Easy Ways to Differentiate Your Lessons
Differentiation is a difficult concept for many teachers. However, it’s actually easier than many people think – and are probably already doing.
According to ASCD, teachers can modify four elements to differentiate instruction: content, process, product, and affect/learning environment. No matter which one teachers choose to differentiate, the changes should always be based on students’ learning needs.
Teachers should consider differentiating to meet students’ current abilities but provide support so they can succeed at a higher level. They should also provide learning options that use different modalities (learning styles) and learning preferences, such as multiple intelligences. Teachers might also differentiate lessons and activities based on students’ cultures and interests.
By the end of this post, you will learn about the four elements and how you could differentiate them in your classroom.
No matter where students’ abilities currently are, they are expected to master grade-level standards. While not every student will be able to improve their skills to that extent, teachers need to make sure that any differentiation is made with the idea that students will progress along the path to grade-level mastery.
Therefore, teachers need to be careful when differentiating content. The content itself should not change, but rather the methods students might use to access the content should be differentiated. Differentiation of content could include:
- Presenting content in several modalities.
- Scaffolding the material for students.
In your classroom, that might look like allowing students to read a text in different ways: some students reading a text with a partner, others listening to it using speech to text apps, students reading independently, and a small group reading it with the teacher.
Some other ways teachers can differentiate content are:
- Allowing students to select a research topic. Ex. Select a person from the Revolutionary War to research.
- Offering mini-lessons on optional topics, such as using commas or adding voice during writer’s workshop.
- Holding independent study or Genius Hour.
- Providing the reading content on different reading levels.
The process is how students understand the content – how they practice the material. This is where a lot of student learning takes place.
Students will not process material at the same pace or in the same way. Therefore, it makes sense that teachers would differentiate the process in which students unlock the skills and content.
A few ideas for differentiating the process are:
- Providing a variety of practice, using different modalities. For example, a social studies classroom might explore a topic by analyzing a painting, listening to a speech, and reading a text. Students have different strengths, so although they may find one activity easier than another, they can synthesize what they have learned.
- Creating small groups based on students’ learning needs. Groups should not be static. Instead, group members should be selected based on who needs that particular support.
- Allowing students to decide how they work best: alone, with a partner, or small group.
- Allowing students who have not yet mastered the concept to have more time and support.
- Providing graphic organizers to help organize content and vocabulary.
- Using different review activities, such as flashcards, an online game, and a small group hands-on activity. Students could also be allowed to select which activity they want to do.
- Providing advanced materials to students who understand the concept. These students should be given the opportunity to increase their depth of knowledge and higher-level thinking.
The product is simply how students demonstrate their mastery of a skill or concept. Instead of giving everyone an exam, teachers could give students options on how they want to have their knowledge assessed. Choice Boards are a great way to do this. Options could include different modalities and intelligences. For example, students might have a choice between an exam, recording themselves explaining a concept, or creating a poster.
However, teachers could also provide different written assessments, based on students’ learning needs. Some examples of differentiated exams are:
- Having a digital version that can be read to students with speech-to-text apps.
- Editing questions to have more simplified language for ELL students.
- Creating a rubric with criteria for different levels of mastery.
- Changing question formats to meet students’ learning needs. For example, an OCD student might have a hard time using a word bank. A student with a learning processing disorder might struggle with matching.
- Giving students a choice of essay topics.
The final element, Affect/learning environment, deals with students’ feelings’ and emotions about their learning. Culture and personality are also things teachers might consider when creating differentiation in this area.
This element requires teachers to know their students well to differentiate based on their specific needs. For example, I know teachers who have had students with ADD and specifically assigned them tasks that allowed them to get up and move frequently, such as passing out books or taking notes to the office.
Another example is differentiating the assessment based on their student’s emotional needs. I frequently had my students present orally. One year, I had a painfully shy student. She was unable to present to the entire class successfully. Instead, I allowed her to select three students and present only to them.
Here are some other ideas on how to differentiate for affect/learning environment:
- Allowing students to use earbuds/headphones to block out classroom noise.
- Adapting an assessment based on the cultural norms of a student.
- Creating support for students who struggle with group work
- Giving public praise to students who need that type of validation, while giving private acknowledgement to students who are embarrassed by public praise.
From my discussions with teachers, differentiation seems like one more thing they have to do – and that it will be difficult to include. In reality, most teachers are already using differentiation and don’t realize it.
The most important thing to remember about differentiation is that it is meant to be used to help students master the content and skills – not to lower the bar that students are meant to achieve. Once teachers know their students and standards, there are many easy ways to differentiate lessons.
To learn more, check out this article by ASCD.
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