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What Is Differentiated Instruction?

By: Carol Ann Tomlinson
Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.

At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

  • Content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information;
  • Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;
  • Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and
  • Learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels.

Content

Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level include the following:

  1. Using reading materials at varying readability levels;
  2. Putting text materials on tape;
  3. Using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students;
  4. Presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means;
  5. Using reading buddies; and
  6. Meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners.

Process

Examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level include the following:

  1. Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity;
  2. Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them;
  3. Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early;
  4. Offering manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them; and
  5. Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.

Products

Examples of differentiating products at the elementary level include the following:

  1. Giving students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels);
  2. Using rubrics that match and extend students' varied skills levels;
  3. Allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and
  4. Encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements.

Learning environment

Examples of differentiating learning environment at the elementary level include:

  1. Making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration;
  2. Providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings;
  3. Setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs;
  4. Developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and
  5. Helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly (Tomlinson, 1995, 1999; Winebrenner, 1992, 1996).

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 403 245.

Sternberg, R. J., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E. L. (1998). Teaching triarchically improves student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 374-384. EJ 576 492.

Tomlinson, C. (1995). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 386 301.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 429 944.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Winebrenner, S. (1996). Teaching kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. ED 396 502.

Excerpted from: Tomlinson, C. A. (August, 2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

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Comments

Great job at breaking it down. The article does a great job in addressing the "how" of differentiation.

Why do our schools think that putting students in groups is considered differintiated instruction?

My son's school groups according to reading ability. Can you explain the difference between what seems like "tracking" students and differential instruction?

If students are grouped by reading level and are making progress as that group targets reading needs then the student that is mastering those areas should be allowed to move on to the next group (flexible reading)

You have alot of ideas for differentiating in the elementary classroom,but for those of us that teach middle school it is very different. We teach upwards of 125 kids a day differentiating is very difficult. Any ideas?

A high school teacher has over 150 students every day. How do we differentiate instruction for such a large group? Also, at the high school level, the teacher has various sections of classes (ex. Senior Honors, Junior Remedial, Freshman Regular). How is daily differentiation possible in such a circumstance?

Many of our students have a lack of background knowledge. This is often addressed in Tier II prior to the next day's lesson. It's difficult taking them places they've never been, helping them fully understand.

It is my belief that because of the differences in acquired skills, ability levels and interest among young learners, it is very important that Elementary Education teachers make necessary adaptations to the learning environment to accommodate all learners. As a result, all students benefit and learning is the ultimate outcome.

There are so many ways to differentiate, how do you choose which one? Learning style, preference, reading level, background, behavior, strengths, and the list goes on…

This article shows and excellent way to address differentiating instruction on varying levels to reach all learners.

I am a Middle School teacher. Middle School and High School Teachers can differentiate instructions in their bell ringers, building background knowledge and through exit slips. Use exit slips to help you prepare for the next day's differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instructions are very necessary to help students learn and succeed. Article does a good job explaining the importance of the learning.

I know that we can't put all teachers in the same category BUT As with most other conversation(on the web and in school districts) regarding differentiation it's always the same response...Middle and High School teachers making excuses as to why their jobs are so difficult...How in the world could thye be expected to differentiate instruction with so many students....hummmmm. Considering that MOST middle and High school teachers have no more than 2 subject areas to teach on a daily basis and elementary teachers teach reading, science, math ,writing, social studies, geography, history and with the cuts add art and music....How are they able to do so? Did I mention wiping noses, zipping pants, writing daily notes to parents, cleaning up messes? Please keep in mind that most of them also do not have degrees for specific content as their middle and high school counterparts...So they must PLAN, PLAN, PLAN for instruction...I could go on and I'm sure many of you will disagree but it's the facts. I think a great first step would be to stop the sit and down and listen strategy from the 1970's and provide students with engaging work...Just a thought...Stop making excuses and do the work that you are committed to do on behalf of kids.

It is important to use differentiation in order to meet the individual needs of each student. In math it might be more beneficial to differentiate the environment rather than the content and in reading it may be easier to differentiate the content.You can look at content, process, product and environment, there are many opportunities for differentiation.

jg...you are right on! It is a different world for us...not to mention the lack of planning time!

