Differentiated Instruction

What Is Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom?

10 Min Read
What Is Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom Hero

Does differentiated instruction evoke a nightmare scenario where you’re up all night creating a different lesson for each of your 30 students? Rest easy. There are strategies that can help.

In fact, differentiated instruction in the classroom involves strategies you may already be using, like providing students with an extra challenge or building on their interests. These might include the same strategies you use to support multilingual learners, special education students, or any learner who needs a little help. We break down the approach here.

Differentiated Instruction Definition

Let’s take a look at the definition of differentiated instruction. It’s an approach where every student in the class works toward the same learning objective, but how they achieve the objective can vary based on their strengths, challenges, or interests. Teachers using this approach tailor instruction to each student’s needs without compromising on high standards.

In her book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson explains the approach like this: “At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means 'shaking up' what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.”

Why Should Teachers Differentiate Instruction?

The benefits of differentiated instruction are numerous. The approach enables teachers to meet the needs of all learners. In a typical classroom, students don’t always share the same culture, language, or socioeconomic status. They often have a mix of strengths and abilities. Differentiation ensures that instruction provides learners with targeted support. This promotes inclusivity, increases engagement, and improves academic outcomes. And it builds trust. Teachers form stronger relationships with students, which makes it easier to differentiate instruction. Added bonus: using technology to differentiate instruction can save teachers time, allowing them to provide small-group or one-on-one instruction.

Studies have shown positive outcomes when schools implement a differentiated instruction approach. A 2005 study showed that when elementary teachers used a more traditional instructional approach, students achieved a 79% proficiency rate on end-of-year state tests. But after five years of differentiating instruction, nearly 95% of students scored in the proficient range. According to a 2008 study, the gaps in achievement between students with differing socioeconomic status narrowed from 62% to 10% after a blend of differentiated instruction and enrichment was implemented in one school. Results from a 2015 study confirmed that differentiating instruction positively and significantly impacted students’ reading and math achievement. To learn more about the powerful impact of differentiated instruction, check out this list of research studies compiled by veteran educator Cindy A. Strickland and differentiated instruction expert Carol Ann Tomlinson.

What Are the Four Elements of Differentiated Instruction?

The four areas of differentiated instruction are: content, process, product, and learning environment.



Content is what students learn. It can be modified based on students’ interests. For instance, students may need to learn how to write a persuasive essay, but they don’t all need to write on the same topic. Content can be adjusted in other ways as well. Some students may be assigned 10 vocabulary words to learn, while others take on five. Depending on the lesson, some students may need reteaching to get up to speed, while others can move forward immediately.



Process is how students learn. All students need to achieve the same learning goals, but teachers can differentiate the way students learn the content. For instance, students can learn new information by reading texts independently, with a partner, or listening to a read-aloud. Depending on the learning goal, teachers may have to provide support for some students, while allowing others to advance beyond the learning goal.



Product refers to how students show what they have learned after a lesson. Teachers might allow students to choose how they demonstrate mastery: writing an essay, giving a speech, creating a PowerPoint presentation, building a model, or taking a multiple-choice test. Teachers might also allow some students more time to finish an assessment, if needed.


Learning Environment

Learning environment refers to the physical setup of the classroom. Teachers can arrange the desks based on instructional needs; sometimes the desks may be set up for small-group learning, and at other times for whole-class discussion. Teachers can also provide a range of seating options in the classroom, such as beanbags, rocking chairs, or balance balls.

What Does Differentiated Instruction Look Like in the Classroom?

In a differentiated classroom, you might see a teacher leading a whole-class lesson on equivalent fractions, for instance. The teacher might then work with a small group of students to help those who are struggling with the concept. Other students might work in math centers using fraction strips to create examples of equivalent fractions, or work in pairs or independently on a related problem.

After the lesson, the teacher might provide a range of ways for students to show what they’ve learned. Students might have the option to explain what they learned in a math journal, draw examples of equivalent fractions, or take a short quiz.

WF1783665 Differentiated Instruction Comprehensive Pillar Inline

How Accommodations, Modifications, and Differentiated Instruction Differ

Accommodations, modifications, and differentiated instruction are changes that educators make to curriculum, instruction, and the learning environment to meet the needs of each student. These adaptations make learning accessible to students with a range of abilities.

Accommodations refer to the supports that teachers provide to help students, especially those with special needs, access the curriculum. Examples of accommodations include:

  • Giving students additional time to complete an assignment or assessment
  • Providing extra visual and verbal cues and prompts
  • Reading aloud directions or test questions to a student while others read them independently

Modifications refer to changes to the educational content or methods of assessment. Examples of modifications include:

  • Allowing students to write a paragraph instead of an essay
  • Providing access to digital as well as audio books
  • Assigning fewer math problems to complete for homework

Differentiated instruction refers to the ways that teachers customize instruction based on students’ interests, background, and abilities. Examples of differentiated instruction include:

  • Offering choice in assignments and assessments
  • Grouping students by shared interest or ability
  • Allowing advanced students to move ahead and taking the time to reteach skills for striving students

Scaffolding vs. Differentiated Instruction

Scaffolding and differentiated instruction are both teaching approaches aimed at supporting diverse student populations, enhancing outcomes, and creating inclusive classrooms. But the two approaches differ in their methods and objectives.

