any other way. In fact I've got my mom, who is also a teacher motivated and ready to teach her next year's reading lesson as I do, with differentiated reading rotations. I think it's a great way to allow your students to feel confident in becoming a successful student. I was, however, concerned with teasing among the classroom, such as, "your the lowest group or your not smart because your in the bottom group." Needlesss to say though, my students said just the opposite my higher groups were encouraging and very motivating for my lower group who was struggling and needed more modifications. I don't know how a teacher could teach without differentiated reading!

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