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Learning That Lasts: Chapter 6: Differentiating Instruction

How can instruction challenge, engage, and empower all students?

When you know your students well and know your standards well, it is easier to support all students—those who are ready for an extra challenge, those who are just learning English, and those who need more scaffolding and support in order to learn. Chapter 6 of Learning that Lasts describes the culture, planning decisions, and deeper instructional moves that enable more students to reach more learning targets more of the time.

Meeting students where they are as learners and helping them understand their own strengths and struggles supports teachers’ efforts to challenge, engage and empower all students. from Chapter 6, Learning That Lasts

Learning Targets

  1. I can explain why  it’s important for teachers and specialists across the school to work collaboratively in support of students’ diverse learning needs.
  2. I can describe a variety of instructional techniques that challenge, engage and empower all learners.
  3. I can determine next steps for differentiating a lesson in my classroom.

Review: Why this Practice Matters

A commitment to high-quality differentiation must be a foundation of instruction in schools that serve students with diverse learning needs. Differentiation makes it possible to challenge and engage all students equitably, and to empower students to understand themselves as learners and strive to achieve more than they think possible.

Review Figure 6.1 from Chapter 6 of Learning That Lasts, The Terrain of Differentiated Instruction. As you do so, consider the following questions:

  1. How do all students benefit from doing most of their learning in heterogeneous classrooms?
  2. What tools or structures enable students to lead their own learning?
  3. How can you take readiness, interest, and learning styles into account when designing your lessons?
  4. Which of these layers does your school currently support? How could you address the needs of all students?

Read: The Principles of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiation meets students where they are and provides them with challenging and respectful tasks that engage and empower them. It begins with creating a culture that recognizes and respects differences and enlists students as full partners in the teaching and learning process. Encouraging a growth mindset in which it’s okay for students to make mistakes, to learn from each other, and to try again is key. When students know that everyone brings something valuable to the table and that “fair” doesn’t mean “same,” then all students expect to be challenged and also expect to contribute to the classroom community.  

Review The Principles of Differentiation and ask yourself:

  1. Based on these principles, how does (or how could) differentiation happen on a daily basis in your classroom?
  2. Which principles are already embodied in your teaching? Which represent a growth edge for you?
  3. Can you think of some examples of your own to illustrate these principles?

Seven Principles of Differentiated Instruction

1. Understand student learning strengths and weaknesses

Definition: This is the complete picture of a student’s learning preferences, strengths, and challenges. It is drawn from a range of data, including the student’s reflection

For example: Maria is an English language learner who is fluent in her native language,
Spanish. Her family speaks both English and Spanish. She is able to focus on her work
for long periods of time and finds learning her new language relatively simple, but she is
challenged in mathematics. This makes her quite different from Jose, even though he is
also a new English language learner. Jose is not yet literate in Spanish and his family
speaks only Spanish at home. He is nevertheless good at mathematics, especially when
manipulatives are available

2. Get to know student interests

Definition: Interest is a student’s particular inclination toward a subject or activity. Interest motivates students naturally and can be a doorway into challenging work.

For example: Following the building background knowledge phase of a second-grade learning expedition about snakes, students were able to choose a specific snake that most interested them to research more deeply.

3.  Identify student readiness for a particular concept, skill, or task

Definition: Readiness is not “ability” or intellectual capacity. Rather it captures the “entry point” a student needs. Readiness may reflect experiences, previous learning opportunities, emotional states, social skills, and mindset, as much as cognitive ability.

For example: Some students are ready to organize their information independently, while
others benefit from using a teacher-prepared graphic organizer to arrange information
prior to writing.

4. Develop respectful tasks

Definition: Respectful tasks motivate and challenge all students in the class. While the work may not be identical, it does not create a sense of “unfairness” in the amount or type of task required. The work should challenge students just enough to stimulate them with new learning, but not be so challenging as to overwhelm.

For example: As part of a recent study of Romeo and Juliet, ninth-grade students were given the choice of three projects with the same learning targets. One project appealed to strengths of visual learners, another to auditory learners, and a third to kinesthetic learners.

5. Use flexible grouping

Definition: Students work in a variety of configurations at the appropriate level of challenge. At times they are grouped by readiness, interest, learning style, or choice. At times they work in small groups, pairs, or individually. The groupings are determined to match the purpose of the activity.

For example: A teacher makes two pieces of text on the same content available to her class: one at grade level, and the other above grade level. One day she creates groups based on their choice of text. The next day she mixes groups so that students who have read different texts can learn from each other.

6. Embed ongoing assessment and adjustment

Definition: Ongoing assessment enables the teacher to determine students’ entry points, their confusions and misconceptions, the speed at which they are grasping new ideas, and their overall attainment of new skills and concepts. She then uses the information to guide her next instructional steps.

For example: Students complete an entry ticket that assesses material taught in the previous day’s class. The teacher reviews (or invites students to share out) the entry tickets before deciding what material needs to be reinforced and/or extended in the current class and for whom

7. Differentiate the process, not the content or product

Definition: Differentiating the learning process includes all of the varied instructional strategies, activities, tools, and resources that help students meet required standards— knowledge, skills, concepts, and habits—that teachers want all students to learn. A common final product allows students to demonstrate mastery of those standards. Unless a student has an individual education program (IEP) that states differently, all students need to meet the same standards, preferably with the same end product.

