Differentiated Instruction due to Diversity in the Classroom

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Today's classrooms are filled with diverse learners who differ not only culturally and linguistically but also in their cognitive abilities, background knowledge and learning preferences. Faced with such diversity many teachers are implementing differentiated instruction in an effort to effectively address all students' learning needs.

Researchers at the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum define differentiated instruction as a process approach to teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is rather than expecting students to modify themselves for the curriculum (Hall, 2002). Differentiation is also defined as a way of thinking about instruction that is based on the recognition of the diversity of our students (Rutherford, 2005).

Although experts and practitioners acknowledge that the research on differentiated instruction as a specific practice is limited (Allen &Tomlinson, 2000; Anderson, 2007; Hall, 2002), solid research does validate a number of practices that provide the foundation of differentiation. These practices include using effective classroom management procedures; promoting student engagement and motivation; assessing student readiness; responding to learning styles; grouping students for instruction; and teaching to the student's zone of proximal development which is the distance between what the learner can do with assistance (Vygotsky, 1978). Students come to us with differing levels of readiness, and we must hold high expectations for all of our students. We have to design activities that address the same standards and take into consideration the differing levels of our students. Students must be engaged when we ask them to participate in activities that capture their interest. We must think about our content from a variety of perspectives. All of our students have different learning styles. We need to design learning activities that utilize their preferred style, as well as ones that develop other styles. For English language learners, this means learning activities that rely solely on language, whether verbal or written, are relying on a learning style that may at this point not be yet developed and their strongest means of learning. This means that differentiating instruction makes us think about our content from different perspectives.

When we know our students' level of readiness and we are aware of their interests and specific learning styles, we can select varied sources, use different processes, and provide a choice of products to match. We need to differentiate the sources we use to teach and learn content. Our standards remain the same for all of our students, regardless of readiness or language proficiency level. So, in order to help all of our students reach the standards, the differentiation lies in making the same content more accessible through a variety of resources and scaffolds. If sixth grade students are learning about plate tectonics in their science class, some might ask students to conduct their own Internet search about volcanoes or earthquakes, others might use sites that the teacher has selected for their level of readability, still others might read a children's book that contains basic information along with pictures and charts to support their reading. In a unit on legends, fourth grade students might read legends or fairy tales from their own culture to compare with a similar story from another culture.

Next teachers can differentiate the process in which students will engage as they learn. The processes are the strategies and structures teachers use to teach the content. They are the "how" of teaching. Teachers can use small group activities and a variety of cooperative learning structures. They may assign tasks that vary in the level of complexity or abstractness, or that rely on a particular learning style. Moving between large and small group, partner and individual activities which allow you to address readiness, interest, and learning style at the same time as provide multiple opportunities for students to practice and apply their learning.

Products are the ways in which students demonstrate their learning. Students at early levels of language proficiency may have understood the content and yet be unable to express their understanding in a written report. Students at this early stage may complete graphic organizers that compares or classifies. They can also construct a chart, diagram or timeline. Others who still make numerous errors in speaking may be uncomfortable giving an oral presentation but can create a poster report that can be shared with the class.

It is also important to remember English language learners are also required to participate in standards based, or standardized, tests. Here are some suggestions for testing accommodations for English language learners. Students can be provided with extended time and periodic breaks. They also may be given multiple days to complete the assessment. Students can have the test administered in a separate location with a small group of peers. They can have the directions simplified and have additional arrows or stop signs on the answer form. They can be given directions with highlighted instructions or underlined verbs. English language learners can be provided with oral directions for the assessment and have the directions reread for each page of questions. The students can be provided with an auditory tape of test items and markers to maintain place. English language learners may also have the passages comprehension questions, and multiple choice responses read and reread to them. There can be a tape recorder provided for taping responses. Typewriters and word processers with grammar check can also be used. English language learners can be provided with adults to record answers on paper. Calculators can also be used.

Each of us learns in different ways. We use different senses to help us learn and we connect with new material with unique perspectives (Armstrong, 2000), yet our classrooms most often ask students to participate using their auditory skills. Students of all ages must rely on their listening skills as they encounter new information and concepts. For English language learners, even those with strong auditory skills, listening in an unfamiliar language can be a challenging way to learn.

