Differentiation is a hot topic in the current teaching environment. Many teachers feel stressed at the mere thought of taking one lesson and creating several different ways to assess and deliver the material. Most teachers are determined to meet the diverse needs of their students, but they may struggle to streamline their differentiation. You will find suggestions on how to do the differentiation dance- the steps are always changing, but you can find the rhythm that works best for your students!


Oh no. Not that. The primary complaint about pre-assessments is that some of them take so long that it feels like you’re losing all of your time for direct instruction. More formal pre-assessments can take a long time to administer and score, sometimes creating the feeling that you’ve put more time into this step than the teaching that follows. However, if you spend time teaching material that your students already know or aren’t ready for, you’ll end up using your instructional time less efficiently. While they seem like a Catch-22, pre-assessments are necessary for differentiation. Everyone in your classroom is not going to be at the same point in their knowledge or learn in the same way. Knowing what they need and how to reach their different needs is the hallmark of differentiation.

A more formal pre-assessment or screening tool is a good way to begin the year. It will give you a basis for your first differentiation groups. As the year progresses, keep doing short and simple pre-assessments. They do not need to be lengthy or time-consuming. A quick entrance slip or “Tell Me What You Know About…” sheet can give you a starting point.

Keep in mind that smaller units require less involved pre-assessing, more frequent pre-assessments work better when you have differentiation in mind. Each time, a pre-assessment gives you new knowledge about where your students are and how they’re learning, it allows you to change up your groups. Changing groups will be discussed later in this post, as it is a good idea to keep changing up your groups, as pinning kids rigidly into one need group may end up backfiring as some students might excel in one area but not in another.

Pre-assessment Take Away: 

Put in the time.

Keep them short and frequent.

Use them to direct instruction.

Use them to shape differentiation groups.


Some voices in education state that direct instruction isn’t as engaging to students. However, a great teacher can make direct instruction dynamic and interactive, leading to high levels of engagement. More importantly, direct instruction has been PROVEN to correlate to student achievement in the classroom. The 2017 Hattie Ranking indicates that direct instruction is very effective and has a high correlation to student gains, even more so than one-to-one technology, technology across the board, or self-regulation strategies. Not that technology or self-regulation lack their place, but direct instruction comes out well ahead! A study, Comprehensive School Reform and Achievement: A meta-analysis by Borman et al looked at three different school models and direct instruction was one of three methods classified as having the strongest evidence of effectiveness across the board.

Direct instruction can have a place in differentiation. Once you complete your pre-assessments, find the common objective (standard) and goal for all of your students. During instruction scaffold or enrich the lesson for different students in your class to reach the same goal. One way is to offer different levels of reading material. You can have similar questions related to the reading skill or subject matter, but students are reading at their level. That’s why differentiation groups after the whole group instruction are widely successful. All students have the same jumping-off point and a common goal. To effectively differentiate from this point forward, remind students of their common objective and desired outcome- but allow them to read on their level, produce different deliverables, and support their individual needs within small groups.

Leading Direct Instruction Take Away:

Direct instruction has a place in differentiation.

It is a highly effective method to foster student achievement.

Find one common objective, but adapt instruction and deliverables for small groups

Direct instruction will continue within small groups.


Differentiation within notetaking and organizing is something that often gets pushed aside. Teachers want students to take notes on the lesson. However, taking notes is difficult for some students, especially students with dyslexia. There are ways to help these students. Teachers can use cues like bullet points and/or highlight key information needed. (See the different choices above?)  A copy or photo of the notes or anchor chart of information can be handed out to those who have trouble, others can use sentence frames, and yet others can take full notes. This is something that we like to offer in our resources. If the resource requires any note-taking opportunities, like interactive notes, there will be differentiated notes prepared for the teacher.

Organization is another task that is difficult for some students. Getting thoughts on paper or grouping concepts together, may require extra reinforcement to help some students gather ideas and make connections. This is when graphic organizers can be a wonderful tool to help them be successful.

Taking Notes and Organizing Take Away:

Taking Notes is difficult for some students.

Offer cues and/or differentiation for notes like sentence frames or copied notes.

Organization is another difficult task.

Offer graphic organizers as a tool to help with ideas and connections.


Group instruction can equal chaos, it’s true. Most students lack the independence and leadership to keep things running smoothly with a group of their peers. Groups can foster such skills, but that’s not the primary goal of small groups when it comes to differentiation.

