George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

Teaching a Class With Big Ability Differences

Techniques for meeting the needs of students with diverse abilities and interests.
Engaged students at work in a classroom
Engaged students at work in a classroom
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How do you teach the same concepts and skills to students with diverse abilities and interests? Different learning profiles? And how do you do that in real classrooms, with limited time to plan?

Differentiated instruction is one answer that has been extensively documented (see “Recommended Resources” at the end of this post). I want to share two fundamental tenets of DI before describing specific tactics:

With that in mind, here are specific techniques you can use to meet the needs of students with a range of abilities.

1. Start Slow

Experiencing comprehensive student-centered instruction for the first time makes some kids uneasy. I’ll never forget the high school girl who ate an entire roll of cherry Tums the day I introduced my choice-based syllabus. Gradually integrate a student-centered curriculum, says Dr. Kathie Nunley, by asking learners to “choose between two or three assignments” that can be completed before the end of class.

2. Introduce Compacting for High Achievers

Compacting curriculum lessens the tedium that elite achievers experience when they master concepts faster than their peers. The Gifted Program at the University of Connecticut recommends using pre-assessments to determine how these learners can skip specific chapters or activities. Then offer “mini-courses on research topics” or “small group projects” as alternatives in a compacting contract.

3. Provide Choice

Choice is motivating and empowering. Let students choose:

  • how they learn with others—individually, in pairs, in small groups, or with the whole class.
  • the difficulty levels of assignments, using menu-based tools like choice boards, tic-tac-toe boards (see p. 14–15), or activity menus. The digital version, Interactive Learning Menus, provide links to in-depth assignment descriptions, examples, and rubrics. Content can also be curated and remixed into Learning Playlists with online tools like MentorMob and BlendSpace.
  • what content they study. With Literature Study Circles, an entire English class can investigate and discuss “gender and identity” by selecting one of several books hand-picked to address that theme.
  • what quiz questions they answer. Page one of a test might say, “Pick three of the following five questions that you’re most confident answering.” Students can also vote on when to complete an exam.
  • what, where, when, and how they learn, via individual learning contracts. Be forewarned that students need intensive instruction and patience as they compose their own contracts.

4. Bake Assessments Into Every Class

Student-centered instruction is only as consequential as its assessment. Teachers need to know where kids are in their academic journey, how they learn best, and what interests them. These assessments can help:

  • Educator Chandra Manning recommends two graphic organizers, “Who I Am” and “All About Me Gazette,” for collecting information about students’ interests.
  • Kids complete the “3-Minute Pause” reflection protocol after a lesson concludes.
  • Teacher-student conferences can quickly help teachers determine how learners are progressing and what further support they need.
  • Differentiation expert Deborah Blaz reports that student-created rubrics help instructors identify schema strengths and gaps. For advanced learners, Blaz adds an extra column with challenging criteria to her rubrics.
  • When creating tests, include different question types that might address students’ preferences: multiple choice, short answer, timelines, matching, true or false, graphic organizers to label, and sentences that are partially completed.
  • Have students visually document their academic progress “by creating a ‘benchmark timeline’ of weekly tasks. Each Friday, students initial the timeline, indicating where they are in the task sequence.”
  • Professor Helen Barrett defines the learning portfolio as “a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas.”

5. Provide High- and No-Tech Scaffolding for Reading

  • Rewordify, a text compactor, simplifies and shortens readings so that students with diverse comprehension abilities can comprehend and discuss the same article.
  • To find readings that are adjusted for high, medium, or low Lexile levels, use the informational texts in Newsela, the Smithsonian’s Tween Tribune, or News in Levels—the latter also provides audio versions of the articles for additional support.
  • Distribute Comprehension Bookmarks (see pp. 13–26) to readers who might struggle with a complex text.

6. Offer Targeted Scaffolding for Young Writers

  • For academic writing, temporarily supply a word bank of transitions, an essay structure graphic, or sentence frames.
  • The free SAS Writing Reviser, which integrates beautifully with Google Docs, analyzes essays for sentence economy, variety, power, and identifies clarity and grammar issues. Ask advanced writers to analyze and assess their compositions’ sentence variety and use of passive voice, while struggling writers can use the SAS tool to diagnose fragments, run-on sentences, and dangling modifiers.

