Differentiated Instruction: We Can No Longer Just Aim Down the Middle

By Dr. Suzanne Irujo, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer

During all the years I was teaching a third- and fourth-grade bilingual class, I had a Peanuts cartoon stuck on the reminder board behind my desk. In it, Charlie Brown is talking with Lucy, and he says, “My teacher thinks that teaching is just like bowling; you aim down the middle and try to hit as many as you can.” Lucy replies, “She must not be a very good bowler.”

American educators give lip service to the idea of meeting all students where they are and teaching them in ways that will best enable them to learn, but the majority of teachers still teach in much the same way that Charlie Brown’s teacher did-by aiming down the middle. As Carol Ann Tomlinson, Associate Professor of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Policy at the University of Virginia and author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, has said about the way most teachers teach, “We all do the same stuff; we all do it in the same way. It takes the same length of time. A teacher is fair if he or she treats everybody exactly alike.”[1]

What Differentiated Instruction Is

The results are boredom for some students and failure for others. In this age of accountability and standards-based instruction, however, failure is no longer an option. One way to eliminate the boredom and prevent the failure is to use differentiated instruction, in which teachers present different learning experiences for different students. Differentiated instruction developed as a way to meet the needs of gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with different sociocultural backgrounds. The term is also being used more and more to designate the various instructional strategies that are used with English language learners (ELLs) to make teaching comprehensible and learning more successful.

Few teachers would argue with the fact that students come to school with widely varying backgrounds, interests, abilities, learning styles, and, for ELLs, proficiency in the language of instruction. Most would also agree that these differences must be taken into account for successful learning to occur. Why, then, is there such a big gap between the rationale for differentiating instruction according to the needs of individual students and classroom practice?

How To Do It

One answer to this question is that, although the theory behind differentiating instruction is quite simple, in practice it is not easy to do. For example, the educational portal Teachnology has a Web page entitled “How to Differentiate Instruction,” [2] which lists these four apparently simple steps:

Step 1 – Know Your Students
Step 2 – Have a Repertoire of Teaching Strategies
Step 3 – Identify a Variety of Instructional Activities
Step 4 – Identify Ways to Assess or Evaluate Student Progress

This is not as easy as it might seem. Let’s look at each step, particularly as it applies to ELLs.

Step 1 – Know Your Students:

Three areas are listed to help teachers know their students: determining their ability levels, surveying their interests, and deciding if behavior management is a problem. I would add a lot more: knowing your students’ previous educational history (in both first- and second-language environments), understanding how their cultural backgrounds can influence learning, assessing their preferred learning styles and strategies, determining their language proficiency levels and understanding what this means in terms of academic performance, and determining where they are in the process of achieving grade-level state standards (which is not the same thing as their ability levels).

Step 2 – Have a Repertoire of Teaching Strategies:

Four teaching strategies (direct instruction, inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning, and information processing strategies) are described, and teachers are advised to use them all because “one size does not fit all.” Although detailed descriptions of the strategies are found on other pages of the Teachnology Web site, teachers who have not experienced some of these teaching strategies may have difficulty implementing them. Modifications must be made for ELLs to the basic teaching strategies, based on students’ levels of English proficiency. In addition, older ELLs who have had some education in their countries may have experienced only direct instruction and may resist other approaches.

Step 3 – Identify a Variety of Instructional Activities:

By presenting students with activities that fit their profiles, teachers can help students remain on task and complete activities and assignments. This is very true, but it is much easier to identify a variety of instructional activities than it is to implement several of them at one time. The organizational and management difficulties presented by having several groups of students doing different activities at the same time are often too great for some teachers to overcome. Those who have no help from paraprofessionals or other classroom assistants may find this particularly hard. In addition, instructional activities must be scaffolded to provide the support that ELLs need in order to benefit from the instruction.

Step 4 – Identify Ways to Assess or Evaluate Student Progress:

A variety of authentic assessment procedures (including portfolios, rubrics, performance-based assessment, and knowledge mapping) is necessary so students with differing backgrounds and abilities can best demonstrate what they have learned. While many teachers are quite good at assessing students’ performance through observation during learning activities, very few are able to convert these observations into data that can be used to diagnose students’ preferred learning styles and strategies, strengths and weaknesses, and learning needs. And again, in the case of ELLs, further modifications are needed so that assessment is not dependent on language proficiency.

Another difficulty in differentiating instruction for ELLs is the lack of appropriate materials. Differentiated materials are increasingly available for gifted students, physically and mentally challenged students, students with emotional problems, students from different sociocultural backgrounds, and poorly motivated students, but very few are available for ELLs in mainstream classrooms. Adapting materials for students who have not yet acquired complete proficiency in English is a difficult and time-consuming task, one which most teachers have neither the time nor the training to do well. Publishers must help fill this void.

General Principles

I wish I could give teachers who are reading this column specific suggestions for how to go about differentiating instruction in their classrooms. I know that would be much more helpful than the generalizations below. However, specific suggestions can only come from somebody who knows the teacher, the students, the curriculum, the school, and the district. The person who knows these things best is the teacher herself or himself. Nobody else has the knowledge needed to prescribe exactly how to go about differentiating instruction in a particular classroom. But there are some general principles to keep in mind as you go about discovering what works for you:

  1. Differentiated instruction is not the same as individualized instruction. Every student is not learning something different; they are all learning the same thing, but in different ways. And every student does not need to be taught individually; differentiating instruction is a matter of presenting the same task in different ways and at different levels, so that all students can approach it in their own ways.
  2. The basis for differentiation must be your knowledge of the standards that your students must achieve and of where each of them is with respect to those standards. In order to know this, you must have a workable record-keeping system based on observation of students’ performance during learning activities.
  3. If you have classroom management problems, you need to solve those before you can begin to differentiate instruction. Many teachers “aim down the middle” because it’s the only way they can keep control of the class.
  4. Change only works when it is done one small step at a time. Many teachers make the mistake of trying to change too much at one time. Then nothing works because they can’t focus on a large number of new things at the same time, so they give up on trying to change.
  5. Reading about examples of differentiated instruction [3] and talking with other teachers who are doing it can be very helpful. Remember, however, that what works in one context may not work in yours.

With these general principles, determination to succeed, and patience, teachers can find what strategies work the best for them. All it takes is practice. Bowlers who want to learn to hit splits often read up on strategies or consult more proficient bowlers, but it is the practice that enables them to consistently knock down separate pins with one ball. Why, then, do teachers consult experts, read about strategies, try them out a few times without much success, decide that they don’t work, and go back to aiming down the middle? Is bowling more important than teaching?



[1] The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2000). Differentiating Instruction. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/pdi/demo/diffinstr/differentiated1.html

[2] Teachnology, Inc. (2004). How to Differentiate Instruction. Retrieved from http://www.teachnology.com/tutorials/teaching/differentiate/

[3] Examples of differentiated instruction from an elementary school classroom and a high school classroom (non-ELL) can be found at http://www.ascd.org/pdi/demo/diffinstr/l1esex.html



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