Learn what differentiated instruction is and how to use it effectively in the K-2 classroom!
When I first started teaching, I had no idea what differentiated instruction is. I used to struggle when my students couldn’t complete a task. I would give a single assignment and hope each student would complete it in the same way. If they didn’t I would sit and model and the student would copy. This worked, kind of. Then, I had a student with significant fine motor challenges. He changed everything for me. The task of writing was not a possibility for this student. Knowing the student’s physical limitations, I began offering other modes to demonstrate storytelling or encoding. I offered these choices to all students. By offering magnets, letter tiles, voice-to-text, computers, and keyboards to all students my classroom began to change. Slowly, each student was thinking about their own learning and choosing the work method that work best for them. The result? Fewer behaviors, more engagement, and growth.
think about your classroom
Imagine your classroom. What are students doing? Are they all sitting doing the same thing, or is there some variety around the room? Each student has a unique brain with valued opinions and various life experiences. How can one curriculum possibly meet the personal needs of each student? Spoiler alert: it can’t. As teachers, one of the greatest jobs we are tasked with is meeting students where they’re at, regardless of what the textbook says. But how are teachers supposed to tailor the curriculum to each student? This is where differentiated instruction comes in. Differentiated instruction is the key to student success, regardless of age.
EdWeek defines differentiated instruction as: “The process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them”. Woof, talk about a mouthful! Simply put differentiated instruction is taking your curriculum and modifying or adapting it in a way that is accessible and meaningful. The idea of differentiating instruction was derived from Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and made popular in the 1990s by Carol Tomlinson and her book: The Differentiated Classroom.
The Importance of Relationships in Personalizing Instruction
It almost goes without saying: the backbone of any effective instruction is the relationship between the teacher and the student. Before you can truly differentiate instruction, you must build and continue to work on a relationship with your student. Personalizing instruction requires not only knowledge of likes and dislikes, strength and weaknesses but also a willingness to take risks. Growth occurs in the uncomfortable but students will not enter a place of growth without a relationship of mutual trust.
Prioritize student relationships. Before you even start the process to personalize your curriculum, build a relationship. Don’t assume what students need. Have the conversations, and collect the data (both formal, informal, curriculum-based, and anecdotal). Not sure where to start? Grab your VIP guide to small group instruction and learn how to seamlessly integrate data collection into the K-2 classroom. Use this time to build those relationships so you can start effectively differentiating your instruction!
Why Differentiated Instruction is Important
It sure sounds like a lot of work so, why is differentiated instruction important? Differentiated instruction is important because research shows it improves student outcomes by making the curriculum accessible and meaningful for each student. While there is an overall lack of research on the effectiveness of differentiated instruction (despite having been named in the 1950s), the most current research demonstrates that differentiated instruction is crucial to student success (Valiandes, 2015).
At its core, differentiated instruction is a personalized learning experience. It is important because through differentiated instruction students are heard, valued, and operate at their appropriate level. Differentiated instruction is a key component of any inclusive classroom, and supports learners below, on, or above grade level. There are key features to an inclusive classroom (including differentiating instruction). You can learn more here about how to create an inclusive environment and value all your students. It also goes beyond grade-level expectations and looks at each student as an individual with strengths and weaknesses.
What Is Differentiated Instruction in Education
Differentiated instruction in education is each student getting what they need. All students are different so this will look different for each student. One child may be reading a book quietly in a corner, another may be listening to the same book on audio, while a third child may be learning the same content through pictures and conversation. Each student is learning the same concept in the way most accessible to them.
Resources to differentiate your instruction
There are many resources available to teachers looking to differentiate the instruction in their classroom. Universal Design for Learning from CAST provides clear guidelines for teachers on how to increase accessibility through engagement, representation, and action. A common phrase in education for differentiated instruction is “student voice and student choice”. When it comes down to it, we cannot read our students’ brains. While teachers have their professional opinions, a variety of assessments (formal and informal), and plenty of other tools the black-and-white of it is: students will only learn if they want to and are able to access the materials.
