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A Teacher's Guide to Differentiating Instruction

— The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Apr 30, 2014


Does effectively teaching 30 students in one classroom require teachers to develop 30 lessons, one tailor-made for each student? Or should teachers “aim for the middle” and hope to reach most students in a given lesson? The answer is not simple. While most would agree it is impractical to try to individualize every lesson for every child, research has shown that teaching to the middle is ineffective. It ignores the needs of advanced students, often leaving them unchallenged and bored, while it intimidates and confuses lower functioning learners. Best practice suggests an alternative: differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is an approach that assumes there is a diversity of learners in every classroom and that all of those learners can be reached if a variety of methods and activities are used. Carol Tomlinson (2000), a noted expert on differentiation, points out that research has proven that students are more successful when they are taught based on their own readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles. This month’s newsletter examines the characteristics of differentiation and offers suggestions for how teachers can use it to improve student achievement.

What is Differentiation?

Simply stated, differentiation is modified instruction that helps students with diverse academic needs and learning styles master the same challenging academic content. Although it might seem like a daunting task, designing and applying a variety of strategies within one classroom can be done at a variety of levels. Teachers can differentiate instruction with an individual student, within a small group, or with a whole class. Differentiating does not mean providing separate, unrelated activities for each student but does mean providing interrelated activities that are based on student needs for the purpose of ensuring that all students come to a similar grasp of a skill or idea (Good, 2006).

How to Start

Four planning steps set the stage for effective differentiated instruction. First, teachers must have a thorough understanding of the academic content or skill they want their students to learn. Second, they must determine how much their students already know—and what they do not know—about that content. Then they must decide which instructional methods and materials will most successfully address those needs and, finally, design ways to adequately assess student mastery of what is taught. Taking stock of student knowledge and understanding is a key first component of successful differentiation. While end-of-year tests provide some information that can help differentiate instruction, regularly used, classroom-based assessments are much more effective in achieving this purpose. These assessments help teachers accurately measure their students’ academic strengths, weaknesses, and interests on a day-to-day basis and provide a roadmap for next steps in instruction. An initial skills assessment can be conducted at the beginning of the school year, but teachers also should gauge student knowledge and needs before introducing a new concept, starting a new unit, or when developing lessons to review or expand on topics already covered. These assessments can be formal, such as diagnostic tests that evaluate specific skill levels, individual student performance notebooks in which teachers keep track of objectives or skills the student has or has not mastered, or student surveys and questionnaires that determine interests and preferences. But skills assessments also can be informal. Teachers can review existing student work such as writing samples or test results, conduct conferences with students, or observe them to get a sense of their current skill level. (See The Center’s December 2006 newsletter, Using Classroom Assessment to Improve Teaching, at for more information.) Formal or informal, the key to the successful use of these assessments is keeping track of the findings and using them to design instructional strategies tailored for the individual student.

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