What Does It Really Mean to Differentiate Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is an instructional practice that involves “a teacher [who] proactively plans varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they can express what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible” (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 151).

The next two Teacher’s Corner blogs will focus on differentiated instruction. This blog addresses what differentiated instruction is, and the next blog will focus on how to differentiate instruction.

Read the conversation below between a campus principal and a ninth-grade English teacher that took place in December and note what the teacher might know or not know about differentiating instruction. 

Principal: I reviewed the recent benchmark data from the district and noted the following standards where students in your ninth-grade English classes struggled most: make inferences, use evidence to support understanding, and paraphrase and summarize texts in ways that maintain meaning and logical order. Does this surprise you?

Teacher: Not at all! This year, many in my classes have really struggled with making inferences, and they don’t seem interested in reading! This is so different from previous years. I’ve taught this same class for the past 5 years, and I haven’t had this same problem. I keep telling and reminding students this year that to make inferences when you read, you must connect various pieces of information to draw conclusions, make predictions, etc.

Principal: Because this year’s students are performing lower than students you’ve taught in previous years, what instructional changes are you making to meet their individual needs?

Teacher: Not much. Because my students have been successful at making inferences in the past, I believe that I have strategies that work. I model for students, show how I make inferences when reading, and assign students texts so that they practice making inferences, including state-released test passages with inference questions.

Principal: How have students this year responded during daily practice?

Teacher: Many students struggle more this year with their reading or don’t really want to read. They do OK when we read passages together and answer inferencing questions, and they usually do well when reading with a partner and answering questions.

Principal: What have students done independently to demonstrate their understanding of making inferences?

Teacher: They’ve read a text that I assigned or they practiced passages and answered questions independently.

Principal: Do all students use the same text or passages?

Teacher: Yes, everyone uses the same material. I have lesson plans and activities from previous years that have worked.

Principal: I know we’re out of time, and I want to thank you for this quick conversation. Let’s plan to come back together on Thursday during your conference planning time to talk more about ways to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of your students.

This conversation likely represents the experiences of many educators who struggle to differentiate instruction for various reasons. The following (not an exhaustive list) are possible reasons:

  • A lack of ongoing professional learning on what differentiated instruction is and how to implement it
  • A surplus of data that teachers are unsure how to use
  • A belief that differentiated instruction will take too much planning time or will hamper the progress of higher-performing students

Differentiated Instruction: What It Is

Differentiation is a framework (IRIS Center, 2010) where a teacher uses valid, reliable benchmark data to adjust instruction and curriculum materials to more effectively meet the needs of all students (Denton et al., 2012).

There are two types of differentiation: interactional and designed.

Interactional Differentiation

Interactional differentiation occurs in real time and includes adaptations that a teacher makes based on how students respond or interact with texts or tasks. For example, imagine that a kindergarten teacher just finished explicitly teaching phoneme awareness during Tier 1 whole-group instruction. The teacher noticed that most of the class had mastered the phonemic awareness activity but that a few students were still struggling. Instead of continuing with the whole-class instruction, the teacher assigned the nonstruggling students to work on a partner reading activity that they could complete without teacher support. She asked the students having difficulty with the phonemic awareness activity to join her at her kidney table for additional instruction. Here, the teacher used explicit instructional routines and provided frequent opportunities for students to respond (see the sample lesson below). This is a good example of how differentiation can occur in real time based on teacher-student interactions.

Differentiating Instruction for Struggling Students: Sample Phonemic Awareness Lesson

I Do

Phoneme deletion is when you delete a phoneme in a word to produce a new word or delete a phoneme from a consonant blend to form a new word. Here are a few examples.

The word is cap. What’s the word? (cap)

Think about the sounds you hear in cap: /c/ /a/ /p/. If I delete the /c/ sound from the word cap, my new word is ap.

The word is clip. What’s the word? (clip)

Think about the sounds you hear in clip: /c/ /l/ /i/ /p/. If I delete /c/ from the word clip, my new word is lip.

We Do

Let’s practice a few examples together.

The word is sad. What’s the word? (sad)

Think about the sounds you hear in sad. If I delete the /s/ sound from the word sad, what’s my new word? (ad)

Let’s try another. The word is flag. What’s the word? (flag)

If I delete the /f/ sound from the word flag, what’s my new word? (lag)

You Do

Now, I will give each of you a word to practice.

This word is cat. What’s the word? (cat)

If I delete the /c/ sound from the word cat, what’s my new word? (at)

The teacher gives each student in the small group a word to practice and provides immediate and corrective feedback.

