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The 5 Ws of Differentiated Instruction

EVERY student can learn just not on the same day or in the same way.

-George Evans

Differentiated instruction is such a buzzword in the educational realm. As educators, we know its importance, but when was the last time we actually dove into what it is and what it looks like in a living, breathing classroom? Well…today is the day!

As many of you know, I love teaching! It is my true passion, and although I could talk about virtually any subject related to teaching, differentiation is by far my favorite. To me, teaching is perhaps the most challenging yet rewarding profession we could have. It requires dedication, analytical skills, and creativity. All three of these are essential to successfully incorporating differentiated instruction into your classroom.

In this blog post, we are going to tackle the 5 Ws of differentiated instruction: Who? What? When? Why? and… How? Okay, so I replaced the Where with How, but as teachers…the how is possibly the most challenging question to answer when it comes to differentiation. Before we get into the logistics of differentiation, let’s first explore the Why…

Why?

The better question is Why not?

Meeting the needs of individual students in our classrooms is simply best practice. We have the daunting task of ensuring that all 30+ students in our classrooms make progress and are ready for the next grade level, college, and ultimately their future careers.

Even though we as educators always have the best intentions and always have our students’ best interests at heart, there are some roadblocks when it comes to differentiating our instruction. First, I would just like to say that differentiation is NOT easy. Trust me, if you are reading this blog and feeling a bit anxious or overwhelmed, you are not alone. It took me years to get to the point where I am comfortable differentiating every subject on any given day. I am here to help, but first, let’s address some common concerns…

Differentiation requires too much prep time.

Differentiated instruction, when done right, requires only as much prep time as you desire. Meaning?… It is completely up to you how you differentiate. As we will discuss later in this blog post, a differentiated lesson does not always mean unique activities for every small group or individual student. You can differentiate your instruction simply by asking different questions to different groups or altering how you deliver instruction. You can also allow for student choice when it comes to assessing the learning targets.

Differentiation eats away at instructional minutes.

Although there is something to be said for rotations, differentiated instruction does not always need to come in the form of learning stations. The rotation model is an option, but often requires a bit more time. In other words, students do not need to rotate from one station to another every time you want to differentiate your instruction. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that you should not meet with every student for an equal amount of time. Some students will need more teacher support, while others will benefit from independent learning time and/or partner work. In sum: spend more time with the students who need you.

Differentiation needs extra money and resources.

Truth be told…does differentiation benefit from said money and resources? YES!!! No school or teacher is ever going to turn down funding; however, you can differentiate on a very tight budget. For example, any given curriculum will include suggestions for English language learners, scaffolding, and enrichment. Classwork and/or homework problems will naturally progress from easy questions to more challenging ones. Rather than have every student answer all 20 questions, for instance, be selective about the questions they do answer. The same is true for your lessons. Rather than do several examples for your entire class, choose 2 or 3 examples that specifically meet the needs of the students you are teaching in a small group. Trust me, once you get into this routine, it will flow seamlessly, and your students will benefit from it.

Differentiation does not address the needs of higher learners.

Sometimes differentiation gets confused with scaffolding. Scaffolding is when we as teachers provide support to help students slowly master a standard. This may be breaking down a math problem into steps or providing more teacher time or perhaps even teaching foundational skills first. Although scaffolding is part of differentiation, it is not the same thing. Differentiation meets the needs of ALL students, including our advanced learners.

Differentiation is only suitable in the primary grade levels.

Upper-grade teachers, this is for you! As I mentioned before, it is not critical to use station rotations. In the upper grades, I would encourage you to move away from this model. It is not that I do not like learning stations, but I know that the lessons we teach in upper grades are often time-consuming. Thus, it is more manageable to use choice boards or task charts. Stay tuned for how I use math task charts to differentiate upper-grade math. I will write a blog post about it next month!

Who?

Differentiation is for ALL students. When grouping students, it is important to use an assessment tool that can be taken again every 6-8 weeks. These groups are flexible, meaning that students will move groups based on their progress. For me, I aim to have 4-5 groups in ELA and math. In the table below, I have listed the groups in order from the ones that need the most support (top) to the ones that need more enrichment (bottom). My groups are as follows:

GroupDescription
Red (ELA) and Square (Math)This group is for students who are considered at-risk. They are significantly below grade level and often need lessons in foundational skills. As a teacher, provide intervention and scaffolding during this group’s lessons.
Orange (ELA) and Triangle (Math)This group is slightly below grade level. They are able to access grade-level content with scaffolding and support. I recommend checking-in with this group and giving more examples during your lessons.
Purple (ELA) and Trapezoid (Math)This group is able to access grade-level material but sometimes benefits from seeing a lesson more than once. I suggest including a brief review of the previous lesson as their warm-ups. Provide scaffolding as needed. This group may especially benefit from partner work.
Green (ELA) and Diamond (Math)This group is at grade-level. They are able to master grade-level standards with minimal scaffolds. I have found that many curriculums are written with this group in mind. For more challenging lessons, I recommend allowing this group to do partner work for a little extra support.
Blue (ELA) and Circle (Math)This group is made up of the advanced or gifted learners. They often learn new skills very quickly. They do not need many examples to master a new standard. Their lessons should be quick and to the point, so they can spend more time on enrichment activities and/or projects. I recommend incorporating a “flipped classroom”. Students can learn independently (online programs or videos) and go to you for a quick check-in. Be on the lookout for a future post about how to incorporate the “flipped classroom” model in your own classroom!

