On Differentiated Instruction

Have you ever sat through a lecture and suddenly realized that you had no idea what was being presented? Maybe some keyword triggered your mind to wander off topic and you started daydreaming, maybe you can’t picture what exactly the speaker is trying to explain and have become frustrated, or maybe the lesson just wasn’t geared toward teaching you as an individual. There have never been two students who are exactly alike in every way, yet so many classrooms operate as if every student can be taught with the same one-size-fits-all methods. Enter the differentiated classroom where learning is centered on the student, rather than the material and more students can learn in a way that best meets their needs.

What is Differentiation?

“Every teacher who has entered a classroom has differentiated instruction in one way or another. Teachers differentiate when they give a student more time to finish an assignment, allow children choice in what they read, give different types of assessments, and myriad other ways. Although these are all good strategies, as educators, we can make our classrooms more responsive to student needs by being more systematic in our approach to differentiation” (Levy, 2008). Simply put, differentiating instruction is making or allowing for changes to the input the students receive, or the output that students produce, so that they can more fully comprehend and master the subject they are dealing with. The ideas for differentiating instruction in the classroom are only limited by the combined imagination and resourcefulness of the teacher and the students. “Instruction can be differentiated based on three general areas. These areas include: the content of instruction, the processes and techniques used to help make sense of a given topic, and the products produced by students that demonstrate their learning.” (Willoughby, 2005)

Accommodating Varied Learner Profiles

“Students learn in different ways and require responsive teaching based on these differences” (Tobin & McInnes, 2008). Every student has a different learning profile and differentiated instruction is a great way to present information to them. Part of a student’s learning profile is their learning style. According to Tomlinson, a student’s learning style is the context in which the student prefers to learn (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2001, p.17), however this definition can be expanded to include whether a student is an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner. Knowing a student’s learning style, a teacher can allow students to work in groups or alone, or provide appropriate aids like audio tapes, manipulatives, or a folder full of pictures, charts, and graphs so that students with different learning styles can have access to the same information in a method that will help them retain it.

Additional parts of a student’s learning profile include cultural and gender differences. Any approach to teaching different genders could be very debatable so it is best to use a “range of gender-based preferences” (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2001, p.17). Cultural differences can also muddy the waters of any communication based undertaking. Language barriers, customs, and behaviors have different meanings across cultures and again varied methods of representing information will be helpful in a scenario where there are students from many different cultures.

Meeting the Needs of Special and Gifted Students

            The current model of instruction for special needs students is based around the idea of inclusion. Legally all special needs students are required to be included in the regular classroom to the fullest extent possible. With this in mind, teachers make modifications to instruction and assignments in order to allow students with special needs to understand and complete the assignments; this is the heart and soul of differentiation. Common practice is to allow an aid to work with the student in class; this is a great example of differentiating the process of instruction.

Gifted learners are also in need of differentiation to provide more challenge and depth to their thinking. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, “Differentiation is not the only answer to providing the best services and programming for gifted students in the classroom, but it is an essential part of ensuring that high-ability learners are adequately challenged and make continuous progress” (NAGC).  Adding in depth research or altering the product so that gifted learners can express their creativity in completing an assignment can go a long way to meet the needs of gifted learners. Gifted learners can also be great assets to mixed ability groups.

Grouping for Differentiation

            In differentiated classrooms, the use of student groups is integral to building a productive, positive community” (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2001, p.88). In small group time with the teacher students can be grouped according to specific skills that they need to work on. This saves the whole class from spending time on a skill that is only needed by some of the students. Students can also be grouped by interest; which is another way to differentiate instruction and provide added motivation for completing assignments.


“Given the availability of strategies such as differentiated instruction, responsible pedagogy no longer allows us to teach as if students all learned in one way, and at the same pace.  If we are to maximize achievement of general curriculum standards, we must increase our efforts to differentiate instruction” (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). Differentiation is the key to reaching students where they are, whether they are gifted or special needs, and moving them further along in their education in a more effective and personal way (Tomlinson, 1999).


Lawrence-Brown, D. (2004). Differentiated Instruction: Inclusive Strategies For Standards-Based Learning That Benefit The Whole Class. American Secondary Education, 32(3), 34-62.

Levy, H. M. (2008). Meeting the Needs of All Students through Differentiated Instruction: Helping Every Child Reach and Exceed Standards. Clearing House: A Journal Of Educational Strategies, Issues And Ideas, 81(4), 161-164.

NAGC. (n.d.). Hot topic: Differentiation of curriculum and instruction. Retrieved from http://www.nagc.org/index2.aspx?id=978

Tobin, R., & McInnes, A. (2008). Accommodating Differences: Variations in Differentiated Literacy Instruction in Grade 2/3 Classrooms. Literacy, 42(1), 3-9.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction. Retrieved from http://pdonline.ascd.org/pd_online/diffinstr/el199909_tomlinson.html

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Willoughby, J. (2005). Teaching today. Retrieved from http://www.glencoe.com/sec/teachingtoday/subject/di_meeting.phtml


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