Differentiated Instruction for Reading

Differentiated instruction is based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students. This brief looks at how differentiation strategies applied to reading can be designed to help students learn a range of skills including, phonics, comprehension, fluency, word prediction, and story prediction.

What Is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction, also called differentiation, is a process through which teachers enhance learning by matching student characteristics to instruction and assessment. Differentiated instruction allows all students to access the same classroom curriculum by providing entry points, learning tasks, and outcomes that are tailored to students' needs (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003). Differentiated instruction is not a single strategy, but rather an approach to instruction that incorporates a variety of strategies.

Teachers can differentiate content, process, and/or product for students (Tomlinson, 1999). Differentiation of content refers to a change in the material being learned by a student. For example, if the classroom objective is for all students to subtract using renaming, some of the students may learn to subtract two-digit numbers, while others may learn to subtract larger numbers in the context of word problems. Differentiation of process refers to the way in which a student accesses material. One student may explore a learning center, while another student collects information from the web. Differentiation of product refers to the way in which a student shows what he or she has learned. For example, to demonstrate understanding of a geometric concept, one student may solve a problem set, while another builds a model.

When teachers differentiate, they do so in response to a student's readiness, interest, and/or learning profile. Readiness refers to the skill level and background knowledge of the child. Interest refers to topics that the student may want to explore or that will motivate the student. This can include interests relevant to the content area as well as outside interests of the student. Finally, a student's learning profile includes learning style (i.e., a visual, auditory, tactile, or kinesthetic learner), grouping preferences (i.e., individual, small group, or large group), and environmental preferences (i.e., lots of space or a quiet area to work). A teacher may differentiate based on any one of these factors or any combination of factors (Tomlinson, 1999).

How is it implemented?

Implementation looks different for each student and each assignment. Before beginning instruction, teachers should do three things:

  1. Use diagnostic assessments to determine student readiness. These assessments can be formal or informal. Teachers can give pre-tests, question students about their background knowledge, or use KWL charts (charts that ask students to identify what they already Know, what they Want to know, and what they have Learned about a topic).
  2. Determine student interest. This can be done by using interest inventories and/or including students in the planning process. Teachers can ask students to tell them what specific interests they have in a particular topic, and then teachers can try to incorporate these interests into their lessons.
  3. Identify student learning styles and environmental preferences. Learning styles can be measured using learning style inventories. Teachers can also get information about student learning styles by asking students how they learn best and by observing student activities. Identifying environmental preferences includes determining whether students work best in large or small groups and what environmental factors might contribute to or inhibit student learning. For example, a student might need to be free from distraction or have extra lighting while he or she works.

Teachers incorporate different instructional strategies based on the assessed needs of their students. Throughout a unit of study, teachers should assess students on a regular basis. This assessment can be formal, but is often informal and can include taking anecdotal notes on student progress, examining students' work, and asking the student questions about his or her understanding of the topic. The results of the assessment could then be used to drive further instruction.

What does it look like for reading?

Differentiation strategies applied to reading can be designed to help students learn a range of skills including, phonics, comprehension, fluency, word prediction, and story prediction. The chart below offers a variety of strategies that can be used.


Focus of Differentiation



Tiered Assignments


Tiered assignments are designed to instruct students on essential skills that are provided at different levels of complexity, abstractness, and open-endedness. The curricular content and objective(s) are the same, but the process and/or product are varied according to the student's level of readiness.

Students with moderate comprehension skills are asked to create a story-web. Students with advanced comprehension skills are asked to re-tell a story from the point of view of the main character.



Compacting is the process of adjusting instruction to account for prior student mastery of learning objectives.

Compacting involves a three-step process:

  1. (assess the student to determine his/her level of knowledge on the material to be studied and determine what he/she still needs to master;
  2. create plans for what the student needs to know, and excuse the student from studying what he/she already knows; and
  3. create plans for freed-up time to be spent in enriched or accelerated study.

A student who can decode words with short vowel sounds would not participate in a direct instruction lesson for that skill, but might be provided with small group or individualized instruction on a new phonics skill.

Interest Centers or Interest Groups


Interest centers (usually used with younger students) and interest groups (usually used with older students) are set up so that learning experiences are directed toward a specific learner interest. Allowing students to choose a topic can be motivating to them.

Interest Centers: Centers can focus on specific reading skills, such as phonics or vocabulary, and provide examples and activities that center on a theme of interest, such as outer space or students' favorite cartoon characters.

Interest Groups: For a book report, students can work in interest groups with other students who want to read the same book.

