Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 10/10.3.1

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Differentiated Instruction: Teaching to Meet All Students' Needs

by Will Memery

Learning Targets[edit]

Upon completion, the reader should understand the following:

1. A definition of differentiated instruction and its elements.

2. How differentiated instruction can be applied in the classroom and its usefulness as a teaching tool.


In a traditional classroom, all students are required to learn via the same teaching method, create meaning the same way, and show their understanding of the material they have been taught through the same testing methods. However it is highly unlikely that all students respond in the same manner to traditional teaching and testing methods. Tomlinson asserts,

     "a single seventh grade heterogeneous language arts class is likely to include students who can 
     read and comprehend as well as most college learners; students who can barely decode words, 
     comprehend meaning, or apply basic information; and students who fall somewhere between these 
     extremes.  There are students whose primary interests lie in science, sports, music, or a dozen 
     other fields.  There are students who learn best by working alone and those who are most 
     successful working in groups.  Further, the learning profiles of young adolescents often change 
     rapidly as they develop.  There simply is no single learning template for the general middle 
     school class" (Tomlinson, 1995, para. 1).  

This same rule likely applies to students across all subjects and grade levels. Differentiated instruction allows teachers to adapt their methods to account for students of different learning abilities and styles, and can help these students learn and be tested in a way that is more appropriate for them.

What is differentiated instruction?[edit]

style="background-color: #FFF7F7;

border: solid 1px #FFBDBD; padding: 1em;" valign=top | For examples of ways that these elements can be differentiated, click here: [1].

"Differentiated instruction is matching instruction to meet the different needs of learners in a given classroom" (Kosanovich, Ladinsky, Nelson, & Torgesen, 2007, p. 1) . It is important for teachers to consider the different ways that they can adapt their teaching to encourage understanding among students. Varying techniques and finding new ways to keep students interested in classroom material are key to student participation and learning.

     "Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, 
     interest, or learning profile: (1) content--what the student needs to learn or how the 
     student will get access to the information; (2) process--activities in which the student 
     engages in order to make sense of or master the content; (3) products--culminating projects   
     that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and 
     (4) learning environment--the way the classroom works and feels" (Tomlinson, 2000, para. 2).  

Therefore differentiated instruction can be applied in a variety of ways. Different mediums can be explored (i.e. movies or technology as opposed to strictly reading assignments), different teaching methods can be used (group work or games as opposed to lecture), and different assessment methods can also be used (presentations or projects as opposed to standard tests). Given the variety of methods that teachers have at their disposal, it will certainly take time and effort to determine which one works best for a particular student, but if this effort is taken students will likely be better able to relate to the material being taught.

How can teachers differentiate?[edit]

style="background-color: #FFF7F7;

border: solid 1px #FFBDBD; padding: 1em;" valign=top | For examples of these methods, click here [2].

It is virtually impossible to tailor a classroom to suit every student, especially in schools with large classes and a variety of different types of learners. However there are methods to determine the types of learners in a classroom and develop learning goals that will give every student the best chance of succeeding. These methods include:

1. Pre-assess students at the outset of the year to begin understanding their interests, preferred ways of learning, and fundamental skills. Use teacher-made surveys on interest, attitude about the subject, and learning preferences.

2. Pre-assess at the outset of each unit to determine what students know, understand, and can do related to the topic before the unit begins.

3. Meet with small groups in class.

4. Use multiple presentation/teaching modes.

5. Scaffold reading success.

6. Use differentiated homework.

7. Encourage learning and expressing learning in varied ways (Tomlinson, 2005, p. 3).

Students can also assist each other through differentiated instruction. Methods such as peer teaching (students teaching each other), reading buddies (students helping each other create meaning in texts), and buddy studies (students working in pairs or groups on a project) are effective ways for students to assist one another (Theroux). These methods benefit all students involved, both the ones being taught or helped and the ones teaching or helping. It is also important to consider that "[s]tudent’s readiness varies depending on personal talents and interests, so we must remain open to the concept that a student may be below grade level in one subject at the same time as being above grade level in another subject" (Theroux). Therefore it is important to determine a student's abilities in each individual subject rather than assuming their skill in one subject applies to all subjects.

style="background-color: #FFF7F7;

border: solid 1px #FFBDBD; padding: 1em;" valign=top | For a chart illustrating the differentiated instruction process, click here [3].

The evaluation and grading process can also be adapted in a differentiated instruction classroom. A test is not always the most effective method of evaluating a student's understanding of course material, since some students do not perform well on tests in general. Hall states, "Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures" (Hall). While standardized testing is necessary, a student's success on a standardized test depends on the student's understanding of course materials. Varied methods of testing may be more effective to evaluate this understanding and help a teacher determine if a student needs additional help with course material.

