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10.3: How can we teach to meet all students' needs?

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    By Honorina Maristela

    Learning Objectives

    • Define differentiated instruction and understand the use of this approach in the classroom.
    • Identify the teacher’s role in differentiated instruction.


    In a traditional classroom setting, the teachers talk while the students listen. Nowadays, traditional settings have completely changed in the field of education. The way the classroom are set-up, the teaching and learning style, the accommodation of individual students and application of small group instruction made the school and teaching challenging both for teachers and students.In addition to these changes, differentiated instruction has been emphasized.

    The district and state and federal governments have established our standards and have handed our curriculum down to us. These standards make up goals established for all students. How we reach the goals may require different paths. The core of differentiated instruction is flexibility in content, process, and product based on students' strengths, needs and learning styles. (Levy, 2008 cited in The Clearing House, 2008)

    What is Differentiated Instruction?

    At the most basic level, differentiating instruction means “shaking up” what goes on in the classroom. Students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas and expressing what they learn. (Tomlinson, 2001) In other words, differentiated instructing is catering to student’s needs and interests so they can acquire learning efficiently..

    The State of Virginia encourages the school districts to apply differentiated instruction in the classrooms. In 2004, the Superintendent of Public Instruction conducted a Professional Development to all School Heads, member of Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, Assistant Principals and Lead teachers to participate in the conference entitled “ Differentiated Instruction: Meeting the Needs of All Children” the highlight for this conference included the special needs students and at-risk students.

    Why differentiate?

    Individual students are different in many ways. The use of differentiated instruction will gives the students the opportunity to meet their needs in an intensive step that will expedite the learning skill of the individual student. We as teachers give the support and the careful planning of the instruction to make sure that the activities will be in the students’ instructional level and interest.

    Differentitate Why: addresses the teachers’ reason for modifying the leaning experience. Teachers believe modification is important for many reasons. Three key reasons include access to learning, motivation to learn and efficiency of learning. Any or all of these three reasons for differentiating instruction can be tied to students readiness, interest, and learning profile. (Tomlinson, 1999)

    In differentiated classroom, teachers begin at the level of the students, not the front of a curriculum guide. They accept and build upon the premise that learners differ in important ways. Thus, they also accept and act on the premise that teachers must be ready to engage students in instruction though different learning modalities, by appealing to differing interest and by using varied rates of instruction along with varied degrees of complexity. In differentiated classrooms, teachers ensure that a student competes agains himself or herself as he or she grows and develops more than he or she competes against other students. (Tomlinson, 1999)

    Though differentiated instruction and activities, students take a greater responsibility and ownership of their own learning, activities that are primarily focused on students’ multiple intelligences, higher order thinking, and learning styles. With this in mind, differentiated instruction is an effective tool to implement in the classroom in order to meet students’ learning style and strengthen multiple intelligences and encourage them to use high order thinking. (Bailey and Williams-Black, p. 134)

    How to Differentiate?

    It has been a big question for teachers how to differentiate instruction in the classroom. It is indeed a challenging task to put into use this approach. I myself can relate to this for it took me five years to attain the effectiveness of this approach and I am still learning until now. The preparation and designed activities should target the individual needs of the students.

    Being in an inclusion is a tough job, having four groups of students with individual needs ranging from high, average, low level and special needs students with IEP (Individualized Education Program) and 504 plans. It is a team work of the teacher, special education teacher and the students in carrying out the activities in the classroom.

    Use formal and informal assessments in making decision with small group instruction. Most schools are required certain formal assessments such as TPRI(Texas Primary Reading Assessment, DIBLE(Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skill, DRA( Developmental Reading Assessment) and/or QRI(Qualitative Reading Inventory. (Diller, 2007)

    These assessments are useful tools for teachers for figuring out how to start with their small groups. Once the teacher determined the level of the individual students she may begin applying the differentiated instruction in the classroom. The teacher can design her own activities that are according to the instructional level of the students. One great example is in reading. Using leveled books that are color coded are useful in targeting the instructional level of the students and work towards it to improve to the fullest. The idea of using the flexible grouping of Debbie Diller is useful for teachers to differentiate. As Diller stated, to create flexible group folders for thinking about small groups as well as in whole group. Once the student show progress he/she can be moved into different group. (Diller, 2007,p. 24)

