Your (simple) Guide to Differentiated Instruction

No two students learn the same and every student enters the classroom with a unique set of skills and experiences. Additionally, every student has individual language skills, background knowledge, readiness to learn and other factors that make their learning needs different from that of their peers. Despite these differences, the expectation is that the teacher responsible for this class has the ability to meet the needs of every student in their class. Successfully meeting the needs of every students begins with meeting each child where they are and strategically guiding them to where they need to be. We call this differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that requires teachers to consider the specific needs of each child in their class and designing instruction and a classroom environment that is on their level or compliments a specific learning style. Differentiated instruction is not individual lesson plans for every child in your classroom– this would be almost impossible in a traditional setting.  It is also more than grouping students according to their math/reading level. Differentiated instruction does however require teachers to tap into the individual interests and strengths of each student and to consider that when planning lessons, activities and units of study. In addition to grouping students for small group instruction, teachers can use a variety of teaching methods and strategies that support the three major learning styles (auditory, tactile/kinesthetic, and visual). Flexible grouping methods are also an important component of differentiated instruction; it promotes peer collaboration while providing appropriate levels of challenge for all students on their independent and instructional level (advanced, proficient, basic, below basic). Flexible grouping also provide several learning options or different paths of learning that promotes inquiry and help students to take in information and make sense of new concepts and skills. When differentiating instruction it is super critical that teachers build on students’ background knowledge to make learning meaningful and relevant. Students learn best when they make connections and build on a concept.

Preparing to Differentiate Instruction 
When preparing to differentiate instruction you can follow these steps:

  • Get to know your students.
    • Compile data using informal/ formal assessments. This will assist you with identifying students’ independent and instructional levels.
    • Use a learning style inventory to learn how your students think they learn best- use informal observations to help identify what learning style(s) students lean toward most.
    • Have your students complete interest inventories- learn what they like and dislike, what they enjoy, how do they work best, what their subject preferences are, what they like to learn about, etc.
  • Establish a system or routine for differentiated instruction
    • Build in instructional time where students have the flexibility to work independently on their level- think about your center and/workshop schedule. Are you doing Daily 5 or traditional guided reading? Are you going to provide reading workshop time or center time? When will students have an opportunity to work independently or in a small group to practice important skills and what games/activities will they be working on so that this time is purposeful and meaningful? Remember this time can happen several times throughout the day and for varying time limits. For example, during morning work (usually the first 30-45 minutes of the day) students can work independently on a review activity. During this time, you may have a few students on the computer (using a rotating computer schedule)You might listen to a student read, work on last nights math problem with a student who said they had a hard time, do a word sort with your students who need extra support with a concept. The idea is to get the most out of your time throughout the day and to turn “busy” work into “active thinking”  work.
  • Establish a variety ways to differentiate whole group instruction 
    • Use a variety of graphic organizers, provide verbal and written expectations, use visual aids/ anchor charts, provide “cheat sheets”/ binder buddies with steps and/or skill reminders.
    • When going over important concepts in class, even if you are putting notes on the board or using anchor charts, establish a routine for your lower level students by providing them an outline prior to the lesson that highlights key words, concepts and images if necessary.
    • Refer to word walls, posted anchor charts from previous lessons, notes from previous lessons.
    • Use interactive notebooks to keep students engaged throughout the lesson.
    • Tap into a variety of learning modalities when presenting information to be sure to meet the needs of the various learning styles.
    • Integrate technology– i.e. video clips, interactive demonstrations, podcast.
    • Plan, gather, create activities in advance that teach to the middle, high and low.
  • Create a culture of independence in your classroom 
    • Establish routines for transitioning in and out of the room and from one activity to the next.
    • Be consistent with the  materials required for each subject.
    • Have classroom systems for sharpening pencils, throwing away trash, going to the bathroom, and moving around the room.
    • Use signals to get students attention.
    • Provide student materials at their reach, label everything and create a system for retrieving and returning supplies.
    • Consistently follow your schedule/ routine (not including emergencies/unexpected hiccups in the routine and assemblies etc.).
    • Keep to your small group and center/workshop schedule, establish a system for setting up and breaking down their work areas.
  • Provide a variety of assessments
    • Use exit slips to get a daily status of the class- use that data to create a quick warm-up (by level is necessary) at the start of your lesson the next day or to group students, assign activities, reteach material, and /or provide individual support.
    • Write the standard on the top of your worksheets- make students aware of what they are expected to be able to do. This helps them become aware of what they know and don’t know which is great for elf-reflection and assessment. Check out my post on student-led parent conferences).
    • When giving a quiz or assessment, write the standard next to each question for the same reason above.
    • Always provide your students with a rubric using common core language for open ended questions, paragraph writing, summaries, etc.
Providing Differentiated Instruction 
Instruction can be differentiated based on three general areas:
  • content of instruction
  • process and techniques used to help make sense of a given topic
  • products produced by students that demonstrate their learning
When focusing on content the question is, “What will I teach and how will I maximize my students’ learning?” It is important that you understand your students, know what their interests are, and how they learn best so that you can get the most out of your instruction.
  • Start each year, quarter, semester, unit, etc with some kind of interest or knowledge survey and/or pre-test. Find out what they know and meet them where they are instructionally and interest wise.
  •  Incorporate higher order questioning based on Bloom’s Taxonomy when developing activities, quizzes and tests.
  • Use a variety of ways to deliver instruction to address the different learning styles in your room (anchor charts, overhead projector, videos, podcasts, read alouds, etc.)
  • Use more mini lessons that follow a “I Do, We Do, You Do” format. This is where the teacher models the skill, provides guided practice as a whole group, and then provides independent practice so that they can travel the room to provide support as needed.
  • Post Mastery Objectives at the start of every lesson so that students know exactly what they are expected to know how to do by the end of the lesson.

