Inside: Differentiated Instruction is a term that gets a lot of buzz these days. But, while differentiating instruction has a lot of value, it further stresses already under-resourced teachers. Here’s how to differentiate instruction, including for reading and ELL learners.

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that emphasizes the importance of catering to the diverse needs of students in a classroom. It is a method of teaching that recognizes that students have different learning styles, abilities, and interests.

The goal of differentiated instruction is to provide each student with the opportunity to learn in a way that is most effective for them.

In a differentiated classroom, teachers use a variety of strategies to meet the needs of all students. These strategies may include grouping students based on their learning style, providing different types of learning activities, and offering various levels of challenge.

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differentiated instruction
Differentiating Instruction is much more common today than it was a few decades ago.

The teacher also provides ongoing assessment to ensure that each student is making progress and receiving the support they need to succeed.

You may also want to read: What is Universal Design for Learning?

1. What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a flexible and adaptable way of teaching that recognizes the unique needs of each student.

Definition of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction is an approach to teaching that recognizes and responds to the diverse learning needs of students. It is a way of customizing instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.

This approach recognizes that students have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, and learning styles.

Differentiated instruction is about creating a learning environment that is inclusive and meets the needs of all students, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds.

differentiating instruction
Teachers may give students independent work to do and follow up with them individually.

Goals

The goal of differentiated instruction is to maximize student learning by tailoring instruction to meet the needs of individual learners. This approach recognizes that students have different abilities, interests, learning styles, and backgrounds.

By providing instruction that is tailored to the needs of individual learners, teachers can help students achieve their full potential. The goals of differentiated instruction are:

  • To provide students with a challenging and engaging learning experience
  • To promote student engagement and motivation
  • To improve student achievement
  • To create a learning environment that is inclusive and meets the needs of all students

In summary, differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that recognizes and responds to the diverse learning needs of students. It is a way of customizing instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.

The goal of differentiated instruction is to maximize student learning by tailoring instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.

how to differentiate instruction

2. Why Use Differentiated Instruction?

If your child has an IEP, and you want them to be in LRE (the gen ed classroom) then differentiated instruction is a must.

Benefits

Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that recognizes and responds to the diverse learning needs of students. By tailoring instruction to meet individual needs, differentiated instruction provides a number of benefits for both students and teachers.

One of the primary benefits of differentiated instruction is that it helps to engage and motivate students. When students feel that their learning needs are being met, they are more likely to be engaged and invested in their learning.

Additionally, differentiated instruction can help to improve student achievement, as it allows teachers to provide targeted instruction and support to students who need it most.

Another benefit of differentiated instruction is that it promotes inclusivity and equity in the classroom.

By recognizing and responding to the diverse learning needs of students, teachers can create a classroom environment that is welcoming and supportive for all students, regardless of their background or ability level.

Differentiated instruction is necessary if a child who learns differently is going to remain in the general education classroom.

3. Challenges of Differentiated Instruction

While there are many benefits to using differentiated instruction, there are also some challenges that teachers may face when implementing this approach. One of the biggest challenges is the time and effort required to plan and implement differentiated instruction effectively.

Over the years in IEP meetings, I’ve gotten a lot of pushback when talking about or requesting differentiated instruction for my clients.

And, I get it! Teachers already have class sizes that are too large, and they are overworked.

However, I feel that a teacher’s anger or frustration is misplaced. My job is to secure what my clients need to learn.

It is not my job to staff a classroom. If you need an aide, para or the child needs push-in services, and you cannot get them–that is not my fault. Or my client’s fault. I have devoted a tremendous amount of my personal time and resources toward lobbying for more money for public education.

That said, teachers are quitting in record numbers and yes, differentiated instruction plays a role in that.

Teachers must take the time to assess student needs, design appropriate learning activities, and provide individualized support to students, which can be time-consuming and challenging.

Another challenge of differentiated instruction is that it requires a high level of teacher expertise and skill.

Teachers must be able to effectively assess student needs, design appropriate learning activities, and provide individualized support to students, which requires a deep understanding of both content and pedagogy.

Despite these challenges, many teachers find that the benefits of differentiated instruction far outweigh the challenges, and that this approach can be highly effective in meeting the diverse learning needs of students.

4. How to Implement Differentiated Instruction

Assessment

To implement differentiated instruction, teachers need to begin with a thorough assessment of students’ knowledge, skills, and interests. This assessment should be ongoing and should inform the teacher’s decisions about how to differentiate instruction.

Assessment can take many forms, including formal tests, informal observations, student self-assessments, and peer assessments. Teachers can use data from assessments to group students based on their needs and to identify areas where students need additional support or challenge.

