Differentiated instruction is a way of modifying the learning experience to meet students where they are. Because no two students learn the same way, differentiating a lesson makes a teacher’s curriculum more accessible to students whose abilities vary from their peers. It ensures that high-quality instruction reaches every student in the classroom.
Who Benefits from Differentiated Instruction?
The goal of differentiating a lesson is to provide universal access to instruction while maintaining consistent learning objectives across student groups. While differentiated instruction helps all students, the benefits of differentiated instruction primarily impact:
- English learners
- Students with special needs
- Gifted students
- Students with different learning styles (e.g., visual learners or kinesthetic learners)
- Struggling readers
Lesson modifications should seem invisible, since no student wants to be separated from their peers due to their abilities. That’s why it’s important to have a number of strategies that seamlessly blend every student’s needs into classroom instruction.
Differentiated Instruction Strategies
Inclusive classrooms that include a diverse population of students require teachers to meet a wide range of needs. However, there are many low-preparation methods that work with any grade level, subject, or classroom to keep students’ learning goals consistent. According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, students engage with instruction in three ways:
- Readiness (skill levels and prior knowledge)
- Interests (choices and backgrounds)
- Learning profiles (learning styles and brain intelligences)
Teacher-led instruction, such as lecturing in front of the class, works for some students but may leave others behind. There are four ways to effectively differentiate instruction to meet every students’ needs:
- Learning environment
Examples of Differentiated Content
Instructional content consists of concepts, knowledge, and skills that students are expected to learn. However, not every student comes to the classroom with the same prior knowledge.
Scaffolding, or building steps of gradually diminishing support into instruction, is a helpful way to ensure that all students have access to your classroom content. Here are some ways to modify and scaffold the content in your classroom.
- Explicitly teach definitions of grade-level vocabulary words before reading a story.
- Play videos and presentations to fill in content gaps before introducing a new concept.
- Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to create a variety of assessment questions that reach all students.
- Increase the number of steps needed for assignments or projects (or decrease for gifted learners).
- Highlight important information or key terms in a text.
- Bring graphic organizers into the classroom to help students organize and understand their own learning process.
Differentiated Process Examples
Students with various learning styles process information in different ways. Some students require one-on-one attention from a teacher in order to grasp a concept. Others may benefit from independent work sessions. You can adjust the learning process in your classroom in a number of ways.
Some of these strategies include:
- Play audio recordings of stories while students read along to assist both auditory and visual learners.
- Use learning apps that permit students to work at their own pace.
- Allow students to choose research topics by interest rather than assigning a prompt.
- Design jigsaw activities that enable higher-level students to guide and assist their peers.
- Create learning stations for groups to rotate through. Use an instructional aide at one of the groups to check for understanding and help struggling readers.
- Incorporate hands-on activities with math manipulatives, science experiments, and language arts projects.
- Permit students who need more time to complete their work at home or in learning centers.
Differentiated Product Ideas
What students produce is a demonstration of what they have learned, also known as an assessment. While some students may succeed with straightforward worksheets, others require a variety of assessment options. Use these ideas to change up your product expectations in a differentiated lesson.
- Provide students with options for final assessment projects, including portfolios, music videos, plays, one-pagers, and Lego creations.
- Have small groups express the mood of a story or book with an art project or interpretive dance.
- Vary timelines and deadlines based on student needs and abilities.
- Customize rubrics to match and extend different student skill levels.
- Assign specific roles to members of groups based on strengths and areas that need improvement.
- Let students choose which questions they’d like to answer on an assessment that varies in difficulty.
Differentiated Learning Environment Examples
A student’s learning environment includes a physical classroom and the student’s affect, which is their emotional attitude toward education. Both of these factors can have a huge impact on educational success. Here are some ways of modifying the learning environment for every student in your class.
- Include standing desks and wiggle chairs as seating options in your classroom.
- Teach multicultural literature that represents the backgrounds of students in your class.
- Prominently list expectations and parameters for assignments on a classroom poster.
- Take stretch breaks or play physical games during transitions.
- Design short lessons to maintain student attention and interest.
- Keep classroom decorations to a minimum to avoid overstimulating learners.
- Check in with students’ emotional health using classroom journals, one-on-one talks, and behavior charts.
- Let students decorate their own learning portfolios or book covers.
Is Your Instruction Differentiated?
Now that you know what differentiated instruction is, are you including it in your lessons? Take a moment to see if your lesson is successfully differentiated by answering these questions.
- Have you removed possible stumbling blocks in each part of the lesson?
- Are all students engaged?
- Are your learning goals intact for each student?
- Are there any barriers to learning for the lowest readers in your class? What about the highest readers?
- Will active kinesthetic learners feel stifled or excited by your lesson?
- Do English learners have the tools to understand and meet your expectations?
- Are gifted students bored?
- Could every student describe what they have learned in some way?
More Instructional Resources
High-quality lesson plans should always include differentiation options for students with varying abilities. The benefits of differentiated instruction are better learning experiences for your entire class. If you’d like some tips on improving your lesson plans, check out our article on writing strong learning objectives.