Grouping students by ability level and needs allows you to support struggling students without holding other students back. You won’t be presenting information for a select few who are fast-finishers while the majority of students fail to keep up. Differentiating by learning style can also be taken into account if you have a fairly homogenous group of learners. Have several students who learn best by building and using manipulatives- perfect! That’s one group. A group who seems to excel by simply working through texts with comprehension questions at the end? That’s a group, too.

To successfully implement differentiation, establish groups for one unit at a time. It’s key to keep your grouping flexible. Each time you assess or pre-assess, be prepared to reorganize slightly. Many students will remain where they are for most lessons, but some will shine in one area but struggle in another. It’s important to make sure you continue to provide chances for movements so that students get what they need.

Once groups are set based on learning style or level, work with individual groups. Post clear instructions for each group (a mini whiteboard propped up on a cluster of desks works great and is easily changed if something isn’t working or if goal number one is met and students can move to goal number two). To prevent chaos- make it known that you’ll expect a progress check every 7 to 10 minutes. This can be adjusted if your groups need more or less monitoring.

Rotating from group to group will allow you to support, enrich, or scaffold as needed. When you call for progress checks, you can do a quick check-in with each group or ask a point person from each group to come to you.

Another helpful strategy is to appoint a group leader for each of your differentiation groups. This will develop student confidence and leadership. Be sure to appoint different leaders frequently to allow everyone to gain independence. Looking back at your pre-assessments will show you which students have a better grasp of the material. Allow them to be the initial leaders in the groups.

Are you concerned about ability-based grouping? While it’s only one way to group students in differentiated instruction, it can be a major part, so let’s address those worries. It’s fair to say that it’s been a concern in the past, some educators fearing that lower students in a group would simply remain in a struggling bunch. With differentiated instruction and the small group support you’ll be providing, that’s less of a concern. Studies by Chen-Lin and James Kulik also support ability-based and flexible grouping to support overall achievement in the classroom, particularly among high-achieving groups. Puzio’s 2010 Meta-analysis confirmed that all ability groups increased their success when they were grouped. As Brulles and Brown explain in “A Teacher’s Guide to Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning” grouping is meant to be flexible, not forever! It is not meant to keep students on “tracks,” and is not based on assumptions since you’ll be using pre-assessment and your knowledge of student learning styles to form groups.

Group Work Take Away:

Base on learning styles and ability levels determined by pre-assessments.

Appoint leaders based on group assessments.

Post clear goals for each group.

Check-in frequently.

Groupings are flexible and change as needed.

Current research supports flexible groupings for a variety of reasons.


Assessment is another key part of differentiation, as it is to any type of teaching. Teachers have to make sure their students are comprehending the material and grasping concepts. Paper and pencil tests are no longer the only forms of assessment that are acceptable. Differentiation allows for many types of assessments that can be tailored to student needs and learning styles. Don’t be afraid to create a rubric for creative performances, portfolios, or hands-on demonstrations alongside your pen and paper quiz. Even quizzes and paper assessments can be differentiated with fewer questions, word banks, or sentence frames to help students at different levels.

Not only does assessment drive instruction, but assessment should also drive grouping. Maintaining the same groups across subjects or throughout the year can become predictable and stale for students. Inflexible grouping doesn’t take into account that some students who are high performers have areas of weakness or that struggling students have areas of strength. Use assessments and pre-assessments delivered after or before each lesson to change up groupings. Even if there are students who consistently need the same groups, it will promote social growth and peer-to-peer learning if other members of their group change. Offer a student who is consistently in a lower group a chance to lead a group or help you with a higher one. Give students who easily master concepts the chance to teach a different group a new skill.  The beauty of frequent regrouping is a key facet to differentiation, because not only are you providing differentiation in instruction, but differentiation in opportunities.

Assess and Re-Assess Take Away

Assessment drives instruction and grouping.

Change groupings based on continual assessments and mastery.

Keeping groupings flexible through assessment offers opportunities, socially and scholastically.


Differentiation is challenging but worthwhile. It’s a never-ending cycle, but it’s never dull. Not only will differentiation keep you on top of your teaching game, but it will also continually keep your students engaged and learning in ways that benefit them. Is differentiation hard work? Absolutely. As teachers, we do the hard things- after all, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Differentiation will help you rise above the rest as you help your students rise to their full potential.


I hope you found some useful ideas to implement in your classroom!

For more posts on differentiation, click HERE!



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