Differentiated instruction isn’t as cumbersome or overwhelming as is often assumed from the name. Teachers often separate students into different groups based on their knowledge of the material or learning style. That’s differentiated instruction. Simply put, it’s consciously making an effort to recognize and respond to the different ways students learn. It’s adapting instruction to meet each student’s individual needs.

Just so you know, we may get a small share of the sales made through the Affiliate links on this page.

Main elements to differentiated instruction:

  • Learning environment: This is the way the classroom looks, works, and feels. A classroom set up for differentiated instruction should have:
    • clear guidelines matching student ability and needs
    • areas for students to both work independently and collaboratively
    • a clear process to allow students to request teacher assistance
    • materials that reflect diversity and inclusion
    • the ability for students to move around the classroom if they learn better that way while allowing others to remain in one place.
  • Content: This is what the student needs to learn. Ways to incorporate differentiated instruction might include:
    • recording text for students to listen to
    • working with small groups
    • having different spelling or vocabulary lists based on readiness
    • presenting information in a variety of ways (visual, auditory, and tactile)
    • pairing students up with reading buddies.
  • Process: These are the activities students use to practice and master content. Ways to differentiate instruction include:
    • allowing students varying amounts of time to complete tasks
    • providing manipulatives if needed
    • working with students to create personalized task lists
    • offering and a variety of interest centers
    • scaffolding activities. 
  • Products: These are the projects the students engage in to practice skills, apply knowledge, and extend learning. Ways to incorporate differentiated instruction include:
    • using different rubrics to match skill level
    • allowing students to choose from a variety of ways to show their mastery of content
    • giving students the choice of working alone or in a group.

Differentiated instruction tips and tricks:

1. Let go of one-size-fits-all expectations.

“The most important thing that teachers and schools can do when it comes to differentiation in education is to forget age, and grade level, as well as the ridiculous notion that just because the student is ahead or behind in one subject they must be equally ahead or behind in others”, says Alina Adams, author of NYC School Secrets.

2. Create interest centers.

Set up several interest centers so students can choose to engage in what interests them most. The activities at the centers should be tiered in a way that allows students to work on understanding the material and acquiring the same skills while being able to go about it in ways that give them more support or challenges.

3. Allow students to design their own assessments.

Use single-point rubrics to allow students to design their own assignments. These work well for both individual and group projects.

4. Encourage audio options.

“For students who struggle with reading, many interactive ebooks, such as those available on the GetEpic ebook website are available with audio narration. Google also has a very easy-to-use text-to-speech feature available on Chromebooks. When students are using an online encyclopedia to research a topic, many online encyclopedias, such as World Book, offer audio versions of the article,” advises Lisa Mitchell, a 25-year veteran teacher, and library specialist.

5. Use the Think-Pair-Share method.

“First, have students think about a question individually. Then pair students together to discuss their thoughts, and finally have them share their discussion with the whole group. This activity allows all students to successfully participate, no matter their strengths and personalities,” suggests Rachel Kamath, a former teacher and founder of Small World Spanish.

6. Assign journaling.

“Journaling is a wonderful activity in a differentiated classroom. Give the students a question or prompt, and allow students to react to it in their journal however they choose. It could be a written response, a sketch, a comic strip, or a combination of those. Letting students journal outside the box makes sure that all students enjoy it and learn from it,” Kamath also suggests.

7. Allow note-taking in different forms.

Cover long tables with butcher block paper for students to write, draw, or doodle on. Encourage students to create their own booklets, graphic novels, or slideshows of material. Allow students to use their phones to take photos or record.

8. Consider sensory sensitivities.

Some students concentrate better when they have something to fidget with, such as pipe cleaners. Other students are sensory avoidant and don’t like to touch things wet or sticky. Putting their materials in Ziplock bags to handle during experiments makes the activity more comfortable.

9. Offer activities for all learning styles.

“Children who are visual learners can create a map, make a storyboard/poster, and even use drawings to help themselves understand what they are learning. Auditory learners will need to listen to songs or take part in a performance. These students see learning through melody, sounds so why not have them write a song about what they are learning in Science, Social studies, or a story they are reading. Tactile learners will love centers and activities built around doing. These children love getting their hands on manipulatives, puzzles, or gardening,” offers JoAnn Nocera, author of Give Me Back My Crayons: 10 Keys to Unlocking the Creative Child Within.

10. Use flexible seating.

Some students need more movement than others to concentrate and learn. Seating preference often varies and flexible seating allows students to change it up. Options include traditional individual desks and chairs, yoga balls, beanbag chairs, group tables, a couch, stools, standing desks, and cushions to sit on the floor. Check out these 10 most popular seat types for today’s flexible seating classroom!

Differentiated instruction gives students the tools to succeed. It meets them right where they are. More support is added for students who need it and challenges are extended to students who are ready for more. The process doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s room for both students and teachers to try new things, learn, and grow. Allowing students to learn ways that make the most sense for them individually results in happier, more engaged, and more successful students. That’s a win for everyone involved.

10 Differentiated Instruction Tips & Tricks