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July 2, 2018

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Written By: Kristyn Corace
Differentiated Instruction

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) a respected, membership-based nonprofit organization founded in 1943 defiines differentiated instruction on their website as: “an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so that all students can best learn.” (2018)

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is an method of teaching, it is not a program, it is not grouping students according to their ability, it is not only done in special education classrooms and it is not limited to reading instruction.  It is really so much more!

Take a Trip in the Wayback Machine

Let’s take a step into the Wayback Machine to my 1st grade class, oh my gosh, 40 years ago!  Ms. O’Leary was differentiating our instruction before she knew what that was called.  Every student in my 1st grade class had a different spelling list after the first month of school!  I could not learn to spell “pretty” for the life of me.  But – I did by the end of the year!

Differentiated Instruction

My son’s 3rd grade teacher was amazing.  Each student had a D.E.A.R. packet in their desks.  Drop Everything And Read originated from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby book series.  It encourages silent reading for a period of time and has evolved into the current “independent reading” programs in middle school.  That 3rd grade teacher throughout the year, changed the books in the student’s packets according the interests or presentation for each student.  One boy would get comic books in his packet, a girl once received a cookbook to read, while my son always had something about animals and science. She identified what the students interests were and adjusted the materials accordingly!

Microsoft Word

One day, my son came home from school and said, “Mom do you know what Microsoft Word is?”  I quietly giggled and said, “yes, but you explain it to me.”  He went on to tell me that after he finished his writing in class today, his teacher had him sit at her desk and type his writing.  She further showed him how to fix the “red squiggly lines” that showed his spelling mistakes.  This is the true essence of differentiated instruction.  While she could have told the boy in class who finished early to just “sit quietly” but instead she extended and enhanced his knowledge!


It’s not only about levels of instruction.  In my classroom, I assign students “ways” of completing their work.  For example, one student may use sign language to answer reading comprehension questions while another types them on a keyboard and yet another goes to a quiet place in the room and talks about her answers while a paraprofessional scribes what she says.  These students are all using the same book, but yet their academic production is quite varied.

Differentiated Instruction


The Teaching Profession Has Evolved

Special education teachers have the middle name of “Differentiation” and now, so do many general education teachers as well.  I am proud to say that because of in-class support teachers, a lot of professional development and teacher collaboration, our profession has evolved.  The stoic picture of all students sitting in rows, forced to the learn the same way is not the norm anymore.

Flexible Seating

Another example of differentiation that has nothing to do with academic levels is flexible seating!  In her book, Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in your Head, education consultant Carla Hannaford suggests that 13 studies show that when students move around in a classroom, they are more engaged and can better “anchor new information and experience into neural networks.”

Differentiated Instruction

This kinesthetic approach focuses on the physical needs of the student.  We all know the student who fidgets, gets out of his seat, rocks in her chair and more.  With flexible seating, that students sensory needs are met without a behavioral outburst or lunch detention!  Here are some added benefits of flexible seating:  sensory input, comfort, collaboration, increased motivation, improved behavior, connecting with your teacher and what about some FUN!

Differentiation is not easy, it takes a whole lot of work, planning and sometimes even resources.  But the best, most effective teachers do this all of the time in their classrooms.  These teachers are not stagnant.  Visit their classrooms over time and they will NOT look the same.  Master teachers evolve with their students providing what each group needs, not necessarily what the school district gives them.  Teachers are usually way ahead of the curve and have invented something new before someone has given it a name.  Differentiation – constantly changing for the needs of the student!

How do you differentiate instruction in your classroom?

Kristyn Corace has been teaching students with special needs for 23 years at Thorne Middle School, a public middle school in Middletown, New Jersey.  Her class is called a Multiple Disabilities class and she has students with Down syndrome, autism, communication disabilities, general cognitive impairments, physical disabilities and more.  The focus of her class is independence!  Kristyn and her staff of paraprofessionals work daily to help her students learn valuable life skills, make personal choices and communicate verbally, with Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC) and sign language.  It is important for Kristyn to teach her students in the community as well.  The students practice their skills in the real-world every month on Community Based Instruction (CBI) trips! You can follow Kristyn on Twitter: @MrsCorace.

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