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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Differentiated Instruction Isn’t Easy. But It’s Not Impossible

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 09, 2024 13 min read
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Today’s post is the second in a series on the hot-button issue of differentiated instruction.


Marie Moreno, Ed.D., is an educator and administrator with over 20 years of experience specializing in newcomer and second-language acquisition. She is passionate about refugee and immigrant education by focusing on social and emotional needs and newcomer programming:

I teach an English as a second language (ESL) course at the university. I often am asked, “Professor, what is the difference between differentiated and scaffold instruction”?

My response is quite simple. Scaffold instruction is temporary. It’s the support given to students who need to understand the material. Take, for example, a graphic organizer or sentence stems. Once students know how to start their sentences, a sentence stem is no longer needed. Differentiated instruction is a bit more complex. It is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to address the needs of the students. Every student has the same learning goal; however, the instruction is varied based on the student’s learning style, strengths, and interests.

Teachers can differentiate their lessons in four distinct ways:

  1. Content differentiation. Teachers provide learning activities based on where the student is academically. An example is leveled text based on a student’s reading lexile.
  2. Practice (or Process) differentiation. Teachers can differentiate the mode of learning for students. For example, a student with dyslexia may have difficulty listening and taking notes simultaneously. A differentiated instruction approach might adjust the process by passing out a copy of the class notes for students to follow and using a cloze-notes approach.
  3. Product differentiation. Students can demonstrate what they know, whether that’s through varying assignments, projects, or exams. For example, students may be given several options to show that they understood a book read in class by writing an essay, drawing, or creating a poem.
  4. Classroom differentiation. It is the physical space and feel of a classroom. Depending on the student or assignment, it may be flexible seating or workstations to allow students to work independently or collaboratively.

Instead of teaching in a whole-group approach, where the students are seated in rows, a teacher can use several different teaching methods—combining small-group instruction and one-on-one instruction. The classroom model, shown below, is an example of a secondary classroom. It is an ELA classroom where the teacher provides differentiated instruction based on a student’s language proficiency. Here’s what it can look like, along with descriptions of the various stations:


  • Teacher station: Where the teacher provides small, one-on-one instruction and provides the guided practice students need to show mastery of the skill (in Texas, they are called TEKS - Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills).
  • Independent station: Where the students work on the independent practice of the lesson cycle. Students work with the teacher at the teacher station—I do, We do. During the independent station, it’s all about the You do.
  • Reading station: Where the students read books for fun (at their lexile level). Students complete a book report, change the story’s ending, or write a summary of the book they read.
  • Computer station: Where the students work on computer software programs mandated by the district. Students complete the assignment, and teachers generate reports from the software.
  • Listening or Writing station: Where the student either listens to a chapter book (collaboratively) or students work on writing strategies. Students can work independently on various writing activities based on interest, style, or strength.

Regardless of how you differentiate in the classroom, it takes time and patience. Teachers cannot cookie-cut differentiated instruction. It is tailored to fit the needs of the students so that learning can be fun. Working in a five-station model can be complex. Start small, perhaps with only two stations, and work yourself up to five. Students enjoy working in workstations because it makes them accountable for the work or products to be completed. Have fun and develop a classroom that encourages students to learn by doing—not by giving them all the information.


‘The Impossible Vows’

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of Literacy Education at Boise State University. He currently is directing a dispositions of democracy project supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. His latest book, Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must Make Moves explores the approach taken by his democracy-building project:

In Buddhism, the first of the “perfections” (or parmitas) is generosity. It is the prerequisite to all the other perfections, including “joyful effort.” I’ve always considered teaching to be the most generous of professions, and often a highly joyful one, when we can put our efforts into what really matters: the engagement and learning of our students, particularly when that leads them to profound transformations in their engaging, knowing, thinking, doing and being. In Buddhism, the bodhisattva—or one seeking enlightenment—takes what are known as “the impossible vows.”

As teachers, we also need to take “impossible vows.” In so many schools, there are targets to achieve something akin to 80 percent proficiency in reading or some other area. But this begs the question: Who are we willing to let go of? Our goal must be 100 percent, even if it seems impossible, and this goal cannot be approached without working toward educational equity and targeted instructional differentiations.

Equality is treating everyone the same, providing the same resources and support to all. This is simple math, and in my educational experience, we can’t even get this right. (Think of how school facilities and funding and teacher-student ratios differ from school to school, with those most in need often getting the least.)

As my colleague Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade asserts, equity is something quite different from equality: It is providing every single learner with what they need, when they need it, for as long as they need. This is a much more complex challenge in which some learners will get more time and support, e.g., in learning how to read. They will get different materials written for them in their current state of being, which address their current interests, and builds on and extends current capacities. Struggling students will receive extra help both in push-in and pullout situations until they are able to read or do math or science proficiently. Everyone will get stimulating, differentiated, and supportive instruction.