I totally agree with jg. I have seen middle school teachers that teach specific subjects use the same lesson plans for years. A little innovation goes a long way. Complaining does nothing.

Great article! Easy to see how to use differentiated instruction in class. I teach art and can see where I have used differentiated instruction in most lessons, but can see how to improve my lessons.

Using differentiated reading materials is often difficult due to the lack of access to varying materials.

I am an Art Teacher and find that various ways to approach a unit are necessary to maintain student interest.

It was a good feeling to read the article and realize that so many of the areas are being done. The area that I find the most challenging is the Learning Environment. Working with 5-6 year olds poses a tremendous challenge preparing the children to work independently for a period of time while the teacher is helping others. Routines are difficult in the beginning of the year.

jg....You are sooooo correct. I teach 4th and 5th grade. Meet the need of the student not the challenges of the student. Differentiated instruction is a lifesaver. Thank God for planning.

Gayle Moore, if I can manage 22 four-year-olds and still differentiate for individuals, you can too! I assign mine to weekly groups which rotate through five small group activities each week (1 each day). When they first come in, they go to their table and start working quietly and independently. Once everyone arrives we break for circle time, then go back to those small group activities. During that second segment, I pull 2 or 3 kids aside who need help with a particular skill and work with them for 5-10 minutes. This seems to work well and the kids love when its their turn to work with me. The independent activities are overseen by my assistant.

I am actually differentiating learning activities of my students. It is really challenging especially if you have forty-five to fifty students in a class. Majority of these students have low English proficiency level and only 3% belong to near mastery level.Fortunately, I have already differentiated four skills in vocabulary: synonyms, antonyms, words with multiple meanings, and idioms. We had so much fun, learning, and everybody has a "voice".I would like to differentiate now skills in reading--noting details, getting the main ideas, making inferences, and determining the tone or mood. However, I am still groping what to do especially in noting details and getting the main ideas. Please advise me. I am a high school Filipino teacher who teaches English subject. my email address is melvinhate@yahoo.com. God bless

I have to give Diane Kudos too. Teachers have to be creative when differentiating large groups and subjects or level should not stop us.

Both Elementary and High School teachers are correct, both of their jobs create quite different problems. I have taught both Elementary and Middle/High School, in regular ed, as well as in the special education classroom. Each classroom presents its own types of challenges. Some classes just aren't condusive to DI, because of the student population you have, and numbers, and weather or not you have an aide. If you have a class with alot of behavior issues and you are the only one in the room, alot of group activities will fail because you can't turn your back on a certain student or two in that situation. We have been talking about DI since I began teaching in the mid 1980's we just didn't have a name for it, we called it teaching, and everyone knew that it was our job to try to reach every student, and use whatever means necessary to do so, now they have names for everything and DI has been around alot longer than the name for it. Also don't try to tell another teacher what they can and can't do in their classroom until you have sat in their specific classroom and witness and monitor the dynamics yourself, because as wonderful as DI is, it doesn't work for everything and isn't the cure all.

TK - I am so glad you can do it with 22 students but try over 100 without any teaching assistants. 22 students and an assistant - Only in a high school teacher's dreams.

help!! i am struggling with differentiation. i have a class of 36 prealgebra students and with so many (and they are very chatty!)i am finding it difficult. last year i only had 18 and it is almost impossible to do some of the same activities that i did with my smaller group last year. when i group them i have 9 groups! and my class is filled to capacity...! all advice and suggestions will be greatly appreciated!

this article gave additional and simpler concept of differentiated instruction..very helpful for my exam!

