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Differentiation In Teaching Definition Essay

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction, also called differentiation, is a process through which teachers enhance learning by matching student characteristics to instruction and assessment. Differentiated instruction allows all students to access the same classroom curriculum by providing entry points, learning tasks, and outcomes that are tailored to students' needs (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003). Differentiated instruction is not a single strategy, but rather an approach to instruction that incorporates a variety of strategies.

Teachers can differentiate content, process, and/or product for students (Tomlinson, 1999). Differentiation of content refers to a change in the material being learned by a student. For example, if the classroom objective is for all students to subtract using renaming, some of the students may learn to subtract two-digit numbers, while others may learn to subtract larger numbers in the context of word problems. Differentiation of process refers to the way in which a student accesses material. One student may explore a learning center, while another student collects information from the web. Differentiation of product refers to the way in which a student shows what he or she has learned. For example, to demonstrate understanding of a geometric concept, one student may solve a problem set, while another builds a model.

When teachers differentiate, they do so in response to a student's readiness, interest, and/or learning profile. Readiness refers to the skill level and background knowledge of the child. Interest refers to topics that the student may want to explore or that will motivate the student. This can include interests relevant to the content area as well as outside interests of the student. Finally, a student's learning profile includes learning style (i.e., a visual, auditory, tactile, or kinesthetic learner), grouping preferences (i.e., individual, small group, or large group), and environmental preferences (i.e., lots of space or a quiet area to work). A teacher may differentiate based on any one of these factors or any combination of factors (Tomlinson, 1999).

How is it implemented?

Implementation looks different for each student and each assignment. Before beginning instruction, teachers should do three things:

  1. Use diagnostic assessments to determine student readiness. These assessments can be formal or informal. Teachers can give pre-tests, question students about their background knowledge, or use KWL charts (charts that ask students to identify what they already Know, what they Want to know, and what they have Learned about a topic).
  2. Determine student interest. This can be done by using interest inventories and/or including students in the planning process. Teachers can ask students to tell them what specific interests they have in a particular topic, and then teachers can try to incorporate these interests into their lessons.
  3. Identify student learning styles and environmental preferences. Learning styles can be measured using learning style inventories. Teachers can also get information about student learning styles by asking students how they learn best and by observing student activities. Identifying environmental preferences includes determining whether students work best in large or small groups and what environmental factors might contribute to or inhibit student learning. For example, a student might need to be free from distraction or have extra lighting while he or she works.

Teachers incorporate different instructional strategies based on the assessed needs of their students. Throughout a unit of study, teachers should assess students on a regular basis. This assessment can be formal, but is often informal and can include taking anecdotal notes on student progress, examining students' work, and asking the student questions about his or her understanding of the topic. The results of the assessment could then be used to drive further instruction.

What does it look like for writing?

Writing instruction can be differentiated to allow students varying amounts of time to complete assignments, to give students different writing product options, and to teach skills related to the writing process. The chart below offers a variety of strategies that can be used.

StrategyFocus of DifferentiationDefinitionExample
Tiered assignmentsReadinessTiered assignments are designed to instruct students on essential skills that are provided at different levels of complexity, abstractness, and open-endedness. The curricular content and objective(s) are the same, but the process and/or product are varied according to the student's level of readiness.Students with moderate writing skills are asked to write a four-paragraph persuasive essay in which they provide a thesis statement and use their own ideas to support it. Students with more advanced skills are asked to research the topic in more depth and use substantive arguments from their research to support their thesis.
CompactingReadinessCompacting is the process of adjusting instruction to account for prior student mastery of learning objectives. Compacting involves a three-step process: (1) assess the student to determine his/her level of knowledge on the material to be studied and determine what he/she still needs to master; (2) create plans for what the student needs to know, and excuse the student from studying what he/she already knows; and (3) create plans for freed-up time to be spent in enriched or accelerated study.Rather than receiving additional direct instruction on writing a five-sentence paragraph, a student who already has that skill is asked to apply it to a variety of topics and is given instruction on writing a five-paragraph essay.
Interest Centers or Interest GroupsReadiness
Interest centers (usually used with younger students) and interest groups (usually used with older students) are set up so that learning experiences are directed toward a specific learner interest. Allowing students to choose a topic can be motivating to them.Interest Centers - Centers can focus on specific writing skills, such as steps in the writing process, and provide examples and activities that center on a theme of interest, such as sports or movies.

