As teachers, we often ask ourselves, “How do I meet the needs of all of my students?” With all of the behind-the-scenes tasks we do – staff meetings, parent conferences, professional development, and the like – it can be difficult to focus on the big picture of creating lessons, especially those that cater to students’ individual needs. There are so many ways to support our students – accommodation, modification, differentiation – and each has their place in the world of education. Differentiation encompasses the majority of our students, requiring us to meet their needs by providing different options to learn the same material. And although it can be extremely overwhelming, it is both possible AND rewarding.

Just like any craft, there is a science to it, and differentiating lessons is no exception. Here are some of our favorite differentiation tips that won’t monopolize your planning time and will leave your students feeling confident and proud of the work they’ve accomplished, even if it’s slightly different than their neighbors’.

Accessible Academic Vocabulary

New vocabulary terms prove to be one of the most difficult things for students to grasp. Here are several ideas for making new terms less overwhelming for students:

1. Integrate your readings. Give students vocabulary in a fun and context-rich format with two versions of the same reading – one where the terms are bold-face within the text and one where they’re not. Struggling students receive the bold-faced terms so they can easily find words and use the context clues to discover their meanings. Students on or above level receive the standard reading and should be able to easily find the terms and glean the meaning as they read along.

Life Science Bundle Integrated Vocabulary Reading & Differentiated Lessons

2. Provide various interactions with terms. Offer options like “match the term with the definition”, “write the definition in your own words”, or “use the term in a sentence.” Differentiate extension activities by providing short answer questions and graphic organizers for on/above level learners and matching or fill-in-the-blank questions for struggling learners. Allow students to illustrate definitions or even show you what the word ISN’T. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to easily change up the wording of questions so you can assess simple knowledge or depth of understanding. And don’t worry: Students won’t notice that they’re getting different lessons because the readings are identical and the accompanying questions assess the same material.

3. Display a visual word wall in your classroom. Allowing students to associate the word with a picture will solidify the word’s meaning and reinforce the word as you continue through your unit. Further differentiate by adding in roots, prefixes, and suffixes of those words, or by translating into another language as needed by your students. Don’t ignore your word wall – interact with it! Remove the words from the wall and point to them them throughout your lessons.

“Note”worthy Ideas

As middle school teachers, we often find that students still haven’t acquired the necessary skill of note-taking, especially where subject areas are rich in content. Here’s what you can do to combat this problem:

1. Provide your students with a fill-in-the-blank outline for class notes. This allows them more opportunities for listening to and understanding the material more thoroughly, participating in class discussions, asking questions, and making meaningful connections — rather than scrambling to write down as much information as possible before the next slide comes.

2. If the above method doesn’t work for your whole class, try fill-in-the-blank notes for those who need additional assistance and a graphic organizer for those who can handle taking notes on their own. The graphics and language remain the same, varying only in the method for recording the information.

Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy

Testing, Testing… 1-2-3-4

Testing is a necessary evil of education these days, and it’s no wonder students often do poorly when tests are often given more stage time than the actual lessons being taught. To help with academic test scores, check out these easy ways to improve performance:

1. Limit answer choices. Offer multiple choice tests that have options A, B, and C, or just A and B. This will assist those students who studied but may become overwhelmed during test-taking time. It’s also a great option for lower-performing students and gives them more opportunities to feel successful, especially if they feel anxious about the material AND test-taking.

2. Increase the font size and the amount of white space on the page. It helps students to focus on individual questions and makes the test seem less daunting.

3. Provide essay questions in both short/long answer and fill-in-the-blank formats. Include the terms needed to answer the question in the essay directions or question. It helps prepare students for real essays, and you’ll find you’ll have more successful students when you provide this option on your differentiated tests.

4. Allow students to use their notes on tests or take them home. This is great way to help students that need more time during testing. If you provide rigorous questions, you can still assess student understanding.

ALL Hands on Deck

Nearly all students love hands-on, interactive, fun activities. Differentiating lessons during these class experiences can help to increase engagement and cement understanding for even the most stubborn learner:

1. Provide various templates for projects. For students who need little guidance once directions are disseminated, let ‘em loose! Those that need more assistance can receive a modified “rubric” template that states each requirement and gives them space to mark if they’ve been accomplished so they meet all of the criteria.

2. Use your students as peer teachers. Model an activity for all students in their lesson first. Then have them create the activity on their own and have another classmate review and test their version to see if it works.

3. Provide various options to complete the same task. In life science, dissections are one of the most anticipated activities students do. However, due to varying personal and religious beliefs, dissection is not always feasible. To address this, provide students the option to complete an online tutorial or create a 3-D Dissection Model. Then, when the lab practical comes, students can still take the same test, using a paper or an online virtual model as their specimen.Science Interactive Notebook - 3-D Frog Dissection Model for Human Body
4. Create lab opportunities no matter what your content. Labs aren’t just for science but they can certainly become a part of any curriculum. Reading a book about the plague in ELA? How about a fun lab in which students discover how quickly and easily germs spread throughout a population? Studying about African countries? Try an ecology lab centered on African ecosystems in which students study predator-prey relationships. Science labs are a great way to collect and analyze data when you’re in, say, a math class! A cross-curricular classroom opens up opportunities for students to fall in love with your material in a new way and be successful while doing it.

So, What Does Differentiation Look Like in Our Class?

In our class, we start with a short bell work or sponge that gets kids thinking about the topic of the day. These pre-work tasks may be done in small groups or individually depending on the depth of knowledge required, and may include a movie with follow-up questions or be as simple as asking a question about what the students think. Then we delve into the meat of the class period and offer up content with one of our differentiated notes sheets and an accompanying PowerPoint for visual learners. Once students have grasped the concept of the day’s discussion, they get hands-on with a mini-lab. We begin by guiding them through the process of developing a hypothesis and then allowing them to lead their own activities at their pace and level, or complete a whole-class activity. We wrap up the period by discussing our findings and finish the class with an exit ticket that might involve completing a task card, writing a brief summary of their lab findings, explaining the reason for completing the lab, or discussing what they learned in class that day. So you see, you don’t need a science laboratory to create spectacular differentiated lessons. Experiment with one of these methods, mix up your delivery and routines, and you’ll see that you CAN meet the needs of the varied learning styles of your students!

Always nerdy,
Mel and Gerdy


Getting Nerdy with Mel and GerdyMelissa (Mel) and Gretchen (Gerdy) are a dynamic pair of very “nerdy” secondary life science teachers who have a true passion for curriculum design. Armed with degrees in Education and Biology, they enjoy creating adaptable and engaging science lessons for diverse learners that grab students’ attention and get them excited about the natural world. Their passion led them to becoming TpT Teacher-Authors and opening their store, Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy, in 2012, where they love helping teachers focus on their students rather than on lesson planning. You can check out all of their goings-on at their blog, Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy.