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A Practical Guide To Differentiated Instruction

“The biggest mistake of past centuries in teaching has been to treat all children as if they were variants of the same individual, and thus to feel justified in teaching them the same subjects in the same ways.” ~Howard Gardner~[hr]

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.

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It is common in classrooms today for teachers to be exposed to students with varying learning styles, ability levels, emotional and social needs, races or genders. The problem faced by us teachers is how do we begin to cater for all of these ability levels and diverse needs in our classroom?

To some extent teachers have always had to modify their instruction to suit the needs of students in their classroom. If you’d like to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs, then this is a great place to start.

What is differentiated instruction?

For teachers to effectively cater for the needs of all students in the classroom then differentiated instruction may need to be adopted. Tomlinson (1995) describes the differentiated classroom as one that:

…the teacher plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs.

To me, differentiated instruction is attempting to tailor the curriculum/instruction to meet the needs of individuals so they have the best opportunity to learn.

I don’t think a differentiated class is where students who finish work and tasks early are able to play games, or mathematically gifted students are given extra maths problems above what other students in the class complete, or assignments are the same but have varied levels of difficulty in the questions for particular students.

I want to share with you some practical implications to demonstrate how differentiation can be achieved in the classroom.

Practical implications

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.It is important in the differentiated classroom for the teacher to use a wide range of instructional strategies to respond to students’ differences in readiness, interest or learning profile. I’ve found an excellent differentiated guide that provides teachers with many strategies, techniques and tools that will help the classroom teacher promote the use of differentiation.

What’s great about this guide is that it’s compact and it is in a flip chart form, so it’s easy to find ideas and strategies as well as take with you if you move around.

The Differentiated Instruction Compact Guide is from Mentoring Minds, and is one of many various flip chart guides they offer.

I thought I’d give you a bit of a walk through the guide so that you can see how practical and useful this resource is.

How to use and introduction

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.The guide has 14 different sections, with the first 2 explaining how to use the guide and a bit of an introduction to differentiated instruction. These sections offer a great overview of what differentiation is as well as an overview as to how educators can use the flip chart.


I’m a big believer in promoting a positive, caring classroom community. The first section of the guide shares ideas and tips for how the teacher can help to build a caring and respectful classroom. Some of the ideas include:

A: Begin and continue the year with activities that show students they are valued.

D: Establish confidence by informing students that mistakes are a part of the learning process.

O: Model the excitement of learning. Encourage students to celebrate their accomplishments and those of classmates in order to develop intrinsic motivation.

15 tips are included in this section.

Classroom organization and management

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.Having a well organized and efficient classroom is definitely a goal for teachers and also essential for differentiated instruction. There are many strategies and processes that you can put in place to assist with the smooth running of your classroom. And the tips and tricks in this section of the guide will make your life that little bit easier. Many of the tips you’re probably already doing, but I got a few great ideas that I had never really thought about before, such as:

Teach, practice, and implement procedures. Do not assume that students know what to do. Demonstrate what to do and what not to do.

I think when you’ve been teaching for so many years and you begin with a new class you forget that the students will probably not know how your class works.

Anchor activities

Okay well I may be a little bit behind the ball here, but I wasn’t sure what ‘anchor activities’ are. But, this section quickly helped me work out that they are “meaningful assignments that vary in complexity and are connected to topics, concepts or curriculum being taught.” In other words, they engage students more deeply in lessons. This is what I refer to as ‘Rich Tasks’.

My favorite part of this section is when it suggests to have your students brainstorm ideas for anchor activities. This involves your students in the decision making process for learning activities which will motivate and engage them.

Brain-based strategies

This section is about teachers understanding how students learn best, which is an essential component of differentiated instruction. There are so many tips and strategies in this section that you’ll definitely find them interesting and useful. The one tip that I found fascinating was that students’ focus time is approximately equal to 2x age minus or plus 2 in minutes. Sometimes we ask students to stay focused for more than an hour at a time, which when thinking about this formula is completely unrealistic and probably why we end up with behavioral problems.

Tiered assignments

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.Do you use tiered or scaffolded assignments with your students? Over the years I have attempted to use scaffolded assignments, but it has definitely not been in a targeted way or really thought about too much. The information in this part of the flip chart will walk you through how you can achieve tiered assignments and also explain why you would want to do this.

Flexible grouping

I’m sure as a teacher you have your students working in groups almost daily. This part of the guide shares how you can group students in a variety of ways depending on your purpose and the students’ needs. There are many advantages listed to why you should be using flexible grouping as well as strategies for managing flexible groups.

Universal design for learning strategies

Okay I think you will love this section as much as I do. We have so many pressures on us as teachers including performance testing, high expectations for students, and of course being accountable for everything.  The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for curriculum design, instructional processes and assessment. As you know our curriculum is not always flexible in addressing the needs of our students, especially those with disabilities or from other cultures. The UDL provides you guidance in designing your learning environment to accommodate the varied students you have in your classroom.