Differentiated Instruction in Practice[edit]

Differentiated instruction is a useful tool for teachers of all age groups. An example of its use is provided by the Florida Center for Reading Research, where teachers of grades K-3 use Guided Reading and Skills-Focused Lessons in Reading First schools. The two methods are very different, and each is designed to help students with specific reading needs. The first is Guided Reading.

     In broad overview, a typical Guided Reading lesson occurs as students read text that has 
     been selected to be at an appropriate level of difficulty. The teacher’s role is to provide 
     supports to students in the appropriate use of a variety of strategies to identify words and 
     construct meaning from the passage. Instruction from the teacher is provided primarily 
     through questioning students and scaffolding more accurate responses when they make errors 
     during reading. Guided Reading provides a context in which the teacher can monitor and guide 
     the student’s application of specific skills in decoding and comprehension to construct 
     meaning while reading (Kosanovich, et al., 2007, p. 3).

While Guided Reading can be used to help students understand the content of texts, Skills-Focused Lessons are used to improve students' word comprehension.

     Skills-Focused Lessons are teacher-planned lessons that provide the opportunity for more 
     systematic and focused practice on a relatively small number of critical elements at a time 
     (e.g., unknown consonant digraphs, vowel teams, r-controlled vowels, etc.). They would also 
     provide the opportunity for sustained, systematic, and interesting “word work” (e.g., Beck, 
     2006) in order to build fluency and confidence in the application of these skills to reading 
     words. These lessons could draw upon lesson formats and content from the core reading program 
     to reinforce knowledge and skill that was only weakly learned when it was taught in the whole 
     group format. In schools that serve a high proportion of poor and minority students, it does 
     not seem reasonable to expect that most students will be able to master many of the skills 
     they are taught if they are only presented and explained during whole group instruction. Many 
     students will need explicit re-teaching of both knowledge elements and skills, as well as 
     extended opportunities to practice the application of these skills in a variety of contexts 
     ranging from individual words, to phrases, to sentences, to connected text. Skills-Focused 
     Lessons will be successful to the extent that they are fast-paced, interactive, and targeted 
     appropriately on critical skills for each reading group (Kosanovich, et al., 2007, p. 3-4).

The Guided Reading method gives the instructor the ability to work individually with students to monitor reading and then evaluate and address problems that they might have with specific reading skills. The Skills-Focused Lesson allows the instructor to group students according to difficulties they are having and create a lesson (i.e. a game) which will improve these skills. It is important for teachers to understand the areas in which their students need the most help and tailor their lesson plans to fit these students. Some students may need more help with reading comprehension, while some may need more help with word recognition and pronunciation. Some students may need help in both of these areas. The use of differentiated instruction can help teach students the specific skills they need, and this theory can be applied across grade levels and subjects.


Teachers must be able to adapt their curriculum to accommodate students' learning needs. It is vital to first identify these needs and then create varying lesson plans that cause students to look at material in different ways. By doing so students will have a greater chance of comprehending material and will feel more confident in their abilities as learners. "Use the old analogy of getting into a house when teaching students: the easiest way into a house is through the front or back door, but you can also get into a house by using a window, crawlspace, or chimney. Be prepared to offer alternative teaching methods for children who don’t learn in a conservative manner" (Tkatchov & Pollnow, 2008, p. 2).

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

1. Differentiated instruction focuses on the needs of the

A. classroom.

B. individual student.

C. school.

D. teacher.

2. Students in any given classroom generally

A. have the same academic abilities.

B. have the same academic interests.

C. learn in the same way.

D. vary greatly in learning preference and interests.

3. A 6th grade math teacher wants to evaluate the learning preferences of his new students. What would be the most effective method to do so?

A. Base new students on previous year's students.

B. It is not beneficial to assess new students.

C. Use a standardized test to assess knowledge.

D. Use a teacher made survey to assess interest and preference.

4. During the first week of school, a 3rd grade Language Arts teacher determines that her students vary widely in reading ability. Many have difficulty with grade appropriate texts, while some read at grade level and others read at a far higher level. What method could the teacher use to assure that all students are learning?

A. Assign easier texts to the class.

B. Direct class lectures toward the weaker readers.

C. Divide students into groups and use scaffolding to help the weaker group, while the stronger groups work on more advanced texts.

D. Make homework more difficult so weaker readers will concentrate harder on text.


1. B

2. D

3. D

4. C


Hall, T. (2002). Differentiated Instruction. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved February 22, 2009, from

Kosanovich, M., Ladinsky, K., Nelson, L., & Torgesen, J. (2007). Differentiated Reading Instruction: Small Group Alternative Lesson Structures for All Students. Guidance Document for Florida "Reading First" Schools. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

Theroux, P. (2004). Strategies for Differentiating. Alberta, Canada: Retrieved February 22, 2009, from

Tkatchov, O., & Pollnow, S. (2008). High Expectations and Differentiation Equal Academic Success. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). Differentiating Instruction for Advanced Learners in the Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005). Differentiating Instruction: Why Bother? Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

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