Many teachers believe that differentiated instruction is complex, time consuming, and necessary for only a few learners. In this short article, I share ten ideas that are not only easy to implement, but effective for many students in the diverse classroom, including students without disabilities.
1. Create a comfortable classroom
Many teachers think about differentiation as something related only to lesson design, but there are also many ways to meet diverse student needs by simply changing the classroom environment. For some students, lessons are a challenge to access not because they don’t have the necessary skills or knowledge, but because they are not comfortable. Try offering seating options (e.g. at tables or desks, on the floor or in chairs, beanbags or seat cushions) when possible. You can also adjust the lighting by sitting some students closer to natural light or by using lamp lighting in certain spaces.
2. Employ elastic frameworks
Need your classroom to s-t-r-e-t-c-h a bit to meet the needs of all of your students? To bring your inclusive classroom to the next level, try using structures with a bit more “give.”
Kelly Chandler Olcott has written about what she calls “elastic” instructional frameworks: models and methods of instruction that stretch to accommodate diverse learning needs without requiring students to be labeled or segregated from each other. Such frameworks allow students who are very accomplished or experienced with a competency or content area to develop skills at increasingly higher levels, while simultaneously allowing students who lack certain skills or experiences to acquire them at their own pace.
Without a range of such structures in their repertoire, teachers often end up teaching to the perceived middle of their classes, thereby failing to support or to challenge a large number of students who don’t fit that profile. Structures that don’t stretch much – whole-class oral reading of a single text, for example – have the potential to be disastrous for students with disabilities, because many of these students present skills that would be located on the outskirts of a developmental continuum. For this reason, rigid, one-size-fits-all structures are likely to frustrate or bore students with unique learning profiles, and they often do not work well for students without disabilities either. Elastic frameworks that do seem to fit well for a wide range of learners include: guided reading; computer-based instruction/web quests; inquiry-based learning; drama; lab; service learning and writers’ workshop.
3. Find 20 ways
How can you make the science lab more accessible for students with disabilities or for other learners who struggle with the academic, literacy or social requirements of the tasks? You can create and post a video online for students who need repeated exposure to the material, you can give different students different roles, or you can allow some students to use digital voice recorders so they can speak instead of write their observations. All of these are part of a “20 Ways” list I made to support diverse learners in the lab (www.paulakluth.com/readings/differentiating-instruction/20-ways-to-adapt-the-science-lab/).
These “20 ways” lists don’t take much time to create, but they can be used repeatedly and many will be relevant across departments and grade levels. To try your hand at differentiating using this technique, gather a few colleagues and brainstorm a variety of ways to provide more “entry points” into a particular activity (e.g. journal writing, debate club). Your team may not use every idea or even refer to the list much; the process of brainstorming options is often more powerful than the product you will create.
4. Mix up your groupings
Throughout the days, the weeks, the months, and the year, a wide range of groupings should be used in every classroom. Regularly assemble students into pairs, trios, and larger constellations of four and five.
During some lessons, you may choose to group students with similar goals, interests, needs, or skills together. During other lessons, group students with different goals, interests, needs, or skills, in order to give students a chance to teach and learn from one another.
5. Give plenty of choices
Let students differentiate for themselves. Give them as many choices as reasonably possible throughout the school year. Choice can be built into almost any part of the school day. Students can choose which assessments to complete during a unit, which problems to solve on their homework page, which books to read from a recommended list, or to work alone or with a group during a project.
6. Teach with tech
Adapting different books for different learners once meant a lot of cutting, pasting, erasing, and highlighting. Today, differentiating literature selections can be done with the click of a mouse by scanning books into PowerPoint presentations, using free programs and websites, or supplying learners with e-readers. Using tools such as these, key words can be highlighted, text can be enlarged, and – with some devices and programs – text can be converted to speech.
Much of the technology that can help educators differentiate is no or low cost. For instance, Microsoft Word contains many tools that can help diverse learners write, read, and learn with more ease. Text can be translated into a number of languages, grammar can be taught and corrected, and the background colours of documents can be changed on screen to support learners with certain vision problems (such as eye fatigue).
