Building a relationship with your students and increasing student choice in the classroom is key to thinking of out of the box ways to differentiate your instruction.
Easy Ways to Differentiate Instruction
Early in my teaching years, I worked with a student who communicated with an Augmented/Alternative Communication (AAC) device. Not only did he use an AAC device, but as he was only 5 years old he was still learning his AAC device.
My goal: incorporate this student and his abilities into the classroom as much as possible. How? Not a clue. I did all the things. Staying up late at night creating visuals to pair with words, creating large things to count to support his 1:1 correspondence with fine motor challenges, and making everything he was reading BIG to support his letter-sound knowledge. I was getting burnt out doing all these things for one student and it wasn’t increasing his participation in the classroom.
How I Increased Classroom Participation
So, I took a step back. I realized I never asked him how he wanted to learn. Once I started providing options (big words, or small words) and he count make choices about his learning I slowly started seeing an increase in participation.
Not only with him either. I started creating a “choice table” where students could choose how they wanted to complete the task. Everyone was working on the same skill in some capacity but in slightly different ways. Now, at first, this was a LOT of planning. But over time, I was able to create easy ways to differentiate instruction that students could use across content areas. Read on to find out some of my favorites!
One of the ways to build relationships with students to easily differentiate their instruction is by leading effective small groups! Grab your VIP guide and learn easy strategies for data collection, classroom management, and no-prep ideas. Click to grab it now!
Various Ways to Differentiate Instruction
Differentiated Instruction – wow what a mouthful. At its core, differentiated instruction is meeting students at their current level. You can learn more about what differentiated instruction is and why it’s useful here! To effectively differentiate instruction, teachers must first build a relationship with the student to discover the child’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. Using this knowledge, a teacher can personalize the learning experience by teaching the curriculum to encourage student participation and engagement. The idea of differentiating instruction was derived from Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and made famous in the 1990s by Carol Tomlinson and her book: The Differentiated Classroom.
Successful Differentiated Instruction
For differentiated instruction to be successful, it has to actually happen. (Okay, not rocket science I know but as teachers we get busy and even our best intentions fall by the wayside!). While in my experience the best differentiation comes from a strong understanding of the content as well as child development progressions, there are several things teachers can do to differentiate their instruction quickly, easily, and effectively. But first – let’s dig into what is differentiation!
Guidelines for Planning Differentiation
A nice guideline when planning differentiation is one up, one down. Think about what comes just before the target skill in your classroom and think about what comes directly after. While this won’t catch all students, it should catch most. If you have students beyond that band, it’s time to get creative! Remember quality differentiation doesn’t mean individualized activities. You can present the same activity in different ways and still level your instruction to personalize the learning experience. Grab the 7 Tips for Effective Small Group Instruction guide and learn how to run your K-2 small groups, while differentiating instruction.
Differentiated Instruction Examples
Differentiated instruction can be so many things. In fact, it’s probably what you like most about being a teacher – without even realizing it! Whenever you deviate in the slightest from that curriculum manual you are differentiating your instruction. Simplifying the language in a lesson? Differentiation. Adding visuals when there weren’t any? Yup, you just differentiated your curriculum. Making up a song or dance to teach a new concept? Can you guess – you just differentiated!
Differentiating your instruction can be something as easy as adding a highlighter, or something as complex as creating an entirely different activity on the same core topic. In my experience, simple always wins – for students and teachers. Try not to overthink it!
Best Ways to Differentiate Instruction
Research shows that one of the most effective practices for differentiation is increasing student choice within the classroom. By increasing student choice, teachers encourage students to advocate for their needs and reflect upon themselves as learners. The more you ask your students for input and truly listen to their responses, the stronger your instruction and their learning will be.
A classroom with effective, and seamless, differentiation has student choice embedded throughout their day. If the topic for the day is writing CVC words, there could be a letter-sound station for students or a sentence writing table. Students could choose to write their words, build their words, or even type their words! Encourage students to think about what will help grow their brains, and work in a reflection towards the end of lessons to support students’ metacognition and growth as a learner. Do you have difficulty thinking of choice options? Head on over to Instagram for Many Ways Wednesday to see many ways you can do a variety of activities!
Despite what our students may say, teachers are not mind readers. While we have research, data, and professional knowledge, we simply cannot know how students learn best. We can only make the best assumptions. The real experts? The students. Ask. Discover. Encourage reflection. Have conversations after lessons. What did they like, or dislike? What was challenging – was it a good, learning challenge, or was it frustrating and result in shutting down? The more we talk to students and value their voices, the stronger our differentiation becomes.
The secret? There is no best way to differentiate instruction. There’s only the best way for this student. And even that might change depending on the topic and the student’s rate of growth, or even their emotional status for the day.
How to Differentiate Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities
How to differentiate instruction for students with learning disabilities is going to vary greatly based on the target skill and strengths of the student. Regardless of the student’s learning disability, the best way to differentiate instruction is to think about what they can do. Even if they perform significantly below your grade level, start there. Think about the student’s interests. Do they love paw patrol but also need to work on counting, while the class works on addition? Print out two different characters and have the student count each set, then count how many in all. Visual impairments? Try clapping for each sound in a word. Working memory concerns? Be sure to include a quick review of the material before presenting any activity, even a new one! Looking for easy ways to differentiate instruction when teaching sight words? Check out all these research-based strategies to improve sight word knowledge, especially beneficial for students with poor working memory.
