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Classroom Q&A

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

What Does Successful Differentiated Instruction Look Like in the Classroom?

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 16, 2023 16 min read
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“Differentiated instruction"—both the term and the idea—can carry a lot of baggage in teaching circles.

This blog has carried many posts, including a video series my colleague Katie Hull and I produced with Ed Week, on the topic.

But I think it’s so important that we can’t talk too much about it, so today’s post kicks off another series on how teachers can implement it.

Two of today’s contributors were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘Give Each Student What They Need’

Andrea Castellano serves as an elementary teacher in New York City’s public school system. She also supports teachers as an instructional coach and PBL curriculum writer and staff developer:

Although traditional schooling relies on one-size-fits-all instruction where all students receive the same instruction and complete the same tasks, each student is totally unique. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group that shares the exact combination of abilities, needs, and interests. Differentiation is tailoring instruction to give each student what they need. It’s also the key to teaching diverse groups of learners; without it, someone will always be left out or left behind.

Even if they understand why differentiation is important, many teachers struggle to adapt lessons that include multiple learning goals, citing concerns with lack of resources, planning time, and support with classroom management. Here are some suggestions for getting differentiated instruction up and running in your classroom:

1. Establish a culture of learning through routines and clear communication.

When shifting away from the one-size model, it’s important to keep in mind that students may not have much experience working autonomously. That kind of independence has to be taught explicitly via modeling, practice, and maintaining clear and consistent expectations.

In my 3rd grade class, we mix it up between whole group, collaborative small groups, and stations. In September, after the “teach” part of the lessons instead of pulling small groups as I normally would, I walk around, observing and making suggestions. I make sure to answer all questions before I send them off and always post directions in a visible location in case they forget what to do. When we finish, we have a class circle to discuss how it went and to brainstorm solutions and strategies for next time.

Over time, they learn to hold themselves and their peers accountable. Doing this consistently every day means that by October, we’ve evolved from a single instructional small group to multiple small groups doing multiple things. Because I set my students up for independence, I am able to assign different tasks, offer a variety of resources, and trust them to do their work while I focus on the group that’s scheduled for the day.

2. Know your material and use your resources.

Knowledge of content is essential in order to differentiate instruction. But scaffolding instruction requires planning and preparation that sometimes goes beyond the parameters of the typical scripted lesson plan. Luckily, there are a plethora of resources available online, including curriculum maps, scope-and-sequence plans, and digital curriculum resources. I request access to 2nd and 4th grade resources for any program I’m mandated to teach. If students need remedial support, I should have familiarity with the prerequisite skills, including those from the grades below. If students have mastered the content and need a challenge, I have to have a deep understanding of the material as well as an ability to draw from advanced content and make it comprehensible for students as they become ready for it.

I also maintain connections with teachers in other grades in case there’s something I don’t know. Talking to other teachers about how they reinforce concepts in fun and engaging ways is actually one of my favorite things about lesson planning.

Get to know your students.

Regardless of class size, teachers should know their students well enough to anticipate and plan for differentiated activities. Learning about your students on a personal level can be done through beginning-of-year interest surveys, icebreaker activities, and one-on-one conversations whenever possible.

Getting to know your students on an academic level is done through a holistic series of formal and informal assessments designed to paint a picture of the individual as a learner. Once you start to notice trends, it will become easier to anticipate questions and misconceptions and choose activities that will support students in reaching the learning targets. In any given math lesson, for instance, if I know a student understands a concept but needs more practice, I’ll have a worksheet printed for them in advance. Fast finishers always have a basket of multistep word problems waiting for them, and students who need a reteach know to come straight to my table and I’ll have another example ready for them.

In my classroom, knowledge of my students as well as their knowledge of self is what drives the instruction throughout the lesson.


‘There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Approach’

Isabel Becerra is the multilingual-services consultant for Region 10 in Texas. She was born in Bolivia and has been an educator since 1992. She is a passionate advocate for emergent bilingual learners:

Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, every student has an individual learning style. It’s most likely that not all students learn in the same way or share the same level of ability. It is our job as educators to find ways to meet the different learning needs of our students in order to ensure that learning is happening.

