Differentiated Instruction

What Works for Differentiating Instruction in Elementary Schools

How you can start personalizing learning in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months, and beyond.

May 24, 2010
Photo credit: Mark Wagoner

Customizing your teaching to suit each child makes eminent sense. Kids are different, they learn differently, so we should teach them differently, right? But when you're staring out at 20 or 30 students as individual as snowflakes, you may find yourself asking that ever-daunting question: "How?"

The short answer is: one step at a time. Teachers at Forest Lake Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, have made it their mission for the past decade to differentiate instruction for their diverse students. They started small, and they've grown and honed their strategies each year.

Here are their tips -- combined with some advice from Edutopia bloggers and members of the Edutopia community -- on how you can get started. And please use the comments field below to ask questions and add your own suggestions!

In 5 minutes you can

  • Read students' files. In an ideal world, someone would tell you any important details from a child's school record before she arrives in your class. But in reality, you may need to do the research yourself.
  • Use a KWL chart. This is a simple chart on which each student writes what she already knows ("K") about a given topic, what she wants to know ("W"), and then -- to be filled out at the end of the lesson -- what she actually learned ("L"). You can use these charts like cheat sheets to spot strengths or gaps in students' base knowledge.
  • Survey students' interests. Ask them how they like to learn and present their knowledge, and what their favorite activities are. With young children, you can have them draw a smiley or sad face in response to questions like, "Do you like drawing pictures?" Then you'll be better armed to play to their passions and strengths.
  • Find a video, graphic, or set of photos to enhance a lesson. The more ways you can present information, the more it's likely to reach different students. (See the list of websites to check out on our Downloads and Resources page.) You can find tips in Edutopia's video and article on YouTube for teachers.
  • Give options on how to find information. When students research a topic, maximize their choices on ways to complete the task.
  • Check for understanding. You can check instantly using a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down question-and-answer or, if you have them, electronic remote clickers. Forest Lake curriculum coordinator Marian Scullion suggests using an exit slip; after a lesson, have students write their answers to a quick question about what they've learned. Then, use that feedback to plan for the next day.
  • Ask a question in Edutopia's differentiated instruction discussion. If you'll forgive us a little self-promotion, membership is free, and you'll find fellow educators eager to share ideas with you.
  • Start a Twitter account. Despite its reputation, Twitter is not all blather about what your old college friend Kim had for breakfast. It's a great way to connect with fellow teachers. You can pose questions and share resources with dozens or hundreds of colleagues at once. Consider following educators on this thoughtful list or Edutopia's guest bloggers.

In 5 days you can

  • Arrange desks into collaborative clusters or stations. The key is to give your classroom flexibility and enable varied work to go on at once. Include options for sitting on the floor, which is better for kids who don't learn as well while sitting still in a chair.
  • Plan assignments with choices. Sticking with written essays and short-answer tests doesn't give every student a chance to shine. Try offering options such as writing a poem or play, producing a video, giving an oral presentation, designing a brochure, or creating a comic strip. You might be surprised what you get. (Scullion's tip: For young students, try a tic-tac-toe grid. Give various choices on how to show learning, like writing a poem or a song or making a brochure. Arrange them on the grid so that when kids pick three options in a straight line, they get variety.)
  • Accommodate: Edutopia blogger Rebecca Alber writes, "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."
  • Use workshop activities. Come up with several activities -- each tapping different learning styles -- for one lesson. Then have small groups of students cycle through them. Scullion says, "If we don't give kids a chance to experiment, they may not know they're good at something or like it." If you group together students with similar strengths or weaknesses, you could vary the instructions you give each group, making their tasks more basic or advanced.
  • Survey parents about their children. A simple take-home survey can give you quick insights about a child's hobbies, interests, strengths, or struggles. Arts and electives teachers in your school could offer insight on certain students, as well.
  • Find online materials for different levels. You no longer have to go out and buy math books for, say, second, third and fourth grades just to get diverse enough lessons to match the skills of all your third graders. There are lots of free lesson plans and curricula available online. Here are the sites that Edutopia readers recommend.

In 5 weeks you can

  • Make a scaffolding toolkit. Alber suggests, "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."
  • Practice procedures for independent and collaborative work. Forest Lake's rule of thumb is that each procedure needs to be practiced 28 times to stick. When you introduce a new activity, such as independently listening to an audio book, give students enough practice to become adept at it. Then add another. Eventually, you'll be able to work with a small group while the other children learn without your constant supervision.
  • Share planning duties with a fellow teacher. Find someone at your school who shares your passion for differentiated instruction and join forces. Divide up the work; each of you can devise different versions of a lesson for different learning styles and abilities. Plus, once you get a few people excited about this effort, it can be contagious.
  • Read a book. There are a number of helpful ones about differentiated instruction. Check out Forest Lake's staff reading list from the past few years. Also, Edutopia blogger Elena Aguilar recommends Rick Wormeli's Fair Isn't Always Equal, and books by Carol Ann Tomlinson. Others in the Edutopia online community suggest the authors Gayle H. Gregory and Carolyn Chapman.
  • Introduce one new tech tool. Digital tools -- such as video cameras, drawing software, or Web applications like Google Earth -- can really expand students' options for learning and showing their knowledge (here's what this looks like at Forest Lake). Pick just one new thing at a time, and experiment with it for yourself before introducing it in class.
  • Write a grant for a new digital tool. If there are tools you want that you don't have, there may be a way to get them. Check out Forest Lake's tips on raising money for technology.

In 5 months you can

  • Get to know the diverse cultures and experiences in your classroom. Invite students to share their home culture with classmates. Seek out books, movies and other experiences to familiarize yourself with the norms of different nationalities, ethnicities and income levels. (Forest Lake staff members read Ruby K. Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty, and Scullion says it helped her understand the actions of some children differently.)
  • Start a faculty book club. Choose books on differentiated instruction, and try adding one strategy a month from what you read.
  • Establish a regular meeting time for collaborative planning. Aim to create one or two robust, differentiated units of study by the end of the year. Refine them, use them again the next year, and start building more.
  • Boast (nicely). If you try something new and it succeeds, showcase it for your colleagues and tell parents about it. Set aside a time at faculty meetings to do just this. Teach each other. Your good strategies may spread, and others may add their own ideas.

In 5 years you can

  • Continue building your strategies and tools. If you add and master just one at a time, refining the best techniques as you go, eventually you'll have a big arsenal.
  • Stay current. Keep the discussion alive with colleagues in your school and in social networks (such as Twitter, Edutopia, and others) to find fresh ideas and avoid stagnating.
  • Cheerlead and coach. Differentiating instruction can seem daunting. Encourage your fellow educators, offer them resources, and model lessons. Sometimes it helps just to see what's possible.
  • Build your technology toolkit. The possibilities for differentiation balloon with Internet and computer access and multimedia tools. Forest Lake started with just one computer in each classroom and slowly worked up to being an incredibly wired school.
School Snapshot

Forest Lake Elementary School

Grades K-5 | Columbia, SC
592 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$4281 School
Free / Reduced Lunch
65% Black
27% White
5% Hispanic
2% Asian

5% English Learners

Data is from the 2009-10 academic year.

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Filed Under

  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Family Engagement
  • Technology Integration
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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