Classroom Management Differentiation in Instruction

How to Jumpstart Writing: Embrace Differentiation in Instruction Now!

The Ease of Differentiation in Writing Workshop

Why is differentiated instruction important in writing?

Much as I love to teach math, and I do love to teach math, I find differentiation in instruction for writing easier.  Maybe because it’s easier to make it open-ended. But I don’t really know for sure. 

All I know for sure is that it is essential to get them writing!

Hmmm 🤔 . . . And that they love it.

Also … 🥰 that they become confident writers. 

And . . .  they need to know why they have to write when it is so much hard work. 🥴

Quoting Ancient Wisdom as it Applies to Differentiation in Instruction

Mary Shea of Canisius College, in her article “Differentiating Writing Instruction: Meeting the Diverse Needs of Authors in a Classroom”  in the Journal of Inquiry and Action in Educations, 6(2),2015, quotes the ancient Romans “… you learn to write by writing.”  

Students need opportunities to write in order to grow as writers. 

But what if they hate writing? 

Create engagement. 

But how do you create engagement? 

Differentiate. 😉

alt="Steel blue background with a picture of a cluttered desk on the top, text overlay reads, plan with the end in mind, start with differentiation, and there is a CTA to encourage the reader to read more about differentiation at the Engaging Curiosity website."
The goal of teaching is effective instruction to engaged students. When you start with differentiated instruction then you are well on the way to reaching your goal.

What is differentiated instruction? Or … Addressing Reluctance Through Differentiation in Instruction.

Remember that differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades, or any grade for that matter, is not about asking a student to do less. Differentiation in instruction is about creating opportunities for students to do their best within their Zone of Proximal Development  (ZPD).

Every student in your class has something to say.  The purpose of differentiating in writing is just helping the student to say it on paper. 

We create an environment and opportunities that lend themselves to making writing workshops, accessible, appealing and even exciting to students. 


You betcha!! 😀

All of my students spent their writing block focused on their work. Some actually cheered for writing block.  

alt="sage green background, cream foreground, photo of children in writing class cheering, text overlay reads, differentiation in writing, creating engagement, with an invitiation to read more and website address for engaging curiosity.?
Differentiation makes writing workshops, accessible, appealing and even exciting to students. .

Differentiation in the Classroom: An Overview

I offer the longer list below as a summary of a blog post that I wrote on differentiation.  But first a couple of notes.  

A leading voice in differentiation in instruction is Carol Tomlinson,  who is a  professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia.  Altogether, she  identifies the following four ways to differentiate instruction:

  1. Content
  2. Process
  3. Product
  4. Learning environment.

However, for my own use, I have elaborated upon those strategies.

Although everything I write is based upon research, research changes or even contradicts itself. As a result I prefer a meta-analysis in order to be as confident as I can be in my understanding of current research. 

What I am saying is that these strategies are recognized as effective instructional practices, and, for my personal understanding and application I have elaborated upon Carol’s ideas. But, they are not directly derived from her research.

Now, back to differentiation in instruction. 😊

Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades is not complex, but it is essential. 

Below are the strategies that I have successfully implemented in my classroom, that are derived from those 4 key ways to provide differentiation in instruction, and that I have found to be very effective. 

Ten Effective Strategies for How to Differentiate Writing Instruction

1. Content

  • Incorporating student interests
  • Grouping or levelled reading to provide access to material
  • Supplementary materials for students who are closer to mastery of the content

2. Process

  • Teach to learning style – as students prepare stories allow:
    1. Model building of the story for kinesthetic learners
    2. Drawing or taking notes on the storyline for visual or graphic learners.
    3. Students share their storylines orally with a partner for auditory learners
  • Adjust pace 
  • Provide scaffolding
    1. Break the process down into steps – using a graphic organizer and an editing sheet.
    2. Support the developmental stages of writing – different levels of writing paper to prevent overwhelm and provide support with fine motor skills and more.
    3. Provide supportive tools – word booklets, pencils, speech-to-text, provocations, writing prompts, visuals, vocabulary lists, anchor charts, mentor texts
    4. Create opportunities for collaboration – write a book as a class, whole and small group peer editing, 
    5. Provide anchor charts and other visual supports
    6. Support with focus by offering a quiet desk or individual folders for blocking out distractions.
    7. Read and discuss mentor texts
    8. Model writing to the class

3. Product

  • Provide ongoing formative and summative assessments to help you to make adjustments
  • Provide options for  challenge or complexity
  • Develop individual learning goals in partnership with the student during a writing conference.
  • Enrichment and remediation
    1. open-ended prompts are very inclusive
    2. Limiting the number of words, paragraphs or pages  a student can use can often be more of a challenge as they search for the most succinct and effective way to express themselves.
    3. Personalized learning plans – although the strategies above will cover most students, there may be some students who need a plan that includes input and direction from your learning support team.

4. Learning Environment

  • Standing desks, chairs, carpets, floor chairs, clipboards, outside
  • Whole group, small group and individual work opportunities.

For a greater understanding of Carol Tomlinson’s work, you may wish to read her book “How to Differentiate Instruction in an Academically Diverse Classroom.”

If you choose to purchase the book I will get a small commission from the sale.

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Not all lessons will incorporate all of these strategies. Start with what is manageable, and set goals from there.

Differentiated Instruction Examples

I am an outdoor enthusiast. Although, I am not terribly good at anything I do outside, but I do love to be outside giving it a go. Getting my students outside was also a passion.  I did not do it often enough, but we did get outside.  

When I was on a recent trip to the Maritimes both to celebrate my 35th wedding anniversary by returning to our honeymoon destination and to attend my son’s wedding, we took a hike along Prince Edward Island’s North Cape Point Trail. 

