Differentiated instruction is an approach that enables
instructors to plan strategically to meet the needs of
every learner. The approach encompasses planning
and delivery of instruction, classroom management
techniques, and expectations of learners’ performance
that take into consideration the diversity and varied levels
of readiness, interests, and learning profiles of learners.
About Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated instruction is an approach that enables
instructors to plan strategically to meet the needs of every
learner. It is rooted in the belief that there is variability
among any group of learners and that instructors should
adjust instruction accordingly (Tomlinson, 1999, 2001,
2003). The approach encompasses the planning and
delivery of instruction, classroom management techniques,
and expectations of learners’ performance that take into
consideration the diversity and varied levels of readiness,
interests, and learning profiles of the learners.
Differentiated instruction can be looked at as an instructor’s response to learner differences by adapting curriculum and instruction on six dimensions, including how the instructor approaches the (1) content (the what of the lesson), (2) process (the how of the lesson), and (3) expected product (the learner-produced result), and takes into consideration the learner’s (4) interest, (5) profile (learning strengths, weaknesses, and gaps), and (6) readiness. These adaptations can be planned to happen simultaneously, in sequence, or as needed depending on the circumstance and goals of instruction. Teaching small groups of learners, grouped based on instructional approach and learner profile, is a cornerstone of differentiated instruction.
How Does It Work in Adult Education?
Here is an example. An instructor who is teaching writing
(the content) in an adult basic education (ABE) class needs
to understand the various learners’ readiness to write
independently or collaboratively, the supports they might need to engage in the process based on their learning profiles, the
quality and quantity of the learner product to be expected,
and the learners’ interests. Some of this understanding will
come from professional observation of the learners over time;
some of it will come from informal assessments gathered
from previous writing assignments.
Planning is critical. For instance, knowing that some learners
need templates, prompts, or advance organizers to prepare
them to write, or software to assist them with spelling, means
that the necessary supports, such as use of the computer
lab with concept-mapping software and word processors, need
to be planned for in advance. Perhaps a colleague who has
more experience with a particular level or type of learner can
collaborate or team teach a small group to better meet their
needs. Perhaps a more advanced peer learner can run a small
group or provide technology assistance.
An instructor teaching persuasive essays (the content) may
begin with a study of various models such as op-ed pieces
from the local newspaper to identify the elements of such
an essay. The class may spend time brainstorming to elicit
learners’ interests in various “hot topics” of the day, while
creating lists of vocabulary words to support composition.
Deciding on a couple of key topics, learners may be grouped to
continue to generate possible argument points. A scribe in the
group can generate a web or advance organizer that captures
the discussion. Learners can then be regrouped according to
the level of support they need (their profile and readiness) for
composition (the process).
Those who can compose on their own can work independently
or in dyads to conduct further research on the Internet to
provide evidence for their argument; those who need technical
support can work in the computer lab with the instructor
and an advanced peer, possibly with a precreated outline or
template; those who cannot compose on their own can work
in a smaller group with a tutor or the instructor to generate
a group essay that learners can each then work on for
editing and revising. Conferencing with each learner can be
another opportunity for accommodating learners’ readiness by focusing only on the mechanics, grammar, or organizational
elements that the writer is able to master. Final products can
be shared in various ways: published by the learners to a blog or submitted to a newspaper, posted in the classroom, read
to the class, etc. The essays, the products, which result from
the group will be varied in their complexity and sophistication,
yet all learners will have engaged in the process and basic
key elements of a persuasive essay (brainstorming, planning,
outlining, composing, editing, revising, and sharing).
How Can Technology Help?
Technology tools can help make this coordination more
efficient by providing productivity support for instructors,
providing supports for learners at varying levels of
readiness, and offering learners options for demonstrating
their understanding and mastery of the material. To see how
technology can help, see TEAL Center Fact Sheet No. 7 on
Technology-Supported Writing Instruction.
Managing Differentiated Instruction
Classroom management to coordinate flexible groupings
and projects is a key component of applying differentiated
instruction. Following are some ideas for creating and
coordinating groups in a multi-level, differentiated class:
- Set up stations in the classroom where different learning
groups can work simultaneously. Such stations naturally
invite flexible grouping.
- Encourage peer-to-peer learning and mentoring and
help learners learn to be tutors.
- Ask volunteers to lead small-group instruction stations.
- Structure problem-based learning (PBL) to have learners
actively solve problems, either individually or in small
- Use WebQuests (http://webquest.org/index.php) as
PBL for teams of learners; these inquiry-based
projects are pre-arranged, and many have teaching
supports (lesson plans, tips, handouts, and additional
materials) linked to them.
- Share reflections with other instructors leading
problem-based learning at www.Edutopia.org.
- Assign tiered activities to allow learners to work on the
same concepts but with varying degrees of complexity.
- Find texts on a single, encompassing topic (for example,
climate change) in various levels of complexity and
- Encourage learners to find audio books and digital
text at their interest level rather than their independent
- Employ compacting: assess learners’ knowledge and
skills before beginning a unit of study and allow learners
to move to advanced work based on their preassessment.
- Find ways to give credit for independent study and
advancement if a learner is particularly motivated or
interested in a topic.
- Help learners supplement class instruction with
online classes or learning opportunities such as
webinars, online chats, blogs, social networks, or
daily content blasts (e-mails such as a Word of the
day, or This day in history, can be a boost to vocabulary
and content knowledge).
- Institute chunking, or breaking assignments and
activities into smaller, more manageable parts, and
providing more structured directions for each part.
- Have learners make personalized lists of tasks to
complete the chunks in a specified but flexible
- Encourage self-study, especially when learners have
to “stop out” of regular attendance.
- Model differentiation by keeping grades and scores in a
variety of ways.
- Use portfolios as a means for reflecting on learner
growth over time, and encourage learners to critique
- Keep scores and observations in a spreadsheet that
can be sorted flexibly to reveal natural groups.
What’s the Research?
This TEAL Center fact sheet draws on two NCSALL Focus on
the Basics articles (Corley, 2005; Silver-Pacuilla, 2007) and
resources created by the Center for Implementing Technology
in Education (www.cited.org, see the Research section).
For adult education, the principles of differentiating instruction
are not new: engaging learners based on their interests,
creating activities based on learners’ needs and roles, and
recognizing and honoring the diversity in any classroom.
Applying these principles informed by the analysis of formal and
informal assessment data may require a new way of working,
however, as well as enhanced coordination among instructors
within a program, lesson planning, and instructional delivery.
See related TEAL Center Fact Sheets on Student-Centered
Learning (No. 6), Effective Lesson Planning (No. 8), and Adult
Learning Theories (No. 11).
Corley, M. (2005). Differentiated instruction: Adjusting to the needs of all learners. Focus on the Basics, Vol. 7, Issue C: March. Available at: http://www.ncsall.net/?id=736
Silver-Pacuilla, H. (2007). Getting started with assistive technology. Focus on the Basics, Vol. 8, Issue D: November. Available at: http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/fob/2007/fob_8d.pdf
Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Tomlinson, C. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom: Strategies and tools for responsive teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Authors: TEAL Center staff
Adapted from two NCSALL Focus on the Basics articles, Vol. 7, Issue C, and Vol. 8, Issue D.
About the TEAL Center: The Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) Center is a project of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), designed to improve the quality of teaching in adult education in the content areas.