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NYC Helpline: How To: Adjust Your Teaching Styles to Students' Learning Styles
How to Home
Adjust Your Teaching Styles to Students' Learning Styles
How To Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Meeting the Needs of Every Student with Differentiated Instruction
Theresa London Cooper

Recommended Books:
Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3-12 by Diane Heacox

How To Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd Edition by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Each time you provide a student with extra help, more time, or a modified assignment, you’re differentiating instruction. All good teachers, whether they realize it or not, differentiate to some degree. -- Diane Heacox

Last month’s article focused on the importance of assessment giving particular attention to “kid watching” as a type of informal assessment that can yield a great deal of information about the learner’s strengths, areas of need, interests, readiness levels and much more. As teachers we sometimes wonder, once we have collected and analyzed the information, how do we address the various needs of our students?

The answer to this question is a challenge to many competent and caring teachers. Differentiated instruction is one effective way to address the needs of our students. Based on what I have seen over the years when visiting classrooms, it is my guess that in some form, teachers are differentiating instruction without attaching the label to the method. According to Dr. Heacox (2002) all good teachers have already implemented differentiated instruction in one way or another. It is my hope that this article will provide a clearer understanding of the process of differentiating instruction so that as teachers, we may become more deliberate and thoughtful about how we meet the needs of the various kinds of learners in our classrooms.

I like the way Tomlinson (2001) describes differentiated instruction: at its most basic level differentiated instruction means “shaking up” what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information (content), making sense of ideas (process), and expressing what they learn (product). As I visit classrooms, I see how the Balanced Literacy Approach lends itself to this type of teaching. Teachers provide a variety of grouping options for their students - whole group, triads, quads and pairs, as well as individual. While the students are working, teachers are free to conference with a select number of students to monitor their progress and understanding, which will later inform future assignments. While conferencing, teachers determine the appropriateness of the time given to complete the assignments. Some students may require more time, others less. In the differentiated classroom, flexible time is a key feature in supporting students as they master particular objectives. Well-prepared teachers can give additional assignments to students who may complete their work before the allotted time has expired. Tomlinson calls these assignments “anchor activities.”

Teachers also consider how they may vary the content, process, and product to meet their students’ interest, instructional and independent levels and academic needs. In the differentiated classroom, teachers decide upon the key ideas that all students must possess as a baseline of knowledge. For example, how could a teacher present a unit of study on spiders? In a traditional classroom a teacher might read a story, discuss some facts and have the entire class jot down a list of facts in the form of a paragraph. Now, let us consider how a teacher could broach the topic in a differentiated classroom. S/he might begin with a shared reading to introduce the topic of spiders to her students, thereby familiarizing all of the students with the same content. Students could continue their study using trade books based on their independent reading levels using a leveled library.

Examples of Addressing Learning Styles

Auditory learners: the teacher could prepare tape-assisted readings about spiders. The students would later present an oral report.

Visual learners: Assign books to be read independently and then use the Four Square Writing Method to compose a well-constructed essay on what they have learned.
Four Square Writing Method – A step-by-step approach to writing that uses a graphic organizer to help students compose a coherent and organized piece of writing. It is often used with struggling writers.

Visual and tactile learners: the teacher could provide pictures and small plastic models of spiders. These learners would then be encouraged to use colored pencils and crayons to draw and label the various parts of the spider.

Kinesthetic learners: assign video about spiders and then have the students dramatize what they learned.

There are various ways to help students process information. Imagine their share-out time, which is essential to celebrating and bringing closure to the study of an activity or unit. The aforementioned activities could help students produce lively oral reports, engaging essays, colorful and informative drawings and a dramatization of their study of spiders. How is that for energizing a classroom?

It is important to note that in a differentiated classroom, the teacher is NOT planning for each individual student; this would be impractical in a regular education classroom. But the teacher is considering the various learners in his/her class and their primary mode of learning so that every learner has more opportunities to learn however s/he learns best. If you are looking for a way to energize your classroom, read the recommended books to gather additional information on how you can implement differentiated instruction. Begin small. In fact, if you have a leveled library in your classroom that the students use on a regular basis, you have already begun differentiating instruction. Think about what Tomlinson refers to as low preparation differentiation. Perhaps you might want to give students homework options wherein all students complete particular portions while they also choose one or two other assignments you provide. This is also a great way to find out what your students enjoy and understand and what they find challenging. Remember, assessment is the foundation of an effective differentiated classroom.

Do you have a comment or question about this article?  E-mail Theresa.


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