Flexible Grouping*

Readiness Interest Learning Profile

Students work as part of many different groups depending on the task and/or content. Sometimes students are placed in groups based on readiness, other times they are placed based on interest and/or learning profile.

Groups can either be assigned by the teacher or chosen by the students. Students can be assigned purposefully to a group or assigned randomly. This strategy allows students to work with a wide variety of peers and keeps them from being labeled as advanced or struggling.

The teacher may assign groups based on readiness for phonics instruction, while allowing other students to choose their own groups for book reports, based on the book topic.

Learning Contracts

Learning Profile

Learning contracts begin with an agreement between the teacher and the student. The teacher specifies the necessary skills expected to be learned by the student and the required components of the assignment, while the student identifies methods for completing the tasks.

This strategy:

  1. allows students to work at an appropriate pace;
  2. can target learning styles; and
  3. helps students work independently, learn planning skills, and eliminate unnecessary skill practice.

A student indicates that he or she wants to research a particular author. With support from the teacher, the student determines how the research will be conducted and how the information will be presented to the class.

For example, the student might decide to write a paper and present a poster to the class. The learning contract indicates the dates by which each step of the project will be completed.

Choice Boards

Readiness Interest Learning Profile

Choice boards are organizers that contain a variety of activities. Students can choose one or several activities to complete as they learn a skill or develop a product.

Choice boards can be organized so that students are required to choose options that focus on several different skills.

After students read Romeo and Juliet, they are given a choice board that contains a list of possible activities for each of the following learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Students must complete two activities from the board and must choose these activities from two different learning styles.

* More information about grouping strategies can be found in Strategies to Improve Access to the General Education Curriculum. Available at http://www.k8accesscenter.org/training_resources/curricular_materials.asp

Access Center. (2004). Differentiated Instruction for Reading. Washington D.C.: Author.


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This is a wonderful resource that I will be using in the upcoming school year. Thank you!

Great advice for differentiation strategies to use with students who have already mastered the concept being presented. However, in my experience, the struggle is how to present grade-level material to students who are not ready for the content. As teachers, we are responsible for teaching certain objectives. However, not all students have the background to prepare them for those objectives. I've found success with using technology resources to aid in "filling in the gaps" with my students who struggle. They don't feel that they are being singled out and the programs/apps are usually high interest. This differentiated approach to the content, as well as targeted small group instruction usually provide the student with what they need to master grade-appropriate content.

I found this article and recommendations to be very informative. I incorporate differentiated instruction in all my lessons. I observe and understand the differences and similarities among my students and use them as an advantage for them and for me. I feel that there is always room for growth on my part. I have areas that I am strong in, such as planning group work activities that involve problem solving. These two key principles in differentiating instruction focus on collaboration of students and allows me to group the students to fit their individual needs and allows the students to explore big ideas and expand their understanding of the concept at hand. However, I need to really allow the students to have ownership of specific choices to complete creative motivating assignments that can meet the students diverse needs and varied interests.I look forward to using some of the ideas and strategies in my classroom this next school year.

During my reading of this blog post, Differentiated Instruction for Reading, I discovered two new strategies about differentiated teaching that I did not already know. I am familiar with differentiated instruction; however, I had not heard of the strategy: Learning Contracts and Choice Boards. I would like to incorporate more choices in my online courses. I choose these reading strategies because the focus is on readiness, learning style and interest. Differentiation in reading instruction is geared to providing support to the individual needs of the learner so that they may have choices and success!

Interesting article packed with excellent information. I do utilize D.I within my classroom, but I do have several questions. I have around 30 students per class, how do I manage all of my D.I. grouos with that many students? Are there any management techniques in place? My state assessments are on grade level, regardless of my student's reading levels, or learning styles. How does D.I. correlate with standardized assessments?

Interesting strategies discussed within the article. I do support differentiation within my classroom, I just have several questions: I have about 30 students per class, how do you recommend dividing large numbers of students? How do you ensure all students are engaged? Standardized tests are on grade level, regardless of the learner's reading level, or style of learning. How does differentiation prepare for on-level standardized assessments?

I found this article so useful. I am currently doing my Masters in Reading & Literacy. This article and the clear guidelines that are outlined within it are very useful. Thank you!

Great strategies, and very clearly written. Thank you! I am using this to study for my Praxis II, and hopefully implement these strategies when I get my own classroom.

I am very thankful to writers of this article. it explains DI practically. According to my learning context, reading materials are predetermined, and so I choose reading strategies that focus on readiness and learning style more than interest, such as: flexible grouping, choice board, and tiered assignments. I am gonna apply this for first time, was really helpful.

