Differentiation in Instruction Student Engagement

Differentiation in Science Teaching: How to Make an Inclusive Classroom

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“She looks a little bit bored. I am not too sure she is getting much out of this.” I had provided my educational assistant with differentiation in science teaching for note taking for our English as a Second Language student, but my assistant wasn’t too sure about it.

 The truth is that the student was not in favour of what I had her doing.  And the task wasn’t engaging for her. In this particular moment the activity was both inclusive and differentiated, but not terribly engaging. 

At least as far as she was concerned. 🥴

Inclusion and differentiation in the classroom

Inclusive education involves teaching so that all students can participate and learn together. The teacher and school are providing a successful school experience comparable to typically developing peers. 

Carol Tomlinson describes differentiation differentiation in science teaching as a classroom instructional process that makes  education more meaningful for all students. 

In an inclusive and differentiated  classroom,  students participate in normal classroom activities with additional supports if required.

Sometimes, those ‘supports’ are just  providing videos or audio books to the whole class.  This benefits both the student with the reading disability, and the student who is a visual or auditory learner. 

Interestingly, it is also a more engaging way to teach and learn for everyone!

But… and this is a big one.

To quote, Differentiating for Success in Inclusive Classrooms, ‘It is not realistic to expect that every activity of every lesson will be differentiated all the time.

There is a venn diagram of overlap for differentiation in science teaching , but it is not possible to perfectly include a student that is both fully differentiated and fully engaging.

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Differentiation in the classroom does not require all small group instruction and teachers to plan separate resources and lessons for each student.

What is curriculum differentiation in inclusive education?

The purpose of differentiation in an inclusive classroom is to create a learning environment in which the students are able to develop the skills they need for life after school.  

This little girl did not fully understand everything that she was copying from the board, but I know that she did need to learn this skill. 

My initial differentiation for note taking was having the notes printed out for her to trace.  That was to use the science class note taking time as an opportunity to develop fine motor skills that she did not yet have. And proper letter formation was important for her as well. 

Was she getting lots out of the content from the notes?


Was she working on something that she needed? 


Her time for learning more about the science topic  and the language was coming.  

Soon we would be breaking out into small group activities where she would be working with kind, respectful, chatty peers who would engage with her.

The best way for her to learn English is for her to use it. 

She would learn more from being included in these inclusive activities that allowed for her personal differentiation in science teaching than she would from a pull out with my assistant giving her one to one instruction on science vocabulary.  

Meanwhile, I included her in the classroom, she worked on multiple skills, and she was awash in the language.

How to differentiate a science lesson with an eye on inclusion

There are multiple ways to differentiate content.

A choice board where every students has individual and independent options to choose their best way to learn, practice, or demonstrate understanding of content or a skill is one way to differentiate.

However, Another way to differentiate is by teaching globally, so that all students are working on the same thing, but there are multiple ways for the whole group to have input of content and output of understanding. 

If you teach globally you will also need to have multiple opportunities for you to assess their learning providing various types of products.

Let’s get started.

What is differentiation in teaching science?

The first step of differentiation in science education is to make the content accessible.  

I use various methods, but this example of differentiation in science is using books because, as mentioned earlier, I am preparing students for the future.

All my students need to be able to learn from the written word. If reading is a challenge for them they need to know different tools they can use to support them in that journey.

So, this is an example of differentiation and inclusion as students take notes from a book.

We were studying sea otters as a part of a unit of the Great Bear Sea, and the great Bear Rainforest.  

This whole class  project that supported differentiation in an inclusive classroom was a book that we all wrote together. 

What is curriculum differentiation in inclusive education?

Quick sidebar, let’s just remember how many differentiation rules are there.  Take a quick look at this blog post to refresh your memory for the specifics of differentiation in science teaching.

1) Content

2) Process

3) Product

4) Learning environment

Now let’s get started. 

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Carol Tomlinson identified these 4 core principles for differentiation in instruction. This blog shares a whole class project that provided differentiation in science teaching, while nurturing inclusiveness in the classroom.

Examples of differentiation in science

1) Content differentiation in science teaching

Because we were writing a book, I wanted the students to draw their research from books. 

In an earlier blog post  on differentiation in science class I mentioned a personal favourite of mine; Epic Books

Epic books is a website that provides free classroom access to an online library. 

As teachers we have access to Epic books for free for the classroom. 

Epic books has many, many books, on many, many subjects. You can organize the many, many books into  favourites folders.

When you assign a favourites folder, that is what your student(s) have access to.  No wandering off to search for their personal favourites. 

Classroom management made easy!

The application of differentiation in science

By using Epic Books, students accessed more challenging material. They were supported in their spelling as they copied from the book. 

Students had access to more material and a wider range of vocabulary.

Content differentiation was made easy as the students chose books that they felt were right for them.  

Two random partners that want to access different books can then do practice the social emotional skills of sharing, compromising, and taking turns that you have taught them.

2) Process for effective differentiation in science

Epic has read aloud books, audiobooks (although not necessarily a ton on every subject) and videos.  

Some of the books even have quizzes if you want to use them! But I digress. 😊

The students worked together using Epic Books, and they did their research together. 

I assigned random partners because I knew that there were audio books they could “read” together and listen to.  There was no pressure on the stronger reader, and complete access for the not yet reader. 

