How to Differentiate Instruction: 10 Classroom Strategies

children playing in classroom

Differentiated instruction is when the teacher modifies their techniques to suit the needs of a diverse classroom.

Students have different learning styles, interests, and motivation levels. So, teachers should try to develop their lessons in a way that is flexible and able to accommodate the differences among their students.

Definition of Differentiated Instruction

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson is one of the most recognized proponents of differentiated instruction, which she defined as:

“an instructional model that provides guidance for teachers in addressing student differences in readiness, interest, and learning profile with the goal of maximizing the capacity of each learner” (Tomlinson, 2018, p. 279).

To accomplish differentiated instruction, teachers can modify their classroom layout, allow for students to choose subjects and methods, and develop testing procedures that give all students an opportunity to excel.

How to Differentiate Instruction

  • Learning centers: A kindergarten teacher has divided the classroom into learning centers that contain materials that match various student interests: building blocks, arts and crafts, puppetry and role-play.
  • Interest-based differentiation: A high-school history teacher realizes that several student-athletes are not particularly interested in writing an essay on WWII. So, he allows them to write about how the war impacted the NFL.
  • Differentiated assessment: Instead of requiring all students to write a book report based on a book they read, the teacher provides audio books and allows students to make audio recordings of their book report.
  • Student choice: Students work in groups to design and produce a poster on Arctic animals and pollution. Each student gets to choose what role they play in the project; some will do research, others will write, and others will handle the artistic aspects of the poster.
  • Subject interest options: Students are grouped according to subject interests and allowed to choose their topic for an oral presentation at the end of the term.
  • Differentiation of difficulty level: Students in a high school art class are given different pictures to use as a model. The pictures vary in terms of their complexity and color schemes so that less skilled students try their hand at simpler pictures, while the more talented students get Monet’s and Picassos. 
  • Differentiated tasks: More advanced students are grouped with less advanced students that need more development so the advanced students can experience teaching their knowledge while the less experienced students can get peer guidance.
  • Grouping students by ability levels: A teacher in an EFL class simplifies her questions to lower-level students, while more advanced students receive questions that have more complex sentence structure.
  • Physically grouping students to differentiate: A kindergarten teacher arranges the seating for the playdough lesson so students that need the most help are sitting near each other. This makes it easier for her to help them and not have to spend so much time moving from student to student.
  • Differentiated learning stations: Students are grouped according to reading skills and placed at different reading stations that contain appropriate leveled readers.

See 31 more examples of differentiation here.

5 Best Ways to Differentiate Instruction

1. Skills-Based Grouping

In addition to students having different learning styles, they also differ in terms of their skills and abilities. One way to differentiate instruction is to allow students to participate in group projects based on their unique skillsets.

A teacher in a high school English literature course really wants her students to do an end of term play. But, she has observed throughout the term that not all students are completely enthralled with the idea of acting on a stage.

So, she decides to do a quick assessment of her students’ skills. She discovers that some students have carpentry skills, while others are good at painting. There are also a few students who seem to be natural leaders and good at talking to and motivating their classmates.

Her course of action seems clear; some students can build the sets, some can paint and decorate it, and others can serve as directors and project managers.

The students respond quite enthusiastically to this plan and things get started with a level of collective energy she has not seen in this group all semester.

2. A Charity Campaign

In a university social work course, the end of term assessment is to design and hold a charitable event for the homeless. Recognizing that not all students have the same level of interest in the issue, the professor decides to be flexible and implement a degree of differentiated instruction.

To get things started, the professor writes the different tasks needed to be done on the board. He begins to go down the list and briefly describes each task.

Instead of assigning students to take on different responsibilities, he lets the students choose.

Some tasks require making contact with sponsors and convincing them to fund the event.

Other tasks involve designing marketing material such as posters to advertise the event and pamphlets on homelessness to distribute to participants. Still other tasks involve designing digital content to release on social media.