In this part of the guide you’ll learn the principles of UDL with practical ideas for organizing and planning your instruction. There are also general UDL tips.

Assessment strategies

Assessment is a crucial part of the teaching and learning process. This section offers advice in how you can use multiple approaches to assess student performance. There are:

  • Pre-assessment strategies;
  • Descriptive feedback assessment strategies;
  • Formative assessment strategies; and
  • Summative assessment strategies.

Each part explains why you should use that type of assessment and then lists different ways you could do this.

Student choice

Do you allow your students to have much choice in your class? This section is fantastic as it shares many ways that you can introduce choice and in a controlled way. There are examples of many different types of choice boards including:

  • RAFT choice boards (Role, Audience, Format, Topic);
  • Tic-Tac-Toe choice boards;
  • Product choice boards;
  • Two-by-two choice boards;
  • Show and tell choice boards; and
  • Questions matrices.

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.I love the specific examples provided of the different choice boards. This really helped me to understand how I can allow my students to have more choice in their learning, but so that it doesn’t get out of control and still fit in with my lesson objectives.

Interests, learning style preferences, and MI

Have you thought about how you learn best? I know that I’m quite a kinesthetic learner, so I learn best when I am active and doing something. I don’t really like listening to information, probably why I struggled to remember anything during lectures at Uni. I would often doodle which actually helped me to stay focused.

This part of the booklet explains the types of learning style preferences (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic) as well as Multiple Intelligences (MI). This section will make it so much easier for you to cater for your students’ learning styles.

Content, process, and product differentiation strategies

As I mentioned earlier the basis of differentiated instruction is when the teacher plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product. If you’re unsure what that means then this part of the guide fully explains each bit. There are again educator tips and then content, process and product are explained. There are probably about 100 strategies and ideas listed which will help you to fully grasp differentiation. I especially like the ideas suggested for process and in particular the checks they suggest for understanding. Some of the checks include:

  • Colored cards to show understanding (green, yellow and red);
  • Exit card to depart classroom, e.g. I learned…..;
  • Response cards with a rating system;
  • Thumbs up/sideways or down;
  • Pause and reflect;
  • Learning logs;
  • Self assessment cards; and
  • Text reflection.

differentiation in the classroomThere is also a final part that lists some tips for setting up an environment conducive to the differentiation strategies.

Cognitive rigor and complexity models

The final section of the guide explains how rigor and complexity models can enhance the learning process and increase student performance. Some of the models presented include:

  • Bloom’s Taxonomy – original and revised versions and how they compare;
  • Cognitive Rigor Matrices (CRM) – there are some handy tables provided that show the integration of Bloom’s revised taxonomy and Webb’s depth of knowledge; and
  • Rigor/relevance framework – this is a framework that looks at curriculum, instruction and assessment.

This section finishes with some further information about cognitive rigor and some questions you should consider when selecting a model.

This practical guide to differentiated instruction will help you to take a more proactive approach in catering for individual student learning styles and needs.Evidence of classroom differentiation

The final page of the guide provides a handy checklist to work out if differentiated instruction is underway in your classroom. I think this would be handy to complete first as a kind of audit to see where you may have gaps. Then you would be able to fill those gaps with the ideas in the guide.

This guide is something that I know I will continue to use and refer to for many years to come. It’s so useful in helping you to really consider how you can provide differentiated instruction, rather than just as a ‘token’ effort. I would highly recommend this flip chart and I think it is well worth the investment of $12.95. Head over to the Mentoring Minds website to find out more about all of their flip chart guides and other resources.

Graphic Credits: Graphics from the Pond

{Disclosure: this is a paid post for Mentoring Minds. We received a copy of the Differentiated Instruction guide to use for the post. As always, the opinions expressed in this post are my own.}

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4 Responses to A Practical Guide To Differentiated Instruction

  1. I tried to buy a copy of this guide after reading this and the $12.95 was fine. It was the $43.30 it was going to cost me for shipping and handling which made me say “No thanks”. I don’t suppose you know of any way we can get it in our own country? In this day and age, I’m surprised we can’t get an electronic copy of it much cheaper. If anyone knows of a way I can get a copy for a reasonable price, please let me know.

    • Hey Kerri,

      Oh dear that is very pricey for the shipping. I’m sorry I don’t know where else these can be purchased. Have you tried emailing the company direct to see if they have a supplier locally that you can use?


      • Hi Mel – I found out that they can fit 20-25 books in a box for the same amount of shipping fee, so it would be a case of people close to each other getting together to put in a bulk order. She said that was the only way she could think of to do it.

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