Differentiating Instruction

By Peggy A. Hammeken

The Teacher's Guide to Inclusive Education
Cover image courtesy of Peggy A. Hammeken

Differentiating Instruction

[Excerpted from A Teacher's Guide to Inclusive Education: 750 Strategies for Success by Peggy A. Hammeken. Published by Corwin Press. Copyright 2007 Corwin Press. Used with permission.]

The design and development of differentiated instruction as a teaching model began in the general education classroom. The initial application came into practice for students who were gifted and not sufficiently challenged by the content provided in the general classroom setting.

As classrooms have become more diverse and inclusive education programs were implemented, differentiated instruction has been applied at all levels for students of all abilities.

So what is differentiating instruction? A simplified definition for differentiating instruction is: the process of teachers proactively planning to teach students at their current levels of ability, rather than taking a standardized approach to teaching, which has the underlying presumption that all students in the classroom are at the same level. With differentiated instruction, classroom teachers plan what the students will need to learn, how they will learn it and how they will demonstrate what they have learned. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is and assisting in the learning process. One of the most popular terms when referring to differentiating instruction is that "one size does not fit all."

The rationale for differentiated instruction comes from theory, research and common sense. Today's classrooms are more diverse than they have ever been throughout the history of this country. There are students with special needs, students who have come from other countries and only speak a little English, average students, gifted students and students considered at risk for various reasons.

All of these students come to school with various backgrounds, abilities and educational readiness for learning and, of course, have different styles of learning.

It's common sense that with the diverse students in today's classrooms, it is next to impossible to teach all students in one way. There are just too many different levels of performance and needs. With differentiated instruction, classroom teachers are encouraged to identify the essential concepts and instructional components for every curriculum unit. During the teaching process, today's teacher continually assesses and reassesses students before, during and following instruction, which allows the teacher to continually group and regroup students. When using differentiated strategies, the students are actively engaged in the learning process and students are offered choices in their learning, as often the activities are based on learning styles, Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive, affective and psychomotor educational objectives and other models that encourage teachers to teach in the way the student learns best.

Differentiating instruction is a wonderful tool for special students. Instead of consistently being placed into one specific group, students with special needs consistently move throughout the various groups, depending upon their strengths.

The following chart shows the three main components of differentiating instruction: the content, the process, and the evaluation. Depending upon a student's strengths, the student may fall into any one of the three categories. For example, a student may excel in history, as it is an area of great interest to the student. The student may have acquired a wealth of information and background knowledge. Perhaps the student has spent large amounts of time watching programs such as the history channel, has vacationed in historical places and perhaps spends a great deal of time researching history in his spare time.

This student may pass a history pretest with flying colors. This student has become an expert on the subject. In the area of content, the student easily falls into the gifted area. On the other hand, a student with cognitive disabilities conceivably will be in the challenges area, as the student takes longer to master the subject, needs lots of reinforcement and may need modifications to meet the minimum content requirements. The student with cognitive delays may not even understand the concept of history, as it is a very abstract concept, and this student is continually working in the "here and now" to master what needs to be learned to live independently. History simply is not a subject this student may need. The student may work on parallel subjects, or the purpose of participation in the group may be to work on the student's social skills. The majority of students with learning disabilities will fall into the average range. Students with learning disabilities usually have average to above average intelligence, so the majority of students will be able to master the unit content but may need some accommodations such as material on tape, a person to help with the writing components, etc. Remember, the accommodations do not change the outcome; accommodations only offer the students alternative ways to reach the outcome.

The following chart indicates the three different levels related to the content area. In the differentiated classroom, the majority of special education students will easily fit into one of these categories, and if not, it will be documented in the student's IEP and modifications will be implemented.

General Topic: Civil War



  • Student is expected to meet three main objectives of the lesson.
  • Students may need many modifications to understand the topic, have low ability or be lacking in the area of language and vocabulary.


  • Student is expected to master all of the objectives.
  • Students are expected to perform at grade level.


  • Student is expected to go above and beyond the objectives for the class.
  • Students are gifted, excel in specific areas and/or have a strong knowledge base.

The next step for the teacher is to determine how the unit will be taught. Since students all learn differently, students with special needs will be scattered throughout the three areas. Some students will need additional instruction, others will be able to do the work independently and still others will excel. Accommodations can be implemented in all areas. Students who need modifications (change of outcome) will usually fall into the challenged range.



  • Student needs direct instruction in each step of the process.
  • Student needs review, practice and reteaching.


  • Student can learn from modeling.
  • Student can do independent work
  • Student needs review and practice.


  • Student learns with minimal instruction.
  • Student conducts independent study.
  • Student learns and grasps basic concepts quickly; may pass pretest.

The final stage on this chart is evaluation. Once again, students will fall within all three categories. In this area of evaluation or assessment, a student may need modifications to meet the evaluation standards (for example, an adult may write the final project for the student), but the outcome is the same.



  • Student provides a group project for evaluation.


  • Student is expected to complete a three-page, individual final project.


  • Student will create a class presentation with models, graphs and discussion points.

Some additional benefits of differentiated instruction for students with special needs is that flexible grouping is consistently used. Strategies for flexible grouping are an essential component of differentiated instruction. Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content.

Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content areas followed by small group or pair work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to complete assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. Based on the content, project and on-going evaluations, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process as one of the foundations of differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction takes the instruction one step further. Often lesson plans are divided into various activities. These activities are often based on Gardner's Multiple Intelligences or Bloom's Taxonomy. By incorporating strategies to address different types of intelligence, students with special needs often have more opportunities to participate.

[Excerpted from A Teacher's Guide to Inclusive Education: 750 Strategies for Success by Peggy A. Hammeken. Published by Corwin Press. Copyright 2007 Corwin Press. Used with permission.]

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