Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom

Differentiated Instruction

How would classrooms look different if teachers could give each student the individualized support they needed to master any topic, skill, or strategy they encountered? While that might not be a reality due to time, planning, and content restraints, there is a way to get close and help every student get the most out of their learning: Differentiated instruction.

Challenges of implementing differentiated instruction

In a perfect world, students’ assessment results should make differentiation easier for educators. Common assessments allow for consistent administration and standardized results analysis. Formative assessments let educators pulse check students’ understanding and skills more frequently to pivot instruction and intervene with differentiated instruction where necessary.

But even in that perfect world, making differentiated instruction work in every classroom wouldn’t be without challenges. Some factors that can impact its success include large classes with students of differing readiness levels, minimal differentiation training courses for teachers, and extensive planning time.

Educators can overcome these obstacles by adding differentiation to their everyday routines and consistently adjusting which practices work best for their classrooms. Some other techniques to try include:

  1. Using timely assessment data to create readiness-based student groups.

  2. Asking administrators to host differentiated instruction professional development courses to ensure differentiation practices align with learning sciences.

  3. Setting realistic goals or expectations for differentiated instruction, such as incorporating differentiation into lesson planning one assignment at a time.

  4. Finding tools that support teachers in differentiating instruction in their classrooms.

Why does differentiated instruction work?

Despite any challenges that could happen when using differentiated instruction, the reality for teachers is always the same: help their students build skills so that they master standards, no matter their reading abilities or readiness levels. Differentiation is key to reaching this goal because it allows educators to determine which skills students are lacking that prevent them from meeting standards and provide tailored instruction to get them to mastery. This method benefits students of all intellectual and physical ability levels. Positive effects of using differentiated instruction include:

  • Providing flexibility to give students more options for how they can encounter material.

  • Helping students of all abilities learn faster, yield more effective results, and achieve growth.

  • Supporting English learners (ELs) to help them understand content and concepts while learning a new language.

  • Supporting students with disabilities by considering how they can work and learn within a greater classroom environment.

  • Creating more engaged and focused student learning environments, which leads to fewer disruptions, distractions, or discipline problems in the classroom.

Differentiation and accessibility

While differentiation is a way to make accommodations for high achievers and striving learners, there is another key piece of the puzzle that should be named explicitly: accessibility. Accessibility in the classroom looks like students with and without disabilities learning the same information, interacting and engaging with the same resources, and enjoying the same services without roadblocks

Accessibility should always be a consideration when striving for differentiation. When you’re accounting for differentiation in content, process, product, and learning environment, you can also consider how to make these areas more accessible. For example, offering texts in other languages for ELs, or making screen readers or other technology-assistive devices available in the classroom are both differentiation and accessibility accommodations.

Leveling texts to differentiate instruction

In classrooms where students have varying reading levels and learning needs, leveling texts to differentiate learning, especially to build background knowledge, can be a game changer for teachers. Reading appropriately complex texts lets students access grade-level curriculum and make progress in reading. According to educator and thought leader Timothy Shanahan, teachers can provide students with texts at various levels to help them meet a specific learning goal, like growing literacy skills or building background knowledge.

If teachers want students to grow their literacy skills and comprehension strategies, reading complex texts at or above grade level in teacher-guided reading instruction and small peer groups can help. If teachers want students to build background knowledge on a topic or read independently with fluency and accuracy, reading less complex texts at a reading level that’s just right for them could be a helpful option.

When teachers can assign leveled versions of the same text in class, it allows all students, regardless of reading ability, to participate in the same discussions and share ideas. Plus, it removes the potential stigma students could receive from their peers about reading a different text that’s more or less advanced than the rest of the class.

Learn more about student reading levels

Differentiated classrooms with Newsela

If you’re looking for tools to help make differentiation easier across subject areas and assessments, Newsela has just what you need. 

With our product suite, you can support and grow every learner with powerful differentiation and scaffolding tools. Pair them with engaging content that teachers can use for effective whole-class, small-group, or individual instruction, and you’re that much closer to creating a differentiated, accessible classroom:

Differentiation in daily instruction and assessment

With Newsela products, you can differentiate daily lessons by content, process, project, and learning environment thanks to helpful scaffolds like:

  • Leveling: Differentiate instruction with texts at five reading levels and teacher controls to set the level for students. Lock the level to give students practice with grade-level or appropriately challenging texts, or choose the Newsela recommended level for independent reading.

  • Spanish content: Provide content at five levels to Spanish-speaking English language learners (ELLs), Spanish language learners, and bilingual education classrooms.

  • Paragraph counts: Help students follow along with paragraph counts alongside the article as they read or scaffold comprehension and other literacy skills in chunks.

  • Read aloud mode: Listen to any Newsela article at all reading levels.

  • Power Words: Practice in-context vocabulary with student-friendly definitions. (Newsela ELA only)

  • AI-powered supports: Surface before-reading activities, Tier 3 vocabulary, key takeaways, and more on every article.

  • Annotations: Highlight ideas, ask questions, provide context for students, and create different annotations for each level of an assigned text.

  • Question type variety: Give learners a variety of ways to show what they know

  • Real-time feedback: Give both personalized and automatic feedback to guide students to growth

  • Question hints: Scaffold challenging questions with hints and in-the-moment guidance

How school districts leverage Newsela’s differentiation features

How JS Morton empowered teachers with authentic common assessments and real-time results

JS Morton High School District 201 in Illinois needed a flexible, engaging formative assessment platform to meet the needs of its large population of current and former English learners. The district leveraged Formative’s 20+ activity types to give students more ways to show their knowledge.

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How Benjamin Banneker Academy drove reading comprehension through literacy skills practice

Benjamin Banneker Academy in New Jersey wanted a better way to differentiate instruction for K-8 students while practicing literacy skills. Teachers used results from the bi-weekly student quizzes on Newsela ELA to share insights across classrooms and provide real-time support, which led to typical-to-high reading growth from students who participated.

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Differentiated Instruction 101

Need a refresher on some of the key topics surrounding differentiated instruction? Browse the questions below to get the answers you need:

Learn more about how Newsela’s product power differentiation in daily instruction and assessment.

Newsela ELA

Put knowledge and relevant, real-world content at the center of skills practice to make literacy outcomes a reality for every learner.

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Newsela Social Studies

Easy access to all the course-aligned sources, diverse perspectives, and activities you need for engaging lessons to prepare the next generation of citizens.

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Newsela Science

Use authentic, accessible content and activities that get students reading, writing, and thinking like scientists.

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Formative by Newsela

Power a range of instruction and assessment needs for everything from in-class checks for understanding to district-level assessments.

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