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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

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!

Stacy Haroutunian's picture

I teach first grade in a southern California school district. We also use the Houghton Mifflin reading curriculum. I agree, that program has a wide variety of differentiated activities incorporated into the stories and skills. I use those along with guided reading groups. We have a small number of ESL students at our school-about 3-4 per grade level. I have used the Houghton Mifflin ESL activities and found them beneficial. We also have a state adopted ESL program (Carousel program) we use to supplement ESL learning. I found it very interesting that you teach sign language to help your students learn English. How does that work and what does that look like in your classroom? What are the benefits you see?

Amy Holzshu's picture

I connected with this blog immediately because I too have asked myself..."OK, I understand what you mean about differentiated instruction, but what exactly does it look like in action?" I am at the end of my fisrt year of teaching and I find seeing things in action have helped me have a better understanding. I like how the author, Rebecca Alber, describes how differentiated instruction is not teaching all students the same academically, but we need to begin with where each student is academically and socially to meet their individual needs.
I feel like the best place for me to provide differentiated instruction is through academic centers. I am able to work with different groups of students based on their needs in different areas. One day I put pull a group to work on phonics skills. Another day I may pull a group to work on recognition of numbers up to 20. And just because I have a student who may in the top reading group does not necessarily mean he or she will be in all the top groups. Each child has individual needs that we as educators need to address to help them grow as a whole, not in just one area.
It was a great post to read and be a part of. Thank you!

Susan Henry's picture

Hi Stacy. It's good to hear that other teachers can see the benefit of the Houghton Mifflin curriculum as well.

I have a total of 22 students in my class, 16 of them are ESL students, and I would say 8 of the 16 did not speak English when they started school this year. Pre-K at my school does not receive ESL services and I speak very little Spanish. I have been teaching Pre-K for the last 4 years and I have found sign language to be beneficial because that is the first way I can get my non-English speakers to communicate with me in a language I can understand a little better. Now, by no means am I fluent in sign language either, but they use the signs I teach them. By doing this the students and I can communicate because I have found that once the students start learning English they do not necessarily feel comfortable speaking the language so they go through a silent phase, but they will use sign language to answer me. So, what usually happens is, the first 2 weeks of school is readiness and I teach them the signs for bathroom, stand, sit, quiet, and the rules are in sign to (we listen with our ears, we talk with inside voices, etc.). I repeat everything 3 times in each language, for example bathroom I would say it in English, Spanish, and sign language. The students learn the alphabet through a Dr. Jean Cd with the letter sounds and signs. Once we start our themes I incorporate the signs into the lesson for the words I know (I purchased a book for sign language from Waldens for $3). We have CDs that go with each theme so the students learn to sing the song and they sign the words I teach them. I also incorporate the signs into the poems I teach. The sign language ends up being very helpful during assessments if the students feels like they may not say a word correctly. It is also very helpful for me because I usually tend to lose my voice at least twice a school year, so we are still able to function as if it is a regular school day. The students love it and I am learning a language I've always been interested in. I hope this is a sufficient answer. Thanks for commenting.

Yolanda Anderson's picture

Thank you for this article. I have been trying to incorporate differentiated instruction in my classes but have not been that successful. With this new insight, I will start the year off investigating my students and finding out where they are so I can meet them where they are and bring them where they should be. Thanks again!

Miriam Molina Benites's picture

I had experience similar situations in my school in reference to poor communication and IEP information that would benefit individualized learning.Often important facts are overlooked and not properly documented or simply is up to teachers to start chasing them. Many will think it might be easier in Preschool since it seems to be less instructive,wrong! It does not get any better.

Janet Abdoulaye's picture

I struggle a little bit with this idea. I LOVE the idea of differentiation based on student choice and interest. Students designing their own projects based on interests and ability. But when it comes to a concept that is important, like inference in this example, if you assign the student something all together different, how does she ever learn the skill of inference? Wouldn't it be better to offer extra assistance to help her reach the goal/standard rather than not require it of her?

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