How do teachers differentiate instruction?

Page 3: Know Your Students

Teacher with students

As discussed previously, when they differentiate instruction, teachers design lessons to address the needs of groups of students. Before teachers can do this, however, they must first get to know their students in terms of:

readiness bulletReadiness      Interest      Learning Profile

readiness bullet Readiness

Readiness refers to a student’s knowledge and skill level regarding given content. A student’s readiness level might vary across subjects or content areas. For example, a student may have extensive knowledge about ancient Egypt but have little knowledge about the Incan civilization. Additionally, a student’s readiness may be influenced by his or her background knowledge, life experiences, or previous learning. Teachers can determine the level at which a student is working in a given subject area by:

Did You Know?

Learning occurs when a student is asked to complete a task that is just beyond what he or she can do independently, or, in other words, in his or her proximal zone of development.

interest bullet Interest

Interest refers to topics, skills, or activities that pique a student’s curiosity or inspire him or her. Teachers can discover their students’ interests by determining what topics they enjoy or which activities they engage in outside of class. They can do so by asking students to:

learning profile bullet Learning Profile

Learning profile refers to a student’s preferred method of learning new information or skills (e.g., visually, hands-on, through deductive means) and to environmental factors that influence a student’s learning (e.g., small group, bright lights, no distractions). A student’s profile can also be influenced by gender and culture. For example, students from cultural backgrounds that value cooperation over competition may perform better in a small group versus working independently. Teachers can assess a student’s preferred method of learning by:

Differentiation doesn’t ask teachers to begin by individualizing instruction…. It asks teachers to look for patterns of need.
Carol Ann Tomlinson (2010)

For Your Information

When they collect information to better understand a student’s learning profile, teachers should also take note of each student’s affect, or emotions and feelings. Teachers should strive to understand how students feel about themselves and what makes each of them feel successful or discouraged.

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

Teachers are often concerned about their ability to teach students with disabilities in the general education classroom. Carol Ann Tomlinson discusses how a differentiated classroom meets the needs of a wide range of students (time: 1:02).

View Transcript 


Michelle Giddens discusses how differentiated instruction allowed her to better meet the needs of students with diverse needs (time: 0:33).  


Michelle Giddens, MEd
Assistant Principal Intern
Former Third-Grade Teacher
Sarasota, FL

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