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Quick Guide to Differentiated Instruction

Marcia Imbeau

Does your staff need Differentiated Instruction training? The K-12 Teachers Alliance can help you plan your in-service professional development at no additional cost.

Why differentiated instruction?

Good teachers have always understood that they don’t just teach a subject, they teach individual students with different learning skills, backgrounds and abilities. Differentiation connects the content to the students and addresses these varied needs.

Differentiated Instruction expert Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson reminds teachers that although you might use a variety of instructional strategies, they are a "means to an end." These strategies help students reach the clear learning goals set by a teacher and should be utilized to address students' readiness, interests and learning profiles.

Differentiation is not something a teacher does every now and again and it is not something any teacher would ever be able to say they had mastered. Differentiation is looking at who, where, what and how we teach and continually improving in these areas so all children learn well.

Step 1: Who Do You Teach?

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Collect data on your students' Readiness, Interests and Learning Profiles.

Students’ Readiness can be determined using:

• Typical school data such as grades, standardized test results, reading, writing, and math assessments

• Anecdotal records, work samples or observations

• Pretests in the form of focused questions or discussions

• Quick quizzes, end of unit tests prior to the unit

• Completion of a graphic organizer

• Individual K-W-Ls, or quick-writes

Students’ Interests can be accomplished through:

• Interest inventories, conversations with and observations of students

• Journal writing and classroom student of the week displays

• Share time about topics of interests

Learning Profiles have to do with one’s:

• Gender, culture, part-to-whole/whole-to-part, collective/individual

• Intelligence preference [Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory or Sternberg's Triarchic Theory]

Learning styles

Step 2: Where Do You Teach?

What are the structures, routines or procedures in your classroom that students can count on each day? Structure lets students know how to proceed with the tasks that you assign. In a differentiated classroom, effective teachers take great care to be sure to constantly "check the weather" of the class so that it is a conducive place to learn for all students.

Step 3: What Do You Teach?

What is it that you want your students to know, understand and be able to do? Determine clear learning goals. These often go beyond state/district standards since most standards are skills-based [be able to do] and not centered around teaching for understanding. An example from one my colleague's on characterization might look like this:

Know: character description, character word choice, character behavior, interior monologue, point of view.

Understand: fictional characters reflect traits and choices we find in our own lives.

Do: write a narrative, write from a character's point-of-view, write in first person, analyze motivation, predict character actions.

Step 4: How Do You Teach?

What are some instructional strategies that can be used to meet students' readiness, interest and learning profile needs?


Strategy Learner Trait Explanation and/or Example
Learning Centers Readiness, Interest and Learning Profile An area of the classroom where a collection of materials and tasks may be found and have been designed to teach, reinforce or extend the students' learning. Tasks may include one, some or all of the learner traits.
Learning Contracts Readiness, Interests and Learning Profile An agreement to complete chosen tasks offering some freedom of choice with regard to the tasks and the often the order in which they are completed. Other names for contracts are AGENDAs, Menus, Tic-Tac-Toe Boards.
Tiered Assignments and Activities Readiness

Learning experiences that have been designed to address content, process or product options that meet the same learning goal but are at different levels of challenge and difficulty.

As an example, assign different journal prompts to students based on their need for more or less challenge.

A classmate had to leave the room today just as the lab experiment was beginning to come to a conclusion. Please write that student a note explaining what happened in the lab, why it happened, and what practical use there is in the real world for what the experiment shows us. You’re his/her only hope for clarity! Be as much help as possible.
Select a key or critical element in the experiment today. Change it in some way. What will happen in the experiment with that change? Why? What principle can you infer? Be sure you go for something useful, insightful, and intellectually or scientifically meaningful at your choice.
Cubing / Thinking DOTs Readiness, Interests and Learning Profile Using the six sides of a cube [or have task cards Think DOTs that have assignments on one side and colored dots that match a "dice" roll on the other side], students can “roll the dice” to see which activity they have to complete. You can use different cubes for different students depending on their readiness, interests and learning profiles.
Entry Points Learning Profile

Developed by Howard Gardner in order to make students’ early experiences with a topic more engaging and motivating, students are offered a variety of ways to “enter into” the study.

Narrational entry point – read or tell a story or narrative

Logical-quantitative entry point - provide data, use deductive reasoning, examine numbers, statistics musical rhythm, logic, narrative plot structure, cause and effect relationships

Foundational entry point - Big questions about life, death and our place in the world, philosophy, meaning

Esthetic entry point – emphasize sensory and/or surface features, activate aesthetic sensitivities

Experimental entry point – a hands-on-approach, dealing directly with materials (physically or virtually), simulations, personal explanations

Choice Boards Interests and Learning Profile Based on the subject of study, choice boards provide different assignment options that are generated to allow students to have choices of tasks to complete that may address their interests and learning preferences. 
Orbitals Interests This learning tool typically involves students designing a short term independent project in order to delve deeper into topic that they are already studying in class. Students choose a curriculum-associated topic based on their interests and in collaboration with the teacher decide how and in what way the student would share the information with others. The project typically last 3-6 weeks and is often completed outside of school or if students finish classroom work early. 
RAFTs Readiness, Interests and Learning Profile A matrix or chart of specific elements from a unit of study that have the headings: Role, Audience, Format and Topic. Students are either assigned a strip or are given choices based on the trait of the student that is being addressed and the teacher's purpose for the assignment. See example below…






Gingerbread Man

Our Class

Oral Response

I never should have listened to the fox

Water Vapor


A Love Letter

You make me so hot


Loose Wire

A Newspaper Article

Man has shocking experience

Multiplication Fact

Division Fact

Invitation to a Family Reunion

Here’s how we’re related



Complex Instruction

• Independent study/research projects

• Varied or supplemental texts

Graphic organizers 

• Varied journal prompts


Additional Resources:

The following websites may provide you with additional ideas or examples of lessons you might use or adapt for your classroom.


What are your essential tips for differentiated teaching? Share in the comments section!



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