Please keep in mind that students will be in different groups for ELA and math. For example, a struggling reader may be very successful in math and vice-versa. This is especially true for students with learning disabilities and language learners. A student may also have different levels within various math domains. For example, a student may struggle with fractions but has a solid understanding of geometry. For math, I recommend giving a pre-assessment before each domain.

What?

Ahhh…a seemingly easy question: What is differentiated instruction? I like to look at this often used yet misunderstood term as such:

A teacher can provide differentiated instruction by…

  • Varying WHAT is taught
  • Varying WHEN or how quickly a skill is taught
  • Varying HOW students are taught it

Simply put…differentiated instruction is changing your instruction to meet individual student needs.

You have control over WHAT is taught. Although we do have to teach our grade-level standards, you can control what standards to expand/combine/eliminate (if too easy). Perhaps in one group you review foundational skills on day 1 and then take 2 days to teach one standard. While with a different group, you combine two standards to teach in one day and provide an enrichment activity for the other two days.

You also have control over WHEN something is taught. You can teach the same lesson to 4 groups of students but change the length of each group’s lesson. OR You can teach your advanced learners every other day, combining lessons as needed. Repeat after me: you do not need to teach every student for the same amount of time every day. It is your choice. This concept may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will make all the difference.

Last, you can decide HOW something is taught. For one group, perhaps you use manipulatives, and for a different group, maybe you draw models. Perhaps some students learn best in partners or small groups, while others benefit from quiet, independent learning. You can also use different online tools for each group. My point is that you can quickly cater to the individual needs of your students simply by changing the delivery format. TIP: You may also want to differentiate your assessments. Perhaps allow for some student choice. This could be an entirely separate blog post, so I will save that for another day.

When?

Differentiated instruction can take place in every single part of the day. What?! Yes, every part!!! If you are just dipping your toes into the waters of differentiation, perhaps trying one subject at a time. I recommend starting with math. Teach math in small groups. You may even want to consider splitting the class in half. Teach the students who are below grade level first while the more advanced learners watch a video online (flipped classroom model). I recommend teaching the first group for 75% of your math block. Then, do a quick check-in with your advanced learners. I will write about this model in great detail in an upcoming blog post.

After feeling confident with math, differentiate ELA. This may come in the form of Reading Workshop or even reading groups. For me, I highly recommend incorporating Reading Workshop into your classroom. It is very engaging and is meant for differentiated instruction. If you are new to Reading Workshop, read this post to learn how to get started in 5 easy steps.

Last, add in some time specifically for targeted intervention. This is when you meet with students to teach foundational skills. If students need a specific skill to master an upcoming lesson, meet with those students a few days before the lesson during your intervention time. Over time, it will make all the difference in the world. In my classroom, we dedicate an hour of intervention time. I meet with my at-risk readers for the first 30 minutes, and then teach a writing lesson to the students who are near grade-level. I sometimes use this time to meet with language learners. Meanwhile, the other students are working on either grade-level standards or ongoing enrichment activities. I will go into detail about this block of time in a future blog post.

How?

Now, the big question…How can we differentiate? I would like to sum up what we have covered over the course of this post.

Differentiate your instruction in 5 easy steps…

  1. Assess your students in BOTH ELA and math.
  2. Review the data and separate your students into 4 or 5 groups in ELA and 4 or 5 groups in math.
  3. Start with math. Split the class in half, teaching the groups with students who need more support first. Differentiate by offering longer lessons with more scaffolding to the kids who need it. Use the “flipped classroom” method with your grade-level and advanced learners.
  4. Incorporate Reading Workshop into your classroom. This is an easy way to differentiate. I’ll teach you!
  5. Add in a block of time specifically for intervention.

Now that we have really examined what differentiated instruction looks like in the classroom, we are ready to dive-in head first! In my next blog post, we will specifically look into differentiating your literacy centers. Although I will focus on primary grades, I will also give some ideas for upper-grade teachers. The following post will focus on math blocks, specifically what small-group learning looks like in my upper-grade classroom. Since I have taught both upper-grades and primary grades, I hope to share ideas for all elementary school teachers. I can’t wait to continue this journey with you. Until next time…


Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Started

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s Guide – will post on January 21Learn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
Upper-Grade Math: To Rotate or Not To Rotate? – will post on February 4Learn how to differentiate your math instruction by incorporating task charts.

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

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