    Flexible groupings were defined by Radencich and McKay (1995) as” grouping that is not static, where members of the group change frequently. This emerged as a practice to address concerns. It acknowledges that all grouping patterns- large groups, small groups, teams and individuals have value because they all offer the reader slightly different experiences with different outcomes. Students may work with a partner, in a small cooperative or teacher-led group, or with the whole class. The basis for this may be students’ interest or needs. ( Ford, 2005 cited in Radencich and McKay, 1995)

    In planning flexible grouping teachers should consider the strengths and weaknesses of each grouping approach and then put them together to allow the teacher to best meet the needs of the classroom. The groups are formed and dissolved as needs changes to allow for maximum flexibility, avoiding the static nature of the grouping patterns of the past. ( Ford, 2005 cited in Radencich and McKay, 1995)


    Key Principles of a Differentiated Instruction

    • The teacher is clear about what matters in subject matter.
    • The teacher understands, appreciates, and builds upon student differences.
    • Assessment and instruction are inseparable.
    • The teacher adjusts content, process and product in response to student readiness, interest, and learning profile.
    • All students participate in respectful work.
    • Students and teachers are collaborators in learning.
    • Goals of a differentiated classroom are maximum growth and individual success.
    • Flexibility is the hallmark of a differentiated classroom.( Tomlinson, 1999)

    Teachers Role

    Mixed-ability classrooms that offer differentiated instruction make good sense for teachers, as well a student. For many teachers, offering differentiated instruction first requires a paradigm shift. ( Tomlinson, 2001)

    Teachers who become comfortable with differentiated classroom would probably say their role differs in some significant ways from that of a traditional teacher. When teacher differentiate instruction, they move away from being themselves as keepers and dispensers of knowledge and move toward seeing themselves as organizers of learning opportunities. (Tomlnison, 2001)

    Teachers who differentiate instruction focus on their role as coach or mentor(Tomlinson, 2001). We serve as a guide and facilitator for the students in doing their responsibilities in completing their task. We organize the activities for them to discover, explore and share acquired knowledge. ..


    A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom in the pupils. ~Ever Garrison


    When applying differentiated instruction time is required in order for it to work. It is not an overnight activity to see the effectiveness of this approach. It takes time and dedication to help the learners be successful.

    For most teachers, the classroom is the place where we spend our career. The classroom is the place where we give the better part of our lifetime trying to make a difference. It is a curiosity of teaching that no two days are the alike. We must remember that we have every opportunity to transform ourselves and our practice, just as we have every opportunity to stagnate, remain much the same teacher we were when we began. ( Tomlinson, 1999)

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    1. It is the “shaking up” what goes in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas and expressing what they learn. This is called?

    A. Whole group instruction

    B. Differentiated instruction

    C. Cooperative learning

    D. Flexible group

    2. The grouping that is not static where members of the group change frequently is called?

    A. Flexible group

    B. Paired activity

    C. Leveled group

    D. Mixed group

    3. Ms. Parker is planning to differentiate instruction in her class. Which is the best tool for her to use in figuring out her small groups?

    A. Use student’s gender

    B. Use students formal and informal assessments

    C. Use students race

    D. Use students’ favorite color

    4. Mr. Castro is a third grade teacher applying differentiated instruction in his class. He walks around in each group providing assistance in the group while the students work . Mr. Castro can be describes as?

    A. Guest in the classroom.

    B. Coach or mentor in the classroom

    C. Student in the classroom

    D. Principal in the classroom


    1. B

    2. A

    3. B

    4. B


    Bailey, J.P. and Williams-Black,T.H.(2008).Differentiated instruction three teacher's perspective.College Reading Association Yearbook(2008).pp. 29,134. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

    Diller, D. (2007).Making the most of small groups differentiation for all.Markham,Ontario Canada:Pembroke Publishes,pp. 21–24.

    Ford, M.(2005).Differentiation through flexible grouping successfully reading all readers.Learning Point Associates(2005),p. 3.Retrieved February 7, 2009 from

    Levy, H.(2008).Meeting the needs of all students through differentiated instruction:Helping every child reach and exceed standtards.Clearing House;Mar/Apr2008.Vol.81(4),2.Retrieved from February 6, 2009

    Tomlinson,C.A. (1999).The differentiated classroom responding to the needs of all learners.Alexandria VA:Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Publications,pp. 2,48-49,119.

    Tomlinson, C.A. (2001).How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms(2nd ed.)Alexandria VA:Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Publications,p. 16.

    Common Wealth of Virginia.Department of Education.Retrieved February 5, 2009 from

    Special Needs- Differentiation in Action.Retrieved February 8, 2009 from