For example: All students are required to write an analytical essay on the play Pygmalion, discussing the internal and external changes of its main character over the course of the play. Some students are given partially filled in graphic organizers, sentence starters, and academic word banks to assist them. Others are given less “up-front” scaffolding and are provided additional time in teacher conferencing and peer review. Still others are encouraged to extend their drafts and make explicit connections to other literature they have read and studied, beyond the initial prompt.

Read and Watch:  Scaffolding Lessons to be Engaging, Challenging and Empowering

Scaffolding lessons by adapting or creating appropriate supports or extensions for the students in your classroom is a way of making every lesson engaging, challenging and empowering for students. It is complex and often time-consuming work, but it gets easier with practice. Some of the do’s and don’ts of supporting students’ needs during ELA/literacy lessons include:


  • Chunk the text to make the amount of challenging text more manageable
  • Sparingly pre-teach vocabulary if students are unlikely to figure out the meaning in context
  • Provide sentence frames for conversation
  • Let students dictate text to you if they are working toward mastery of a reading standard
  • Group students strategically
  • Group flexibly based on assessments of progress (note: more information on flexible grouping follows)


  • Change the text to a less challenging text
  • Pre-teach too much of the vocabulary if students can grapple with it productively and figure out the meaning in context
  • Allow students to be silent or passive
  • Let students dictate text to you if they are working toward mastery of a writing standard
  • Allow stronger students to do all or most of the work in a group
  • Create static groups that are not responsive to assessments of progress

Read the Strategy Close Up: Front- and Back-End Scaffolding Strategies for Reading Complex Text on pp. 295-297 of Learning That Lasts, then watch the video: Adapting Curriculum to Learners’ Needs. As you read and watch, consider the following questions:

  1. What are different strategies for forming intentional and productive groups? When would you choose a homogenous group? When would you choose a heterogenous group?
  2. What strategies did Meehan use to ensure that all students are successful with complex text?
  3. How do these students demonstrate a culture of reading and growth mindset?

Watch and Try it: Adapting a lesson

Tiering tasks means creating parallel tasks at varying levels of complexity so that students can work toward the same learning targets in a way that is responsive to their readiness. By creating tiered tasks, teachers ensure that all students get appropriately challenging work—work that is challenging enough to push learning to new levels, but not so challenging that it is overwhelming. The “equalizer,” developed by differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson, can help teachers identify appropriate levels of complexity for different students. Review The Equalizer and reflect on how it could impact differentiation in your classroom.

Watch two videos: Tiered Lesson: Differentiation and Developing Content Mastery and Self-Reliance through Math Menu. As you watch these teachers make decisions and develop lessons and classroom structures to support students at different levels, ask yourself:

  1. What upcoming task in my classroom will benefit from tiering?
  2. What different pathways might students take to reach the same learning target?
  3. What structures can you create to support  students in advocating for themselves and leading their own learning?

Watch: Scaffolding Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners

English language learners have particular needs that require specialized attention. To understand the context of an ELL’s learning and apply differentiation appropriately, it’s important to have a full picture of the student’s academic, cultural, and linguistic histories. ELLs vary as widely in their learning habits, backgrounds, and home supports as do native English speakers. Literacy instruction poses particular challenges and tremendous promise, because literacy is the foundation of all learning.

Watch the video Scaffolding Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners for a window into the kinds of supports ELLs may require. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. What did the teaching team need to think about and plan for before the lesson?
  2. How does reading, thinking, talking, and writing provide entry points into the text for ELLs?
  3. What do ELLs and native English language speakers learn from each other in this lesson?

Dig Deeper

Supporting ELLs: Explore this professional learning pack to learn specific strategies for supporting English Language Learners.

Initiatives to Support Differentiation: Use these short initiatives and activities to develop a respectful and joyful culture for differentiation.

Carol Tomlinson’s website:  Carol Tomlinson’s work has informed much of our learning about differentiation at EL Education. Explore her website to learn more.

ASCD Express:  This issue of ASCD Express discusses ways to make assessment fair and meaningful for each student and how to generate assessment data that informs how you will tailor instruction to meet individual student needs.

Helping All Learners PD Pack: This PD Pack from EL Education provides a closer look at educators can serve every student, including pages on Differentiation, Entry Points, Assessment, and more. 


For Teachers…

  1. Review the Who, What, and Why of Differentiated Instruction from Chapter 6 of Learning That Lasts. What’s your next step in creating a classroom where all students are challenged, engaged, and empowered?
  2. What data can you look at to make reliable decisions about differentiating for your students?
  3. How are you allowing students to become full partners as learners and managers of themselves in your classroom?

For School Leaders…

  1. What is your vision for a school that meets all learners’ needs? How do you communicate that vision in school communications and traditions?
  2. What existing or new schoolwide structures and supports can you establish to support all students to be challenged, engaged and empowered by their learning?
  3. How can you strengthen collaboration between teachers and specialists so that they can work together and learn from one another to differentiate instruction?