I teach high school science. You can come up with new jargon all you want but I have always been implementing these strategies. If you want your student to learn and if you find that they are not doing as well as you would like then naturally you modify, tweak, alter your methods as much as you can to get different results. For much of us it is trial and error. Unfortunately I have seen many teachers who have no business in the teaching profession. But that goes the same for many other professions that deal with the general public….but teaching youth is special and requires a special sensitivity. I find nothing significantly new or different in this or much of the other tools talked about …which probably means what has been said before. Though people can be taught to teach, clearly, some are born to teach. And btw let’s not leave out the 800lb. gorilla in the room. I find it quite remarkably interesting that ALL this “educational reform” goes right out the window when these kids leave K-12 public schools and enter college, vocational or training in the military. Once at this level of learning, all of the sudden “differentiation”, “flipping the classroom” and “student centered/project based learning”…et al. doesnt apply Oooh, I suppose it has nothing to do with austerity measures, destroying unions, pension … not to mention these many millionaire and billionaire new educational reform corporations that go all over the country and the world to push their educational reform charter/private schools so they can rake in billion. Just an observation, I am old enough to remember a form of technology, a pesticide, that was used to minimize damage to crops thus yielding an increase in harvest and therefore profit margins. It's the American way..at all times the needs of capitalism drives production...which translates into more profit. Unfortunately, more often than not there is a "cost of doing business". In the case of this particular pesticide, it was later discovered to be the sole reason for the almost complete extinction of a bird that our country uses as its symbol of strength, freedom and nobility. Yes, DDT was the culprit that almost ended up killing our dearly embraced symbol of American "superiority", the American Bald Eagle. What does this have to do with differentiated learning and all the many techniques and strategies that seem to be at the center of discussion on educational reform? Hmmm...in this country, I’ve noticed there is often a propensity to use a lot of “band-aids” to treat symptoms of "conditions" that in fact should really be dealt from a systemic and societal perspective. The examples are endless...and reveal a pattern of conduct in which we, as a society, won't or can't deal with the roots of problems but rather would prefer to react to the immediate and most observable symptoms of a more profound deeply embedded problem. The pesticide(technology)was created ultimately to help produce as high a yield of crop as possible so that demands can be met and money can thus be made. In fact, American slave trading existed for fundamentally the same reasons. The drive was about making large amounts of money regardless of the means by which it was accomplished (and then through cognitive dissonance,.. rationalize this insidious practice of human trafficking by creating this notion of "race" where one is superior over the other. Are we or at least the few economic elite so different from the days of imperialism?Just how far have we come as human beings from this need to acquire land, collect as much wealth as possible, to commodify the entire planet including our own kind? Here we are in the "digital age". We have created a world for our children, a world in which they are being so profoundly impacted by this new way of making money through technology. The human-screen analog digital interface. This infusion and intensifying of visual & audio media from movies to television (sesame street, electric company...)to desktop computers, to laptops, to mini desktops, to mini laptops, to walkmans, to ipods, to video arcades, to playstations, to xbox, to cellfones, to pda’s, smartphones to iphones, to ipads, to kindles, to more, and more cgi enhanced movie and tv imagery..and so on. Have we gone too far without any kind of check and balance system in place. What did you think would happen when our infants are raised in the world of "human to digital screen" interfacing. These children have been raised in a world of "sensory overload". The brain, the mind of the human is amazing...it adapts very quickly...it will process what it needs to process in order to make sense out of the world and it will do so whether there be any checks and balances put in place or not. But exactly what kind of world is our brain making sense of if the world is a virtual one..a digital “reality”. A kind of matrix of our own doing. The mind will absorb...it will process... it will form new neural pathways that will lead it toward new and uncharted realms of processing, reasoning and thinking. I ask you, is it any wonder why the methods of instruction that have been used to pass on civilization inter-generationally for centuries if not millennia have suddenly (in a couple of decades) seemed to fall short in achieving the goals of educating our children. Kesserian Ingera? Is it shocking that we are faced with alleged epidemic proportions of conditions like A.D.D. and indeed could there be a link in the phenomena? Surely some correlation, no? I remember learning that one should never place a baby in a crib without some sort of toys and devices that can help develop as many of its senses as possible. The smart infant and toddler toy companies based on research developed and marketed a plethora of "toys" for in and out of the crib...all for the purpose of stimulating the child's sensory and cognitive developmental potentials. I know I have also witnessed how QUICKLY babies respond to the highly stimulating lights, colors, moving figures, animations and imageries that they see on a LCD screen. They press a key here and this happens, press a different key and that happens, toggle a joystick and observe all the changes on the screen. These amazing little minds are absorbing and processing more than we can ever know while they fidget with these devices. But like so many technologies infused into our society, we simple don't know the full implications of its introduction. So like we did with DDT we have deal with it head on or ultimately deal with its irreparable consequences down the road. I am in no way suggesting that we arrest the advancement of science and technology...that is absurd...not to mention the fact that I am a science teacher. I am pointing out that we as a society (starting with the INDIVIDUAL) should pay more close attention to what drives our society...can't there be more of a balance? ..more of an awareness?...more of a philosophical oriented interest into the things that we invent? In our great creativity and inventiveness can stand back and ask ourselves..."where are we going with all this?" and at what cost...can we foster a kind of objectivity to it all and perhaps look to the bigger picture? A re-examination of who we are as a society. A deeper look into axiology and epistemology is needed. What is meant by our HUMANITY? Our future on this earth...our accomplishment as a species capable of reasoning and thought beyond the need to fill our bellies, our wallets, our time with waste. Yes let's differentiate our lives as well as our lessons.

