A Teacher's Guide to Differentiating Instruction (page 2)

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

Vary Materials


Author Joyce Van Tassel-Baska (2003) suggests that the selection of materials for use in the classroom is a crucial next step to effective differentiated instruction. For instance, students in a third-grade class might be learning how to determine main ideas as a part of the language arts curriculum. A variety of materials can be used to support instruction in that concept, including the following:  

    • Nonfiction and fiction, written at a variety of reading levels. For struggling readers, the text might be accompanied by a spoken version. The use of leveled materials challenges accomplished readers but does not intimidate students who are less skilled. 
    • Pictures that invite students to identify the visual “main idea.”
    • Video clips.
    • Newspaper or magazine articles that reflect student interests or cultural backgrounds.

The use of varied materials will encourage these students to understand the concept of “main idea” not only within language arts but in other settings as well.

Vary Process

When teachers differentiate instruction, they vary not only the materials students use but also the way students interact with them. Varying instructional activities allows all students to learn the same concepts and skills with varied levels of “support, challenge, or complexity” (Tomlinson, 2000, p. 2). And differentiating does not mean teaching students one by one. Good (2006) suggests that teachers plan “several activity options, not one for each student. Instead of generating isolated tasks, on any given day the teacher may work with the whole class, small groups, individual students, or a combination of all three” (p. 14). When introducing new content, for example, the teacher might address all students but make use of graphs, pictures, or artifacts in addition to lecturing. At another time, teachers might ask most students to work in pairs or independently while they assist a small group of students, using questioning that encourages critical thinking or assesses the students’ level of understanding. For literature instruction, small groups can be arranged by achievement level, but they also can be grouped by a common interest in the subject matter even if materials at varying reading levels are used (Willis & Mann, 2000). Teachers can differentiate even in their one-to-one work with students, teaching the same concept but using an interview with one student and flashcards with another. As always, the keys to choosing the “right” strategies are capitalizing on student strengths and possessing a clear understanding of students’ current academic needs. 

Vary Assessment

Teachers who effectively reach all of their students stay focused on teaching challenging academic content but vary the materials and strategies they use. They also give students options when it comes to demonstrating their mastery of that content, and these options allow for another form of differentiation. Teachers might vary the length of time a student has to complete a task or allow a written essay rather than an oral presentation. Making use of rubrics—guides that identify the criteria for demonstrating mastery of assigned work—can empower students to choose how they will show what they know and also provide them with a way to assess the quality of their own work. Willis and Mann provide concrete examples of how to differentiate the means by which students demonstrate mastery, from creating a newsletter in which students write stories on a topic of their choice to staging a mock trial to demonstrate their understanding of the concept “beyond reasonable doubt.”

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