How To Start Differentiating

Differentiation in the classroom is tricky.  Once you get thinking about differentiation it can feel like there is no end.  How much do I individualize every lesson and activity?  How is it possible to have enough time to plan for differentiation?  There are so many needs in my classroom that it feels impossible to even try to differentiate!  

What is differentiation

Differentiation is not just thinking about the students who struggle in school.  Although, with a special education background this is where my mind always goes first.  We also have to make sure that we are meeting the needs to students who need a challenge in our classrooms.  Differentiation is about teaching each student based on their level of ability.

Start with one idea

Set a goal for yourself to just pick one differentiation idea and try it.  Once you get these ideas started, they take little to no prep to keep them going.  Here are the ideas that I think will have the greatest impact on the most students.

  • Add simple visual directions to your lessons.  As you explain the directions, write them on the board.  Try to keep each direction simple, think 2-5 words.
  • Use pictures throughout your lesson as much as possible.  Students start to zone out if teachers talk too long.  Using pictures helps this!  You can explain less because they see more.  Create a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation with nothing fancy on it.  Simple is less distracting and easier for most students to process.  Use a white background, no text, and no added clipart.  As you are teaching, go to the picture that relates.  
  • Have meaningful differentiated independent work for students to work on after they finish an assignment.  I have created differentiated menus that extend your lesson and provide independent work that is appropriate.  There are 18 activities for 3 different ability levels in your class.  One of the great things is these activities can be used over and over throughout the year!  Here is a way for you to easily organize these menus in your classroom without students losing them or asking you for help. 

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You can download these Differentiated Extension Menus from my Teachers Pay Teachers store!

  • Provide immediate feedback as frequently as possible.  This may be the most individualized way to differentiate.  When I say immediate, I mean try to give feedback on any answered question as soon as possible.  If you are teaching a small group and they are completing a worksheet, keep scanning their sheets as they answer a question and either have them redo it or give it a star and have them move on.  This is incredibly motivating for students!
  • Differentiate by grouping students.  After you give a pre-assessment or while you are planning for an upcoming unit, group students based on the skills they are missing.  Here is an easy way to group students!
  • Asking questions.  Be intentional about the types of questions you ask in your lessons and who you call on to answer these questions.  Let’s say you are going to ask 15 questions in your lesson, make sure 5 of them are simple questions, 5 are slightly challenging, and 5 are advanced.  Only call on students who need a challenge for the advanced questions.  You could even include these questions on the how to plan for differentiation sheet with a sticky note.  Put a sticky note by each group with the questions you would want those students to answer.  This way you can differentiate while teaching a whole group lesson!
  • You can also find more ideas here on my post about 15 Strategies to Help Students Focus.
  • There are even more ideas on my Differentiation Pinterest board.

Remember, pick ONE idea to start with.  There are always more things we should be doing or adding to our teaching to make education better for our students that it feels impossible to even begin.  In my opinion, differentiation should be at the top of the list but start small.  Keep it manageable.  Maybe add one idea every other month and by the end of the year you have 5 ways that you effortlessly differentiate in your classroom.

Some of these ideas are things you are likely already doing!  Keep it up!  Reflect on your lessons and realize how much you do differentiate.

Happy differentiating!