DI Differentiated Instruction Chapter


Welcome to our professional development chapter on Differentiated Instruction or DI. After completing this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Define what Differentiated Instruction is
  2. Explain the rationale for Differentiated Instruction?
  3. Apply the principles of Differentiated Instruction to different content areas of instruction across grade levels

Before we begin, download the DI Self-Assessment Tool (PDF or Word Document). If you have already completed the MTSS and UDL chapters, you will notice that this Self-Assessment tool is a little different. It will open in another window but you will need to save this to your computer FIRST in order to save your answers.

If you have not already done so, please download the Module Workbook from one of the links provided below. Your Module Workbook contains all of the pre-assessments, exercises, scenarios and post-assessments for the entire module which includes the MTSS chapter, the UDL chapter and this chapter. In your Module Workbook under the DI chapter, you will find a link to the pre-assessment measure. Once you are ready, proceed to the

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DI Self-Assessment Tool

Differentiated Instruction (DI)-Self-Assessment

If you have not done so already, download the Assessment tool.

The DI Self-Assessment process will help you analyze the instructional practices of your teachers to determine if and how much you need to offer Professional Development about differentiation and how often you support your teachers in understanding it as well. The self-assessment tool can also help you determine how you are helping your teachers as they plan and implement differentiated instruction in classrooms with learners with diverse abilities.

The self-assessment information can help you make decisions about adjusting your own approach to ensure that your teachers recognize the importance of DI in their classroom instruction and assessment and acquire additional skills needed for effective differentiated instruction.

The indicators of effective differentiation outlined in the self-assessment are based on four general principles, or guidelines, of differentiated instruction found in current literature (C. A. Tomlinson, 1999):
In differentiated classrooms, teachers…

  1. Create and sustain a responsive learning environment, providing the foundation for long-term learning and positive connections to take place among students and adults.
  2. Have clarity about the learning goals, sharing, with students, what they should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of their learning.
  3. Continuously assess student learning, using information about what students already know, understand, and are able to do to make ongoing instructional decisions.
  4. Establish flexible student groups and respectful tasks, providing rigorous and engaging instruction matched to student needs.

You will find the instructions to use the Self-Assessment Tool at the top of the Downloadable PDF

Introduction: What is DI?

Differentiated Instruction and Assessment

Differentiated instruction and assessment is a framework for effective teaching that involves providing diverse students with different avenues to learning (often in the same classroom) in terms of acquiring content, processing and constructing ideas, and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.

Differentiated Instruction provides access for all students to the general education curriculum. The method of assessment may look different for each child, however the skill or concepts taught is the same. –adapted from Tomlinson, (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2 ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Watch Getting Started with DI

What is Differentiated Instruction? Carol Tomlinson provides a concise explanation of what it means to differentiate instruction.

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Principles of DI


click to enlargediffinstructchart


Differentiated Instruction is a flexible student-centered approach to teaching that tailors instruction to meet students’ individual learning needs. Differentiated Instruction can be carried out on several levels of content, process, product, and affect. It also takes into consideration and adapts the learning environment to students’ needs. DI is characterized by the use of ongoing formative and summative assessment that guides instruction and allows for close monitoring of students’ learning. DI implements flexible grouping. The following diagram illustrates the complex and multi-tiered nature of DI.

Principles in Action

Respectful tasks

Quality curriculum

Teaching up

Flexible grouping

Continual assessment

Building community

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Ways to Differentiate…

I. Content

Differentiated Instruction is a way of providing instruction that requires teachers to know their students’ strengths and areas of need and differences and similarities between students. Equipped with this information, teachers can plan more individualized instruction and assessment that will improve their students’ learning success.

After each category, Content, Process, Product, Affect, Learning Environment, are suggestions for teachers to help them respond to each students’ needs and to maximize student learning.