Content

Once teachers have assessed their students’ needs, they can begin to differentiate the content of their instruction. This might involve providing students with different reading materials, assigning different tasks or projects, or using multimedia resources to present information in different ways.

Teachers can also use technology to differentiate content, such as providing students with videos or interactive activities that allow them to explore concepts in different ways.

Process

Teachers can also differentiate instruction by varying the process by which students learn. This might involve providing students with different learning activities, such as group work, independent study, or hands-on projects.

Teachers can also vary the pace of instruction, providing some students with more time to complete tasks or allowing them to work ahead if they are ready.

Product

Differentiating product means allowing students to demonstrate their learning in different ways. This might involve providing students with different types of assessments, such as written assignments, presentations, or multimedia projects.

Teachers can also allow students to choose how they want to demonstrate their learning, giving them more autonomy and control over their own learning.

Environment

Finally, teachers can differentiate instruction by varying the learning environment. This might involve providing students with different seating options, such as standing desks or bean bag chairs.

Teachers can also vary the lighting, temperature, and noise level of the classroom to create a more comfortable and productive learning environment.

5. Differentiated Instruction Strategies

Here are some strategies commonly used in differentiated instruction:

  1. Tiered Assignments: Provide varying levels of complexity or depth within the same lesson or task to cater to different ability levels. Students can choose assignments that match their readiness and skill level.
  2. Flexible Grouping: Group students based on their learning needs and abilities. These groups can be formed for different activities or subjects. For example, students can work in pairs, small groups, or individually based on their strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Learning Menus/Choice Boards: Provide a menu or board with a variety of learning activities and allow students to choose tasks that align with their interests, learning styles, or readiness levels. The menu may include options such as written assignments, projects, presentations, or hands-on activities.
  4. Varied Instructional Materials: Offer different resources and materials to support different learning preferences. This can include textbooks, articles, videos, audio recordings, or online resources. Students can choose the materials that best suit their learning style.
  5. Scaffolded Instruction: Break down complex tasks or concepts into smaller, manageable steps. Provide support, such as graphic organizers, guided notes, or checklists, to help students progress through the learning process.
  6. Learning Contracts: Collaborate with students to develop personalized learning contracts that outline their learning goals, strategies, and assessment methods. This promotes ownership and accountability in the learning process.
  7. Formative Assessment and Feedback: Use ongoing assessments to gather data about students’ progress and understanding. Provide timely feedback to guide their learning and offer additional support or enrichment opportunities as needed.
  8. Technology Integration: Utilize technology tools and resources to provide differentiated learning experiences. This can include educational apps, multimedia presentations, online simulations, or adaptive learning software.
  9. Varied Instructional Strategies: Use a range of teaching strategies, such as direct instruction, collaborative learning, hands-on activities, inquiry-based approaches, or problem-solving tasks. This helps engage students with diverse learning preferences.
  10. Individualized Learning Plans: Develop individualized plans for students with specific learning needs or exceptionalities. These plans outline accommodations, modifications, and additional support to ensure equitable learning opportunities.

Remember that differentiated instruction is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and strategies should be adjusted based on the specific needs and context of your students.

It’s essential to gather information about your students’ abilities, interests, and learning styles to effectively implement differentiated instruction in your classroom.

How to Differentiate Instruction for ELL Students

When differentiating instruction for English Language Learners (ELLs), it’s crucial to consider their unique language needs and provide scaffolds and supports to help them access the content while developing their English proficiency. Here are some strategies for differentiating instruction for ELL students:

  1. Pre-Assessment: Conduct a pre-assessment to determine the students’ language proficiency level, prior knowledge, and skills. This information will help you tailor instruction to their specific needs.
  2. Visual Supports: Incorporate visual aids such as charts, graphs, diagrams, pictures, and gestures to support comprehension. Visuals can help ELL students understand concepts, vocabulary, and instructions more easily.
  3. Modified Texts: Adapt reading materials to match the students’ language proficiency level. Use simplified texts, provide bilingual dictionaries or translations, or highlight key vocabulary and concepts to support comprehension.
  4. Language Scaffolding: Break down complex language structures and provide sentence frames, graphic organizers, or word banks to support ELL students’ oral and written communication. Encourage them to use their native language as a bridge to understanding new concepts.
  5. Vocabulary Instruction: Explicitly teach and reinforce key vocabulary words and phrases related to the content. Use visuals, gestures, real-life examples, and contextual clues to help ELL students understand and remember new vocabulary.
  6. Cooperative Learning: Encourage ELL students to work in small groups or pairs with English-proficient peers. This allows for language practice, peer support, and the sharing of ideas. Assign roles and responsibilities to ensure active participation.
  7. Multimodal Learning: Engage ELL students through a variety of modalities such as audio recordings, videos, hands-on activities, and technology-based resources. This helps reinforce understanding and allows for different entry points to the content.
  8. Comprehensible Input: Deliver instruction in a clear and understandable manner. Speak slowly, use simple and concise language, and provide frequent checks for understanding. Use gestures, body language, and visual aids to support comprehension.
  9. Differentiated Assignments: Offer different options for demonstrating understanding and mastery of content. Allow ELL students to express themselves through speaking, writing, drawing, or using their first language when necessary.
  10. Culturally Responsive Instruction: Value and incorporate the cultural backgrounds and experiences of ELL students in the classroom. Provide opportunities for them to share their perspectives, stories, and traditions with classmates.

