Every teacher knows that kids are not alike. They arrive at various levels of readiness, with a range of learning styles and interests. You may have one first grader who reads Harry Potter and another who can't recognize the letters in his own name, or a seventh grader who excels in science but won't pick up a novel to save her life. One thing you don't have is hours and hours to work with every child individually. So what do you do?

Over the past decade, many of us have embraced differentiation as one way of reaching 25 different kids with 25 different sets of abilities and challenges. Indeed, differentiation has gained momentum as schools shift away from sorting kids into specialized classes by levels. Now there is a wider range of kids in one classroom, including more students with disabilities. At the same time, there is a push to prepare all kids for some post-secondary education.

Yet, some teachers struggle to find the time and support to make differentiation truly work. "We are asking teachers to change-not just tinker around the edges-how they think about teaching," says Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of education at the University of Virginia and author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.

That's a tall order, and if you're like many teachers, you may feel in the dark about what differentiation truly means over the course of an instructional day, week, month, or year. Or you may simply be ready for some new techniques to try in your classroom. Below, our experts explain everything you really need to know about making differentiation work for you and your students.

What Differentiation Means

The short answer is: a lot of things. Unlike some other instructional strategies, the way you approach differentiation may differ from year to year, unit to unit, child to child, and lesson to lesson. True differentiation involves constantly assessing students and tailoring instruction accordingly. You engage students with different learning modalities and varied rates of instruction and complexity. It's a student-centered classroom, in which you respond to where kids are and provide choices and flexibility.

All of that sounds good on paper, but what does it mean in your real world of 25 hands waving for your attention? It can be more manageable when you look at the big picture of your curriculum and ways to make it appealing over time. "Rather than just a lecture, it's about mixing things up and delivering instruction in a different way," says Judith Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom.

One thing you don't have to do is prepare 25 different lessons every day. Instead, Dodge suggests thinking about lessons that appeal to one kind of learner one day and another the next. It can relieve the pressure if you look at a span of about two weeks to see if the needs of all learners were addressed over time.

Ideally, you can integrate instruction around a large topic, such as the solar system, adds Mary Rose, a retired fourth-grade teacher in Maitland, Florida. Kids can calculate temperatures of planets with math problems and read books and develop vocabulary by reading narratives. To address everyone's learning styles in a unit, Rose may include movies, books, hands-on experiments, field trips, and art projects. "Some kids will excel in one area, and others will in another," says Rose.

Ways to Differentiate

Within a topic of study, there are several ways to approach differentiation.

  • By Readiness: Who is ready to move on to two-digit subtraction, while others practice single-digit problems? When you differentiate by readiness, students work on the skills for which they are developmentally prepared.
  • By Interest: What passions can kids use as a lens to learn about other skills and information? You might differentiate by interest when teaching a topic like persuasive writing-a baseball fan can explain why her home team is tops, while a dinosaur enthusiast makes the case for feathers instead of scales.
  • By Process: Amy may need flash cards for multiplication to "click," while Tom may need to play times-table hopscotch. Differentiating by process involves taking learning styles, readiness, and interest into consideration.
  • By Product: What is the best way for students to demonstrate mastery of a given skill? Not everyone has to do the same thing. A musical learner might perform Civil War songs, for example, while an environmental learner presents on the war's impact on farming.


Making It Work

If you're new to differentiated instruction, start small with a few low-prep differentiation strategies, says Tomlinson. Perhaps integrate one differentiated lesson per unit. Or begin by taking notes on your students every day and jot down what works and what doesn't for each.

Think big picture about what you really want your students to understand. Consult with professional teaching organizations about core skills. Differentiation is more than different activities. It should be based on the essential knowledge that kids need. Tomlinson suggests, with each strategy, to consider: Differentiate what? Differentiate how? Differentiate why?

Develop a support system as you form a differentiated classroom. Work with colleagues in professional learning communities to share best practices. Communicate the approach to parents. Talk to students early. Getting to know kids as individuals through one-on-one conferences is the backbone of differentiating reading, maintains Laura Robb, author of Differentiating Reading Instruction. Understanding kids' interests will help build trust-which is essential to effective teaching.

When approaching a new unit, don't be concerned about every child reading the same book. Instead, find a variety of books for students to choose from that fit their level. For instance, if the goal is to expose kids to racial issues in the South, rather than having every student read To Kill a Mockingbird, find other books that cover the main idea and have kids share and compare.

"When you give children materials they can read, it's like the world opens up and behavior improves," says Robb. "I've taught for 43 years and I've never met a child who doesn't want to learn."

Tips From the Experts

From Judith Dodge

Hand Out Dry-Erase Boards
As students raise their boards in class to offer responses to a problem or question, you get on-the-spot information about who is getting it and who isn't.

Try Carousel Brainstorming
Post charts around the room and have students write ideas, details, or illustrations of a particular concept. Start with having small groups brainstorm together on a topic or question, and then "carousel" around the room to write on the subtopic charts.

Make Exit Cards
Ask students to write on index cards a response to a question related to the lesson on their way out of class. The cards need not be graded, but can be sorted to identify who needs more help in what areas.

From Laura Robb

Read Aloud
Reading a book aloud can set a common text for the class and set the stage for differentiation. It can build background knowledge and convey to students your passion for reading. You can also stop and model reading strategies along the way. The read-aloud book is the whole-group instruction-but not the one book assigned to every student-after which kids can read texts at their own instructional level.

Have a Graffiti Wall
Allow kids to write on a poster on one wall their opinions about books they've read. They will come to respect different opinions and to realize not everyone has their value system.

From Carol Ann Tomlinson

Set Up Stations
Have spots in the classroom where students work on various tasks simultaneously. It invites flexible grouping because not all students need to go to the same stations or spend the same amount of time at each one. Some days, the teacher decides who goes to what stations; on other days, it's the student's choice.

Use Agendas
Make individual lists of tasks for students that they must complete during a certain time. Students have the freedom to complete the tasks in the order they prefer. During agenda time, monitor progress, and form small groups based on need for guided work.