Differentiated Teaching


Differentiated teaching was not invented last year. Not only is it a practice that reveals the observant and caring attributes of a teacher, but also a behavior that demonstrates how the teacher handles and manages the knowledge and skills in his subject. I remember what one colleague of mine once said to me: not knowing how to generate different learning scenarios for developing a specific understanding is living your teaching life in a tunnel-vision-like manner.

One thing is true about differentiation: it will never be impactful and meaningful if we do not know our students; if we do not know what learning style we are catering to; if we do not know what processes stimulate them; if we do not know the kind of chemistry that will result from having student A working with student B in comparison to having student B working with student C.

Input in the classroom occurs through various means, and from different sources: the teacher, other students, a video, a book, and an audio, among others. These different sources of input already give us an idea of possible systems we can put in place to support students’ learning.

I wonder if

– You have tried recording instructions or the steps of a guided task for those students that have strong reception skills, but struggle processing.
– When working in teams, you have asked students to take turns to read out loud, for the students whose listening skills are stronger than their reading skills.
– If you have modified readings by changing the order of information, adding pictures, including diagrams, mini tasks or tables, to help students read in steps without missing out on the big understandings in the text.

Metaphorically speaking, if some cultures use spoons, others chopsticks and others their hands, why should we assume that all learners will be happy eating with a fork?

Nonetheless, many times differentiation is mostly needed when we want students to engage with information and produce something; when we want to observe their output. So let me share ideas that have worked for me when working on ‘products’, keeping in mind the process at all times.

You can see an example of this modification here:

Original Text | Modified Text

Let’s classify texts in four categories:
– Instructive.
– Persuasive.
– Informative.
– Descriptive.

Now let’s wonder:

  • What kind of texts do I normally ask my students to write?
  • What is the most appropriate text for each of the big conceptual understandings in my subject for which I would ask students to write?
  • What kind of skills are involved in each kind of text? Have I taught them?
  • What are the elements that help us create meaning in each text type? (diagrams, tables, figures, etc)
  • In which type of media would each category of text appear?
  • Is that a type of media that I ask students to read? (To make sure we have given them an example/pattern to follow)
  • What kind of language is needed to produce each type of paper?
  • What challenges do the convetions of each text type represent for students?

Clearly, if we are aware of the kind of language and skills needed to produce a certain kind of paper, we will know which one to assign to each kind of student. Different kinds of paper allow us to convey the same meaning.

Let’s classify oral activities in five categories:
– One-on-One Speaking (Student-Student or Student-Teacher.
– Small-Group or Team-Based Oral Work.
– Full-Class Discussions (Teacher- or Student-Led).
– In-Class Debates and Deliberations.
– Speeches and Presentations

Now let’s wonder:

  • How can eact type of oral activity help students specific practice vocabulary, skills, and address concepts to develop new understandings depending on their needs?
  • How can different contexts, topics or expected commicative outcomes help us ‘manipulate’ each category?
  • What kind of language and skills that are essential in my subject can each category help me address?

When it comes down to collaboration, there is an endless list of strategies for collaboration that can be used to differentiate learning. From pair work to small group work, and whole class; to interactions whose layers help students learn at their own pace. However, I have had very interesting successes with the following routine in the language class, as I have students work in groups according to their level. Students engage in activities whose outcome will be used by the other groups.

A sample table that maps how I run the routine is shown below (Example of a Language Acquisition class).
Multilateral collaboration

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 7.50.30 PM

We teach students to write cohesively and produce pieces of written work that ‘feel’ like one unified piece. Do our units feel like that? Or are they more like a collection of random, disengaged items that help students explore facts, and practice basic skills, but do not enable them to make connections or give them the opportunity to take learning (despite their level) to a different plateau?

After years of collaboration with brilliant teachers and creative minds, I have become fond of the idea that teaching that is absent of differentiation is careless, and learning that is absent from inquiry and personalized opportunities is thoughtless.

For me, the most valuable aspect of differentiation is that differentiated teaching allows us to collect an incredibly diverse kind of data about the way learning is happening, and this is a gift we should not jeopardize with. At the end of the day, our planning and teaching should be informed by evidence of learning, and only by seeing different scenarios and what happens in each will we know how effective our teaching is.

