I know you won’t be shocked to hear me say that every student is different. They have different background knowledge, different experiences, different skill sets, different processing speed, different interests, and different interpersonal skills. Expecting every student to respond to every assignment in the same way isn’t responsible pedagogy.
Here are 14 easy ways to differentiate instruction so that every student has access to the skills and content you’re trying to teach:
- Choice boards. A choice board is usually a 9 box grid with 9 different activities, all that teach or measure the same skill but approach it with a different modality. For example, a choice board may include a creative writing task, an expository writing task, a video task, a Q&A task, a creative arts task, a research task, and possibly even a musical or food-related task. Choice boards are great when assessing knowledge is more important than skills. For example, you want students to tell you the important characteristics of the desert rather than demonstrate that they can use a topic sentence correctly.
- Scaffolding. In a scaffolded assignment, students at different readiness levels receive different assignments. The assignments may differ in expectations and rubric, or they may differ in the amount of guidance or hints provided. Scaffolding is tricky – students become aware that their assignment is “different” and sometimes that leads to discomfort.
- Heterogeneous Grouping. Assignments can be differentiated by skill level or by interest simply by putting students into groups. Pairing a higher level student with a lower level student helps them both, although in different ways. Pairing a student who is very good at writing with a student who is strong in math helps them both. Forming heterogeneous groups according to interest provides the opportunity for everyone to learn.
- Homogeneous Grouping. In some situations, it makes sense to put the strong students together or to put all of the students who are good at art together. This especially works when assignments offer students choice – the good writers will create something written and the good artists will create something visual. It also works well when scaffolding – you can adjust the expectations and the amount of guidance according to the group dynamics.
- Self Pace. Allowing students to work at their own pace helps build responsibility and work ethic. At the beginning of a practice session, provide students with a checklist or flow chart of what they need to do. A simple example: “Complete questions #1-5 then check your work. If you get 100%, move on to questions 6-10. If you get any questions wrong, come see me.”
- Mini-Lessons. It’s not unusual to hear me say in my classroom “Everyone who got #3 wrong, join me at the table in the back,” or “I’m reteaching this concept in 5 minutes if you want to join me.” No judgement, just an opportunity to re-teach a skill to particular students who need it. This works best during an activity in which students are determining their own pace.
- Stations or Task Cards. Stations can combine many of the above techniques. In a station activity, students rotate between different physical locations in the classroom. Perhaps at one station they watch a video, then the read an article, then they complete a worksheet, then they do a hands on experiment, then they listen to a mini lesson from you. The best station activities are ones that allow students to rotate through the stations in any order, allowing you to group students and scaffold according to need.
- Flash Cards. Quizlet, Quizziz, and Boom cards are digital flash cards that students can use to practice skills or content at their own pace.
- Deliver instruction using varying modalities. Use lots of visuals, videos, and graphics but also use music and opportunities for students to draw or act. If you don’t want to use a choice board to let them choose their own modality, then switch up the modality you’re using so that every student has a chance to be most comfortable with your teaching style.
- Use your Room. The physical arrangement and decorations/displays in your classroom can help every child access knowledge. Arrange desks and place students in the place that works best for them. Use anchor charts and displays that appeal to different learning styles.
- Tech. There are many websites that allow for differentiated instruction and assessment. Here’s a link to a pretty well curated selection.
- Game Based Learning. My favorite differentiation technique is to use games in the clasroom. Students love them, and a well designed game will reach every child at their ability level.
- Breakouts or escape rooms. There is no limit to the amount of ways you can use a breakout or a virtual escape room in your classroom. I’ve used them to introduce new content, as review lessons, as day-before-a-break-and-I-don’t-want-to-start-something-new, getting to know you activities, and end of year activities. They’re great in person with locked boxes and puzzles, and they’re also great virtually with a completely digital product.
- Flipped Classroom. Have students complete the notes at home and use class time to reinforce and practice.
No doubt that differentiation is absolutely key. How do you use it in your classroom? What’s your best tip to add to this list?