This word is craft. What’s the word? (craft)

If I delete the /c/ sound from the word craft, what’s my new word? (aft)

Let’s try that again. Listen carefully as I pronounce each phoneme /c/, /r/, /a/, /f/, /t/. Now say craft without the /c/. (raft)

Let’s try another word. The word is start. What’s the word? (start)

If I delete the /s/ sound from the word start, what’s my new word? (tart)

Designed Differentiation

Designed differentiation is when a teacher plans for different levels of support related to content, process, or product. Designed differentiation requires the use of valid, reliable data to plan instruction that targets students’ needs, along with appropriate measures to monitor student performance.

Content differentiation involves adjusting the knowledge or skills for students to learn. This differentiation includes knowing how to adapt curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of all students. To differentiate content, it is important that the teacher (not an exhaustive list) 

  • is knowledgeable and well-prepared to teach the concept or skill;
  • preassesses student knowledge to understand what skills or concepts are known or need to be reinforced;
  • considers a student’s interests, motivation, behaviors, or family support;
  • implements research-based scaffolds or supports;
  • establishes clear learning objectives; and
  • aligns concepts or skills with the learning objective, materials, and tasks.

Process differentiation refers to changes in how students will learn the content. This differentiation includes how the teacher will execute and implement a lesson (e.g., research-validated activities, strategies, and routines) to help each student with making meaning of the content. When differentiating a process, the teacher might provide a variety of (a) ways for students to explore content and receive information or (b) strategies for students to make meaning of ideas or information. Process differentiation is not making all tasks the same, nor is it simply getting through or covering the required materials and information.

When differentiating the process, a teacher might use various groupings based on student assessment data to target academic, behavioral, or social-emotional needs. For instance, whole-group instruction is beneficial when introducing a concept or skill to students, and other types of groupings could be used to support individual student needs. Regardless of the type of grouping used, the teacher will need to determine the time, materials, and activities that align with the learning objective(s). A teacher will also need to make sure that the tasks are at appropriate levels of difficulty for each student.

The following are a few different types of groupings that might be used during Tier 1 instruction:

  • Teacher-led small group: Teacher-led small groups enable teachers to reteach important content and skills and provide students with more frequent opportunities to respond.
  • Partners: Partner work can be productive when students need additional peer support.
  • Independent: Independent work is most effective when students have some proficiency with the content or skill being taught but need additional practice.
  • One-to-one: This instruction is useful when you need to target individual needs.

Product differentiation is how students will express what they have learned and what others can observe. Product differentiation can be written or spoken and gives students various choices to demonstrate learning. Rather than assigning students extra problems to solve or assignments to complete, allow students to demonstrate their learning by creating products or completing projects. For example, students might demonstrate their understanding of a science unit by writing a research paper, creating a public service announcement, or developing a PowerPoint presentation.

Learn More About Differentiating Instruction

Take Action

Reflect on how you currently differentiate instruction.

  • What do you believe is working?
  • What evidence exists to show that what you are currently doing is working?
  • What do you want to do better?
  • What is one small step in getting better?

Talk to others in your school about differentiated instruction.

  • What is working?
  • What evidence exists to show that what is used is working?
  • What does your school want to do better?
  • What is one small step in getting better?

Final Thought

Can you, or someone you teach, relate to Sam’s story?

I remember my elementary, middle, and high school experiences well. It wasn’t uncommon for me to finish my work before other students and then get to help others. I didn’t want to be a helper; I wanted to be challenged. I wanted more time to meet with the teacher; however, because I rarely struggled, my time with the teacher was limited.

Students “are so diverse [that] different (or flexibly designed) texts, tasks, and tools are required to moderately challenge every student” (Puzio et al., 2020, p. 465). Keep tasks relevant, interesting, challenging, and engaging for all students (IRIS Center, 2010). And think about students like Sam; you probably have one or more students like her in your classroom. Are you differentiating instruction to meet the individual needs of all students, including higher-performing students?


Access Center. (2004). Differentiated instruction for reading. https://www.readingrockets.org/article/differentiated-instruction-reading

Denton, C., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Bryan, D., & Reed, D. (2012). Effective instruction for middle school students with reading difficulties: The reading teacher’s sourcebook. Brookes. 

IRIS Center. (2010). Differentiated instruction: Maximizing the learning of all students. https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/di/

Puzio, K., Colby, G., & Algeo-Nichols, D. (2020). Differentiated literacy instruction: Boondoggle or best practice? Review of Educational Research, 90(4), 459–498.

Tomlinson, C. (2000). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades. https://www.readingrockets.org/article/what-differentiated-instruction

Tomlinson, C. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom: Strategies and tools for responsive teaching. ASCD.