To end this post, I would like to share some accommodations that I have made with struggling learners, and to challenge advanced learners.


Scaffolding for Struggling Learners

■ Reteaching with a different method: I made sure I had an audio file in case I wanted to re-enter the process through listening; if using a text; I made sure I had a version whose sections had a task each and, hence, contributed to help students connect ideas; I also had images and graphic organizers ready to be used in case students needed to look at information differently.
■ I asked one of my studens to be a reading partner if needed. Since reading aloud also helps him focus, this was a win-win situation- This provided peer support for collaborative learning.
■ Througout the unit, I asked students to take notes in different formats. I knew exactly how new information was going to be useful in future tasks, so by taking notes in one way, students were generating tools for the future- their notes became classroom resources to complete future tasks.
■ I made sure there was a model or exemplar that allowed students to see a pattern, which they could replicate.
■ Breaking down the task in order to furnish step-by-step directions was also part of my repertoire. This helped students wrap up learning cycles and be able to continue with what was not finished.
■ I made sure I included hint bubbles to information or past lessons that could support their work.
■ I color-coded different elements; highlighting specific focusing; including mini-processes that helped students process information more rapidly without noticing.
■ Provided sentence strips or sticky labels with useful, categorized terms, or manipulatives that could help students visualize possible formulas or combinations.
■ Although this was not one of my favorites, a couple of times this strategy did rescue students from not being engaged: a partially completed graphic organizer or outline.
■ Since we had a growth mindset that students used as a learning path, out-of-sequence steps were provided for students to sequence their thinking and also to check their work.
■ Since I had recorded a text in some ocassions, I transformed the text/script into a cloze (fill-in-the-blank) series of paragraphs for students whose language is extremely limited (I think this could also work for those who struggle with grapho-motor skills).
■ For encouraging rich ideas in the writing process, I gave a framed format with ‘check points’ or ‘standards’ to help students organize their writing and use a variety of language and ideas. These served as labels for students to simply place information appropriately.
■ I prepared slips of paper with guiding questions for work at different stages or in different sections of a long task.
■ Established a direct connection to assessment criteria, supply a word bank that students could use to be successful.

Challenging Advanced Learners
■ I designed activities in various format: more complex, abstract, independent, and/or multistep. This also encouraged me to ask students to choose the challenge for the day.
■ I had a series of extension questions as a challenge or task that requires them to think beyond the concrete and obvious to more abstract ideas and new use of the information. This represented an opportunity to practice transfer to and from other areas of knowledge / subjects.
■ I included more detailed question items, asking for more complex expression of ideas: different types of sentences, more than two adjectives or type of verb (action or stative) to describe what’s happening. Students are used to generative grammar patterns, so they knew what challenge each pattern represented.

■ I encouraged them to use metaphors and/or similes, idiomatic expressions, or specific literary elements be included in their writing, instead of responding in what would be a more natural answer.
■ I asked students to note relationships and point out connections among ideas: compare and contrast; cause and effect; problem and solution; sequence; advantages and disadvantages; benefits; past lessons; information covered in other subjects, etc.
■ I used the visible thinking routine ‘circles of perspectives, in order to have students tell the story or ask questions (and interact) from a different point of view.
■ I asked students to practic empathy and place themselves into the story or time period and write from the first-person point of view, choosing one character that is the least similar to them (when there are multiple characters).
■ I encouraged students to consider and prepare “What if?” scenarios and exchange them with other (advanced) students.
■ My favorite strategy was providing a problem or model that did not work, so that students coould solve it.
■ Presented different choices of work for students to choose. These options had to do with using information in a completely new way (Design an awareness campaign about … ; Create a flier to inform …; Write/give a speech to convince …; Write an article to educate …; Write an ad to warn others about …; Design a program to solve the problem of …. )
■ And finally, this is something I never truly had the chance to do, as I think this was the ultimate challenge for my most advance students in this class: asking students to suggest tips or hints that would help others who struggle to make sense of the information.

Other posts I have written on differentiation:
The things I think about when I differentiate
Entering the differentiated world

I have enjoyed and deepened my understanding of differentiation from the work of Deborah Blaz and Carol Ann Tomlinson.