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The Foundational Guide to Differentiated Instruction

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Updated on
Modified on September 28, 2023

Most of us have experienced the frustration of one-size-fits-all clothing at some point. The concept or idea isn’t necessarily bad, but it just doesn’t work for everyone. The same can be said of education. Educators know that education does not work well as a one-size-fits-all approach. The more students in a classroom, the more diverse classrooms become. And with classrooms becoming increasingly diverse, the need for differentiated instruction becomes more critical.

Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that recognizes the diverse needs and abilities of students. Rather than offering a one-size-fits-all approach that forces students to fit into a predetermined box, instruction should  meet the individual, unique needs of the students. Differentiated instruction is extremely important because of its ability to foster equity and inclusion, create a more engaging and effective learning environment, and improve overall student achievement.

Ultimately, differentiated classrooms recognize students have diverse backgrounds, strengths, interests, and challenges, and a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction may not be effective for all learners. While differentiated instruction and its strategies may pose some challenges, the benefits of differentiation in the classroom are numerous and the challenges can be overcome.

Strategies for Implementing Differentiated Instruction

Simply put, differentiated strategies involve tailoring instruction to meet the diverse needs of all learners. This tailoring can be something as easy as identifying the learning styles of students or can involve some intentional structuring of assignments. The goal isn’t to put more work on teachers and make them feel they need to edit or recreate every assignment. Instead, the goal is to give teachers the freedom to make adjustments to their ideas and curriculum that will lean into students’ strengths and therefore increase student achievement.

Identifying Learning Styles and Preferences

Identifying learning styles and preferences is an important early step in implementing differentiation of instruction. By identifying these aspects, teachers can better tailor their instruction to meet each student’s unique needs. Every classroom is likely to have a combination of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, which means visual aids, lectures and discussions, and physical movement should be used in instruction. Student preference or interest is also a form of differentiation. Finding a strong combination of student readiness plus their interests equals deeper engagement and application of the learning.

Teachers can identify these a number of ways. First, general observations can often reveal how a student learns best. However, if this is unclear, then teachers may choose to experiment with several different activities and styles to see how students react and perform. For older students, self-reflection or learning styles tests may allow students to verbalize an awareness of their own learning preferences. 

Curriculum Compacting

Curriculum compacting is a process where teachers can modify certain curriculum to meet the needs of high-ability students. It is a way of streamlining grade-level curriculum for students who may have already mastered certain skills or content. Once a teacher has assessed a student’s level of mastery, they may make changes to parts of the curriculum that allow students to move more quickly through content they already understand to focus on new or more challenging material.

This is an important teaching method for the higher-achieving end of the differentiation spectrum because it can help prevent students from becoming bored or disengaged with curriculum.

Tiered Assignments

Using tiered assignments is a classic strategy where teachers create multiple versions of an assignment that have varying levels of complexity, skill, or depth that correlate with the individual needs and abilities of students. Therefore, it is important to select a writing program that supports individualized instruction by offering different levels of complexity to match student skill level. 

For example, during writing instruction, students may be given a variety of prompts to respond to, or they may be assigned different length requirements to meet. Programs like Step Up to Writing® offer differentiated instruction tiers for emergent, grade-level, and advanced writers starting as early as kindergarten through 12th grade. It is important to select a writing program that supports the individuality of each and every learner, regardless of age or preparation, as Step Up to Writing does. 

Interest-Based Learning

Along with identifying learning styles and preferences, learning the interests of individual students leads to an opportunity to implement interest-based learning in class. By designing learning experiences that tap into students’ interests, teachers can create a more student-centered and personalized learning environment. Students are more likely to engage in reading, writing, and researching when it involves something that interests them.

This may be done in the form of an ongoing evaluation throughout the school year, or even a final formative assessment where students can apply the knowledge and skills they’ve learned to something that truly interests them.

Benefits of Differentiated Instruction

In today’s diverse classrooms, one-size-fits-all instruction is no longer effective in meeting the unique needs of every student. Therefore, differentiating instruction can be one of the most beneficial instructional strategies teachers can implement in their classrooms.

Differentiation can take place at both the curriculum and instruction level—and mutually benefit the teachers as well as the students. A little bit of extra thought and organization during the lesson planning process can create a learning environment that meets the needs of diverse learners, personalizes learning, promotes student engagement, and fosters collaboration and community.

Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners

Meeting the unique needs of all students during instruction is essential for success. A differentiated teaching approach is one of the most effective instructional methods, which enables educators to tailor their teaching to the students’ diverse learning styles and abilities. 

Personalizing Learning

The more personalized the learning experience, the more meaningful and enduring the lessons become. Differentiated instruction allows teachers to personalize learning by tapping into learning styles and learning profiles in ways that make students feel seen and valued.