The students are quite pleased to get to choose what they want and appear highly motivated.

3. Flash Card Speed Differentiation

Children read at a wide range of speeds. Advanced readers can process a word in microseconds with incredible ease. It takes nearly zero cognitive capacity or attentional focus. However, struggling readers will need to concentrate and focus on the phonetics of each and every letter.

In this situation, a teacher absolutely needs to practice differentiated instruction. Presenting struggling readers with a set of flash cards that consist of multi-syllable words is way too difficult. Not only will it be unhelpful, but it can and will probably destroy their self-confidence.

Therefore, the teacher needs to select the flash cards carefully. Then, when presenting them to struggling students, they need to go nice and slow; maybe even covering-up most of the letters and revealing each one at a time, slowly.

For advanced readers, that of course will be too boring. So, using more complex words and presenting them rapidly, in succession, will make the task a lot more challenging. This will get the interest of those advanced readers and they might even ask the teacher to go faster!

4. Station Rotation

A big component of differentiated instruction involves classroom design. Setting desks up in rows is very traditional, but there are other ways to organize the room.

One of those ways is to create small stations using tables instead of desks. The teacher can place tables in different areas of the classroom to create stations. Each station is focused on a specific aspect of the lesson or on developing a particular skill.

For example, one station may contain a lot of visual material regarding the lesson. Another station might be more tactile and include objects that can be touched and manipulated. While a third station may be experiential based and involve students participating in a role-play.

Students start at one station and engage the materials located there. After a certain period of time, 15 – 20 minutes, the teacher blows a whistle and the students rotate to different stations.

5. Differentiating Text Assignments

Children in a single classroom can vary greatly in regards to their reading skills. This is especially true at the lower primary school levels. Therefore, if there was ever a need for differentiated instruction, reading is it.

Teachers can achieve differentiated instruction for a reading assignment by varying the difficulty of an after-reading task. For example, struggling learners can read aloud so that the teacher can hear their pronunciation and provide prompts as necessary.

Readers at a slightly higher level can be given a response completion (e.g., fill in the blank) worksheet to assess their comprehension.

Readers that are on schedule can make a story outline that identifies key facts, while advanced readers may be given an opportunity to explain the different perspectives of the characters in a story.

This requires a bit of extra work for the teacher when preparing the lesson materials, but the pay-off will be worth it.

Conclusion

It may seem obvious that lessons should match the ability of the students, but for a long time, educational practices did not always recognize this principle.

Today, classrooms are far more diverse than ever before; not only in terms of abilities, but also in regard to interests, motivation levels, and cultural backgrounds.

This makes the job of the teacher a lot more challenging. Differentiated instruction means teachers have to spend more time thinking and planning their lessons, but it has to be done.

References

Bondie, R. S., Dahnke, C., & Zusho, A. (2019). How Does Changing “One-Size-Fits-All” to Differentiated Instruction Affect Teaching? Review of Research in Education, 43(1), 336–362. https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X18821130

Brazzolotto, M., & Phelps, C. (2022). Global Principles for Professional Learning in Gifted Education and Italian Primary Teachers. International Journal for Talent Development and Creativity, 9, 123-141. https://doi.org/10.7202/1091475ar

van Geel M, Keuning T, Frèrejean J, Dolmans D, van Merriënboer J, & Visscher, A. J. (2019) Capturing the complexity of differentiated instruction. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 30(1):51-67. 
https://doi.org/10.1080/09243453.2018.1539013

Singh, H. (2014). Differentiating classroom instruction to cater learners of different styles. Indian Journal of Applied Research, 3, 58-60. https://doi.org/10.15373/22501991/December2014/25

Tomlinson, C.A. (2014) The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. 2nd Edition, ASCD, Alexandria.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2018). Differentiated instruction. In C. M. Callahan & H. L. Hertberg-Davis (Eds.), Fundamentals of Gifted Education Considering Multiple Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 279-292).  Routledge.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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