Interest Groups — When writing persuasive essays, students can work in pairs on topics of interest.
Flexible Grouping*Readiness
Learning Profile
Students work as part of many different groups depending on the task and/or content. Sometimes students are placed in groups based on readiness, other times they are placed based on interest and/or learning profile. Groups can either be assigned by the teacher or chosen by the students. Students can be assigned purposefully to a group or assigned randomly. This strategy allows students to work with a wide variety of peers and keeps them from being labeled as advanced or struggling.The teacher may assign groups based on readiness for direct instruction on the writing process, and allow students to choose their own groups and methods for acquiring background information on a writing topic (i.e., watching a video or reading an article).
Learning ContractsReadiness
Learning Profile
Learning contracts begin with an agreement between the teacher and the student. The teacher specifies the necessary skills expected to be learned by the student and the required components of the assignment, while the student identifies methods for completing the tasks. This strategy (1) allows students to work at an appropriate pace; (2) can target learning styles; and (3) helps students work independently, learn planning skills, and eliminate unnecessary skill practice.A student indicates an interest in writing a newspaper article. The student, with support from the teacher, specifies the process by which he or she will research newspaper writing and decides how to present the final product. For example, the article could be published in the school newspaper or shared during a writer's workshop.
Choice BoardsReadiness
Learning Profile
Choice boards are organizers that contain a variety of activities. Students can choose one or several activities to complete as they learn a skill or develop a product. Choice boards can be organized so that students are required to choose options that focus on several different skills.Students in an elementary school class are given a choice board that contains a list of possible poetry writing activities based on the following learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Examples of activities include, cutting out magazine letters to create poems, using a word processor, or dictating a poem into a tape recorder and transcribing it. Students must complete two activities from the board and must choose these activities from two different learning styles.

* More information about grouping strategies can be found in Strategies to Improve Access to the General Education Curriculum on The Access Center website.


  • Differentiated Instruction (CAST)

    This site contains an article by Tracy Hall at the National Center for Accessing the General Curriculum. The article discusses differentiation as it applies to the general education classroom.

  • Strategies for Differentiating

    The Enhancing Learning with Technology site provides explanations for various differentiation strategies.

How do teachers differentiate instruction?

Page 7: Differentiate Product

When teachers differentiate product, they assess the same concept or skill for each student at the end of a unit of study; however, teachers offer their students a variety of ways to demonstrate their knowledge (e.g., video, written report). When doing so, the teacher strives to:

  • Make the product assignment challenging but not so difficult or complex that the students are unable to complete it on their own.
  • Provide clear directions.
  • Create a task that reflects real-world application.

Teachers should also include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (i.e., involving movement or hands-on activities) options as well as analytic, creative, and practical ones. They might also allow the students to complete the product alone or as a group. Although teachers typically allow students to choose the type of product they complete, they need to make clear that their students cannot always choose to complete the same type of product assignment. The table below highlights a few strategies for differentiating product. Click on each link to learn detailed information about implementing these strategies.


Teachers often find Bloom’s taxonomy helpful when differentiating product based on student readiness.

Click here to view the entire taxonomy (original and revised) and a list of actions that students perform at each level.

Bloom’s taxonomy identifies six levels of learning, from the most basic (i.e., recalling facts) to the most complex (i.e., evaluating information). For instance, when she creates a tiered assignment, the teacher often develops three levels of activities. For the lowest level, she might develop activities that assess students’ knowledge and comprehension; for the middle group, she might assess their ability to apply and analyze information; for the high group, she might require them to synthesize and evaluate the information. The tables below present the hierarchy of six levels of learning. For each level of learning, the table provides verbs teachers often use when designing product assignments or test questions.

Knowledgeidentify, list, arrange, define, describe, label, match, order
Comprehensionclassify, summarize, predict, locate, discuss
Applicationcompute, demonstrate, show, solve, write
Analysiscompare, contrast, experiment, model, separate
Synthesisarrange, combine, formulate, revise, propose
Evaluationargue, defend, justify, appraise
Rememberingidentify, list
Understandingcategorize, summarize, compare, explain, give examples, predict
Applyingperform lab test, solve a math problem, write an essay using correct grammar and punctuation
Analyzingdifferentiate, draw conclusions, organize
Evaluatingdetermine, judge, critique, test
Creatinggenerate, plan, construct, design

For Your Information

Differentiating product contrasts with how teachers in a traditional classroom typically assess their students’ knowledge—administering a written test at the end of a unit of study. Teachers in a traditional classroom often assume that a written test is an accurate indication of what their students have learned. However, issues such as a student’s ability to read and comprehend text sometimes interfere with accurately assessing what the student knows. Although they should continue to administer written tests, teachers should redesign or build their tests so that they are differentiated.

Teachers are sometimes concerned that if they allow their students to demonstrate their knowledge in ways other than written tests, these students will not be prepared to take standardized tests. Carol Ann Tomlinson discusses why this is not the case (time: 0:49).

View Transcript

Carol Ann Tomlinson, EdD
Professor of Educational Leadership,
Foundations, and Policy
The University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

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