I thought this article gave the appropriate information for applying differentiated instruction to the classroom and reading instruction.

I found the article very informative and interesting. I am very familiar with flexible grouping, especially using readiness as a guide. I would love to incorporate more choices in my centers. Allowing students to join reading groups based on interest is a great idea as well.

The Choice Board and Flexible Grouping is very similiar to CAFE and the Daily 5 approach. I teach third grade and for my on grade level and higher readers, I am doing literature circles. The groups are based on book choices by the students.

This article provided useful information and specific strategies for differentiating reading instruction. I particularly liked the learning contracts and choice boards strategies. Both of these offer students choice and more control over the manner that they will learn and demonstrate mastery of objectives. Student responsibility and ownership are important elements that both of these strategies support. I observed a teacher who used a combination of these two strategies which she called menu learning. Students chose activities from a teacher created menu and signed contracts for completion of these activities in order to demonstrate mastery of the instructional objective. This approach was very successful, and the students enjoyed the freedom to choose activities that suited their personal learning styles.

Thanks for writing this article. It gives lots of really practical effective ideas for differentiating instruction for reading activities. I'm going to reread it and try a couple out on my year 2 kids.

I like breaking down activities for my struggling readers so I really enjoyed reading about the interest groups / centers. I think about or during guided reading when I am working with groups this would be perfect to do in the classroom. I do similar stations, but liked what this article said about the centers. I have observed other teachers doing interventions, but becoming frustrated and it worries me whether or not they follow through on the students progress. I think having students interact in interest centers would really encourage learning reading skills.

Differentiation in reading instruction is geared to providing support to the individual needs of the learner so that they may have success. Using their own interest to plan instruction and gearing instruction at their level will create an environment for success. I have used interest inventories to help with selecting appropriate texts for intervention groups and choices for free reading time.

This article did a great job breaking down WHAT D.I. is, WHEN you should do it, and HOW you should do it. It also listed and explained some very successful strategies to try. For reading, I personally prefer 'flexible grouping.' We teach different skills all the time and so it is appropriate to adjust your groups based on what the students need. If the students are getting it then I like for them to do an extension. In reading, my favorite is 'choice boards.' Those students that aren't getting it will be regrouped and retaught using a new instructional strategy. D.I. is a very important tool that all teachers should be enforcing in their classrooms.

Currently, I am a companion aide/paraprofessional at a school district. Recently, we had a teacher’s meeting about the scores from the school’s assessment. Every regular education classroom teacher’s students had scored between 80% - 99% with the exception of very few students. My principal encouraged all the regular education classroom teachers to use differentiated instruction in their classroom. She strongly requests the teachers to help the students in the 80%-99% to continue striving for the next level and to provide more opportunities for the very few students to excel, too. I like how this article gives teachers ideas of ways to promote differentiated instruction, such as by using choice boards.

I am familiar with differentiated instruction; however, I had not heard of the strategy, Interest Centers or Interest Groups. I really found this interesting and plan to try it in the classroom. I think the students would like to engage in activities centered on a theme of interest.

For me, using differentiated instruction is best done in stations. The suggestions in this article are great for allowing students some choice in their activities.

This is a very informative article on differentiate instruction. I try my best to use differentiation in my classroom. I fill that I do this best in reading workstations and small groups. It is something though that is very challenging.

I enjoyed reading this article. There were many great ideas on how to differentiate in reading. I differentiate daily in my co-teaching classroom. The students are doing the grade level work; however I have to sometimes pull out my students to work at a slower pace with them or to review and do more practice. I also provide modified assignments and/or test for some of my students.

I found this article very informative. It gives a good explanation of what differentiation is and how it should be implemented in the classroom. I also liked the strategies it gave to help students learn a range of reading skills. I use differentiation in my classroom on a daily basis in my guided reading groups and in the learning centers. Anyone who thinks that every child learns the same way and at the same pace obviously doesn't know much about teaching.

Fantastic experiment which we have taken for granted over the years. We keep complainning that the pupils are not doing well enough without assessing the methodology as well as the pupil`s needs. I am going to experiment this in Nigeria.

The library can support differentiated instruction in many subject areas. Guiding struggling readers in selecting and using all forms of print and non-print materials of fiction, nonfiction, online, databases and books with particular attention to promoting literacy is an important part of an integrated approach to help students learn.

This is extremely informative to me as an aspiring teacher. It is my goal to contribute towards the development of effective readers in my country.

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