The process in which you use for students to grasp content is important. This is where the learning occurs. How are you providing opportunities for your students to translate what they have learned?

  • Provide access to a variety of materials.
  • Develop lessons that address the three different learning styles.
  • Provide students with hands-on/ minds-on learning experiences through the implementation of center time/ workshop.
  • Use flexible grouping and regroup as necessary- especially when considering content, purpose and abilities.
  • Incorporate inquiry based activities so that students are encouraged to actively question and seek answers.
By providing students with a variety of ways to “show what they know”, you promote success and student buy-in. Students should be assessed several different ways- as each assessment can give you different information.
  • Use a variety of assessment strategies such as: status of the class (thumbs up, or other signals that inform you that they get it or not), interactive student portfolios, performance based assessments, formative/ summative assessments
  • Have a balance of teacher selected and student selected assessments (choice boards, student contracts)
  • Have a variety of ways for students to conclude a unit (foldables, flip books, lap boos)
  • Incorporate student-led parent conferences.
So there you have it, a quick guide to differentiating instruction. It is more then just individualized lesson plans and, I bet you were already doing some of these things anyway! I am big on differentiation. I am the teacher that requests the low of the low and the high of the high and of course anyone in the middle. I love incorporating different strategies and teaching methods and I am a fan of center/workshop time. I believe the easiest way to ensure that all students are getting what they need is to establish small group instruction and independent practice. I spend a great deal of time in the beginning of the school year developing my students’ independence. Primarily because I want them to be able to work in small groups and/or alone when necessary so that they can get authentic hands-on practice with a particular skill. I use a variety of games and activities that have answer cards built in so that students can self-check. This keeps their independent practice meaningful and purposeful. This year I will spend more time creating a center unit that not only has a game but also a pre-assessment and post-assessment so that teachers and students have another way to monitor progress.
File folder games help make differentiation easy. I have a good selection of file folder games and I have more on the way! Check them out here: