George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Two boys looking at a laptop and open book

Each day, teachers face the task of helping students stay engaged, show growth, and master the curriculum. How can they do this? Should they open the textbook and start teaching on page one? Should they use ongoing formative assessments to determine the individual needs of the student, also called differentiated instruction (DI)? According to research presented at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement in January 2011 (PDF, 168KB), "No other factor contributed to the change in student's achievement further than the intervention of DI."

What DI Is and Isn't

Many teachers feel overwhelmed if you mention the words "differentiated instruction." In fact, I was one of those teachers. However, I have since learned that DI is not:

  • Creating an individual plan for each of my students
  • Keeping students in stagnant groups based on data from the beginning of the year
  • Teaching only the lower-level students and letting the higher-level students teach themselves

Instead, as stated in an ASCD infographic, differentiated instruction is when:

  • Students can be in groups based on skills, interests, readiness, or by choice
  • There is a "purposeful use of flexible grouping" while keeping the lesson's goals in mind
  • Teachers are "teaching up" and holding students to high standards

Over the last three years, I have found DI easier with the use of technology. Can a teacher just put a student on a computer or tablet and walk away? No. As Michael Petrilli said in EducationNext (Winter 2011), "With the advent of powerful online learning tools. . . students might be able to receive instruction that's truly individualized to their own needs -- differentiation on steroids." Technology has opened the doors for teachers to provide DI without feeling overwhelmed.

Differentiation Through Technology

When searching for technology that promotes differentiated instruction, you should look for how standards correlate, the availability of formative assessments, and options of different skill levels on the same content. Here are three educational technologies that enhance DI in the classroom:

1. SAS Curriculum Pathways

SAS Curriculum Pathways is a free online resource that provides interactive lessons, videos, audio tutorials, and apps for English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and Spanish. Teachers browse through the resources using state standards, a keyword, a subject category, or a level. The various interactive resources let students learn, practice skills, and have formative assessments to email, print, or save. This information helps teachers continue to group students based on their needs.

Screen grab of WritingReviser's Prepositional Phrases page

As an ELA teacher, I always needed an extra hand when giving individual feedback to students' essays. SAS Curriculum Pathways' WritingNavigator series allows students to focus on their specific needs. Students have choices throughout the writing process, and teachers can differentiate by giving students a list of basic or higher-level revision elements from which they can select. There is a wide array of choices that focus students on clarity, power, variety, and economy, including wordiness, passive voice, fragments, prepositional phrases, verbs, pronouns, and modifiers. The resource highlights where each chosen element is found within the essay for analysis. If a student needs more assistance, there are examples and descriptions for each element.

2. Newsela

Newsela allows students to read the same current events content, but it is differentiated to fit the needs of the specific student. Teachers assign or students choose articles by topic, reading standard, or lexile level. For each article, students select from five different lexile levels, ranging from grades 3-12. Some articles also have a four-question quiz providing feedback on correlating reading standards.

If you have the Newsela Pro version (they offer a free trial), you can assign articles to students' online binder. Students can highlight selections or answer teacher-created questions within the article. All quiz scores, highlighted information, and written responses are saved in the teacher's online binder to review and make adjustments as needed. This allows for flexible grouping, either by topic, reading skill, or lexile level.

3. EDpuzzle

One benefit of flipped classrooms is having more class time available for differentiated student-centered learning. Although EDpuzzle requires more steps from the teacher compared to the previous resources, I still encourage you to check this one out. Teachers start by uploading a video from another site or one that they created. In EDpuzzle, teachers can crop the video, insert an audio message, record their voice over the entire video, prevent students from fast-forwarding, and embed different types of quiz questions throughout. Then teachers assign students to watch the videos with the appropriate questions or notes. As students watch them and answer questions, the teacher can see how far they watched, how many times they watched a section, and their answers to the questions. This quickly lets teachers know which students completed the flipped classroom lesson, which ones have shown mastery and can move on, and which ones need to spend more time on the concept.

Although students enjoy using technology, a lot of students become even more engaged when they can create. EDpuzzle also allows students to upload a video and show their own learning to share with their teacher or classmates.

Learning From Where They Are

DI may feel overwhelming, but there are technology tools available to help teachers keep students engaged while matching instruction with students' instructional level. We need to allow them the opportunity to learn from where they actually are and not where the textbook or curriculum says they need to be. Differentiated Instruction will allow students to feel successful and empower them to become lifelong learners.

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Julie Stern's picture
Julie Stern
Instructional Resource Teacher and Reading Intervention Specialist

I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Students having their own technology is an extra benefit to providing differentiated instruction, but the great thing about these sites is you don't have to have personalized technology.

Deanna Gorka's picture

I enjoyed your article. DI has become a huge focus and priority in my district as well as our state's teacher evaluation system. I can honestly say that it can be overwhelming. Your article helped me see a different perspective of DI. It is not something to make a teacher's job more difficult, but rather improve student learning. I need to embrace it for that reason. I liked the ideas of using technology. I have used Newsela, but really only for offering my students articles on current events related to my Health class. I will investigate other more differentiated ways of using it. Thanks again for your perspective on DI and your insights.

Julie Stern's picture
Julie Stern
Instructional Resource Teacher and Reading Intervention Specialist

Bellina, I am glad you enjoyed this article! I hope you find each of the resources useful for your needs.

Julie Stern's picture
Julie Stern
Instructional Resource Teacher and Reading Intervention Specialist

Deanna, DI can seem overwhelming, but if you continue to look at it in small steps towards improving student success you will see such growth!! I encourage you to keep looking for ways you can incorporate DI with the educational technology you already use in your classroom.

Lauren King's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. Differentiated Instruction is an important part of my job since I work students who seem to be struggling in certain areas. The tools that you have mentioned are great ways to allow the students to work at their own levels and they will be very helpful to me while planning extended activities for the students who visit my classroom. DI does seem very overwhelming to me most of the time as I strive to assist each students needs. This article assured me that it is perfectly fine for students to visit my classroom and work below grade level to become more confident in themselves. Thanks!

Mrs. Penfield's picture

Thank you for your very informative article! I teach social studies to grades 6-8. My school strongly stresses the use of Differentiated Instruction (DI) for many reasons, including that we have a wide range of abilities and interests in our student body. I sometimes find myself a bit overwhelmed at how to accomplish effective DI in my classroom. I was excited to see that you incorporated technology into your discussion about DI because it is very practical knowledge for teachers today, but also because my school is beginning at 1:1 Google Chromebook program in the middle school this year. As such, all students will have access to technology in school and at home 24/7.
The websites that you have listed here will be very useful to me for incorporating technology and DI into my classes. I especially like that I could use Newsela to incorporate current events into my social studies classes and that students can find resources based on lexile level. (The students all know their lexile levels.)
I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of websites available that claim to be useful to teachers. Though, many of them are, I appreciate that you have vetted these in order to present them to us teachers so that we have more technology to include in our teaching repertoire.

Saira Shahrukh's picture

Indeed, this post is very useful.As i have been teaching English language to class 5, it is equally important and required to use differentiated instructions. However, the curriculum demands activities to enhance the reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. In that regard, I have to be particular while choosing a digital tool which can cater to these skills.
e.g. for an activity like referencer to context, they have to read a passage, simplify it by reading within the context and then write meaning in own words. What is the scope of DI in such language activities? can anyone share with any example?

Madiha Abbas's picture

This article helped me to identify what differentiated instruction Is and Isn't. I also liked the fact shared by the author that if we allow students to learn as per their ability and not focusing on where the textbook or curriculum expects them to be, we can make our students more confident and help them to become lifelong learners. In my opinion, we can achieve the learning objectives of the curriculum by raising the bar gradually to enhance their skills and and by making our students learn through collaborative work in order to develop new skills as well.

Tammy Whitlow's picture

While it may take a bit more effort on our parts as teachers, differentiated instruction allows us to meet the needs of our students. Without it, many of our students will be left behind. I look forward to utilizing the resources you shared in this article. Thanks for your insight!

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