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that is used to adjust curriculum and instruction to maximize the learning of all students; average learners, English-language learners, struggling students, students with learning disabilities, and gifted and talented students. Differentiated instruction is not a single strategy but rather a framework that teachers can use to apply a variety of strategies. In other words, differentiated instruction is simply tailoring instruction to meet a learner’s needs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for instruction.

Research says that “differentiated instruction is an instructional practice that involves a teacher who proactively plans varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they can express what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible” (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 151).

Teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom may modify assignments to meet the needs of the students, assess students frequently to determine their readiness levels, use data to adjust instruction, provide a variety of scaffolds (visuals, graphic organizers, sentence stems, word banks, etc.) to support student learning, strive to make lessons engaging and meaningful, implement different grouping formats for instruction (e.g., whole class, small groups, independent instruction), and use flexible grouping.

So, what does differentiated instruction look like in the classroom? When differentiation happens in the classroom, students have constant access to learning materials of varying levels of difficulty, and students can advance their learning at their own pace by having choice in assignments and using personalized learning methods. In addition, teachers build lessons around their students’ individual skills and customize teaching to suit multiple forms of intelligence. Everyone is learning in a differentiated classroom, including the teacher.

If you are like me and have a background in teaching English-language-learners in a dual-language or ESL classroom setting, you know how important it is to differentiate instruction for learning to happen. We must find effective ways to teach these emergent bilingual students in order to give them access to comprehensible content and develop English-language proficiency at the same time.

Some starting activities to differentiate instruction that are interactive, engaging, motivating, and make learning fun for students are:

  1. Give instructions in several formats, such as books, videos with closed captions, worksheets, and projects. These options will accommodate their learning styles, and they will help them practice reading, writing, and listening in English.
  2. Provide opportunities to use English as much as possible, such as through group work, classroom discussions, and partner sharing. The more they verbalize it, the more they will internalize the language and content.
  3. Incorporate active learning with manipulatives, movement (TPR), gestures, and games. This will allow for students to remember words, concepts, and skills, as many are visual and kinesthetic learners.
  4. Use leveled reading materials to help students explore the same content. You must be able to meet the students at their level to take them where they need to be by scaffolding what they need to learn.
  5. Create learning centers that give students self-paced practice time in hands-on ways. Tell me and I forget; teach me, and I may remember; involve me, and I learn.
  6. Form learning groups and use a tiered approach, with each group mastering content or skills at various speeds.
  7. Foster a safe learning environment where students can feel included, cared for, and be opened to new learning material.
  8. Allow students to choose how they’ll present their work: Write a paper, give a presentation, create a video, etc. Giving students choice will help them engage in the learning process.

Implementing differentiated instruction can be challenging, but it is worth the effort. It may not be possible to apply differentiation all the time; however, what is important is to practice it often to incorporate it in daily instruction procedures so that with time, it can become second nature to all educators. Differentiated instruction in the classroom is one of the keys to success.


‘It’s the Approach...’

Kara Pranikoff is the author of Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017). She consults with schools to center student voices and ideas across inquiry-based social studies and literacy instruction:

Differentiating Instruction is a concept in education that sounds like it should have a special formula. As if you could plan a lesson, whiz it through a magical machine, and receive a plan that is ready for each individual student. Don’t let that official descriptor be a boundary. Even if you are at the very start of your career, you have already differentiated on instinct. You know that you have a room full of learners who have a variety of needs and that your instruction cannot simply be one-size-fits-all. Any time you make shifts and changes in response to the learners in front of you, you are providing differentiated instruction.

Every teacher aims to connect with their students. Have you ever considered sharing content in a range of ways (video, read aloud, independent reading, etc.)? Have you provided a choice about the method by which students share their understanding (written, illustration, etc.)? Have you planned strategically when making partnerships or seating arrangements? That is differentiation.

