Differentiating Instruction: Meeting Students Where They Are
by Jennipher Willoughby
No two students enter a classroom with identical abilities, experiences, and needs. Learning style,
language proficiency, background knowledge, readiness to learn, and other factors can vary widely
within a single class group.
Regardless of their individual differences, however, students are expected to master the same
concepts, principles, and skills. Helping all students succeed in their learning is an enormous
challenge that requires innovative thinking.
What is differentiated instruction?
Differentiated instruction is an instructional theory that allows teachers to face this challenge by
taking diverse student factors into account when planning and delivering instruction. Based on this
theory, teachers can structure learning environments that address the variety of learning styles,
interests, and abilities found within a classroom.
How does differentiated instruction work?
Differentiated instruction is based upon the belief that students learn best when they make
connections between the curriculum and their diverse interests and experiences, and that the
greatest learning occurs when students are pushed slightly beyond the point where they can work
without assistance. This point differs for students who are working below grade level and for those
who are gifted in a given area.
Rather than simply "teaching to the middle" by providing a single avenue for learning for all students
in a class, teachers using differentiated instruction match tasks, activities, and assessments with
their students' interests, abilities, and learning preferences.
Laying the Foundation for Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated instruction does not happen by accident. It requires planning, commitment, and
acknowledgment of the fact that diverse abilities, experiences, and interests have a tremendous
impact on student learning. If you are considering using differentiated instruction in your classroom,
the three steps below provide a place to start.
1. Get to know your students.
• Identify the level at which individual students are working in your subject area. Standardized
test scores and other information found in student records can help determine this
• Administer a learning style inventory to determine how your students best learn. An
instrument can be obtained through the guidance department at your school.
• Determine student interests. On a regular basis, ask students to identify topics that interest