Use reading materials at varying readability levels;
Make text materials accessible via auditory processing;
Use spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students;
Present ideas through both auditory and visual means;
Use reading partners; and
Meet with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners
cited from readingrockets.org

II. Process

Use tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important constructs and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity;
Provide interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them;
Develop personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early;
Offer manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them;
Vary the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage and advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.
cited from readingrockets.org

III. Product

Give students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, a powerpoint slide show, write a letter, or develop a model or a mural with labels);
Use rubrics that match and extend students’ varied skills levels;
Allow students to work alone or in small groups on their products;
Encourage students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements
cited from readingrockets.org

IV. Affect

Provide choices of topics and assignments
Teach in culturally sensitive ways
Promote reflective and self-reflective practices
Engage students in restorative justice activities
cited from readingrockets.org

V. Learning Environment

Create spaces in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration;
Provide materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings;
Set out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs;
Develop routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and
Help students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly.
cited from readingrockets.org

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Misconceptions about DI

Common Misconceptions about DI

# Misunderstanding Reality
1 Differentiation is a set of instructional strategies. Differentiation is a philosophy—a way of thinking about teaching and learning. It is, in fact, a set of principles.
2 It’s adequate for a district or school leader (or professional developers) to tell, or even show, teachers how to differentiate instruction effectively. Learning to differentiate instruction well requires rethinking one’s classroom practice and results from an ongoing process of trial, reflection, and adjustment in the classroom itself.
3 Differentiation is something a teacher does or doesn’t do (as in, “I already do that,” or “I tell our teachers that they already differentiate instruction.”). Most teachers who remain in a classroom for longer than a day do pay attention to student variation and respond to it in some way— especially with students who can threaten order in the classroom. However, very few teachers proactively plan instruction to consistently address student differences in readiness, interest, and learning profile.
4 Differentiation is just about instruction. Although differentiation is an instructional approach, effective differentiated instruction is inseparable from a positive learning environment, high-quality curriculum, assessment to inform teacher decision making, and flexible classroom management. To the degree that any one of those elements is weak, the others are also diminished.

The above cited from Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau, Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom

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DI in Practice: Tips and Strategies

DI in Practice: Many K-12 classes have had success with DI

DI addresses a wide range of developmental educational needs of K-12 students. The following videos provide examples of differentiation at the elementary and secondary levels and discusses helpful strategies with this age groups.

Tips and Strategies for Effective DI

An illustration of differentiated instruction is elementary school.

DI in practice: Elementary School

First steps for differentiating at the secondary school level

DI in practice: Secondary School

After watching the three video clips, please answer the following in your Module Workbook under DI Chapter: Video Activity.

  1. What are some examples of differentiation of content, process, product, affect and learning environment can you name?
  2. What are some differentiation strategies discussed in the videos?
  3. How can you adapt these strategies to your own instruction within the specific content area? Describe a specific activity that can be differentiated for diverse learners.


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DI Case Study

Increasing the Teaching Efficacy of a Beginning Special Education Teacher Using Differentiated Instruction: A Case Study

Please reference the article below to complete the following two activities.

Ernest, J. M., Heckaman, K. A., Thompson, S.E., Hull, K. M. & Carter, S. W. (2011). Increasing the teaching efficacy of a beginning special education teacher using differentiated instruction: A case study. International Journal of Special Education, 26, 191-201.

Click on “Worksheet” to see the activities. In order to save your answers, you must download the PDF first and then save as you go along.

There are also links in your Module Workbook to this document. Please download the Module Workbook if you have not done so already.

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Sample Lesson Plan: Critique

Critique the provided sample lesson plans.

Questions as follow up for the activity:

  • How does the instructor plan for differentiating the instruction?
  • Do you think that these accommodations/modifications are good/sufficient? Why or why not?
  • Choose one differentiated instruction strategy used. Discuss its purpose, planned delivery, and other points you consider important for this type of accommodation.


Questions after you view the video:

  • How does the instructor plan for differentiating the instruction?
  • Do you think that these accommodations/modifications are good/sufficient? Why or why not?
  • What would you tell the instructor to improve his/her differentiated instruction? Support your suggestion(s).

video of an actual teaching of a lesson


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Reflect: What Would You Change?

Additional ideas for activities: Choose A or B

Think back to a class you took in high school or when you were in elementary school. Describe both the class and how the teacher typically conducted it. Describe five elements that you would change to make it more differentiated. (Make sure to include at least one each for content, process, and product.)

Write your own lesson plan on a topic of your choosing. Make sure that the differentiated instruction is included in the lesson plan.