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A Guide on Differentiation in the Classroom

By Kellie Hayden

Differentiation is not just for special needs or gifted students. It can help all students learn and activities can engage all students. Recently, it has been a buzzword in education. How do you effectively use this mindset in the classroom?

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Create Differentiated Instruction Activities Differentiated instruction is when teachers try to teach all students at their level or rate. Some teachers shoot for the middle and hope to catch all of the students in the teaching "net." This is what differentiation is not. The goal of differentiation instruction is to maximize student growth for individual success.

However great in theory, many teachers struggle with this concept and the great amount of preparation that it entails. To understand more clearly how to begin planning and thinking about differentiation, one must know the basics of differentiation.

Experts on Differentiation

One cannot talk about differentiation without mentioning Carol Ann Tomlinson. In her book, Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms she writes that, “Differentiation is simply attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike." (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000).

Tomlinson believes that teachers can create classrooms that are responsive or personalized to students' needs. For planning, Tomlinson has created a concept map using differentiation in the classroom. The teacher should respond to the learners' needs by using principles of differentiated instruction by asking students to complete respectful tasks, using flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment.

How to Differentiate Content, Process and Product

Teachers can differentiate the content, process and product according to a student's readiness, interests and learning profile. They can use a variety of instructional practices or management strategies. For student readiness teachers can use Multiple Intelligences, jigsaw, taped material, varied supplementary materials, literature circles, etc. To differentiate for student interest, teachers can use tiered lessons, centers and products. In addition, teacher can use group investigation and independent study. For the learning profile, teachers can use varied teaching strategies, interest centers, varied homework, compacting, etc.

Making Differentiation Work in the Classroom

Differentiation can work in most classes, such as language arts, math and science. In addition it is great for gifted students and special needs students. It takes a great deal of planning and patience.

The three keys to differentiated instruction are respectful tasks, flexible grouping and ongoing assessment and adjustment. For respectful tasks, this means that students need to do complete work that is not too easy or too hard. Students will need a pre-assessment to understand their level of understanding of an indicator or objective. Now that the teacher understands that some students already know the basics, they will need to have different levels of tasks or lessons available for students to complete. This means that students will probably be doing a variety of tasks in the classroom.

Grouping for Differentiation

Trying to differentiate every lesson is almost impossible unless a teacher has been differentiating for years and has files and files of resources. To be realistic, teachers will need to pick and choose lessons to differentiate. Some lessons might have tiers and other will simply not. One of the easiest ways to differentiate is through flexible grouping. Groups can be organized based on level of understanding, learning style, and interests. The groups should not always be the same and variety grouping is key.

Differentiation Activity: Jigsaw

One simple way to differentiate a lesson is to use the jigsaw method. When there is a huge amount of reading to complete and to learn the content, students can become experts on one section and teach it to the rest of the group. Then, the student can learn the rest of the content from the other experts. Grouping is key so that the lower reading level students have an amount that they can comprehend and share. The higher reading level students should be given more content to read and to share.

Differentiation Activity: Structured Group Projects

Structured group projects are another easy way to work differentiation into the lesson. As long as the collaborative projects are organized and structured with individual and group tasks, students can differentiate by interest and ability. If students are making a group poster, they can choose tasks that require them to user their strongest Multiple Intelligences. If research needs to be completed for the poster, they can assign tasks according to ability.

The key to making differentiation work in your classroom is to take it slow and to plan carefully. Teachers can be overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to differentiate. However, it is well worth the effort because students will be more successful. The gifted students will not be bored and the special needs students will not be lost.


Tomlinson, C, & Allan, S. (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fischer, M. (2004, May 10). Is differentiation the answer to the tracking debate?. Retrieved from /a_curr/voice/voice124.shtml