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7 Seasoned Teachers Reveal How to Differentiate Instruction Like a Pro

Education isn’t one size fits all. Learn how to implement differentiated instruction in general education or special education.

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You don’t need to be a special education teacher to differentiate instruction. Education isn’t one size fits all. At least, it shouldn’t be. Our students come from vastly different backgrounds with diverse needs and abilities. Their cultural backgrounds, academic abilities, life experiences, and learning preferences all contribute to who they are as individuals.

How could we expect such unique people all to learn in exactly the same way? The correct answer is that we shouldn’t. Implementing differentiated instruction can sound overwhelming, but here are some tips to get you started.

This post is a round-up of tips and advice from some of my favorite teacher-authors. They teach a variety of subjects, from special education to STEM, to elementary language arts. I asked them to weigh in on the topic of differentiated instruction so I could share their responses with you. In this post, I’ll be discussing what differentiated instruction is, why it’s necessary, why it can be challenging to implement, and tips to get you started.

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

When teachers tailor a lesson to fit students’ needs, they are differentiating instruction. It’s the act of modifying activity to better suit diverse abilities. Teachers do it all the time, whether they realize it or not.

There are 3 main areas in which we can tailor our lessons to effectively meet diverse student needs:

1.  CONTENT:  WHAT They’re Learning

The content is the curriculum. It’s the topic and targeted skills you’re teaching. When differentiating instruction, the content itself usually isn’t modified. Teachers sometimes shorten lessons or break the material up into smaller parts, but the content normally stays the same.

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2.  PROCESS: HOW They’re Learning It

Differentiation: Content, Process, ProductMost of the time, you won’t need to change the content (Thank goodness!), but you may need to modify how your students approach it in order to accommodate individual needs.

Examples of process modification include using different materials, providing extended time, using technology to complete an assignment, breaking the lesson down into smaller tasks, extending the lesson with more advanced options, etc.

Carmen from Love Teach and Learn shares a tip on modifying the process to accommodate different stages of handwriting, fine motor skills, and hand-eye coordination. She recommends offering “various writing utensils, primary paper with varying line sizes, as well as additional activities” to support diverse abilities. With this approach, all students work on the same skill but can do so at their own pace with materials best suited to their needs.

Cliff Notes Take- Away: Modifying the process gives students different options to complete the same goals. The content and objectives stay the same, but how they learn it is modified.

3.  PRODUCT: How They DEMONSTRATE What They Learned

Another way to differentiate instruction is to modify the product, which in most cases is how students are assessed. When the lesson is over, what do you end up with? What are you actually grading? Written assignments, presentations, posters, and tests are all assessment techniques or products of the lesson.

Give students a choice of assignments for a project when you can. For example, students may complete a diorama, write a letter, or perform a quick show to demonstrate an understanding of a topic. Think of different ways students can demonstrate what they’ve learned and offer those activities as options to choose from.

Students almost always will choose the activity that seems the easiest to them. Who wouldn’t? They tend to choose the one that highlights their strengths. An artistic student may prefer to create an interactive poster, while an outgoing child might choose to put on a puppet show to entertain the class.

Why is Differentiated Instruction Necessary?

Education is not one size fits all. What works for one student may not work for another.

And that’s the thing. Differentiated instruction is unequal but fair. It’s an opportunity to provide every student with exactly what they need to succeed at their own level. And it’s something that every teacher can do. Not just special education teachers.

Hine from Top Teaching Tasks says, “It’s important to be intentional. Most activities can be differentiated and inclusive if you are intentional about doing so.” Can I get a heck yes?

Sarah from Curiosity and the Hungry Mind teaches a wide range of ability levels and points out that “keeping tasks open-ended and hands-on allows my STEM students to work at their own creative and innovative ability. I find those kids that struggle academically often thrive in my STEM classroom.”

But What Are The Challenges of Differentiated Instruction?

Let’s be realistic.

Teachers are busy. Really, really busy. Teachers often feel overwhelmed and under-supported. (If that’s hitting close to home, make sure to check out my Tips for Teacher Survival to help you stay afloat).

So who has time for extra work?

It’s true. Differentiation does take some extra thought during the planning process. Some students will be more advanced than the rest, while others struggle to keep up. How can one teacher accommodate all of those individual needs?

Differentiated Instruction Sounds Complicated. Is it?

Differentiated Instruction is Unequal but Fair

No! At least, it doesn’t have to be.

Differentiated instruction doesn’t have to be as cumbersome as you think. Really!

Christine from For the Love of Teachers points out that “differentiation is often perceived as developing a separate lesson plan for every single student.” She suggests that we instead focus on “presenting students with learning options or different paths to learning in order for them to take in and make sense of the content.”

Ah, and that’s the key.

We don’t have to plan out a wholly separate activity for every student. Just a small change here and there will work for most lessons. You don’t need to be running learning centers every period of the day. Not every unit will require a huge project at the end either.

It’s usually not that complicated and it doesn’t need to monopolize your day. After a while, it’ll become second nature. As Lori from Kinder Lake says, “It’s hard to incorporate, but once you’ve got it in place, it makes a world of a difference.” Read on for tips!

Tips to Differentiate Instruction Like a Pro

So differentiating lessons is important. We get that. We vaguely remember learning about tiered instruction in our college courses. Sounds good in theory. But how to we actually implement it in real life? What about general education teachers? Can lessons be differentiated outside of special education classrooms?

  • Colorful Umbrellas with caption: Differentiation. 8 Teachers Share their tipsImplement Learning Centers.

Okay, I know I said you don’t have to be running centers in your classroom at all times. And you don’t have to do it all the time. But incorporating center time into your school day can really help zero in on students needs.

You just can’t provide that kind of support in a whole group setting. I highly recommend using centers and groups even with older students. Read these tips to get started on how to implement centers in your classroom.

The organization is absolutely necessary when there’s more than one version of an activity going on. What’s everyone working on? Who’s going where? What do they need? Keep it organized and save your sanity.

In my classroom, I liked using color-coded file folders to keep track of my groups’ printouts. I also used these Editable Rotation Charts to keep track of which students were in what groups (I have these FREE Rotation Charts too if you prefer free things).

Lori from Kinder Lake says she uses “rainbow carts to keep everything organized. I put everything [in there] for the week by group.” That’s brilliant!

Lori from The K Files says, “Differentiation is a must in the primary classroom. By providing your students with different options, every child feels that they are succeeding and growing. No one feels left out. They are succeeding at their own pace!” Eh-xact-ly.

Provide choices when you can. Choosing an activity promotes motivation and a sense of autonomy. You won’t be able to do it for every lesson, but it’s nice to provide options when you can.

  • Stop, Collaborate, And Listen.

Butterflies with caption: Differentiated Instruction. 8 Teachers share their tipsHigh five to anyone who gets that 90s reference. Anyone…?

Sara from Draz’s Class comments that when she has a student in need of intense differentiation, she works “hand in hand with their case manager to understand how to work best with them.” I love this suggestion and wish more teachers would reach out to their case managers and special education staff for support.

I think a lot of teachers are afraid to approach colleagues for support, but that shouldn’t be the case.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, get advice, and pick your colleague’s brains. If anything, they’ll be flattered and happy to help. Seek out other professionals and learn all their tricks.

With such diverse cultural and academic backgrounds, it only makes sense to provide more individualized instruction when we can. That’s more difficult to do in the general education setting (more students = more diverse needs), but there are small steps we can take in the right direction.

Get even more tips on accommodating a range of abilities and needs here in my blog post “Diverse Learners in the Same Classroom.”

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