The Science of Learning Blog

July 11, 2019

Differentiation: Achieving Success in a Mixed-Ability Classroom

BY Karla Wang

Aladdin and The Lion King are in theaters again, but don’t be fooled: things have changed a lot since the 90s. The last two decades have seen a significant change in the student population of America’s K-12 schools. Today’s classrooms are increasingly diverse in cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools who were White decreased from 61 to 49 percent while the percentage of students of color increased substantially, making it the first time in American history that minority students became the new majority in the student population. The percentage of English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with learning disabilities in schools have risen significantly as well.

Diversity is wonderful! But when one part of a system changes, the other parts have to change too. How can educators reach every student in the class when students have varying learning styles, levels of ability, and background knowledge?

A growing body of research points to differentiation—a method of instructing—as one potential solution. A study by Dr. Lynn McQuarrie et. al demonstrated positive results for the full implementation of differentiated instruction in mixed-ability classrooms over a three-year period, with students that had learning disabilities benefitting the most from differentiated support. Furthermore, Carol Tieso’s study found that differentiated instruction significantly improved student performance in mathematics, especially for gifted students.

So, what exactly is differentiation then?

What differentiation means

Differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction as “tailoring instruction to meet individual needs.” By including a variety of teaching techniques, educators instruct a diverse group of students with different abilities in the same classroom. The goal is to make sure that all students master key concepts while striking a balance between comfortability and challenge for struggling and high-achieving students.

In a differentiated classroom, teachers may adjust elements of a lesson or make changes to the curriculum based on students’ interest, ability, and learning style. This allows instructors to meet the individual learning needs of special-ed, ELL, and advanced students.\

Differentiated instruction is NOT the same as individualized instruction. While individualized instruction involves personalizing and customizing courses of study for every student, differentiated instruction adapts the curriculum to respond to each student’s unique learning challenges.

4 Ways to differentiate instruction

According to Tomlinson, “a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively.” In a mixed-ability classroom, teachers can differentiate the following four classroom elements:

1. Content

As always, lesson content should cover basic fundamental concepts and match the criteria set by education standards. But in a mixed-ability classroom, some students might be unfamiliar with the concepts taught while other students already have full mastery of the subject.

Differentiating the content enables instructors to match what students need to learn at their level and how they receive the information. 

Some examples of differentiating the content are:

  • Utilizing different reading materials that vary in difficulty (e.g. Introductory overview of the Civil Rights Movement for newly arrived students and an in-depth analysis of the March on Washington for other students) 
  • Presenting ideas in auditory, visual, and written form (e.g. Draw graphs, play educational videos, give reading articles, etc.)
  • Meeting with individual students or small groups to reinforce a skill or concept

2. Process

The process is activities and tasks that students engage in to further understand a concept or practice a skill. Successful process differentiation involves providing various visual, auditory, and written activities to match the learning styles of each student. Additionally, teachers may provide differing levels of support based on the student’s learning ability and allow students more control over choosing how they approach a task.

Some examples of differentiating the process are:

  • Offering individual support to students who are struggling
  • Assigning more difficult activities to challenge high-achieving students 
  • Providing various options for how students approach the activity, whether it be individually or working in groups
  • Allowing students to choose which activity they feel the most comfortable engaging in

3.    Product

The product is the work that students are asked to produce at the end of unit or curriculum that allows them to demonstrate what they learned and their mastery of the content. Providing students with different avenues to demonstrate their knowledge based on their interest and learning style helps students engage more with their project. This allows students to better display their knowledge and show how much progress they made.

Some examples of differentiating the product are:

  • Giving students different options of how to demonstrate understanding (e.g. write an essay, deliver an oral presentation, create a poster, etc.)
  • Assessing students’ work in a manner that matches their skill level (e.g. create different rubrics to match a student’s level)
  • Encouraging students to pursue their own projects based on their interests (e.g. let students decide what topic they would like to research for their research project)

4.    Grouping

In a differentiated classroom, teachers can use grouping strategies to address distinct learning needs. Educators can group students in a class based on their interest, ability, and learning style.

Grouping by interest creates more variety in the class and gets students engaged with their work. For example, teachers can group students who are interested in pursuing similar research topics together, or separate students into discussion groups based on what they are interested in reading.

Grouping by ability is an effective strategy to help students learn at a comfortable pace. Students with similar readiness and mastery level are able to work together, allowing educators to provide support and convey ideas easily to benefit the entire group.

Grouping by learning style helps students learn concepts and demonstrate their understanding through means that they are most comfortable with. The VARK Model suggests that there are four main sensory modalities or preferences that students use to learn information: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. Grouping together students with a similar learning style and providing materials that match their learning style can help to improve their understanding of certain topics.

How technology can help

With the rise of Education Technology, or EdTech, teachers are finding easier ways to differentiate their classroom and cater to each student’s distinct learning needs. 
Fast ForWord can help educators save time and maximize efficiency when differentiating their classroom. Fast ForWord’s SmartLearning Technology provides essential features to help differentiate instruction and target the underlying causes of reading difficulty such as:

  • Automated assessment that identifies student reading level
  • Personalized, intensive reading practice to match each student’s reading ability
  • Real-time corrective feedback to help students when teachers are busy
  • Online reporting for educators to track student reading progress

Further Reading


Differentiated Instruction

How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd Edition)

4 Types of Learning Styles: How to Accommodate a Diverse Group of Students

2 comments on “Differentiation: Achieving Success in a Mixed-Ability Classroom”

  1. How does one as a teacher differentiate their instruction, seeing that with the Covid-19 pandemic, teaching has altered totally by way of online teaching.

    The slow workers have always been my concern and these learners need the teacher's instruction or group interaction and the like. With this pandemic, what's the best way to help the average and slow learners?

  2. The ways may be:
    Assigning multiple reading materials along with video and game to pursue the need and interest of pupils.

    The students can have a scope to choose the materials( video/o lab/content) while dividing in a breakout room with a heterogeneous group. They can choose the resources according to their intelligence and interest. Here, also the slow learner can upgrade through peer teaching.

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