As we walked and enjoyed the fantastic ocean views I thought of some lessons I had done that my students loved and I want to share one with you.  I have included the pictures from the trip that inspired my lesson to show you exactly how simple this can be. 

To the right of each step, I have identified which part(s) of differentiation I see in that step of the lesson plan.

  1. Content
  2. Process
  3. Product
  4. Learning environment.
alt="cream background with a sage green strip at the top. Text overlay reads, differentiation in the classroom core concepts, with bulleted points below reading, content, process, product, learning environment."
Whether you prefer it simply put, or elaborated upon, differentiation in instruction is essentially strategies that create engaging instructional activities.

Differentiation in a Classroom in Action

Descriptive Writing Lesson Including Differentiation in Instruction

Materials needed:

  1. A piece of paper with a table printed on it; two columns of 3 rows. The column on the left is narrower than the column on the right. You can make it more elaborate than that, but really it can be that simple. (2)
  2. Clipboard per student, or anything to support their writing paper
  3. Pencils and erasers
  4. School yard! (2, 4)
  5. For day two you will need a photo from day one. (2)


  1. Tell your students you are going outside.  (4)
  2. Review expectations for outside behaviour.
  3. Project a picture of a leaf onto the white board, and show them how to draw it, then show them how to describe it. (1, 2, 3, 4)
  4. Tell them to find and draw 3 different leaves, putting one leaf in each of the boxes in the column on the left. (1, 2, 3, 4)
  5. In the right column they are to describe their word using the best and most appropriate words they can think of. (1, 3)
  6. One thing to consider for students who may find the content easier. More descriptive words for 3 leaves may be more of a challenge than 1 or 2 words for 5 leaves.
  7. Divide them into partners or groups. (2)
  8. Review expectations again. 
  9. Take your students outside, and let them get to work.(4)
  10. They will probably need about 12-15 minutes to finish their drawings, have them come back inside, or pull them all together outside. 
  11. While they are working take a photo or two for the extension activity below.
  12. Have them share their words and / or the drawings with another group, or as a whole group. (1, 2, 4)
  13. If possible, you write down their words as they share. (1)
  14. OOh and aah over all of their words, but emphasize the moment when a student use a word like tiny instead of small, or tapered instead of narrow.  (1)
alt="picture of mixed greenery on a walk including both coniferous and deciduous leaves."
On almost every walk I have ever been on it is possible to find at least 3 different types of leaves within a very small space. Even if you only have a school yard, mixed amongst the grass are weeds with different leaves.
alt="picture of some dead bushes near the ocean"
This is a pretty barren landscape in the foreground. However, children’s imaginations are amazing. Think of the stories they could create using their new list of descriptive words. Personally, I see wood nymphs dancing near the waves, waiting to be clad in forest greenery.


The next day, 

  1. Review the words as you write them out, or have them on an anchor chart. (1, 3)
  2. Show them a picture you took while you were all outside together and discuss it.  (2)
  3. Encourage them to draw or use playdough or clay to create a representation of the leaf.
  4. Have them complete a creative or nonfiction writing piece or a poem (could be by their own choice or integrating with units you are working on) using the descriptive words and the drawing or model they created. (1, 2, 3) 
  5. To incorporate (4) into (D) allow them to move to another area of the class to draw and / or write.  
alt="cream background, icon for Free paper  to download to accompany differentiated writing examples activity in the foreground with samples of the paper shown on the icon."
Download this FREE writing paper. Included is a simple table as discussed in the lesson to show that planning for differentiation doesn’t have to be difficult. Also included is a sample from the Daily Journal Writing Prompts Bundle. Explore offering your students the same prompt at their developmental writing level. You choose which option to use!

Simplifying Differentiation in the Classroom 🎉 

In the Lesson Plan above you can see that sometimes the differentiated lesson plan is not mind-twistingly painful. 

By bringing enthusiasm into our planning and incorporating engaging activities and variety into our lessons, we will have a lot of the differentiation in instruction covered.  

All of this is not only delightful, but it is also entirely possible as you press into the other pillars of classroom management in order to create a focused and engaged class.  

One last note.  

I have created Monthy Journal Writing Prompts which you can find in my store. They support differentiation by:

  • offering the same prompt to each student for inclusiveness.
  • including multiple genres.
  • including a small image included to provide a simple, on-the-page provocation.
  • partnering very well with lego or other modelling materials to support the hands on learners.
  • coming with a separate editing checklist with visual cues to support your students without cluttering the page.
  • backsides for each level of writing paper to encourage more writing.
  • 4 different developmental levels of writing paper per prompt to allow for different levels of challenge:
    • Level one – for students who are only yet able to draw, or perhaps draw and label.
    • Level two – wide interlined paper for students who need support with their letter formation. Not too many lines though to prevent the overwhelm.
    • Level three – the lines are closer together for more writing space, but there is still an interline to support letter formation. 
    • Level four – the lines are the same width as level three but without the interline. These students are transitioning to fluent.
alt="sage green background with blurred sunset in the middle. Text overlay reads, differentiation in writing daily prompts for writing, and encouragement to read more at the engaging curiosity website."
Writing prompts for daily writing help you, the teacher, to be prepared and also reclaim your free time. Meanwhile they are a part of strong differentiating in writing.

Differentiation in Instruction? You’ve got this! 🤩

Just remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Congratulate yourself for every step that you take, but you can’t do it all at once.  

Be gentle with yourself as you set new goals for your differentiation in instruction, and work step at a time to do the best you can do for your students at this moment in your life.  

That is all anyone can do!

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