Let me acknowledge, as a teacher for 40 years and a teacher of teachers, that differentiation is a very substantive challenge and one that we often do not meet. It is much easier to teach to “the great middle” and be done with it. In the face of this challenge, I personally teach with a great sense of urgency—an urgency that requires me to address issues of equity.

Which one of my students is expendable? Whose needs can I afford not to meet? Since the answer is obviously: none at all, then what we, both as individuals and as professional communities, must work to do what must be done to meet the needs of all students. This will require differentiating instruction for the different needs of those specific individual students who inhabit any of our classrooms.

To help think about how to do so, I offer a menu of ways to achieve instructional differentiation, by ...

  • Different Materials around a common topic (so that everyone can participate in the inquiry at hand and bring something unique to the table. This works toward what John Dewey called “democratic complementarity”—people bringing unique forms of interest, knowledge, and capacity to bear on a common project.
  • Materials written at different reading levels or the same materials written at different levels. (Resources like Newsela and others translate the same text into various levels. Many classic works of literature or nonfiction have YA or graphic novel versions.)
  • Time/Pacing—going deeper, spending more time on foundational capacities or concepts with some groups while others work to extend that learning.
  • Methods—Use different techniques with different individuals or groups. (Many striving learners benefit from more concrete, interactive, hands-on learning techniques like drama/action strategies, visualization strategies, etc.)
  • Learning in different modalities—being able to use your strengths and being challenged to learn in new ways to develop new strengths.
  • Different response modes and ways of constructing meaning: through think-alouds, drama, visualization strategies. You can find free guides with additional instructional ideas here, here, here, and here.
  • In Different groupings (using workstations, group work like literature circles, inquiry teams, etc.).
  • Different levels of independence in task navigation—collaborative groups moving to independence (e.g., with some students becoming a peer coach/thinking partner for others).
  • Different levels of assistance/independence to master the conceptual and procedural tools (different time commitments, strategy support through the gradual release of responsibility to students: the process of teacher does/student watches; teacher does/students help; students do/teacher helps; students do together and alone/teacher assists as needed).
  • Different levels of task/text difficulty and complexity for different individuals or groups.
  • Different aspects/angles on the topic/task at hand for different individuals or groups.
  • Different ways of demonstrating competence, of sharing what has been learned so others can gain from it.
  • Different levels of accomplishment of criteria so that all demonstrate progress and growth toward goals.
  • Different culminating projects and different assessments: self-assessment, student-led portfolio conferences, etc.

Martin Habermann’s research highlights the difference between what he labels “effective instruction”—teaching that is engaging and transformational for students —and the “pedagogy of poverty,” which literally keeps students not only impoverished in understanding but keeps poor students mired in financial poverty. Among the most salient differences between these two kinds of teaching is that effective teaching, unlike the pedagogy of poverty, teaches concepts and process in a meaningful context of use, and that the instruction is differentiated.

If we care about all of our students (and I know that we all do), then it’s time to do the work of differentiating our teaching to meet the needs of every specific human being in our classrooms. The time is now. Let’s do the work!


‘Change the Process, Product, or Content’

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 18 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on X @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

Differentiating instruction means meeting students where they are at and adapting classroom instruction in such a way that students are participating and working on the standards being taught in the classroom. However, differentiating instruction does not mean creating a completely different lesson, task, or assessment for each student in the classroom.

To differentiate instruction, a teacher needs to plan how to change the process, product, or content of the task. In the classroom, changing the content means students might be working on the same skill, but the articles they are reading could have different topics of interest. Learning targets can also be chunked into smaller learning objectives that will be more accessible to students to focus on and for teachers to plan. For example, some students can work on telling time to the hour, 30 minutes, five minutes, and one minute during the same lesson. Some other students might need a lesson that focuses on telling time to the hour and 30 minutes. Then, subsequent lessons focus on telling time to the five minutes.

Changing the process is about having different ways for students to learn and complete tasks. Instead of having a whole-group lesson where the students work independently, students can be paired up to complete tasks. A lesson can be restructured to have students work as a collaborative group where they have specific roles. The teacher can facilitate small-group instruction where they have different learning targets for each small group.

Changing the product is about having students demonstrate what they have learned in different ways. Answering three multiple-choice questions might not be the most effective way to assess understanding. Some students might benefit from having time to develop a written response where they are able to explain and share their thinking. Some students could need more structure, and completing a graphic organizer is the best way to show what they have learned.


Thanks to Marie, Jeffrey, and Cindy for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s post is the first in a series answering this question:

What does “differentiating instruction” mean to you, and what does it actually look like in the classroom?

In Part One, Isabel Becerra, Andrea Castellano, Kara Pranikoff, and Michelle Shory shared their ideas.

Videos about differentiating instruction:

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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