OK, jg and all of your supporters, yes, elementary teachers work hard too, but I have (as an administrator) seen elementary teachers who seem to think lesson planning consists of turning to the next page in the teacher edition - and I don't mean the night before - I am talking about doing that when it's time to teach the lesson, so HS teachers with yellowed lesson plans in a dusty cabinet don't have a monopoly on lack of planning. There are excellent and poor teachers at all levels, and none of them have an easy job. We do ourselves a disservice when we bicker back and forth about who has the toughest job. However, in this discussion, the number of students per day IS a valid concern. If you have the same 30 kids all day, even if it is for all possible subjects, you can get to know their learning needs and allow activities to flow from one to another, covering more than one topic in the same activity. You can use non-fiction reading materials for reading and science, you can teach a math and science combination lesson together with a writing assignment afterward, etc. The HS teacher has to stick to one topic and stop after X minutes to begin again with a new group - and every group is composed of different students with unique needs. In many states, and especially now with the Common Core, the sheer number of topics to cover during the course can be quite daunting, and teachers feel the pressure to cover the material. (I don't equate coverage with teaching - I am just saying there is a lot of pressure to cover all objectives.) And, I hate to burst your bubble, many HS teachers do have multiple subjects in a single day. However, even the year that I had four sections of geometry and one of another math (so only two preps), the four geometry classes were all different and had to be approached differently. Same topic with different kids does not mean that you can do exactly the same lesson. Differentiation is difficult but worthwhile, and it is not something you can do for every lesson every day, but excellent teachers find a way to do as much as they can to help all students achieve.

Differentiated Instruction it alpply for every children? or just children w disabilities?

This article makes differentiating instruction very practical and specific.

I love the information, it really demonstrated all the components of differentiated teaching. The ideals were great.

hellow.. differentiated instruction is not practiced in our school. I am planning to conduct a study about it's effectiveness in enhancing my students conceptual understanding and attitude in my subject since it's, well, considered by many as a hard science. Can i differentiate the teaching-learning process only (without changing the content of what they should learn and expect the same output/product for the whole class). Another question is, should i also differentiate the learning environment? By the way i want to differentiate my methods based from my students learning styles only..is it ok if i only consider the learning style??disregarding the other factors for learning. Help pls:) thanx

Wow...quite the comments....I think the biggest problem with DI at this point in time is that we obviously are not in agreement on its practical definition. If when we try and implement a program we took the time to talk about the various ways this format has tried to be implemented, we could get a better handle on what we want it to look like. Personally, I think we need to make something sound easy and enticing to those that have to implement and for God's sake...let the teachers fail once in a while they're trying to grow themselves...That's a huge problem for teachers today...no mistakes, only success....ridiculous.

Should a lesson be focusing on differentiating only one element for all students or can ONE lesson have different learning objectives for different differentiated-element tasks for groups of students?

I just wanted to share an awesome site that allows you to print nonfiction articles at varying Lexile levels. As students work in groups, they can all read the same article but have it at their instructional level. They have current event articles that my students absolutely love. Hope this helps!
www.newsela.com

Differentiated Learning is simply learning styles and social learning theory utilizing teacher pedagogy as the arbitrator and brain-based learning theory as the fundamental underlying outcome.

Nice, this is quite a good job in giving out the minute details. Thanks. Please write more. A sample lesson plan can be of great help too.

group them in flexible groups by below average, average, above average then address each IEP, yes, it is tracking but you have to meet every student where they are. You don't won't to over whelm them or talk over there head. Teachers cant afford to waste time teaching what kids already know as well what they are not ready to learn. I feel that is the easiest way to do the young kids

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