7. Put it on the agenda
A learning agenda is a customized list of activities that must be completed during a specific period of time. Everyone in the class may be working on their agendas, but not all students will have the same work to do. Typically, students work independently on agendas, collaborating when necessary.
In one classroom, all students had learning agendas related to independent reading. All learners had to read a biography, a mystery, and a poetry book. Students also had items on their agendas specifically chosen for them. One learner was assigned to read two non-fiction selections related to soccer, an area of interest for him. Another was required to read one book in Spanish, a language he was mastering.
8. Set up stations
Using stations involves setting up different spots in the classroom where students work on various tasks simultaneously. The focus of one station might be group problem-solving. Skill practice might be the objective of another station. A third station could involve a teacher introducing a new concept to small groups of learners.
Station teaching can accommodate student choice of activity, thus catering to individual interests and strengths. Stations also create smaller working groups within a classroom, which can be less intimidating than a whole-group setting for some students. This kind of pedagogy also allows educators to personalize content and instruction for students, perhaps even addressing a learner’s IEP objectives, since all students do not need to complete the same tasks. Centres or stations are also ideal for use in the inclusive classroom since they allow teachers to work with individual students or small groups of learners without having to use a more restrictive pull-out model of instruction, especially if you are using a co-teaching model. For example, one educator can be facilitating the entire class as they move through the rotations, while the other educator can be checking in with those learners needing enrichment questions, materials, or instruction.
9. Plan projects
Project-based instruction is especially appropriate for students with diverse learning profiles, as many student needs can be addressed; there are increased opportunities for peer support; and a number of disciplines can be addressed. Making a film, for instance, can involve many different students in many different roles (e.g. director, producer, screenwriter).
In managing projects, teachers should set clear timelines, teach students how to chart their own progress and develop progress reports, and help students to produce a final product. To create the best possible outcomes, steer students away from projects that involve passive learning and point them towards those activities that will inspire higher-order thinking and meaningful engagement. For instance, instead of asking for a report, challenge students to design a model or produce a mural.
10. Teach to fascinations
Teaching to interests is a fairly simple strategy and one that can buy you not only student engagement, but also trust and connection in the classroom. For instance, Tamar, a young woman with a love of Amelia Earhart, embraced any lesson related to the celebrated heroine. Her middle-school teacher knew this and used Tamar’s fascination to enchant her into learning new content, engaging in more challenging work, and making connections with peers. Tamar was typically reluctant to learn new content in math, so her teacher would integrate airplanes or Amelia Earhart into the curriculum, instruction, or educational materials. For example, distance-rate-time word problems featured Earhart and her various planes. In language arts, she could be coaxed into more sophisticated reading selections if they included stories or facts about aviators.
Teaching to fascinations is a differentiation technique that might be overlooked because educators may not initially see how they can use a specific interest in their teaching. With a bit of thought and creativity, however, clever teachers prevail – as in the case of the student who was fascinated by the GPS in his mother’s car. His teacher taught him to read using the system’s manual!
First published in Education Canada, March 2013
EN BREF – Beaucoup d’enseignants croient que la différenciation constitue une pratique longue, complexe, qui s’impose uniquement pour quelques apprenants. Dans ce court article, l’auteure propose dix idées simples, faciles à planifier et à instaurer, et efficaces pour de nombreux élèves dans une classe diversifiée, qu’ils aient ou non des incapacités. Ses idées comprennent la création de classes confortables, l’emploi de cadres souples, la recomposition des groupes, les « 20 façons », l’enseignement à l’aide de technologies et l’intégration de ce qui fascine les élèves.
 K. Chandler-Olcott, “Seeing all Students as Literate,” Access to Academics for all Students: Critical approaches to inclusive curriculum, instruction, and policy, eds. P. Kluth, D. Straut, and D. Biklen (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2003), 69-84.