So, how do teachers engage their students in learning? By building a relationship and creating personalized learning experiences where the students drive the ships. The best part? Increasing student choice and voice not only increases student engagement and learner outcomes but also takes “work” away from the teacher making their job easier.
If you’re looking to dive more into differentiated instruction in education, understanding and applying Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, and creating a student-led classroom I highly recommend The Shift to Student Led Learning by Caitlin Tucker and Katie Novak. While focused on a high school level, Tucker and Novak easily break down several common classroom teaching techniques and how to tweak them to increase student-led learning.
What Is Differentiated Instruction Examples
Differentiated instruction looks different across classrooms and grade levels. The key to successful differentiation is building relationships. To effectively personalize student education you need to know your student. We cannot know what students need or support their self-reflection to help them figure out what they need, without first a strong relationship. Looking for some quick tips to implement now? Read 5 easy ways to differentiate your instruction in the elementary classroom.
I’ll be honest, differentiating instruction is my favorite part of teaching. Probably because I’m a little bit of a creative type (crocheting, anyone?). Often, increasing the accessibility of a curriculum takes a little bit of creativity combined with self-reflection and data collection. The most effective way to appropriately differentiate any curriculum is to talk with the student. What do they like? Which aspects are challenging for the student? I encourage you to share the data with the student. Include them in the conversation about how they learn best. This increases engagement (therefore increasing efficacy) and celebrates student growth while encouraging self-reflection. Talk about a win-win-win!
FIND MORE EXAMPLES OF HOW TO PERSONALIZE STUDENT INSTRUCTION
If you’re more of a visual learner (Look at that! You can even differentiate a blog post!) head on over to my Instagram for Many Ways Wednesdays where every Wednesday you’ll see the many ways students can engage in the same standard.
Before you can personalize instruction, you need to get clear on the goal. Take writing CVC words – are you looking at encoding with the sounds, or are you looking at the actual writing? Those are very different skills! If you’re looking at the writing, have students write the words in sand, pencil, or whiteboard, and if they can’t break down the words into sounds, or have them copy the word.
If you’re looking at encoding, or the ability to produce spoken words by putting graphemes (letters) together, take the motor planning (ability to write) out of the equation. Provide magnets or letter cards or tiles for students to build the words. You’ll be surprised by how many students are able to encode words before they are able to match the motor plan to the grapheme and physically be able to write them.
What is Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom
Differentiated instruction in the classroom is each student working at his or her level. It sounds daunting – I get it. But when you increase the personalization of the curriculum, your workload decreases. You are transferring the ownership of the learning from the teacher to the student. Think about it. When you lead a meeting, who’s doing the work – you or the student? Now, when you pose a question and guide a conversation among the students, who is doing the work? The students.
What Does Differentiated Instruction Look Like in the Classroom?
It looks like exploration and questioning. It looks like lots of mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. It looks like student ownership. Each piece of work is individualized, and no two pieces look the same. A classroom with effective differentiated instruction has choice and reflection woven in throughout the day. There are physical materials for students to solve math problems, or voice-to-text easily accessible for students to tell stories, and there are multiple writing mediums on the shelves. Everywhere you look, there is student voice and choice as they discover how their brain learns best.
Is Differentiated Instruction Effective?
Study after study since the 1950s has shown the effectiveness of differentiated instruction. Looking for the actual studies? Scroll to the bottom of the post for a link to all the scientific research results! There is no doubt: when done purposefully, leveling curriculum to each individual student increases both student growth and engagement.
When I first started learning and implementing strategies surrounding differentiating instruction, it made my brain hurt. But, now that you know what differentiated instruction is, you are one step closer to using it effectively in your classroom. If you’re ready to jump in and get started differentiating your instruction I have the guide for you! Build those relationships, get the data, and start meeting your students where they’re at with this complimentary guide: 7-Tips to Effective Small Group Instruction in the K-2 Classroom.
As a bonus: when you get the guide you’ll get exclusive access to me! Send me an email and we can get creative on how to differentiate the instruction in your K-2 classroom!
Check out the research to find what differentiated instruction is from the scientist!