There are many different ways that instruction can be differentiated. Some ways work better for certain lessons, certain content, even for certain groups of kids. (I remember as a new teacher being shocked that plans that had worked well for my students my first year failed miserably for the students I had my second year. For some reason I thought my classes would be so much more alike!)
Instruction can be differentiated by the skills and concepts being taught, by the way the students’ learning is assessed, and by the activities, assignments and materials being used. Each of these can be further differentiated by the students’ academic/instructional level, by the students’ interests and by their learning styles.
And, let’s not forget, there are some lessons that will likely be more effective when done as a whole class without differentiating.
I put together a Differentiation Planning flowchart to try to make it easier to consider the possibilities.
These five questions will give you a good place to start when deciding what will work best for your students.
1. What is it that I want my students to know or be able to do at the end of the lesson or unit?
Students can’t hit a target if they don’t know what and where it is.
Your planning will be much more effective and effecient if you first determine where you want the students to end up – then you can really focus on how to get them there.
2. Where are my students now?
Use a variety of data – possibly including assessment scores, classroom observation, even student input – to determine where each student currently is in relation to the target you’ve identified.
You may discover that you have students already beyond the target. Adjust the target accordingly so they can be appropriately challenged.
You may have students that are a ways from reaching the target. Plan instruction for them that will get them closer.
In both of these cases, resources such as curriculum ladders can be very helpful for seeing the progression of skills and planning next steps.
3. What resources do I have available?
Being able to provide leveled reading articles or other types of differentiated materials can be great, but spending hours and hours trying to find or create materials for every lesson isn’t realistic.
Take advantage of what you have easy access to. One of my favorite ways to differentiate math lessons was to offer the students their choice of worksheet. Our math curriculum came with three workbooks: Reteaching, Practice and Enrichment. The Practice page was at the same level as our textbook. The Reteaching simplified the skills or added support in some way, and the Enrichment added an additional challenge to the skill. I’d make copies of all three and let the students choose which one they wanted to do. It surprised me at first that they didn’t all take the “easy” page. Most often, they picked whatever their friends picked, which sometimes meant that they ended up with a pretty challenging assignment. Their choices also helped me better understand how the students’ felt about how well they got the skill.
4. What choices can I offer the students?
In the math worksheet situation, I could have assigned the students a worksheet based on their academic level or some other factor, and I did on occasion, but I love being able to let the students make choices about their work as often as possible. Making choices increases their engagement and makes the learning more relevant and more enjoyable.
I especially like doing this with reading projects. I have always loved to read, but it seemed like the books I was required to read in school were never ones I liked much. So, as much as possible, I let students choose their own (within some guidelines) – then if they don’t like the book it’s not completely my fault. 🙂
For example, when I taught 5th grade, during our unit on the American Revolution, we read historical fiction novels set during that time. I had small sets of several books that could work. I’d spend a class period introducing the book choices to the kids – reading the blurb on the back of each book, explaining the reading level of each, the number of pages, etc. Then they could pick. It made for some really interesting discussions in history about what life was like then since the kids had a variety of information they learned from their books and could share with each other.
5. What learning styles have I not reached out to lately?
Some kids learn best in a quiet room; others learn best working with a lot of discussion with others.
Some learn by practicing on a worksheet; others get better practice on a computer; still others learn best with hands-on manipulatives.
Some kids can show what they know by writing a report. Others would be more successful giving a speech, making a poster, or writing a song.
Look for ways to mix things up. If yesterday’s lesson was quiet and independent, make today’s more collaborative, and vice versa. Give each student days when they can learn in their preferred way.
As a major bonus, it will make class time more interesting for you, too!