As a teacher, you already know that every student in your classroom is different. They have their own personalities, their own likes and dislikes, and their own ways of learning best. That’s why differentiated instruction strategies are so important. They give every kid a chance to succeed by adapting the learning to fit their needs. Add these examples of differentiated instruction strategies to your teacher toolkit so you can pull them out and use them as needed.
What is differentiated instruction?
Differentiated instruction (DI) means tailoring your teaching so all students, regardless of their ability, can learn the classroom material. During the 1990s, Carol Ann Tomlinson introduced the concept of differentiation, and it quickly gained traction. She identified four elements (content, process, product, and learning environment) that teachers could customize in their classrooms. Her work opened the door to a wide array of differentiation approaches and techniques.
So, what does this mean for teachers? Are you expected to create an individualized lesson plan for every student in your classroom? Fortunately, that’s not necessary. What you do need to do is ensure your lesson plans include a variety of activities, and provide options when students need them. Tomlinson recommends teachers consider how they can customize their teaching in four different areas: content, process, product, and learning environment. The differentiated instruction strategies and examples below all fit into one or more of these categories.
Learn much more about the details of this concept here: What Is Differentiated Instruction?
General Differentiated Instruction Strategies
You can use these DI strategies in almost any classroom or learning environment. For each, we’ve indicated which differentiated instruction areas apply (content, process, product, or learning environment).
An important part of using differentiated instruction strategies is knowing when they’re needed in the first place. Try an easy way to check for understanding by giving students a nonverbal way to show where they are. Green means they’re good to go, yellow means they’re struggling, and red means they’re stuck entirely. Try this with sticky notes, folded desk tents, colored cups, and more. (DI Area: Process)
Learn more: Stoplight System at the Ardent Teacher
Getting ready to tackle a really tough topic? Try pre-teaching a smaller group of students first. This gives you a chance to try out your lesson plan, plus it creates a built-in group of “experts” to help you out when the whole class is learning. Use this strategy regularly, but switch up the student experts. Teaching others helps kids learn too. (DI Area: Process)
Learn more: Pre-Teaching at 3-Star Learning Experiences
Cooperative learning structures
Cooperative learning describes a strategy where students work together in small groups under supervision to accomplish a goal. These groups are carefully constructed based on student needs, abilities, and learning styles. It means knowing your students well, but once you do, you can put these groups together quickly depending on your current activity. (DI Area: Process)
Projects with choices
When you offer choices, students feel more comfortable with the assignment. Plus, they often get a sense of ownership—being allowed to pick and choose encourages kids to take responsibility for their choices. To make this work, determine what goals all students need to achieve. Then, let them come up with ways to demonstrate those goals, or give them a few options that appeal to different types of learners. (DI Area: Product)
One of the best things technology has given us is a better ability to use self-paced learning in and out of the classroom. When you use computer programs and games, kids can advance at the pace that makes sense to them. Of course, you’ll need to ensure students stay on task when they’re working independently. Also, remember that a computer program may only have the ability to explain things one way, so be ready to step in and give kids information in other ways when needed. (DI Area: Product)
One of the best differentiated instruction strategies is color coding. It can work in all sorts of classroom applications, including organization and routines. But you can apply it to learning strategies too. Color helps kids see things more clearly, especially when the subject is complex. (DI Area: Process)
Learn more: Color-Coding in the Classroom
Elementary teachers have been using small reading groups as a differentiated instruction strategy for years. Really, they work in any subject, offering teachers a chance to get more face time with their students. You can group students by skill level, but that’s not necessarily the best way to help learners. Consider grouping by learning styles instead, so you can tailor a lesson’s delivery specifically for those styles. (DI Area: Learning Environment)
Assign students a topic or let them pick their own, then ask them each to become an expert and plan a lesson to share with the class. This goes beyond just giving a presentation. Encourage them to think of creative ways to share the information, planning interactive activities they themselves would like to do in the classroom. You’re bound to get a lot of new teaching strategies yourself! (DI Area: Process)
Question wait time
This one is all about teacher patience. When you ask your class a question, don’t immediately call on the first person to raise their hand. Instead, wait a few more seconds, and call on someone whose hand came up a little later. This allows slower, more thorough thinkers a chance to get their ideas heard too. (DI Area: Process)
When you’re reading a book, what’s your favorite position? Curled up on the couch with a pillow under your head? Stretched out on your stomach on your bed? Sitting upright at a table with a cup of tea? Can you handle background noise like music, or do you prefer it to be completely silent? Your students’ choices would be just as varied as your own. Whenever you can, allow them to sit, stand, or even stretch out. Help them control distractions with noise-cancelling headphones, or let them listen to music with earbuds if it helps them concentrate. (DI Area: Learning Environment)
Good news! Those anchor charts hanging all over your walls are a popular differentiation strategy. They help visual learners succeed, giving them strong images to relate to key skills and topics. You don’t need to be an artist to make great charts, but the more color, the better. (DI Area: Process)
Learn more: Anchor Charts 101
Just as students have different learning styles, teachers have different instructional styles as well. Use this to your advantage! You don’t necessarily need to co-teach full-time. Work as a team with your fellow teachers to learn what their styles are like, and consider switching things up from time to time by trading duties for certain lessons or subjects. (DI Area: Process)
Learn more: 8 Things Successful Co-Teachers Do
Peer buddy program
Pairing students of varying levels as buddies benefits all kids. Some schools pair those with disabilities with a buddy to help them as needed. Others pair older students with younger ones. Whatever you choose, plan your program carefully and monitor pairings to ensure they’re working out. (DI Areas: Process, Learning Environment)
Must-dos and may-dos
Not all students need extra time; in fact, some finish everything up too quickly! That’s where the ability to provide enrichment activities comes in handy. For any lesson, be prepared with “must-do” and “may-do” activities. This helps kids prioritize the most important items and gives fast finishers meaningful work to do too. (DI Areas: Content, Process)
Learn more: The Case for Must-Dos and May-Dos
You don’t necessarily need to create multiple activities to cater to your students’ multiple intelligences. For example, if you’re reviewing a timeline of the American Civil War for an upcoming test, give each student an index card with a major event (e.g., Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, etc.), and while playing Civil War–era music, ask students to line up in front of the class to put the events in order. This single activity activates brain stimulation for six different learning styles:
- Visual-spatial learners use a mental image of the lineup as a mnemonic device.
- Kinesthetic learners get to move around and create a life-size timeline.
- Interpersonal learners communicate with one another to decide where to stand in line.
- Musical-rhythm learners benefit from the background music.
- Logical-mathematical learners thrive on creating a chronological line.
- Verbal-linguistic learners review notes and their textbooks during the activity.
Reading is a key skill, no doubt about it. But when a student struggles with it, it can often affect their learning in other areas too. Unless reading itself is key to the topic you’re presenting, consider letting students listen to an audiobook instead. This lets them focus on the content, rather than just the words and sentences. (DI Area: Process)
Learn more: 10 Places Kids Can Listen to Free Audiobooks
Before you present a new topic, take a few minutes to find out what kids already know. Their responses might change how you decide to teach, especially if you find they’re lacking in prerequisite knowledge or already understand the new subject pretty well. Tip: Save time by checking out Kahoot! for pre-made quizzes on your topic. (DI Areas: Process, Product)
Learn more: 6 Benefits of Pre-Assessment at Minds in Bloom
Written tests aren’t the only way to check for learning, as teachers well know. Alternative assessments provide ways to differentiate in your classroom by giving students multiple ways to show what they know. For students who struggle with writing, consider a discussion instead (unless you’re specifically working on writing skills). Instead of a traditional book report, have students turn the story into their own graphic novel. Find ways to help students shine! (DI Areas: Process, Content)
Learn more: 25 Alternative Assessment Ideas
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
UDL offers educators a way to reduce the need for differentiation strategies and scaffolding, by building curriculum and lessons that include multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. Look for learning materials that use UDL to use in your classroom, or take the time to design your own lessons using the UDL principles. (DI Area: Multiple)
An outside-of-the-box way to find more differentiated instruction strategies is to explore lists of the classroom accommodations used to created IEPs and 504 plans. These include terrific ways to differentiate, even when students don’t have specific written plans. You don’t need to be diagnosed with dyscalculia to benefit from using graph paper to line up your math problems. Typing is easier than handwriting for lots of people. Reviewing an example list can spark ideas for all of your students. (DI Area: Multiple)
English Language Arts Differentiated Instruction Examples
- Leveled Reading Materials: Leveled books have been around for a long time, but today teachers can also use leveled reading sites like Newsela. (DI Area: Content)
- High-Low Books: High-interest, low-readability level books keep readers engrossed page after page, without leaving them feeling frustrated or bored. Find a list of our favorites here. (DI Area: Content)
- Literacy Centers: Center work allows kids to go at their own pace and work privately, without feeling the need to keep up with others. Explore our big list of literacy center ideas here. (DI Areas: Process, Learning Environment)
- Varied Spelling/Vocabulary Lists: Offer shorter or longer lists depending on aptitude, using more-advanced words to challenge kids who excel in this area. (DI Area: Content)
- Book Report Options: Give students a variety of ways to report back on the book they’ve read, including written papers, presentations, posters, skits, and more. Find 40+ book report ideas here. (DI Area: Process)
- Writing Tools: If handwriting is a challenge, explore options like special pencil grips or try one of these easy hacks. When handwriting isn’t the learning goal, offer kids options like oral responses or typing instead. (DI Areas: Process, Product)
- Reading Spaces: Provide spaces in your classroom where students can get comfortable while they read. Vary the lighting, seating, and noise levels to create areas for different styles. See some of our favorite reading nooks here. (DI Area: Learning Environment)
- Diverse Materials: Ensure your reading choices include diverse and multicultural characters, settings, and authors. (DI Area: Content)
- Flexible Groups: Instead of leaving students in the same-leveled reading groups at all times, mix up your groupings by interest, readiness, or learning styles. (DI Area: Learning Environment)
- Writing Conferences: Meet with students individually to identify strengths and challenges. Or try peer writing groups that partner stronger writers with those who need more help. (DI Areas: Process, Learning Environment)
Math Differentiated Instruction Examples
- Manipulatives: These aren’t just for little kids! Make math manipulatives available to older students too, to help those who benefit from kinesthetic learning. (DI Area: Process)
- Evens or Odds: When giving homework assignments or practice worksheets, give students who need extra time the option to complete only the even or odd questions. This gives them effective practice but keeps them motivated. (DI Areas: Content, Process)
