Differentiation is a top priority for teachers and principals alike, especially as there continues to be a big push in education toward personalizing student learning. But what does differentiation actually look like in the classroom? And what are the best ways to differentiate instruction and meet the needs of students with diverse abilities and interests? 

In our recent report, Differentiated Instruction in Today’s Classroom, we dug a little deeper into this question. We found that the top three ways teachers differentiate instruction are through: individual or small group instruction (88 percent); activities and/or lessons at varying levels of difficulty (76 percent); and scaffolded lessons and/or activities (65 percent). Below, we’ve listed some examples of what these approaches might look like in practice.

#1:  Individual or small group instruction

Small groups are effective for differentiating instruction because it allows teaching to be more focused on what students need to learn in order to move forward. It also enables teachers to experiment with grouping students according to ability level (or to group heterogeneously so that students are able to teach each other). 

#2: Using activities or lessons at varying levels of difficulty

Using activities with tiers of difficulty is a way to teach your students the same standard or lesson, while also ensuring that it’s meeting their individual needs. For instance, you might give a student an entirely different piece of text to read, shorten the text or alter it, or modify the writing assignment that follows. On a test, you might present a range of problems or texts, each one representing different levels of difficulty, but all based on the same subject or text you are trying to assess. 

#3: Scaffolding lessons and activities

Scaffolding is a way to provide support for students by breaking down the learning process into more manageable chunks. This approach is excellent for all types of learners — but it’s particularly good for emergent bilingual students, students with special needs, or students who are generally having a difficult time learning new material. There are a number of different ways you can scaffold student learning, but one example is to model or demonstrate what students will be learning. For example, you might demonstrate how to run a science experiment so they can see how it’s done before they try doing it on their own. Or during a read-aloud, you might verbalize your thought process to students by stopping to ask questions, making observations, and thinking deeply about the story. Think-alouds give your students a model for inner dialogue that they can copy when reading on their own.

Want to dig even deeper into all things differentiation? Download our report to read more key findings from our survey.

How can TpT help support differentiation? Our research found that teachers who use TpT agree that TpT helps them differentiate better than they would otherwise by saving them time and providing access to materials that are already differentiated. Explore our resources.


This report originally appeared on EdSurge in September 2019.