Differentiation is not just about the students in your classroom that have identified learning needs, it’s the approach you take for ALL students. It’s the foundation of equity in our teaching. Everyone gets the things they need to do their very best learning. Is there any other way to educate?

As you accumulate years in the classrooms and gain experience with a wide variety of types of learners, you develop a repertoire of shifts you can make so that all students find engagement with your content. There are also professional frameworks that can help you know what to consider when differentiating curriculum.

When coaching, I connect to the ideas of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). As explained by Understood, a nonprofit that strives to explain and provide resources for students who learn and think differently, “The goal of UDL is to use a variety of teaching methods to remove any barriers to learning. It’s about building in flexibility that can be adjusted for every person’s strengths and needs. That’s why UDL benefits all learners.”

Whether we are sitting down to plan for a whole unit or we are preparing a single lesson, these three questions, based on the guidelines for Universal Design for Learning, can serve as a scaffold to develop a mindset for differentiation:

· What are the ways our plan allows all students to have agency?

· What are the ways our plan allows all students to access content?

· What are the ways our plan allows all students to express their understanding?

Remember, we are making plans that fit the needs of ALL students. So, what does this look like in action? Here is an example:


Differentiation provides students with the agency to learn, access content, and consider how they can best express their understanding. Our flexibility in these areas creates equity. By keeping differentiation as the norm in our planning, we can create a classroom where all students can thrive. Anything that you can do to help meet the needs of your students will help them meet their goals. That’s just good teaching.


Universal Design for Learning

Michelle Shory is a veteran language educator with 26 years of experience in five states. She is currently an ESL teacher and instructional coach at Seneca High School in the Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Ky. Michelle also works as an adjunct instructor for Eastern Kentucky University and Indiana University Southeast for their ESL endorsement programs:

A few years ago, my interest in UDL was sparked, significantly enhancing my understanding of student-centered differentiation. While differentiation and UDL both aim to address learner variability, I prefer UDL because of its proactive approach. By implementing UDL, I found that I was better able to plan lessons that offered choices in engagement, representation, and expression, empowering students to become proficient learners with specific goals—and flexible pathways to achieve them.

In terms of engagement, I brainstorm how to captivate student interest and establish the relevance of what they are about to learn. I incorporate various media such as images, videos, articles, or podcasts that provide background knowledge. Recognizing that each student has distinct needs and interests, I encourage them to choose the most intriguing formats and appropriate levels of complexity. One of the strategies I particularly admire, which I learned from Holly Clark, is the implementation of an Explore Board to build background knowledge. To illustrate, I’ve provided an example I developed specifically for English-learners.

Regarding representation, I thoughtfully assess the materials I utilize. I frequently incorporate images, translations, simplified directions, or audio to enhance accessibility. By planning for learner variability, I ensure that students can access the necessary support they require. This may involve simply providing videos or text—or spending more time modifying the text to make it comprehensible for all learners. The point is to offer the content in a range of formats and levels of complexity. Here is an example demonstrating how I adapt texts for English-learners.

In terms of expression, I carefully consider how students with varying proficiency levels can demonstrate their learning. My approach includes modeling, providing support, and allowing space for creativity. While content knowledge is essential, I encourage students a choice of format to showcase their learning. This example illustrates how I scaffold and support projects for English-learners.

My interest in UDL has changed how I approach every unit and lesson. UDL has enabled me to adopt a proactive approach, planning lessons that empower students to become expert learners with clear goals and flexible pathways. I ensure that students’ diverse needs are met by incorporating choices in engagement, representation, and expression. Through strategies like Explore Boards and adapting texts for English-learners, I captivate student interest and provide accessible materials. Additionally, I prioritize student expression, allowing various proficiency levels and formats while focusing on mastery. UDL has genuinely made me a more inclusive educator.


Thanks to Isabel, Andrea, Kara, and Michelle 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?

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.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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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