Differentiated Classroom Structures for Literacy Instruction

Differentiating instruction is more complex than just providing different students with different learning experiences. Learn about this distinction by reading classroom examples that contrast differentiated literacy instruction with simply different instruction.

Differentiation isn't just about having different students do different things. Differentiated instruction is based on students' needs.

Below are some classroom structures for literacy instruction that can be differentiated. For each, examples are provided of simply different experiences for students, and differentiated experiences, flexibly adapted to meet students' changing needs.

Whole Class Structures

Different… Emma writes Morning Messages for her kindergarten class. She has the class perform a choral reading of the message each day. When she noticed that the same three kids were carrying the reading for the rest of the class, she asked them to read the message silently, so that the other students would not simply echo these three readers.

Differentiated… When Kate writes a Morning Message for her second graders, she builds in something for each of her spelling/word study groups. One day, she wrote a blank for the sh in share for one group, a blank for the silent e in the word lake for a second group, and a blank after scrub so a third group could change it into scrubbing. During Morning Message, she chooses a volunteer from each targeted group to fill in the appropriate blank.

Small Groups

Different… Phil has three reading groups in his fourth grade classroom. At the beginning of the year, he conducts an informal reading inventory with each child. He then sorts the students into three groups of equal size: high, middle, and low. For the remainder of the school year, he uses fourth grade texts with the middle group, third grade texts with the low group, and fifth grade texts with the high group.

Differentiated… In September, Jill took three running records on each of her first graders. Based upon their instructional levels, she created four reading groups. Every three weeks, she took an additional running record on each student and changed her groups to reflect students' new instructional levels. Over the year, she had from three to six groups, depending on these results.


Different… Debra is teaching her fifth graders how to write persuasive essays. She develops three different prompts for them to choose from. Students can write an essay to convince their parents to get a pet, to persuade the principal to extend recess time, or to ask their favorite author to come to the class.

Differentiated… Rachel teaches her third grade class a writing mini-lesson about dialogue. She circulates the room as students write, and jots down the names of students who are experimenting with dialogue in their writing, noting their use of quotation marks. During independent writing time, she pulls the group of students who were not punctuating their dialogue and teaches a mini-lesson on quotation marks. Then she pulls the group of students who were using quotation marks correctly and introduces the concept of indenting for new speakers.


Different… Patty has a spelling center in her third grade classroom. When students arrive at the center, they choose one of three different sorts: sh vs. th, long /o/ vowel patterns, and -able vs. -ible words. Students select one of the three card sets from a file box and perform the sort they choose.

Differentiated… Joe has an alphabet stamp center in his kindergarten classroom. Each student brings an index card with a picture on it to the center, stamps the initial letter on the card, colors in the picture, and glues it into his/her notebook. Each day, Joe chooses a picture for each student, based upon his observations of the consonants with which the student is familiar.

Adapted from: Leipzig, D. H. (June, 2000). Differentiated or Just Different?


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Being in EC, differentiation is always a key word for instruction. Teaching multiple grades, I do try and target grade-appropriate skills when doing whole-group (I.e. Calendar time ) , yet I also have to remember to differentiate w/I each grade level since some children in the same grade are working on number sense to 10 while other same-age peers are skip.counting by 2's or 5's. I like how the article reinforces continual regrouping throughout the year, saying "it's okay to change up reading groups" etc based on updated assessment info. This is some thing I will implement to target more levels even when it may create either more or less groups.

This article helped me to see that although I am working on differentiating lessons, I always have more to learn. It makes me more aware that "assessment" is a continuous, rolling activity, that to meet the needs of my students, I have to always be doing. Being in exceptional children, we are much more adapted to individualized learning, BUT I need to keep working on making it better.

The article helped me see that there are more levels of differentiation that I need to explore

I like how "differentiated" instruction lends itself to fluid groups whereas "different" instruction tends to put the children into groups that remain together all year.

It's easy to fall into just having students doing different tasks instead of having them do tasks that meet their individual needs. I think a teacher using well functioning tools for data assessment allow them to avoid this pitfall. When you look at a student's data it's very apparent that you can't just give them a different task on the same level as other students, but that you must meet them at the level they are at currently.

As I read this I thought about things we consider as differentiated and how sometimes that doesn't meet the child's needs. True individualized instruction needs to occur with every child I serve and I need to create an atmosphere and lesson plans that afford each student the opportunity to experience learning in the most meaningful way for them.

It is easy to think about differentiation in broad terms in groups or partnerships, but it is truly challenging to create a plan specific to each child. I think that I will use this article to help motivate me to meet each student where he/she is and help them to grow by trying to provide the differentiation that they need to succeed. This will be challenging, but if I am able to create truly differentiated lessons based on the needs of each student, then true progress will occur and we will see growth.

Although I am a new teacher, who admittedly has much to learn, I do want to help every student I serve to be as successful as they can possibly be, so the fruits of my efforts will be the reward of seeing that child's growth. I am going to try to create lessons that are truly differentiated and that meet each student where they are.

Sometimes teachers get caught up into grouping & having students do different tasks to "differentiate." However, clearly, this is not differentiation. The teacher must go the extra mile & create individualized extensions & refinements to help encourage/reinforce what each student needs from the lesson(s). I believe it takes a little more time up front, but in the end, students gain much more from this approach.

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers