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.


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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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…

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.

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?

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?

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)

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

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

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


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