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Three Strategies That Make Differentiation Possible

Julie describes what differentiation is and how to implement differentiation strategies in the classroom.

Differentiation Strategies for Teachers

If you ask a teacher what his biggest teaching challenges are, chances are he will say: time and meeting all my students’ needs. When I was teaching, it didn’t matter if it was my first year or my sixth, every year my students had different skills gaps, working at different paces, and responded to my teaching differently. What worked for one student, didn’t work for another. 

I began to feel like I was meeting some of my students’ needs, but not all my students’ needs, and I worried that meeting each student where he was at was impossible. 

It may feel impossible, but it isn’t. You don’t need to create a different lesson for each student or even for small groups of students, and honestly, you don’t have time for that. What you can do is use thoughtful differentiation and scaffolds so that every student can learn the material to the best of his ability.

What is differentiation?

Differentiation is tailoring instruction to meet your students’ needs. Students learn in different ways and they don’t learn at the same pace. They need flexibility in how they are taught. 

As a teacher, you can differentiate through content, product, and process according to students' interests, readiness, and learning profiles. 

How do I know what each student needs?

Assessment data is key to successful differentiation. Consider giving students a pre-assessment before you start teaching a new unit. That data will help you better understand which students have some prior knowledge and experience with the topics and skills you are teaching, and which students might be learning them for the first time. 

It is very difficult to differentiate without some concrete data to guide your planning process. Reviewing your data should reveal patterns, and those patterns can help you plan your next instructional move. 

Differentiate Content:

One of the most effective examples for when you might differentiate content is reading levels. Let’s say students are going to read an informational text about butterflies. If your goal is that students learn basic facts about butterflies that doesn’t mean that all students must read the same text in order to achieve the goal. Provide students with a text that is at their reading level so they can comprehend the content. 

Some of my favorite tools for finding texts at different reading levels are: CommonLit, Newsela, and Epic, and Reading A-Z

Differentiate Process:

Students can complete the same assignment, but use a different process in how they complete it. That process can include scaffolds that provide the necessary support that each student needs in order to be successful. 

Three-Tiered Writing Prompts

Students are given the writing prompt: What happens in the main character in this chapter? Why is what happened significant and how does it affect the character?

For students who need the least amount of support, you only give them the writing prompt. 

For students who need some support, you provide them with a sentence starter for the topic sentence and the concluding sentence:

For students who need some support, you provide them with a sentence starter for the topic sentence and the concluding sentenceIn this chapter _____________________(event) happens to _____________(the main character’s name). 

Write 2-3 sentences where you explain why this event is significant. 

______________________(event) has an affect on __________(main character’s name). As a result of what happened, _________(he or she) feels___________________. 

For students who need the most support, you provide them with a guided writing frame for structuring their paragraph:

In this chapter________________(event) happens to __________________(the main character’s name). One of the reasons why this event is important is ____________________________________________________. Another reason this event is important is ____________________________________. As a result of what happened, _________(he or she) feels________________. 

Differentiate Product

One way that you can differentiate product is through quantity. For example, if you are asking students to complete a set of word problems in your math class, you may assign some students to complete all the problems, other students to complete the odd problems, and you may provide students who need the most support with a smaller set of the word problems. 

Teachers I coached often asked me if the students who received the smaller problem set would feel embarrassed, and my answer to that is that how students feel will depend on the culture you have created in your classroom. If you create a classroom culture where students know that they are going to get different amounts of work and types of work, then a small problem set is business as usual. 

Mild, Medium and Spicy

One of my favorite differentiation by product strategies is to give students three choices: mild, medium, and spicy. The mild assignment is a shorter and less challenging assignment. The medium assignment is right in the middle in terms of length and level of difficulty. Finally, the spicy assignment is a longer assignment that is the most challenging. 

Students can decide where they want to start, and then they can change depending on how it goes. For example, a student might start with the spicy assignment only to realize that they aren’t ready for it, and then work on the medium assignment. 

If a student chooses the mild assignment and they complete it before class time is up, they are expected to start working on the medium assignment. This makes sure that students who may have picked a choice that was too easy for them still are responsible for completing the medium assignment. 

How do I get started?

Differentiation can be really overwhelming. To get started, select a topic or skill that you are going to start teaching. 

  • Give students a pre-assessment so that you have data.
  • Use that data to group students based on their performance.
  • Choose a differentiation approach.
  • Try one of the strategies that was shared in this post.

Here are additional resources for differentiating instruction: Differentiated Curriculum: A Successful Experience, Structuring Lessons For Diverse Learners: Planning Pyramid, A Starter Kit For Differentiated Instruction.

Will you use these suggestions in your classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

Julie Mason is the Head of Content and Curriculum for TeacherVision. She brings expertise in blended and personalized learning, instructional coaching, and curriculum design to the role. She was a middle and high school English teacher for eight years and most recently taught at Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Wellesley, MA. She was a blended and personalized learning instructional coach for K-12 teachers at BetterLesson for two years, and she has presented at The National Principals Conference, ISTE, and ASCD where she shared her expertised on how instructional coaching builds teacher capacity in K-12 schools. She has extensive experience designing and facilitating professional development for teachers, and she oversees the TeacherVision advisory board.

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