Scaffolding instruction involves providing temporary support to students as they work on challenging tasks. The goal is to gradually reduce that support as students strengthen their skills. Scaffolding includes breaking down complex tasks, offering prompts, or modeling strategies. The approach targets individual students’ needs and helps them develop higher-level skills by building on their strengths.

Differentiated instruction, as we have said, involves tailoring instruction to meet the diverse needs and abilities of all students in the classroom. In this approach, teachers use a variety of strategies, such as flexible grouping, varied assignments, alternative assessments, in order to support or challenge every learner in the classroom as needed.

UDL vs. Differentiated Instruction

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction support diverse learners, but they approach instruction in different ways. Here we provide a way of looking at UDL vs. differentiated instruction.

UDL is a framework that was created by CAST for the purpose of developing curricula that anticipates the needs of a wide range of learners, as opposed to differentiated instruction where teachers adjust the curriculum based on assessment. UDL incorporates three core principles into developing effective curricula:

  • Multiple means of representation: presenting information in a variety of ways
  • Multiple means of expression: allowing students to demonstrate learning in various ways
  • Multiple means of engagement: providing options aimed at motivating and sustaining student interest

Because UDL intentionally includes multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement, a curriculum aligned to UDL guidelines is primed for classroom differentiation.

Instructional Differentiation Strategies

Here are examples of instructional differentiation for reading and math, as well as for multilingual learners, special-education students, and advanced learners.

Reading Instruction

  • Provide students with a choice of graphic organizers. They can decide how they want to represent the information in a story they’re reading. For instance, they might choose to compare and contrast two characters using a Venn diagram, or summarize in a problem-solution chart an obstacle characters face in a story and how they overcame it. Striving readers can be paired up with advanced readers to complete this task, or given one-on-one support from the teacher.
  • As the rest of the class works independently, lead small-group reading instruction to teach a particular skill like activating prior knowledge, making inferences, or summarizing.
  • Here are five more ways to differentiate reading instruction.

Math Instruction

  • Get to know students’ interests and try to incorporate them into instruction. Have students complete a quick interest survey, or have them write their name on an index card along with a couple of their hobbies or interests, their favorite book or movie, and one thing they’re good at. Then browse our full library of free resources, including math activities that relate to fashion, sports, business, and art, to name a few.
  • As the rest of the class works independently or in math centers, lead small-group math instruction to reteach a concept, have students ask questions about a lesson, or do a hands-on activity using manipulatives, dice, or snap cubes.
  • Allow students to choose the way they show what they’ve learned in a math lesson. Design math choice boards using our blank template.
  • Here are seven more ways to differentiate math instruction.

English Language Development

  • Create a learner profile for each student in your class to help you differentiate lessons and create a welcoming environment. You can gather the information from the students, their parents, previous teachers, and through your own observations. The profile might include: students’ skills, goals, cultural background, interests, learning struggles, and how they learn best. Use the learner profiles to inform grouping for different activities and to provide assignment or assessment options that match student’s interests and goals.
  • Here are more ways to differentiate instruction for multilingual learners.

Special Education

Advanced Learners

  • Allow students to complete learning objectives based on topics of interest to them. (With the appropriate support, this differentiation strategy can be effective for all learners). Let’s say students are learning to write persuasive essays. Have them do research to find a debate within a topic of interest, whether it’s sports, technology, fashion, or music. A student who is interested in baseball, for instance, might argue for or against using robo umpires in baseball, while a student who loves playing video games might write about whether or not video games can be educational.
  • Here are six more ways to differentiate instruction for gifted students.

Differentiating Instruction with Technology

Meeting the needs of learners with a range of needs can be made easier with the help of technology. Digital tools can give teachers a quick snapshot of student progress: how well they're grasping concepts and where they need help. Teachers can then use this data to differentiate instruction.

Well designed digital learning programs can provide all kinds of support for differentiated instruction, saving teachers time for targeted small-group instruction. Here are some examples of HMH programs that include differentiated practice:

  • Waggle: This program for Grades K–8 automatically assigns personalized practice and differentiated ELA and math instruction based on each student’s performance.
  • Writable: This writing program for Grades 3–12 provides teachers with grouping recommendations, feedback, follow-up practice suggestions, and lots of options for differentiating lessons.
  • Amira: This program for Grades K–5 uses each student’s assessment results to place them into 1:1 reading tutoring. For those who also subscribe to HMH Into Reading for Grades K–6, Amira makes content recommendations based on students’ assessment and tutoring data.

Helpful Differentiated Instruction Resources

Check out these differentiated instruction articles and resources to dig deeper into this effective approach for reaching all learners.

Website: Differentiated Instruction Articles and Resources for Teachers from HMH

Podcast: How to Differentiate Instruction Through Rhymes and Raps with Toney Jackson in NJ on Teachers in America from HMH’s Teachers in America Podcast

Website: What Is Differentiated Instruction? from Iris Center at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs

Book: The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and a leader in differentiated instruction

Book: Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Education Consultant Rick Wormeli

Your Experience with Differentiated Instruction

The importance of differentiated instruction cannot be overstated. We’d love to hear about your experiences with differentiating instruction in the classroom. Tell us about your successes and challenges via email at shaped@hmhco.com or reach out on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook.


HMH Professional Learning provides coaching memberships to support differentiated instruction in the classroom. Learn more.

Get our free guide to differentiated instruction.

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