Meeting Your Students' Learning Needs With Differentiated Instruction

Try these helpful and creative ways to differentiate classroom instruction with a twist.

By Dawn Dodson

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Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is the practice of teaching students with various levels of learning needs in one setting, and meeting those various needs, by providing necessary scaffolding in a productive and efficient manner. From the first year I taught to now, I have found that each group of learners has individual life experiences and educational backgrounds that I need to address in my classroom.

Discovering strategies that were effective and time efficient was necessary when I was looking for ways to meet instructional needs and the needs of my class. In my experience, there are three key factors that are helpful in differentiating instruction; identifying prior knowledge, using flexible grouping during content instruction, and providing tiered assignments. These are strategies I consistently use to structure my classroom learning environment. It’s an ongoing process that continues to evolve during each school year, as learners grow and change throughout the year.

Identifying Students’ Prior Knowledge

In my first years of teaching, I thought identifying students’ prior knowledge involved creating a diagnostic assessment based on everything I felt they should have learned up to the point of entering my classroom. I found this task overwhelming. Not only was the test time-consuming to grade, but learners never performed well. The data I thought I had carefully collected was skewed, due to the fact that they either rushed through the test, or were intimidated by the volume of information requested. I also had trouble organizing the results in a way that would be useful throughout the year.

However, I was successful when I gave shorter pre-assessments, or surveys, before each individual unit of study. It allowed them to demonstrate what they already knew. In my language arts classroom, this normally takes place through written-response assessments and journal prompts. The format of the pre-assessments varies. Some look like a formal assessment and others are survey-type assessments that are completed as journal entries. For example, at the beginning of the “Maniac Magee” novel study, students complete a survey and journal entry as part of the pre-assessment. In the survey, story-structure questions are asked. For the journal prompt, discussion of previous experiences is required.

Place Students in Flexible Groups

“Flex grouping,” as it is sometimes called by experts, is when students are grouped by instructional needs. Since instructional needs can change, so do the members of each group. In my classroom experience, learners normally, but not always, fall into one of the three following groups: those who have mastered the concept, those who understand the concept but need extra practice utilizing it, and those who are struggling with the concept and need more direct instruction. As we move through the school year, many float between two or three of the different groups based on what is being studied. Groups can change often. As soon as one demonstrates mastery, they can move into a different group. Pupils who spend a lot of time in the mastery group receive enrichment work, and those who continue to struggle are observed carefully in the event other services may be required in meeting their learning needs. When I begin a new unit of study, I assess their work formally and informally. The results of homework assignments, class work, and quizzes are the information I use in order to assign everyone into work groups. I use group work time during the second half of each block of class time. Assignments can be done individually, completed with a partner, or done with the entire group. The objective is for everyone to continue moving foward!

Using Tiered Assignments   

I also use tiered assignments to help meet learning needs in my classroom. I begin with one assignment, and then alter the mastery level so all learners can complete the assignment and feel successful and productive. Scholastic has published a book of graphic organizers that cover each level of learning. I use this book quite a bit during novel studies and writing instructional time. What I like about this collection is that the assignment focuses on the same overall concept, but kids are required to do something different with the concept based on their learning needs. Once each group has completed the assignment and related organizer, we can have a whole class discussion about a topic or concept, and everyone can participate. My main objective in using tiered assignments is to help my class master the content, but also feel successful at every level of learning.

Identifying prior knowledge, managing flexible groupings, and utilizing tiered assignments allow me to better serve those in my classroom. There are a variety of strategies and resources available on differentiating instruction; however, these are the three that I rely on year after year, unit after unit. What follows are more lessons that can help you meet learning needs.

Lessons Using Differentiated Instruction:

Differentiated Instruction Organizer

This is a lesson plan template that can help anyone carefully organize any content lesson and activities to meet the needs of all learners. Although this template involves a letter writing lesson, this template could be used with any content at any grade level.      

Graphic Organizers for Good Science Reading and Writing

This is a lesson to help read informational text effectively. I like this lesson because it provides many different kinds of graphic organizers that learners can work with.

From Graphic Organizer to Composition

This writing lesson allows for the use of a variety of graphic organizers to plan and help write a composition draft. This lesson can also be used at the beginning of the year in order to allow students to explore and discover the best pre-writing organizer for their personal needs and writing style.

Graphic Organizers

Understand the purpose of using graphic organizers. I find this lesson helpful for identifying the type of organizer that works best for your class.


Language Arts Guide

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Dawn Dodson