Promoting Student Engagement

Many teachers struggle with classroom management, in part because some students act out when disengaged. Yes, part of classroom management is set from policies and expectations given at the beginning of a school year, but classroom management is maintained through effective classroom instruction. Therefore, differentiated instruction can be an effective classroom management tool for teachers.

Fostering Collaboration and Community

One of the most beautiful things education can provide for students is a sense of community and belonging. When teachers are able to differentiate their instruction, they are doing just that—fostering collaboration and community by meeting students where they are and giving them new ways to relate to and learn from each other.

Examples of Differentiated Instruction in Action

It is not an unlikely scenario for a teacher to have a classroom that includes some students with learning disabilities (like dyslexia), some who are reading two levels ahead, some English language learners, and all with varying levels of intelligence and interest. Simply printing off different variations of worksheets is not an effective way to reach a group like this. A variety of instructional strategies in each content area is more likely to reach each student.

Teachers have an ideal amount of curriculum they want to get through within a given time frame, but they shouldn’t feel so locked into that curriculum that they lose student engagement in the process. Differentiated instruction can be used in all classrooms—no matter the age, grade level, or content—to the students’ benefit. There are many differentiated instruction strategies and examples available, and for each subject level, teachers can find the perfect fit for their curriculum and classroom.

Differentiating Instruction in Mathematics

An example of a simple way to differentiate instruction in mathematics may involve the use of equations. When it comes to assessments, some students may be provided with the equations while others are not.

But differentiation in math goes much deeper than that. One of the best ways to differentiate instruction in math is to allow students to connect the lesson to personal interests and everyday scenarios. For example, a budget project in math class will allow students to explore numbers in relation to what they like to buy or spend money on.

Differentiating Instruction in English Language Arts

Differentiated instruction is one of the key components when it comes to reading comprehension and reading intervention. One of the key questions when determining effective reading intervention is asking if the program allows for differentiated instruction. Differentiating instruction in English language arts allows teachers to more confidently teach any given combination of readers and writers.

Challenges and Solutions

While differentiated instruction has many benefits, it also presents some challenges for teachers. Adapting instruction to meet the diverse needs of each student can be time-consuming, and managing different groups of students working on different tasks can also present a challenge. Teachers may feel overwhelmed with time constraints or feel the need for additional training to be successful.

Both of these things, however, are avoidable. While additional training can be beneficial, it is not a requirement and shouldn’t feel like a burden. The truth is that the majority of teachers already differentiate their instruction to some varying degree whether they realize it or not—some may need a little encouragement and validation that what they are doing is working and beneficial.

Time Management

Teachers constantly feel crunched for time. It is challenging to plan lessons, organize materials, instruct students, build relationships, and grade assessments each day. Including more student-centered activities and choice into instruction will not only free up some of the teacher’s time during the day, but it will also allow the students to take a more active role in their learning.

Classroom Management

Classroom management always finds itself on the list of challenges for teachers. Differentiated instruction is a huge contributing factor to managing a classroom, along with the policies and procedures put in place at the beginning of the school year. When it comes to classroom management, some of the best solutions are to keep it simple. Have a few rules that are comprehensive and can cover a lot of behavior.

For example, Children’s Literacy Initiative suggests the Power of Three, which includes, “Take care of ourselves, take care of others, and take care of the classroom.” The same can be said of differentiated instruction. Don’t try to do too much at once. Choose a few differentiation strategies to work with at a time rather than overwhelming yourself—and students—with too many.

Assessment and Grading

One way teachers can avoid getting bogged down by assessments and grading is by taking a more holistic approach. Rubrics can help with this as well. Rubrics can be as detailed or as holistic as needed. While they may take a bit more time on the front end to make, a good rubric will be easy to use and will speed up the assessment process. 

Professional Development and Support

Ultimately, teachers must remember they are not alone. Teachers can sometimes feel isolated when they are spending the majority of their days surrounded by children or young adults. Being the oldest person in the room and the main authority figure throughout the day can create a false sense of needing to figure things out on your own.

Taking time to step outside of your classroom and curriculum is important. While it can be frustrating at first to have to take time away from an already busy day to attend professional development, the long-term benefits of professional development far outweigh the short-term inconvenience. Seeking support from colleagues, administrators, and professional development can make the challenges a little less challenging.


In her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development and one of the leading American educators on differentiated instruction, wrote: “Kids of the same age aren’t all alike when it comes to learning, any more than they are alike in terms of size, hobbies, personality, or likes and dislikes. Kids do have many things in common, because they are human beings and because they are all children, but they also have important differences.

“What we share in common makes us human. How we differ makes us individuals. In a classroom with little or no differentiated instruction, only student similarities seem to take center stage. In a differentiated classroom, commonalities are acknowledged and built upon, and student differences become important elements in teaching and learning as well.” These words are a great reminder for teachers to lean in and embrace student differences and the opportunity to differentiate instruction as something special.

Voyager Sopris Learning® offers additional support for educators looking for differentiated instruction and practice that is explicit, systematic, and research-based.

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