Remember that building relationships with ELL students and creating a supportive and inclusive classroom environment are key to their success.

Differentiated instruction for ELLs should be flexible and responsive, taking into account their individual needs and progress in language acquisition.

ELL students and differentiated instruction
ELL students often need differentiated instruction strategies.

6. Examples of Differentiated Instruction

By differentiating assessment, content, process, product, and environment, teachers can create a more engaging and effective learning experience for all students.

Elementary School Examples of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction in elementary school can take many forms, including:

  • Using leveled reading groups to match students with appropriate texts
  • Providing choice in assignments to engage students’ interests and strengths
  • Using manipulatives and visuals to support students’ understanding of math concepts
  • Offering multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning, such as through drawings, writing, or oral presentations

By differentiating instruction in these ways, teachers can better meet the diverse needs of their young learners.

Examples of Differentiated Instruction in Middle School

In middle school, differentiated instruction can become more complex. Examples include:

  • Offering flexible grouping to allow students to work with others who have similar needs or interests
  • Providing scaffolds and supports for struggling learners, such as graphic organizers or sentence stems
  • Incorporating technology to engage students and provide multiple ways to access content
  • Using formative assessments to monitor student progress and adjust instruction accordingly

By differentiating instruction in these ways, teachers can help their middle school students stay engaged and motivated.

Examples of Differentiated Instruction in High School

Differentiated instruction in high school can be challenging, but it is still possible. Examples include:

  • Offering choice in assignments and assessments to allow students to demonstrate their learning in ways that align with their interests and strengths
  • Providing opportunities for students to work collaboratively or independently, depending on their needs and preferences
  • Using real-world examples and applications to connect content to students’ lives and interests
  • Offering advanced or honors options for students who need more challenging work

By differentiating instruction in these ways, teachers can help their high school students stay engaged and prepared for college and beyond.

7. Frequently Asked Questions about Differentiated Instruction

What are some strategies for differentiating instruction?

Teachers can differentiate instruction by varying the content, process, and product of their lessons. For example, they can use tiered assignments, flexible grouping, and learning contracts to provide students with different levels of challenge and support.

How can teachers use student data to inform differentiated instruction?

Teachers can use a variety of data sources, such as formative assessments, student work samples, and anecdotal records, to identify students’ strengths, needs, and interests. They can then use this information to adjust their instruction and provide targeted feedback to students.

What are some benefits of differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction can help students achieve academic success, develop self-efficacy, and increase their engagement and motivation. It can also help teachers address the diverse needs of their students and create a positive classroom climate.

How can teachers differentiate instruction for students with diverse learning needs?

Teachers can differentiate instruction for students with diverse learning needs by providing multiple ways of representing, expressing, and engaging with content. For example, they can use visual aids, manipulatives, and technology to support students’ learning.

What are some examples of differentiated instruction in math?

Teachers can differentiate instruction in math by using a variety of strategies, such as tiered lessons, math stations, and problem-based learning. They can also provide students with opportunities to work collaboratively, use technology, and receive individualized feedback.

How can technology be used to support differentiated instruction?

Technology can be used to support differentiated instruction by providing students with access to online resources, adaptive learning platforms, and multimedia tools. Teachers can also use technology to collect and analyze student data, provide feedback, and personalize instruction.

I hope that this has given you a framework and better understanding of differentiated instruction. In making SDI requests for an IEP, you should be clear about what type of instruction your child needs, and have the documentation to support it.

As an aside, people often misspell the words differentiated instruction. I have seen diffentiated instruction, differenated instruction, differntiated instruction and differeniated instruction. It’s a mouthful, for sure! But hopefully your spell checker picked it up.

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