How Can Instruction be Differentiated for Diverse Learners?

In my past life as a children’s librarian in a public library, my duties included providing educational, engaging programming on a regular basis for kids ages 5-8.  At first, this seemed fairly easy since there existed a template from previous librarians:  find a nonfiction topic, read a picture about it, ask reading comprehension questions and discuss said topic, then do a craft or activity.  After a year or two of creative stagnation and declining program numbers, I knew an overhaul was in order. The program seemed too much like a classroom setting to me, and I didn’t want that for kids who just spent all day in a classroom.  Plus, it was clear that some activities/topics/books were either too challenging for the younger kids, or too easy or of no interest to the older kids.   I took a cue from my much more successful early literacy programs, which offered several activity “stations” that tied into one skill (e.g., phonological awareness), but used a variety of means to reinforce the skill (matching rhyming words, singing songs into a “hear myself” phone, acting out nursery rhymes with finger puppets, etc.).  I started planning my elementary-aged programs in the similar manner, and made my introduction to the topic more flexible — sometimes we would read a story, other times watch a video, or listen to audio selections.  After making these changes, I witnessed kids becoming more engaged, sharing more of their own prior knowledge of the topics, and having more fun.  Little did I know that I was employing elements of differentiated instruction (DI).  I also had no idea that my quest to create less of a school-like atmosphere would one day resemble the goals I would have in running an actual classroom.  

What is differentiated instruction and why is it essential in an elementary general education classroom?   In the process of DI, educators modify their teaching methods and assessments to meet the learning needs of diverse students (Barrett, 2013).  DI is an essential practice in a general education classroom because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE), meaning that they should be learning alongside students without disabilities to the greatest extent possible and appropriate for the nature and severity of their disability (Heward, 2013).  This means that most general education classrooms will include at least one student with disabilities, and that the teacher will need to differentiate instruction for the student(s) with disabilities; however, DI can also be used to increase learning and engagement for all students, since all learners have diverse interests, preferences, and strengths.  

Activity stations like those mentioned above are great way to get students engaged while supporting different intellectual strengths in a general education classroom, but an effective DI classroom is much more complex. Here some essential characteristics of a DI classroom and examples of how each can be achieved.

One of the key features of DI is flexibility:

  • Accommodate students with special needs by giving them more time, more guidance, alternate assignments, etc.
  • offer flexible seating options, including floor seating and desk clusters that allow various activities to happen at once.
  • Provide options for researching information.
  • Allow students to choose from a menu of options for in-class and homework assignments.
  • Provide space/time for both quiet work and collaborative work.
  • Allow students to use a variety of methods to comprehend material

Another essential aspect of DI is knowing your students.  This includes their interests, learning preferences, knowledge set, and skill levels:

  • Survey the students on interests, read their files, survey parents on their children.
  • Have the students fill out a KWL chart, survey the class for comprehension during and after the lesson on a regular basis.
  • Monitor activities in small groups, then assign further work based on an informal assessment of their knowledge.

Employing various methods of instruction to engage students and increase their understanding of the lesson is on of the most important characteristics of DI:

  • Use videos and visuals (charts, photos, realia, etc.) to present the same information in multiple ways in order to reach more students.
  • Introduce technology into lessons so that students can show their knowledge by creating original content to communicate their comprehension.

This is not an exhaustive list, and many of these methods and more can be found in this article by Grace Rubenstein and this article by Carol Ann Tomlinson.  

These practices seem effective, but how practical is it to teach using DI on a daily basis?  In the following video, first grade teacher Vanita Jarmon demonstrates how she employs daily differentiated instruction in her classroom:


As inclusion becomes the norm in public education, differentiated instruction is a necessary practice to make an inclusive classroom the best possible learning environment for students with and without disabilities.  As a future educator, I’m excited at the prospect of creating an effective, engaging classroom tailored to the needs of all my students.   How do you/will you create an inclusive learning environment for your diverse students?  How does secondary DI look compared to elementary?  How would you foster a collaborative culture of DI with other educators in your school or district?


Barrett, L. (2013). Seamless teaching: Navigating the inclusion spectrum. Teaching Tolerance, 52(43), 53-55.


Heward, W. (2013, July 19). Six Major Principles of IDEA. Retrieved February 08, 2017, from