What Is Differentiated Instruction?

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.

What You'll Learn

How to vary the level of content you present
How to provide a variety of learning environments
Different ways students can show what they've learned

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:


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.


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.


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).


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.


You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.


This article expresses how important it is to develop ways to meet our student's social and academic needs through differentiation.

Though it can be done in larger groups, one thing that I have learned is that differentiation works so much better in small group settings. Small group allows you more time to recognize student needs and learning styles. You can then differentiate instruction to meet individual needs.

Finding ways to support all students seems to be the best way to make sure everyone is being challenged and given an opportunity to be successful.

The article is very useful can be applied even at the secondary level with some tweaking.

Differentiated instructions are very necessary to help ALL students learn and succeed. I teach 2nd grade and have students that are on 11 different levels in math and reading. This article does a good job explaining the importance of the learning benefits of differentiation.

I found this article very informational. It's a great reminder of the items that I am doing and what I may need to attend more attention too.

Great practical ideas. Also the comments are so much rich to understand and implement differentiated teaching

Differentiated instructional techniques for each lesson Heightens interest and increases participation when children are grouped according to learning styles. By using the content provided in this article and searching the web division of students into groups of primary learning styles with an activity focused on the overall learning styles and examples printed or recorded for others seems to be more achievable with the block schedules used in upper grades.

I teach at risk students who have been tested with the state required Dibbles system. If they score in the red they become my students. I then teach a program designed for them to learn the different sounds in the English language. Many students are Hispanic and speak little English. I use an interactive SMART board, magnetic boards, dry-erase boards, and note books with a hands on approach. The program works well and is user friendly. I highly recommend this program and students do well with great results. If you put in the work you get the reward. I have an average of over 60 students daily.

A consideration when setting up varied instructions leading to 'doable' activities is knowing your learners, their learning styles and making the DI 'fit' as best you can. Giving them choices where they can be involved is good for their confidence too. keep it simple relevant and engaging, whatever it is. More focus on STT and way less TTT also helps, alot. Peace. Major Tom

This article is very important because it gives teachers strategies of differentiated teaching, which includes elements to help students learn and be successful. It is excellent how it explains the importance of learning.

Without going into detail, lets at least start with the idea of the uniqueness of each student. The we can realise that we have to tailor our teaching to create the best conditions for that student to learn. Of course it is difficult with more students in the class, but that is how we develop our professionalism. As someone mentioned, good , professional, skilled teachers adapt their teaching all the time.

I found this article very useful for my lower primary students. It will be highly appreciated, if you can share some more documents and applications.

Differentiated instruction is a wonderful strategy but with a class of ESE students it is difficult to use without an assistant to help. Each student requires one on one instruction.

i am a kindergarten teacher and am really struggling with this concept of differenciate teaching in a class of 35 students who are 4 yr old,without an aide.preparing work sheets is a challenge.Daily thinking of how to keep them motivated is taking a toll on my family life.

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

Differentiation helps the teacher better meet the needs of different students in the classroom.

In my years of teaching , I found that differentiated teaching shows so much enter action with the students. Because groups learn at different times, in different ways. I say this because I'm a vocal music teacher. Some hear tones better than those who read the notes.

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.

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.

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!

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?

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.

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

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

This article makes differentiating instruction very practical and specific.

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

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.

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

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!

Sometimes reviewing routinely pre-requisite skills consistently to ensure that students are not lacking or are brought up to the current skill is what is needed.

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.

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.

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

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 [email protected]. God bless

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.

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.

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.

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

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


Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl