What does differentiated instruction look like in the classroom?

Page 12: Classroom Implementation

teacher in front of studentsAlthough Mr. Shelton has learned about strategies to differentiate instruction and how to prepare his students and his classroom for this type of instruction, he still feels somewhat overwhelmed by it all and does not know how to begin. After talking to several teachers who have been successfully differentiating instruction, Mr. Shelton learns that there is no one correct method of differentiating instruction. Given all of the instructional strategies and practices that teachers can employ, differentiated instruction can also take on many forms. Mr. Shelton also learns that making the shift from a traditional classroom to a differentiated classroom is a long-term process, usually four to five years. Mr. Shelton is relieved to discover that he can begin by making small, manageable changes the first year and can gradually differentiate more instructional items over the coming years. Below is a list of ways in which he might get started.

Did You Know?

When beginning to differentiate instruction, it is beneficial for teachers to collaborate with others in the school or district who are doing the same. Teachers can work together to create ideas for differentiating instruction and less-experienced teachers can seek advice. Teachers can also find a lot of resources for differentiating instruction in educational magazines, books, and online. Additionally, ongoing professional development is critical.

  • Select one element (i.e., content, process, product, learning environment) to differentiate.
  • Start with one subject area.
  • Start with the class of students that is the easiest to work with.
  • Implement only one differentiated activity in a larger lesson or unit.
  • Begin working with students in small groups.
  • Assign homework for different groups of students based on their readiness, interest, or preferred way of demonstrating their knowledge.
  • Provide support for struggling readers (e.g., students with learning disabilities, English language learners).
  • Use a simple means of gathering information about students (e.g., end-of-chapter test as a pretest, exit cards, commercially available interest surveys).
  • Implement low-prep activities, as opposed to high-prep activities.

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

Carol Ann Tomlinson offers several ways that teachers can begin differentiating instruction (time: 2:07). 

 View Transcript

Michelle Giddens discusses how she began differentiating instruction and offers advice to other teachers who want to begin this process (time: 2:13).  


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

Because he thinks it is the group that will most benefit, Mr. Shelton begins to differentiate instruction in his Algebra I class. Below are two plans for the same lesson on multiplying polynomials. The first is from the year that Mr. Shelton began differentiating instruction. The second is from his fourth year of differentiating instruction.

Algebra I (Year 1)

Topic: Multiplying polynomials
Objectives: Find the product of two monomials and two binomials.

Note: Instruction guided by preassessment (end of chapter test)

10:00–10:30 Whole group Introduce and demonstrate the FOIL (first, outer, inner, last) method using explicit instruction. Call on students to help solve problems (guided practice).
10:30–10:45 Pairs or independent Assign class problems and allow students to work with a partner or alone to complete. Monitor students as they work.
10:45–10:55 Whole group Review problems or steps that students are having difficulty with.
Algebra I (Year 4)

Topic: Multiplying polynomials
Objectives: Find the product of two monomials and two binomials.

Note: Instruction guided by preassessment (teacher-created)

10:00–10:20 Whole group Introduce and demonstrate the FOIL method. Make available graphic organizers that students can use to take notes.
10:20–10:45 Small group Work with struggling learners. Help students to solve problems using graphic organizers.
Independent Other students will work on tiered activities in the learning center.
10:45–10:55 Whole group Review and answer any questions.
Pass out exit cards to get an idea of who understands the topic and what needs to be reviewed the following lesson.


Review both of Mr. Shelton’s lesson plans.

  1. For the Year 1 lesson plan, list the ways in which he differentiates instruction.
  2. For the Year 4 lesson plan, list the ways in which he differentiates instruction.
  3. Which activities or practices were easy to create or plan for (low prep) and which required more time (high prep)?
  4. Discuss how Mr. Shelton’s instruction has changed over the four-year period. Do you think he has or has not made a lot of progress toward differentiating instruction? Explain.

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