There were, of course, videos as well.  

By using Epic Books the student’s had access to material in written, audio and verbal formats.  

This didn’t support the students who are kinesthetic and hands on learners in the same way. But as I mentioned at the beginning, not everything in the class is going to be differentiated for all students at all times. 

However, I do want to be clear that throughout the unit  each student was able to access the content. Additionally each student had opportunities to communicate their understanding. 

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Effective differentiation in science incorporates a variety of tools and resources.

3) Product differentiation strategies in science learning

We started the next class with a quick discussion of what we had learned. From the discussion we created headings for our book.

Of course, during ELA instruction we had been studying non-fiction books, tables of contents, headings etc. so the students understood this part of the process. 

I did not create the headings before we took notes as I wanted their minds to be rich with the topic before creating the headings.  I would be doing all of the writing, so anyone, no matter their reading or writing ability, could contribute.

After we created the headings, the students took their own notes and cut their paper into separate sentences.

For example, if they wrote “sea otters live in the water”, they would cut that one sentence separate from the rest.

We placed each of the notes onto the chart paper that had headingsand place their notes under what they felt was the appropriate heading.

In appearance a book might appear to be a product that caters to one particular learning style.  However, students were discussing notes and where to place them.

They were up moving which helps the more kinesthetic learners to think. Ultimately there would be pictures on their written pages for the visual learners to display their understanding. 

Together, the students and I reviewed the notes, and we deleted all the redundant information.

In their table groups I assigned the large poster paper with the heading and attached strips of notes to table groups. 

The students worked together on the notes under one heading to organize and edit the content.

Most heading created at least two, sometimes three pages of content for our book. 

There were enough different pages to allow each student to write one of the pages which included an accompanying drawing.

In this way, all students participated in the making of the book.

4) Learning environment and how to differentiate a science lesson

Differentiating the learning environment is really about how to create a safe place for students to learn. 

If they are feeling antsy, can they move?

For students who are social, are there safe opportunities for them to interact with peers?

If a student needs encouragement, are there opportunities for them to be heard and affirmed?

In one sense, a part of this depends upon the classroom community you have developed. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, classroom community is key to classroom management, and is directly associated with successful differentiation

The learning environment was differentiated in many ways to make students feel safe and that they were a valuable part of the community.


Throughout these activities students were provided with individual, small group and whole group instruction. Not each of these environments are the best place for each student to shine, but there is at least one opportunity for each student to be successful.


 Independent work or working with others –  Students could sit quietly at their desk and, peering at the headings from their desks, sort their note papers into piles privately. 


Students could get up and walk through the room with each note, discussing with their peers the best headings for each note.

Social interaction

As the students sorted the material they demonstrated their understanding. As they worked together at the chart paper, they asked each other questions about challenging words. 

Visual graphic and auditory access to content

Choices for accessing the content through epic books as well as graphic and auditory options throughout the book compilation.

Variety of mediums

Students worked with poster charts around the classroom, at a computer with a peer, at their desk with pen and paper.

Product as a part of the learning environment

When they completed their page they demonstrated understanding by how they compiled the notes together into coherent sentences, and how they drew an appropriate picture for their page. 

As primary teachers we can feel that providing a beautiful, colourful and cute learning environment is what our students need. 

All of those things can make a great contribution to a wonderful learning environment for students. 

But none of those things completes a differentiated learning environment.

Differentiation for gifted students in science

Because I did assign random partners for research, it was necessary to open up this process a little bit more for the students who were wanting to delve deeper into this project.  

Students with greater knowledge had an opportunity to expand or elaborate, with background knowledge.

Or, if they wanted to refine their notes, they had they were allowed back to Epic Books

Students who also need support with comprehension or piecing together their understanding could also refer back to Epic Books to compile their page if they wanted to.

This combination of heterogenous small groups, and independent follow up research allowed for greater complexity and different entry points for the different students.

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Whole class projects have multiple options for including a variety of entry points and processes for students.

Differentiation in primary teaching with whole class instruction

Ultimately this book made each student very proud of the work that they had done, and it supported a variety of processes as well as allowed students to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways.

However, as I mentioned earlier it was only one part of the unit.  We:

  • Created a kelp forest  
  • Built an orca whale with our desks. 
  • Played active games 
  • Provided presentations for parents and others in our school community
  • Problem solved to find a way to address the concerns that the unit raised about the environment.
  • Strengthened our understanding of  indigenous culture

This unit integrated:

  • Art
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Language Arts
  • Social Emotional Learning
  • Careers
  • P.E. 

Why is differentiation of instruction important in an inclusive classroom?

This process of providing opportunities for student access to, engagement with, and success with curriculum content elevated student learning.

As I, the teacher worked all day with engaged, focused, regulated and caring students my passion was nourished.

Sure, I was tired.  This unit took a lot of work.  

But it was also invigorating.

And, although I considered not repeating it again, when the time came I discovered that I was actually fine tuning it every time.  

I am creating a series of units for primary classrooms that integrate Language Arts, Science (or Social Studies – not always both), Art and Social Emotional Learning throughout the unit.  

Check back to find out more about my future units with more examples of differentiation in science.  

Meanwhile, we are all better together. Share an idea you have about how to differentiate in science in your class.

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