10 Powerful Ways to Implement Differentiation in Classroom

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Strategies for Differentiation in Teaching

In my first blog post, I identified differentiation as a pillar of classroom management. In my most recent post, I shared that differentiation in classroom does not have to be overwhelming. 

Below, I will share multiple strategies for differentiation in teaching that you can implement to support your students. 

But first, let’s take a moment to review the definition of differentiation in the classroom.

In “How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms”, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a respected voice in differentiation, says it is, “shaking up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making
sense of ideas, and expressing what they learned

So…. let’s shake things up!!! 😀

As you read through this post I encourage you to look for the overlapping ideas between these strategies. 

Many of them work hand-in-hand. However, according to Carol Tomlinson, they all fit under these 4 umbrellas:

Content – what the student is expected to learn and / or how the student will access to the information they need to learn it
Process – how the student interacts with or engages with the learning in order to learn
Products – how does the students demonstrate they understand the material
Learning environment – the way the classroom operates and feels to the students.

More importantly, as you go through I am hopeful that you will recognize that you are already differentiating. 

Focus on recognizing what you are already doing 🥳, and then decide which one you will implement next.  

Just try step at a time because an overwhelmed teacher is not going to help anyone.

alt="the profile of a male teacher as he sits at a table with several girls who are painting, and he is chatting with one of them. The text overlay says, Implement differentiation at a pace you can manage with joy."
Becoming a master teacher takes time. Affirm yourself for the steps you have already taken to differentiate. Then start to add to that checklist as you learn and grow. Remember to meet your own needs as you seek to meet your students’ needs.

This blog post contains affiliate links from Amazon. If you use them, I will be paid a small commission on the sale.

1. Provide Differentiation in Classroom for Learning Styles

Sage on-the-stage instruction is slowly becoming a thing of the past as non-stop lecturing is recognized to be largely ineffective as not all students are auditory learners.  Are you including videos? Notes on the board? Projects? Hands-on activities? Teamwork and Collaboration Strategies? 

Teaching with multiple learning styles in mind involves including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction. 

Perhaps there will be a verbal introduction with some notes on the board, then a short video, some classroom discussion with accompanying notes on the board,  followed by or integrated with a hands-on activity of some sort.

2. Differentiating the Challenge or Complexity of Content

Starting with Vygotsky’s Impact on Differentiation in Classroom

Vygotsky’s theory on the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)  identifies that what a student may not be able to do on their own, but may be able to do with appropriate support and guidance.  

Usually, the ZPD is just a little bit beyond what a student is competent at currently. The implication of this theory. Outside of the ZPD is where frustration occurs because it is beyond or a student’s ability, or significantly below their ability to be boring.

The possibility that all of your students are in the same ZPD at the same time in all subjects is nil. 

Sorry. 😉

However, there is still hope. Students may need different entry levels for their learning, but that does not mean entirely different lessons for each level of student.

Differentiation in the Classroom Examples of Entry Levels

Students whose understanding of a lesson is at: 

  • an entry-level may only be required to complete tasks such as remembering and understanding which, for example, could be simply answering comprehension questions for a story. 
  • an average or more confident level may have an opportunity to apply and analyze the content, so they could write a different ending in the same vein, or identify inferences in the story.
  • a higher level of mastery could be asked to complete tasks in the areas of evaluating and creating. This could be summarizing the book and comparing it to a similar book, or writing a story of their own that is similar in some way.

There are also resources, such as those shared below, that are differentiation in classroom examples of how to have students working on the same content but with different levels of challenge. 

When working on the Make Ten Strategy, you can alter the complexity by:

  • using resources that move the location of the unknown number, or
  • providing student recording sheets in different formats, or
  • changing the format of a question from an equation to a number bond teachers can alter the complexity of the content.
alt="3 icons for math activity Make Ten Write the Room resources that are differentiated both by using number bonds or equations and by changing the position of the unknown number. These address the topic of challenge and complexity in differentiation in classroom."

Each of these sets of task cards has a different level of challenge because the unknown number is in a different spot, and because they are available using equations or number bonds. Click here to learn more about this resource in my store.

alt="a sage green background containing examples of 3 different recording sheets of different levels of complexity. One recording sheet requires the answer in number bond format, the next requires the student determine the best answer by drawing from an equation bank, and the last sheet is simply a blank grid offering no additional challenge or support. All 3 have number lines. the the text overlay states there are many ways to create complexity within tasks to address the topic of varying task complexity when creating differentiation in a classrom."

Within each activity they are further differentiated by different levels of complexity on the student recording sheets. Find out more about how that works by checking out my math activities here.

3. Supporting a Different Pace as Required

We all know that some students need more time than others.  My students typically had as much time as possible to complete a task.

One of the routines we practised in September was what to do when finished early. By having that expectation well organized and firmly established the students became very independent leaving me to maintain my focus on those who were still working.

One year in December I bought 2-inch tall gingerbread men for everyone. My students built a Lego story for the gingerbread men, and I took pictures of each student’s creation.  

Although they had a good 2 weeks to work on their stories, I could see that a few were really digging in.  Not wanting to curb this enthusiasm I allowed them to continue to work on them in the New Year.  I had other writing tasks for other students to transition to.  

