6 Teaching Strategies to Differentiate Instruction

Students asking questions of a teacher leading an astronomy lesson.

Hero Images / Getty Images

Research shows that one of the most effective ways to meet all learners' needs is to differentiate instruction. Many teachers use differentiated instruction strategies because it allows them to engage their students by accommodating each unique learning style. However, when you have a large group of students, it can be tough to keep up with each child’s individual needs. It takes time to come up with and implement differentiated activities. To help keep the workload manageable, teachers have tried a variety of strategies, from tiered assignments to choice boards. Try teacher-tested teaching strategies to differentiate instruction in your elementary classroom. 

Choice Board

Choice boards are activities that give students options as to what activities to complete to meet class requirements. A great example of this comes from a third-grade teacher named Mrs. West. She uses choice boards with her third-grade students because she feels it is the easiest way to differentiate instruction while keeping students engaged. While choice boards can be set up in a variety of ways (student interest, ability, learning style, etc.), Mrs. West chooses to set up her choice boards by using the Multiple Intelligence Theory. She sets up the choice board like a tic tac toe board. In each box, she writes a different activity and asks her students to choose one activity from each row. The activities vary in content, product, and process. Here are examples of the types of tasks she uses on her students' choice board:

  • Verbal/Linguistic: Write instructions on how to use your favorite gadget.
  • Logical/Mathematical: Design a map of your bedroom.
  • Visual/Spatial: Create a comic strip.
  • Interpersonal: Interview a friend or your best friend.
  • Free Choice
  • Body-Kinesthetic: Make up a game.
  • Musical: Write a song.
  • Naturalist: Conduct an experiment.
  • Intrapersonal: Write about the future.

Learning Menu

Learning menus are much like choice boards, whereas students have the opportunity to choose which tasks on the menu that they would like to complete. However, the learning menu is unique in that it actually takes the form of a menu. Instead of having a nine-square grid with nine unique choices on it, the menu can have an unlimited amount of choices for the students to choose from. You can also set up your menu in a variety of ways, as mentioned above. Here is an example of a spelling homework learning menu:

Students choose one from each category.

  • Appetizer: Sort spelling words into categories. Choose three spelling words to define and highlight all vowels.
  • Entree: Use all spelling words to write a story. Write a poem using five spelling words or write a sentence for each spelling word.
  • Dessert: Write your spelling words in alphabetical order. Create a word search using at least five words or use a mirror to write your spelling words backward. 

Tiered Activities

In a tiered activity, all students are working on the same activity but the activity is differentiated according to ability level. A great example of this type of tiered strategy is in an elementary school classroom where kindergartners are at the reading center. An easy way to differentiate learning without the students even knowing it is to have the students play the game Memory. This game is easy to differentiate because you can have beginning students try to match a letter with its sound, while the more advanced students can try and match a letter to a word. To differentiate this station, have different bags of cards for each level and direct specific students to which cards they should choose from. To make differentiation invisible, color-code the bags and tell each student which color he or she should choose.

Another example of tiered activities is to break the assignment into three sections using varied levels of tasks. Here is an example of a basic tiered activity:

  • Tier One (Low): Describe how the character acts.
  • Tier Two (Middle): Describe the changes the character went through.
  • Tier Three (High): Describe the clues that the author gives about the character.

Many elementary school teachers find that this differentiated instructional strategy is an effective way for students to reach the same goals while taking into account each student's individual needs.

Adjusting Questions

Many teachers find that an effective questioning strategy is to use adjusted questions to help differentiate instruction. The way this strategy works is simple: use Bloom's Taxonomy to develop questions starting with the most basic level, then move toward the more advanced levels. Students at varying levels are able to answer questions on the same topic but at their own level. Here is an example of how teachers can use adjusted questing to differentiate an activity:

For this example, the students had to read a paragraph, then answer a question that was tiered to their level.

  • Basic learner: Describe what happened after...
  • Advanced learner: Can you explain why...
  • More Advanced learner: Do you know of another situation where...

Flexible Grouping

Many teachers who differentiate instruction in their classroom find flexible grouping an effective method of differentiation because it provides students with the opportunity to work with other students who may have a similar learning style, readiness, or interest as them. Depending on the purpose of the lesson, teachers can plan their activities based on students’ attributes, then use flexible grouping to group them accordingly.

The key to making flexible grouping effective is making sure the groups are not static. It's important that teachers continually conduct assessments throughout the year and move students among the groups as they master skills. Often, teachers tend to group students according to their ability at the beginning of the school year and then forget to change the groups or do not think they need to. This is not an effective strategy and will only hinder students from progressing.

The Jigsaw

The Jigsaw cooperative learning strategy is another effective method to differentiate instruction. In order for this strategy to be effective, students must work together with their classmates to complete an assignment. Here's how to works: Students are divided into small groups and each student is assigned one task. This is where the differentiation comes in. Each child within the group is responsible for learning one thing, then bringing the information that they learned back to their group to teach their peers. The teacher can differentiate learning by choosing what, and how, each student in the group will learn the information. Here is an example of what a jigsaw learning group looks like:

Students are divided into groups of five. Their task is to research Rosa Parks. Each student within the group is given a task that suits their unique learning style. Here is an example.

  • Student 1: Create a fake interview with Rosa Parks and find out about her early life.
  • Student 2: Create a song about the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • Student 3: Write a journal entry about Rosa Parks' life as a civil rights pioneer.
  • Student 4: Create a game that tells facts about racial discrimination.
  • Student 5: Create a poster about Rosa Parks' legacy and death.

In today's elementary schools, classrooms are not taught with a “one size fits all” approach. Differentiated instruction allows teachers to meet the needs of all learners while still maintaining high standards and expectations for their students. Whenever you teach a concept in a variety of different modalities, you increase the chances that you will reach each and every student.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cox, Janelle. "6 Teaching Strategies to Differentiate Instruction." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/specific-teaching-strategies-to-differentiate-instruction-4102041. Cox, Janelle. (2020, August 27). 6 Teaching Strategies to Differentiate Instruction. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/specific-teaching-strategies-to-differentiate-instruction-4102041 Cox, Janelle. "6 Teaching Strategies to Differentiate Instruction." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/specific-teaching-strategies-to-differentiate-instruction-4102041 (accessed February 5, 2023).