Differentiated instruction has been a buzzword in education for many years now. What’s the difference in differentiated instruction and other buzzwords that come and go? Differentiated instruction is not going away. No matter what you call it, differentiated instruction is at the heart of everything that highly effective teachers do.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is changing instruction and/or assignments to meet the individual needs of your students. This can manifest in a lot of different ways. It may mean presenting the same material to all students but in slightly different ways depending on learning style. It may mean working with students to fill in gaps so they can be better prepared to meet the tasks ahead. It can be working with small groups of students in order to meet their specific needs. It may even mean providing some students with more challenging material or less scaffolding. Basically, differentiated instruction is the process of individualizing instruction for each and every student.

Why Games are an Effective Way to Differentiate Instruction

Games are engaging. When games are going on, it is very hard for students to tune them out. Games are exciting and fun. This makes implementing games an excellent tool to use for differentiating instruction.

Games are motivational. Games provide an excellent source of motivation for all students. Students are highly motivated to learn the material or skill in order to perform better in the game. Competition can be a fantastic motivator and a great way to implement differentiated instruction.

Games provide context for learning. Many games provide the context necessary for students to actually internalize the information and truly gain understanding, rather than other activities such as worksheets. For example, vocabulary games can help students really gain understanding by using those words in context. Also, struggling students can pick up a lot from the more advanced students’ participation in the games.

Games create positive feelings about learning. Kids love games! Games are fun. When such a fun approach to learning is used, students look forward to and get excited about learning.

Games promote collaboration. A lot of classroom games require students to work in teams. This provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn how to collaborate with others and get along.

Games teach valuable life lessons. Nobody wins all the time. Games help students understand that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Being able to understand and accept that is a critical life lesson.

Games are easily tweaked. There are so many ways to tweak games in order to provide differentiation as needed. Not only that, but by grouping students that struggle with other students that do not, this provides built-in learning opportunities and scaffolding for the students that need it.

How to Differentiate Instruction Using Classroom Games

Strategies for Planning

There are so many options for using games in the classroom to differentiate instruction that you should consider in your planning.

Web-Based Individual Games – There are so many website/app games that students can play that will differentiate instruction as needed. Some of these require paid subscriptions and some do not. Here are just a few examples of some great games to use in the classroom.

  • com – Prodigy is a great free site for practicing math skills. As the teacher, you can go in and set each student’s level for practice. So the differentiation is built in! Students can progress through multiple levels as they improve. It is highly motivational!
  • com – Freckle, by Renaissance, is a free (for teachers) practice website for grades K-12. You have the option for kids to practice math, reading, science, or social studies.
  • com – Starfall is another free website and app that students can use for game-based practice in a variety of math and reading skills. This one is very popular with my first grade students.
  • com – This one is almost as popular with my first graders as the previous site. ABCya is also free and is super easy to differentiate, as you can choose the level on which your student will practice.
  • com – RazKids is a reading practice website. This one is not free. However, it is a great investment! You choose the reading level for each one of your students. They can go on and read the electronic books, have others read to them, and even take comprehension quizzes. The students will level-up to the next reading level with the successful completion of all the books in the level.
  • And my favorite, Lexialearning.com – Lexia is an investment. However, if your school will purchase it, it is a fantastic addition to your reading instruction. The first step that students take when using this program is to take an assessment. The program uses the results to target specific reading skills that students need to practice through games. It also lets the teacher know when there are problem areas and gives specific lessons to do individually with that student in order to address those needs.


Web-Based Group Games

  • com – On this site, you can create a custom Jeopardy-style game for your students. This is a great way to practice skills by putting students on teams to play Jeopardy!
  • com – This is another site on which you can customize games for students. This is a great option for group games.


Other Classroom Games – Of course, if technology is not an option for you in your classroom, there are many classic games that do not require technology. They may require a bit of prep work and teacher know-how, but they can be every bit as engaging and effective. Here is a great site that offers ideas for 10 classic classroom learning games that can be used when differentiating instruction.


Establish procedures – Be sure to invest the time necessary to establish the procedures for playing games in the classroom. Whether that means procedures for getting/putting away laptops or tablets, procedures for answering questions in group games, or establishing many other appropriate/inappropriate behaviors. Go ahead and work with the class to create some norms for game playing. Let the students help you create a list of rules. Investing this time upfront can make your game time much for effective and productive.

Practice – After establishing these procedures, take some time to practice them. Demonstrate correct game-playing behaviors and some incorrect game-playing behaviors for the students.

Be consistent – Consistently reinforce these behaviors and procedures throughout the game-playing. Letting these procedures slide during game-play can cause a mad spiral into chaos! It’s very hard for learning to take place in a chaotic environment.

Helpful Hints

Be sure to monitor students during the games. If they are working individually on a web-based game, check to see how they are doing. Maybe their level needs to be adjusted. You won’t know this if you are just sitting behind your desk grading papers. Monitoring their performance on these games is crucial to the success of the differentiation.

Lastly, but most importantly, know your students. Get to know their preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. Find out what their learning style is and how they can best demonstrate their knowledge. Seek to understand what motivates them. This information can be used to maximize the effectiveness of using games for differentiated instruction in your classroom.