That was some fantastic, engaged writing that occurred simply because I had the next task ready for those who were ready to move on.

My students worked on developing automaticity with their math facts by continuing to stay with the facts associated with one strategy until they were competent with it. When doing that is great to have a variety of similar resources that have different content. Check out my various math games here.

4. Differentiated Grouping Can Look Like Many Things

Flexible grouping can be a huge part of your community-building plan as long as you approach it with wisdom and monitor the groups. Is it essential during the current activity that they work with someone at their own level? 

I once had a student who came in the middle of the school year.  As he walked through the door of my grade two class on his first day he told me he could not write. His writing was, in fact,  not great, but his drawings were amazing. 

However, as his writing improved he contributed artistically to a few group projects. It was wonderful for him to experience admiration for his art as he grew in confidence and ability with his writing.

Spoiler alert!…. he did improve tremendously by June. 

5. Providing Differentiated Assessments

Many teachers find the idea of providing differentiated assessments overwhelming, however, it doesn’t have to be. 

Can students be given the option to share their knowledge through art, writing, speaking building structures?  

Creating a simple choice board that can be repurposed for multiple projects can be a time-saving way to allow students to determine how best to share their knowledge. 

I also love giving students an opportunity to see each other’s work whether as a simple walk around the room, or more formal presentations. This generates ideas in students and is a great support for students to try a different type of project the next time around.

alt="a young boy is bent over carefully painting a white clay figurine, and the text overlay reads, consider offereing your students option for how to show their understanding, and an option for teachers to consider as they plan differentiation in primary school.

6. Learning Goals and Objectives that are Appropriate for Each Student

Do the students know what their job is? 

Have you clearly, using multiple instructional strategies, given them the information they need to complete the task? 

Are there multiple entry points, and open-ended questions? 

Are students able to set their own goals and monitor their own progress?

I have created daily prompts for writing for every month of the year. Each prompt is written on 4 different levels of writing paper that aligns with different developmental writing levels. Click here to check it out.

7. Differentiation in Classroom by Scaffolding

Has the task been broken down into enough steps for their developmental level?  

Would it be appropriate to show mentor texts, or provide multiple examples of how to complete the work?

Is this a good task for collaboration? 

In math are there multiple tools available to the students so they can choose what works best for them? Here are some examples for the primary classroom.

What about visual supports and anchor charts? 

Is there enough time to complete the task?

8. Providing Differentiated Enrichment and Remediation

Are the tasks open-ended, or are there additional resources for students who need more challenges?  

Do you have extra books at various levels of difficulty available?  

Are there artifacts they can interact with during their free time? 

Are questions open-ended? 

Can you encourage students to elaborate by responding in more than one way? For example, a picture with a caption, or a 3D project with an accompanying paragraph, or a video with an explanation.

9. Creating a Flexible Environment

In my classroom students were allowed to stand during instruction within established expectations. 

We also had multiple quiet desks, went outside to work, a couch, chairs, carpets to sit on, chairs to use on the carpet and a cubbie to sit in. We had clipboards, whiteboards and murals.

I have heard from many, many adults that they need to sit at a desk to work.  

Me, I am writing this with my laptop sitting on top of a cushion, and my legs lengthwise on the couch.  I have a home office, office chair, and table. 

However, I prefer to sit on the couch between the two large windows on either side of our living area that offer me much nicer views than my office.  I also like to work with my legs up. 

I could work at a desk, but I am more productive on the couch.

What is your most comfortable learning environment? What is your students’ most comfortable learning environment?

10. Personalized Learning Plans

As a former Special Education teacher, I am not a huge fan of Personalized Learning Plans (PLP) and Individual Education Plans (IEPs).  

Designed and implemented well they can provide a supportive framework for a teacher and student, and they become a concrete resource for a parent.  Too often, though, they become a taskmaster. 

My preference is that as teachers we incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL)   into our classrooms, and by so doing we are already differentiating. 

By incorporating UDL we are already differentiating.  Then, most often, the PLP and IEP are just communication that we use to monitor student progress.  

These can be assigned by someone in Special Education, or Admin, or you may choose to track the student’s goals, objectives and progress yourself. 

Differentiation in the Classroom

There are many ways to differentiate in the classroom, and, hopefully, this post has helped to simplify the concept. 

You will not be able to differentiate in all ways at all times, and implementation can look like many different things. 

But you can take a few first steps. 

If you are focused on standing at the front of the class instructing, maybe try adding notes on the board and even drawing a few pictures.  No excuses now, 😉, I am a horrible artist too.  But I did improve over time.

Or perhaps show a video, or have students discuss a question together, and then share their answer as a small group.

Just start with one step at a time. Affirm yourself, and then take the next step.

You’ve got this! 

For specific subject-related differentiation in classroom examples, I encourage you to read subsequent posts on differentiation in the classroom for math, writing, reading, science, and social studies in order to have a broader definition of what is differentiation in the classroom. 

Next up will be a post on how to differentiate in the math classroom.  Join me there!!

Until then, leave a question below, or share one of your successes in differentiation. Let’s all help each other

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