Ways to Differentiate Instruction for Gifted Students
When people think of differentiation, they most commonly think of students with learning disabilities or those who have trouble accessing the current classroom instruction. While they benefit from differentiation, we also need to remember to support those students who are beyond our grade level expectations as well. Just as we wouldn’t want a child who doesn’t know their letters reading passages, we want to avoid a student reading long passages fluently with strong comprehension and practicing decoding CVC words.
In most K-2 classrooms, advanced students demonstrate strong foundational skills however there is a breakdown when applying these skills to solve larger problems. When thinking about easy ways to differentiate instruction for gifted students, focus on application. Sure, they know addition facts but how and when do they need to use these facts? Can they show their thinking in multiple ways? Flexible thinking is a key feature of expert learning according to Universal Design for Learning (www.cast.org).
Mindset Shift for Gifted Students
You may find your gifted students often respond with: “this is too easy”, or “I already know this”. Often these students are the least independently driven, despite having the strongest foundational skills. When you notice this type of thinking, have direct conversations with the student about areas of growth. Model self-reflection, and encourage the student to do the same. When we hide the students’ weaknesses, we might as well hide their strengths. Keeping data and assessment scores hidden prevents student growth. It’s okay to be direct with students about where you would like them to improve, be sure to include why and get their perspectives as well.
Ways to Differentiate Math Instruction
There are so many ways to teach math concepts! Many math concepts can be integrated into the gameplay which is naturally engaging to students. You can see videos on my Instagram of many different ways to differentiate math instruction.
- Add Visuals
Especially for younger students, numbers can be overwhelming! Many are still processing the meaning behind numbers and are solidifying their number sense. Adding visuals, or teaching and encouraging students to draw a visual representation of problems is a quick easy way to differentiate your math instruction.
- Have Students Create the Problem
Research shows the effectiveness of learning increases the more students take ownership. By having students write their own math problems, they are having to think about the equations in a different way creating flexible thinkers and problem solvers. Math problems occur daily. Observe your students and note a math problem that occurs naturally – share it with the class and solve it! Applying math to students’ lives is a great way to differentiate math instruction.
Ways to Differentiate Reading Instruction
Many teachers report reading instruction as the most difficult to differentiate. This is often due to the research about the importance of direct, explicit instruction. You can still use student choice and have direct, explicit instruction. When thinking of ways to differentiate reading instruction, it can be best to think about types of learning: auditory, kinesthetic (movement), visual, written output, etc…
- Find Student Passions
One of the easiest ways to differentiate reading instruction is to integrate it into student interests. Have a student interested in Paw Patrol? Great. Use the sounds in the character names to teach letter-sound correspondence. Grab a character and have them solve a mission to say the sounds in a word. Phonemic awareness activities can be so boring but they are vital to quality reading instruction! Spice it up and increase engagement by teaching reading through student-led interests.
- Incorporate Choice
To find an easy way to differentiate reading instruction, be clear about your target skill. Think about when a student writes a word – is the target skill letter formation, or encoding ability? Eventually, we want students to be able to access both skills but if a student is struggling to write break it down. Do you want to write with a pencil, or build a word with magnets? Would you like to say the sounds or touch the sounds? Simple choices are a great, easy way to differentiate reading instruction.
Low Prep Ways to Differentiation Instruction
As stated earlier, the best differentiation is the one that happens. I love having easy grab-and-go materials for my students to use independently when faced with a challenging task!
5. Colored Markers
Who doesn’t love a good highlighter? I love them, my kids love them, and its such an easy way to differentiate instruction! Trouble reading a passage? Highlight tricky words and then sound them out. Practicing sight word fluency? Highlight all those words in the passage then re-read for fluency. Highlighters are a great way to differentiate instruction! Use a variety of colors to color coordinate sounds, word endings, or even math problems. Making things different colors helps students make connections and makes the visual field easier to digest.
6. Blank Paper or Any Covering
Hand students an empty worksheet filled with problems and many will shut down. “I can’t do this.” “This will take forever!” are common responses. An easy solution? Cover some problems up! They can either stop once the visible ones are done, or then move the sheet to complete the next row. This is a great way to differentiate instruction because it models for students breaking down a large challenge into easier-to-digest chunks of work.
7. Unifix Cubes or Other Small Manipulatives
Mini erasers, small animals, buttons, unifix cubes…the possibilities are endless because any small manipulative is an easy way to differentiate instruction! Counting in math? Grab a handful. Need to solve an equation? Grab two different groups. Trouble segmenting a word? Grab a pile and place one for each sound you hear. Manipulatives are an easy way to differentiate instruction because they make the abstract visible. This allows students to modify the thinking pathway to a way that better fits their needs at this time.
How Can You Differentiate Instruction?
So, the big question when looking for easy ways to differentiate instruction is how can you differentiate instruction? While you can add visuals, color coding, manipulatives, audio and visual support, and do all the things the best differentiated instruction is the one the student chooses. We are not in our students brains. When we make decisions on how they think and learn, we are depriving them of authentic learning opportunities and making more work for ourselves. Increase student choice and student voice and you will, inherently, create easy ways to differentiate instruction in the K-2 classroom.
Looking for more easy ways to differentiate instruction? Check these out!