- Math Centers: Just like literacy centers, math centers let kids choose their pace and learning process. Try these 10 activities for secondary math centers. (DI Areas: Learning Environment, Process)
- Small Groups: After teaching a concept, put kids in small groups to tackle practice problems together. Many times, students will show each other new ways of learning that teachers might not think of. (DI Areas: Learning Environment, Process)
- Open-Ended Questions: Students think of math as having one cut-and-dried answer, but you can encourage more creative thinking with broader questions. Learn more from My Teaching Cupboard. (DI Areas: Process, Product)
- Math Books: We’re not talking about textbooks. Use storybooks with a math theme to engage reluctant learners. (DI Area: Process)
- Assessment Options: Give students different ways to demonstrate their knowledge, whether it’s answering flash cards out loud, writing an explanation of their solution methods, or drawing pictures to explain their thinking. (DI Areas: Product, Process)
- Real-Life Math: Whenever possible, use real examples to show kids why math matters. Money activities can be especially effective in engaging students. (DI Area: Process)
- Active Math Games: Many students learn best when their bodies are involved. Use active math games to engage students on a variety of levels. (DI Area: Process)
- Pre-Teach Vocabulary: This may be especially important for ESL speakers. Ensure they know specialized terms (e.g., shape names) before tackling math concepts. (DI Area: Process)
Science and Social Studies Differentiated Instruction Examples
- Graphic Organizers: This note-taking method encourages students to organize information visually. Kids might draw pictures or diagrams instead of writing words—whatever works for them. Learn about graphic organizers here. (DI Area: Process)
- Audiobooks and Videos: Reading is an important skill, but it can hold students back in other subjects. Give kids the option to use audiobooks or videos that cover the same content. This is also helpful for different learning styles. (DI Area: Process)
- Project Choices: Let students choose from different options to demonstrate their knowledge on a subject. They might write a paper, perform a skit, create a picture book, draw a poster, give a presentation, or more. (DI Area: Product, Process)
- Diverse Materials: Use videos with diverse presenters, read books or articles by diverse authors, and explore stories of many cultures. (DI Areas: Learning Environment, Content)
- Pre-Teach Vocabulary and Concepts: Just as in math, it’s important to ensure all students are on the same basic page before you begin instruction. Pre-assessments can help you learn which vocabulary terms or foundational concepts some (or all) students need reinforced. (DI Area: Process)
Examples of Special Education Differentiated Instruction Strategies
Note: Special education students usually have Individualized Education Plans (IEP), with a variety of required accommodations and modifications. Always be sure to follow a student’s IEP requirements and recommendations. Learn more about special education here.
- Time or Workload Modifications: Reduce the amount of work expected from a student, or increase the amount of time they have to complete it. The use of “evens and odds” for math worksheets is a good example of differentiated instruction for special ed students. (DI Areas: Product, Assessment)
- Scaffolding: Provide support for students by breaking down learning into manageable chunks. Find multiple ways to scaffold instruction here. (DI Area: Process)
- Tailored Learning Spaces: Some students need complete silence while they learn; others prefer background noise. Headphones can be a solution for both. Explore small environmental changes you can make to differentiate learning for all students. (DI Area: Learning Environment)
- Routines: Special education students often benefit from established routines. Keep their learning schedule the same each day, and use proven instruction methods that they know and are comfortable with. (DI Area: Process)
- Peer or Teacher Assistance: When possible, extra attention from a teacher, teacher’s aide, or peer can provide the support special ed students need. They might read questions aloud for students to respond to, explain things in a new way, or help them stay on task as they work. (DI Area: Process)
Resources for Differentiated Instruction Strategies
- Carol Anne Tomlinson: What Is Differentiated Instruction? (Video)
- Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not As Hard As You Think (Video)
- Differentiated for Student Learning (Video Series)
- How To Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Tomlinson, 2017)
- Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom (Sousa/Tomlinson, 2018)
- How To Plan Differentiated Reading Instruction: Resources for Grades K-3 (Walpole/McKenna, 2017)
- Differentiation in the Elementary Grades (Doubet/Hocket, 2017)
- Differentiation in Middle and High School (Doubet/Hocket, 2015)