If learners haven’t adapted to our classroom, classroom instruction should adapt to learners by experimenting with student-centered strategies.

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jennifer's picture

anyone have experience/ideas/resources for instruction in multi-age/grade - k - 4, 5 -8 - classrooms as it pertains to differentiated instruction?

Susan Sciara's picture

I don't know about data that supports that but my son is extremely gifted and was always put in the role of the peer tutor. He felt taken advantage of. There were topics he wanted to learn more about and explore but never got the chance.

jennifer's picture

as a mom of a gifted student and an elementary school classroom teacher, i absolutely agree with your son. what's the payback for a gifted student to be doing the teacher's work? the student's job is to be the best learner they can be. while it's fun and interesting for some students to work with other students of differing abilities, not everyone fits that mold. and so, differentiated instruction was invented! meet each learner where they are...

faisal's picture
I love to teach Mathematics

teaching the same concepts and skills to students with diverse abilities and interests is really a very challenging job. Every time we get new students, we need to find a new way to deliver the same concept in a new way

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Jennifer, I've taught multi-age for over 10 years now. The best thing we've done is to switch from a graded ELA program to Reader and Writer's Workshop. We also utilize many of the Daily 5/CAFE program elements into our workshop model. It allows me to teach mini-lessons on comprehension, fluency, writing, etc. to the whole group. Then the students practice on their own instructional level determined by running records. Each student has their own reading bag they use to practice the fluency and comprehension skills. For writing I have started making 3 versions of every graphic organizer or writing template we use so I always have an option for my students. For instance I will have a story map ideal for a grade 1 level, grade 2 level and a third option for my more gifted students who are working on a grade 3 or higher level. I do not pass out the papers based on grade level but either I will choose the paper for each student based on ability and support needed or as the year draws on I will teach my students how to pick the paper that best supports their ability. We still use graded programs for phonics (Fundations) and math (Eureka). We do occasionally combine groups for math where it allows (typically geometry, measurement, and money, but also for more numeric based skills). For other areas of math, we utilize tools such as cuisenaire rods, base ten blocks, place value chips, and other manipulatives to more easily differentiate. I HIGHLY recommend cuisenaire rods! I hope this helps.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Susan and Jennifer, While I agree using a student to do a teacher's job is wrong, I would like to share my experience with gifted children and how I approach it in my classroom. I am a parent of a gifted student. His teachers just sent him to the back of the room with the next grade math book or a special project and expected him to be self-directed learner. While some students will do ok with this method, many will not. In my classroom I work to teach the whole child. There have been gifted students who I know have social challenges. I've also had gifted students who don't know what steps they are taking to get the right answer and as they tell me "I just know." The math comes so easy they don't always know the algorithm steps they are taking. So I purposefully set them up with situations where they are "teaching" other students how to do something. It isn't because I don't want to do the teaching, but instead I do it for social or academic reasons. I always explain my reasoning to the parents so they are well aware of why their child is a peer mentor at times. I also work with some of these gifted students on their language skills during math time. I've had some who can easily do the math, but struggle with the word problem or crafting their written answer. Overall, I've watched gifted students make incredible gains in social, academic, and written skills as a result. I've also watched gifted students better understand the math algorithms they are using to "just know" the answer. All this being said, I also challenge these students with above grade level work.

Beckett Haight's picture

The idea of "compacting the curriculum" is especially salient. I am glad it is outlined here as one of the first steps because I think we often see 'extensions' as additional work, but if the 'extensions' are planned out, I gather that it is more rigorous and profound, but maybe not inherently longer.


Kayla's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. I feel that it is imperative that teachers are aware of how to teach their students from various backgrounds and diversity. I do feel that if teachers truly want to teach their students effectively they should receive the proper amount of training. It is hard for teachers to teach things and teach in various ways if they were not taught how to approach that.

Sabrina Parsons's picture

This was a very insightful and informative article. It provides methods that can be incorporated into the classroom that allows for the educator to meet the needs of individuals, but while working with the whole class. With that, it also demonstrates the techniques that can be used to bring the class together, while still taking cultural diversity into consideration.

Robin Berger's picture

Kayla, I agree that this is a great article for teachers who are unsure how to differentiate in their classrooms. It gives good strategies and explains each step so it is not overwhelming. What kind of training do you think teachers need to teach their students effectively?

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