Students all have unique learning styles or types of intelligences. Intelligence as traditionally been defined in terms of intelligence quotient, which measures a narrow range of verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical abilities. Howard Gardner (1983) argues that humans possess a number of distinct intelligences that manifest themselves in different skills and abilities. All human being apply these intelligences to solve problems, invent processes and create things. Intelligence, according to Multiple Intelligences theory, is being able to apply one or more of the intelligences in ways that are valued by a community or culture. Here are the eight intelligences according to (Gardner 1999). Linguistic Intelligence is the ability to use language effectively both orally and in writing. Logical/Mathematical Intelligence is the ability to use numbers effectively and reason well. Visual/Spatial Intelligence is the ability to recognize form, space, color, line and shape and to graphically represent visual and spatial ideas. Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence is the ability to use the body to express ideas and feelings and to solve problems. Musical Intelligence is the ability to recognize rhythm, pitch and melody. Naturalist Intelligence is the ability to recognize and classify plants, minerals and animals. Interpersonal Intelligence is the ability to understand another person's feelings, motivations and intentions and two respond effectively. Intrapersonal Intelligence is the ability to know about and understand oneself and recognize one's similarities to and differences from others. These intelligences should be considered when grouping for differentiated instruction.

Teachers need to differentiate instruction for readiness, interest and learning style while teaching in whole class configurations. Teachers can simply vary the products that they assign. It is difficult, however to differentiate the source and processes that match the diversity of the students without incorporating some small group activities. Differentiating instruction is not the same individualized instruction. Teachers do not need to assign every student different work, rather they can assign them to work in different groups. Flexible grouping is one of the key principles of a differentiated approach.

There are times when the whole class will come together to participate in a focus lesson or a class discussion, observe a demonstration, or share their learning. At other times, the teachers will pair students to brainstorm ideas, clarify their understanding, or accomplish a task. Teachers will ask students to work in groups, whether for small group instruction or to complete an assignment. While individual conferences and assistance are vital supports for students who do not yet have the language proficiency to participate fully without help, it is within the small group configuration that you will find the most effective opportunities to differentiated sources, processes and products. In small groups students practice language, process understanding, and learn from each other. Varying grouping configurations allows the teacher to provide both the supports that the English language learners require, and to offer the challenges that stimulate the more proficient students.

Sometimes teachers will want to pull aside a small group of English Language learners for a quick preview of the content the teacher is about to introduce to the class. In this group the teacher can build background knowledge or introduce vocabulary that the native English students already possess. Teachers might highlight particular language structures that are needed to understand the lesson and express the ideas or language structures such as if…then to express cause and effect in a science experiment, or first…then…finally to retell the sequence of events in a story. Teachers might also work with a small group after a lesson to review the concepts, assess the students understanding, and re-teach anything the students may have missed. These mini lessons can be grouped by language proficiency level.

When teachers want to have students practice academic language and build understanding, they can form groups that bring students of varying language and academic proficiency. One way to determine these groups is to create a list of all the students in one class, putting them in rank order by language proficiency or by academic skill. The teacher can form groups by taking the first student and the last student and two from the middle to form the first group. In the next group the teacher can place the second student, the student second to last and the two left closest to the middle. The teacher can continue to take students from the top, bottom and middle until all of the groups are formed. Teachers can then adjust the groups based on what students work well with one another. Teachers need to remember however, that students who are at an early level of language proficiency may not have a weak level of academic skills and or little understanding of the content.

When teachers plan for differentiated instruction, they need to keep in mind the three principles which are; meaningful task, flexible grouping and ongoing assessment and adjustment. Considering students interests helps to ensure that tasks are meaningful. Knowing your students, proficiency levels in English, background knowledge related to the lesson, and reading levels or their readiness, as well as their interest and learning styles help to determine appropriate grouping configurations. Also on going assessment is what provides the information for planning and helps the teacher know how to adjust the lessons accordingly.

Differentiating instruction allows the teacher to build in different scaffolds for different groups of students, using what they know about their students and what the teacher wants the students to know. Here are some guiding questions for the teacher according to (Rutherford 2002). How abstract are the ideas? Does the teacher need to make the ideas more concrete for the students? Does the teacher need to use realia, pictures, and graphs to help make the content comprehensible? What are the connections to the students' background knowledge? What materials and resources can the teacher provide? Are there graphic organizers that help to build schema? Are there specific metacognitive learning strategies such as organizational planning or cognitive learning strategies such as summarizing chunks of text that will help the English language learners break the task into smaller parts? What is the level of independence? Does the teacher need to provide language structures to facilitate English language learners? What is the pacing? Do the students need more time to complete the assignment?


According to Tomlinson and Strickland (2005), teachers usually differentiate instruction by adjusting one or more of the following; the content, what students learn; the process, how students learn; or the product, how students demonstrate their mastery of the knowledge or skills. However there is no one size fits all model for differentiated instruction. It looks different depending on the prior knowledge; interests and abilities students bring to the learning situation. Tomlinson describes teachers who differentiate as those who strive to do whatever it takes ensure that struggling and advanced learners, students with varied cultural heritages, language proficiencies, and children with different background experiences all grow as much as they possibly can each day, each week, and throughout the year.