Engage the most students and create the best outcomes for entire classrooms with differentiated instruction. It’s a teaching method that helps bring struggling students up to speed, enables gifted students to learn at a faster pace, and makes teacher’s lives easier because learning is more effective. When you use differentiated instruction, you’re steering all your students toward the same learning objectives, while giving students the freedom to choose how they get there.
We’ve created this introductory guide to help you learn more about what differentiated instruction is, why you should practice it with your students, and how to implement it in your classroom by using differentiated instruction products and assessment-informed teaching methods.
What Is Differentiated Instruction?
Differentiated instruction is the process of tailoring lessons to meet each student’s individual interests, needs, and strengths. Teaching this way gives students choice and flexibility in how they learn. This method also requires instructional clarity and clearly defined goals for learning. You can differentiate instruction across four main areas: content, process, product, and environment.
To differentiate content, teachers consider the objective of a lesson, then provide students with flexible options about the content they study to meet the objective, from subject or topic to approach or presentation.
With process differentiation, teachers differentiate how students learn. Grouping students based on their readiness, for example, or to complement each other, is one way to accomplish process differentiation. Another is varying the way concepts are taught: through visual, auditory, or kinesthetic lessons, for example.
Product differentiation applies to the types of assignments students create. For example, a teacher might ask students to explain a concept; the product could be a written report, a story, a song, a speech, or an art project. Varying the types of assessments you give students is also an example of product differentiation.
The classroom environment also affects learning. Changing physical things in the classroom, like how desks are set up or arranged, or where students can sit (on beanbags, for example), serves as classroom environment differentiation, which can also include changes to routines and habits.
Benefits of Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated instruction is beneficial because it helps educators connect with different learning styles. Not all students will respond to a class lecture; a game or a video may work better with other students. Some students may learn better by reading than they do using a computer. Giving students choices about how they learn enables them to meet learning objectives in the best way for them.
In some classrooms, differentiation will be required for students with disabilities and for English language learners. Differentiating instruction gives all students the opportunity to keep pace with learning objectives.
No matter what you’re teaching, some students will find certain material engaging, while others won’t, and students will learn the same material in varying amounts of time. Want to make whatever you’re teaching more likely to resonate with each one of your students? Differentiated instruction motivates them to learn the material in a way conducive to their own interests and unique learning styles.
Experts Talk About Differentiated Instruction
“We differentiate instruction to honor the reality of the students we teach. They are energetic and outgoing. They are quiet and curious. They are confident and self-doubting. They are interested in a thousand things and deeply immersed in a particular topic. They are academically advanced and ‘kids in the middle’ and struggling due to cognitive, emotional, economic, or sociological challenges. More of them than ever speak a different language at home. They learn at different rates and in different ways. And they all come together in our academically diverse classrooms.” – Carol Ann Tomlinson (William Clay Parrish, Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy)
“Differentiating instruction is really a way of thinking, not a preplanned list of strategies. Oftentimes, it is making decisions in the moment based on this mindset. It’s recognizing that fair doesn’t always mean treating everyone equally. It’s recognizing that all of our students bring different gifts and challenges, and that as educators, we need to recognize those differences and use our professional judgment to flexibly respond to them in our teaching.” – Larry Ferlazzo (award-winning teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California who writes a teacher advice column for Education Week)
“All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction. Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?” – Lisa Westman (instructional coaching, differentiation, and standards-based grading consultant and professional development facilitator)
“Differentiated instruction is dynamic and organic. In a differentiated learning space, teachers and students learn together. Students focus on learning the course content, while teachers tailor their instructional strategies to student learning styles.” – Alexa Epitropoulous (media and author relations specialist at ASCD)
Basic Tips for Differentiating Instruction
To ensure that the same objectives are being pursued by all students (though they each take their own path to get there), differentiated instruction must be standards-based.
First steps for teachers should include diagnostic testing and learning inventories. Your goal is to set baselines for individual students. Then you can identify tactics to help each student achieve the objectives and deliver custom-tailored content.
Differentiated instruction is evident when teachers:
- Offer students options to choose from in assignments or lesson plans
- Provide multiple texts and types of learning materials
- Utilize a variety of personalized learning methods and student assessments
- Customize teaching to suit multiple forms of intelligence
For differentiated instruction to be successful, teachers must clearly explain the learning goals and the criteria for success. Differentiated learning thrives in a classroom environment where students are working toward shared goals with a growth mindset. Teachers must identify and be responsive to student needs, creating a supportive classroom culture where students embrace differentiation for themselves and their peers.
Differentiated Instruction in Action
To see differentiated instruction in a classroom, check out the video below! Ms. Rachal uses Reading A-Z and Raz-Kids with her first grade students, including English language learners, to provide differentiated content that gives them the confidence to practice literacy skills at their learning level.
Learning A-Z Helps You Implement Differentiated Instruction
Knowing the unique needs of your students enables you to teach them more effectively, with the goal of improving cognitive and academic outcomes. Learning A-Z provides thousands of differentiated instruction resources for all types of learners. Our products make teaching easier and more effective, giving students more flexibility and learning options.