About Teresa

Teresa Cooper is a 30-something wife, mom and teacher from Havelock, North Carolina. She has a Masters of Science in Education for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment from Walden University and a BA in Psychology with a minor in Creative from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having struggled with anxiety and depression most of her life and later having birthed a child with autism, she is passionate about spreading awareness and acceptance of mental illness and autism and has been writing for Embracing the Spectrum since 2011. She also writes for The Mighty, The Huffington Post, and The Educator’s Room.

In my last post, I talked about the difference between an accommodation and a modification, two things that many educators have a difficult time differentiating between. Accommodations and modifications generally get utilized by students with 504 plans and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Differentiation becomes a sticky topic these days, though, as we educators feel the time crunch in the classroom and wonder how to differentiate instruction.

Differentiation should not just happen for those few students with IEPs or those students who struggle in the classroom. By definition, differentiation merely means tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of students in the classroom. That means all students. We know that all students do not learn at the same rate, yet I think we inherently attempt to teach to the middle. What about the students at the very bottom or the very top? We must reach them too. I think oftentimes, we know we have to reach the lower half, so we differentiate for them, but we forget to differentiate for all students. That includes the students at the top, the lower middle, and the upper middle. So, how do you do it?

Well, you can differentiate instruction in several different areas based on a student’s readiness, learning profile, or interest level. Four different areas of the classroom that you can differentiate in are as follows:

Content: Differentiating what the student needs to know or how the student will gain access to the material.

Vary the level of the reading material (upper or lower)

Find audio versions of text books or other reading materials

Vary the vocabulary level (upper or lower)

Use various types of instruction (auditory/visual)

Small group instruction for reteaching of concepts (struggling learners) or for enrichment purposes (advanced group)

Learning Environment: Differentiate the way the classroom appears to the students.

Give opportunities for quiet learning and time for students to collaborate (appeal to various learning modalities)

Provide a variety of materials that appeal to a variety of different cultures

Some students need to move around and others don’t, so help your students understand that about each other. I have students that need to stand in the back of the room occasionally. It’s an understood. Just adjust the seating arrangement so it doesn’t disturb anyone else.

Develop routines so that when teachers are busy, students may get help without needing the teacher

Make independent work match individual needs and set up clear guidelines for individual working time

Method: Differentiate the activities that students engage in so that they can master the content.

Put up student centers that students can travel to that interest them so that they can explore the topic in an area of interest.

Use tiered activity centers so that every student feels engaged in the content, but within their own levels. Every student gets challenges, supported, etc., as needed.

Provide individual task lists for each student that have both in-common activities and individualized activities that students must complete within a certain time frame or as students complete work early.

Give varying time lengths depending on level of student and provide enrichment activities for advanced learners or support activities for struggling learners who finish early.

Final Products: Final projects that allow students to rehearse, apply, and extend knowledge.

Give several different options of how to present the required learning (for example: write a letter, create a presentation, make up a song, etc.)

When creating rubrics, have them match and extend the students’ individual skill levels. You can delete some skill areas from the rubric and add some skill areas to others. You can increase points or decrease points in skill areas depending on the level of the student.

Allow students the option to work alone or in small groups for projects. Some students work better alone and some work better in a group. They do not always have to work in groups!

If students’ final products contain all required elements, allow them to create their own products (creativity is good!)

Differentiation doesn’t need to get tricky. Giving students support where they need it and challenging those who need the challenge is what differentiation is all about. These are just some of the ways that you can do it.

How do YOU differentiate instruction? 

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