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A Differentiated Instruction How-To Guide

Janelle Cox

In order to meet the needs of all learners, educators now know that they must use differentiated instruction. This means that in order for a teacher to reach each individual student so that every student has the ability to reach his/her full potential, they must accommodate each student’s learning style, readiness, and interest. In order to meet the needs of each student, a teacher must use a variety of instructional methods. Most of the time this means using a different approach to reach each student while teaching the students the same information. Here are a few tips and techniques that effective teachers use to carry out differentiated instruction in their classroom.

Differentiated Instruction: How to Get Started

Follow these steps to differentiate instruction in your classroom.

  1. In order to differentiate instruction, teachers must first consider the content that the students must learn. Ask yourself what your main objective is and what you ultimately want your students to get out of the lesson. Once you have this answer, you can then provide students with tiered assignments that correlate with their individual needs.
  2. Next, think about the materials that you want your students to use within the lesson. Are they going to learn with technology like an iPad or a computer, or are they going to learn within cooperative learning groups? Think about if students will use manipulatives to learn the content and how much time they will need to compete a task. 
  3. Last, create a rubric that you can assess students learning with. Will you have the same rubric for each student, or will the rubric be based on each tiered assignment? Think about how students will demonstrate their learning. Will they use technology, oral presentations, or work individually?

Differentiating Instructional Methods

There are a variety of instructional methods that you can use to differentiate instruction. Here are a few.

Flexible Grouping

Many teachers use flexible grouping as a means to provide students with the opportunity to work with others that have similar learning styles, readiness, or interest as they do. Flexible grouping allows students to work with their peers who are similar. Depending upon the purpose of the lesson, teachers can plan their activities based on a students’ attributes, then use flexible grouping to group students accordingly. The key to making flexible grouping work is to ensure that groups are not stationary and students can move about. Teachers must continually conduct assessments throughout the school year and move students within the groups as they master skills.

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Choice Activities

A great motivator is to give students a choice about how or what they will be learning. Teachers can give options based on student interest or on their learning style. They can also be given choices as to what will be learned or how they will learn the information. Options can include classroom activities, student learning centers, independent study, small groups, or even whole-group exercises. Choice activities are well-known for improving students’ motivation based on their own needs, and are a very popular way teachers like to differentiate instruction.

Tiered Assignments

Tiered assignments are another popular way that educators like to differentiate instruction.  Tiered assignments are a series of related tasks varying in complexity. The activities relate to the students’ readiness level and key skills that they need to acquire. Both formal and informal assessments must be given to determine the level of understanding a student has on the subject matter. Activities can be designed for small groups or even for individuals. Many teachers find that this differentiated instructional strategy is a great way for students to reach the same goals by taking into account each of their students’ individual needs.

Low-Prep Methods to Accommodate All Learners

Differentiating instruction is not easy and takes some time. In order to accommodate all learners, many teachers have come up with a few low-prep ways to make it easy on themselves. Teachers have found that choice books are a great option because it is an easy way for them to figure out a student’s reading ability and an easy way to differentiate instruction.

Student choice boards are another low-prep way to differentiate instruction because all you have to do is come up with a few varied activities that will reach all learners. Many teachers have even given up the responsibility and leave it to the students to come up with a few fun activities to put on their boards.

Differentiating instruction takes a lot of planning and many teachers find it extremely frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes easier and it is definitely worth it in the long run. By following the tips and suggestions mentioned above, educators can accommodate all students’ learning needs and styles.

How do you use differentiated instruction in your classroom? Do you have any tips or ideas that work for you? Please share with us in the comment section below. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators.