Getting Started with Differentiation

Getting started with differentiation can seem overwhelming at first. Carol Ann Tomlinson, faculty member at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, suggests that teachers should start small and then add on incrementally over the years. Yes, it takes years to become a true expert in differentiation!

One way to start small is to consider how you can differentiate content for your students. True differentiation is based on some sort of assessment data. It does NOT have to be official scores or data from your district or state. It can actually be something as simple as an anticipation guide or a pretest to see what students already know and are capable of doing. It could even be observational data you have jotted down on a checklist.

To differentiate content, you can start in a variety of ways. Here are some options:

  • Use a variety of materials related to the content. Do you have magazines, books, and technology resources on the same topic? These can meet the needs of your learners in different ways.
  • Provide materials based on the readiness levels of students. Maybe you have students who are reading below grade level...could you go to a lower grade and see what materials they have to support the concepts you are teaching?
  • Present ideas through both auditory and visual means. Show a movie or have a guest speaker as a way to build background prior to teaching the concepts.
  • Use content buddies so they can collaborate and talk. Learning is social. The harder the topic or concept, the more the students need to talk!
  • Provide choices. Who doesn't love autonomy in their day?!? Students will appreciate you giving options within a unit or assignment as a way to let them channel their energy.
  • Meet with small groups to re-teach an idea for struggling learners. If students were not able to grasp a concept when you worked on it as a whole group, you can pull them in a smaller group and teach the idea in a different way.
  • Meet with small groups to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners. If you have a group of students who have mastered some of the ideas and do not need to spend instructional time on them, you can use the small group to extend and deepen their thoughts with an alternate lesson or assignment related to the bigger ideas in the unit.
  • Break assignments into smaller parts with structured directions. When trying to scaffold students into synthesis and other critical thinking tasks, it may be useful to deconstruct information into manageable parts so they can digest them along the way.

These are just a few ways to get started with differentiating for students. There are many ways to meet the needs of your learners with differentiation, but it is critical to make sure you assess what students know and are able to do and then respond with strategic instruction based on that information. Everyone may not "get" the same thing, but what they do get will be high quality!