Differentiated Instruction for Writing

Differentiated instruction, also called differentiation, is a process through which teachers enhance learning by matching student characteristics to instruction and assessment. Writing instruction can be differentiated to allow students varying amounts of time to complete assignments, to give students different writing product options, and to teach skills related to the writing process.

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 writing?

Writing instruction can be differentiated to allow students varying amounts of time to complete assignments, to give students different writing product options, and to teach skills related to the writing process. The chart below offers a variety of strategies that can be used.

Strategy Focus of Differentiation Definition Example
Tiered assignments Readiness 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 writing skills are asked to write a four-paragraph persuasive essay in which they provide a thesis statement and use their own ideas to support it. Students with more advanced skills are asked to research the topic in more depth and use substantive arguments from their research to support their thesis.
Compacting Readiness 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. Rather than receiving additional direct instruction on writing a five-sentence paragraph, a student who already has that skill is asked to apply it to a variety of topics and is given instruction on writing a five-paragraph essay.
Interest Centers or Interest Groups Readiness
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 writing skills, such as steps in the writing process, and provide examples and activities that center on a theme of interest, such as sports or movies.

Interest Groups — When writing persuasive essays, students can work in pairs on topics of interest.
Flexible Grouping* Readiness
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 direct instruction on the writing process, and allow students to choose their own groups and methods for acquiring background information on a writing topic (i.e., watching a video or reading an article).
Learning Contracts Readiness
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 an interest in writing a newspaper article. The student, with support from the teacher, specifies the process by which he or she will research newspaper writing and decides how to present the final product. For example, the article could be published in the school newspaper or shared during a writer's workshop.
Choice Boards Readiness
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. Students in an elementary school class are given a choice board that contains a list of possible poetry writing activities based on the following learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Examples of activities include, cutting out magazine letters to create poems, using a word processor, or dictating a poem into a tape recorder and transcribing it. 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 on The Access Center website.



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

Hall, T., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2003). Differentiated instruction and implications for UDL implementation. National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum.

Retrieved July 9, 2004 from: http://www.k8accesscenter.org/training_resources/udl/diffinstruction.asp

Tomlinson , C.A. (1999). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms.Alexandria , VA : ASCD.

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


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


I was surprised that Reading Rockets has published instructional recommendations relating to learning styles. I would encourage the editors/authors to revise this article so that it is based on evidence rather than unsupported beliefs about how students learn.

I enjoyed reading this article on differentiation. It gave a detailed, yet concise, explanation and overview of how to use differentiation in the classroom and the multiple strategies educators can use to make sure activities and lessons are differentiated to meet the needs of all learners. This was very helpful for me, because like many educators, I struggle to differentiate at the level my students most need it. I am continuously trying to improve in this area!

I like that chart that provides an easy way to look at each strategy and the examples provided are very beneficial.

I found this article to be very interesting. I love the idea of having the class write on the same topic, just applying different skills/ strategies to complete the assignment. For example, my students who have mastered writing a paragraph on topic can be introduced to reference books as an aid for writing. I also like the idea of grouping students based on interest in a topic.

The school district that I teach in uses Writer's Workshop for our writing. The choice board is something that I use in my classroom, along with Compacting and Tiered assignments. This article was very informative.

I think that the strategies for differentiating writing would work really well in a writing workshop format. This is especially true of the learning contracts and choice board strategies which allow student choice and more independence. Using this approach would also allow me to work with struggling writers in a one-on-one approach that would provide opportunities to develop essential writing skills that other students might already have mastery of.

Differentiated instruction in writing can provide students with opportunities to have successful writing experiences using their own interests and talents to guide instruction. Using tiered assignments allows students to work on specific skills within a skill level they can have success in while creating a product. Interest Centers can provide students with practice in the writing process while exploring things they are interested in. This can be so motivating to reluctant writers. I have incorporated this in dialogue journals during intervention groups.

This article did a great job explaining each differentiated strategy through example. In writing, I think the 'interest groups' strategy would work well especially when students are writing persuasive or informational articles. Implementing 'compacting' in writing should go well when conferencing with small groups. I also think incorporating 'tiered assignments' would work well in writing. Several times I've expected my more advanced writers to compose several paragraphs on several topics on a researched paper. For my other students I might ask that they provide four paragraphs on only one topic researched. This article will be good to copy and give to teachers (old & new) who are trying to implement D.I. into their classroom.

When I was a classroom teacher, I discussed with my students the expectations I had for them to master a skill. I learned from this article that teacher’s can use learning contracts to help the student know the skills to complete.

After reading the article, I would like to try Learning Contracts with my students. It would allow my students to be aware of the learning objective while also providing them with expectations for the assignment.Choice boards would also be useful in differentiating instruction in the co-taught classrooms I teach in. All of the choices could be centered on a particular skill yet offer activities to several different learning styles.

This article is very helpful in differentiating instruction in writing. I have not had any real classroom experience with differentiated instruction with writing, but will use some of the suggestions during centers.

This is another great article on differentiated instruction. Writing is harder for me because I mainly do this whole group. I do have some students who only write a few words instead of sentences. I also have a student who traces over highlighted words that I have written for her. I allow extra time as well for her writing.

I enjoyed reading this article. There were many great ideas on how to differentiate in writing. I plan to be using some of those in my classroom. I really liked the choice boards, tiered assignments, and interest centers/groups. 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.

Excellent article on a difficult topic. excellent in sense that strategies are realistic and can be easily implemented in classroom.

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