When we hear the word ‘differentiation’ we often equate it to leveled groups that stay stagnate all year long. Unfortunately, that type of leveling serves to maintain student position instead of increase learning and growth. 

Differentiation that is really effective is dynamic and flexible.  Instructional grouping should be changing throughout the year based on students’ area of greatest need. Teachers can also take other factors into consideration such as students strengths, how students work in collaboration with one another, and what types of activities will support students’ understanding of specific skills (Tomlinson, 2017). 

Differentiation is meant to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and teaching to the specific needs of the student.  


Carol Tomlinson, author of How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (2017, p.7), shares three elements that teachers can differentiate:   

  • content- the information we want students to learn
  • process- how the content is shared
  • product- what the learning will look like 

These elements directly tie into the big KUD– what students Know, what they Understand, and what they can Do! Another way to think of these elements is by considering students’ readiness for learning, their interests, and learning styles (New Teacher Survival Guide: Differentiating Instruction, 2001). 

“At it’s 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” (Tomlinson, 2017, p. 1).

 Differentiation begins with student data- both quantitative and qualitative (Diamond, Honig, & Gutlohn, 2018). Using screening, benchmark, and diagnostic literacy assessments can help guide us in deciding what specific skills we need to target in our small group instruction, but we need more than scores. We need a clear understanding of our students’ strengths and weaknesses. Over time and diligent observation, we can begin to determine all of the other components of learning that numerical scores don’t tell us.

One way I like to document student understanding and areas for further growth is by taking detailed notes during small group instruction or one-on-one conferences. I then add these notes into a child’s folder with a checklist of standards to help me keep track of what targeted skills that student still needs as well as any other actions I need to take to help him/her meet those standards. 


Using an assessment/intervention feedback loop can help us evaluate whether our instruction is providing the support students need to master the skills needed to move on to the next skill focus. 


  1. Use benchmark/screening/diagnostic assessment to identify student’s area of greatest need
  2. Plan targeted instruction focused on that skill as well as independent activities that help the student practice that skill and apply it
  3. Reassess students on that specific skill 
  4. Evaluate effectiveness of small group instruction and decide what to do next


When we think about differentiation, it often includes small group instruction. How that looks will depend on your style students, and your classroom yet there are a few elements that facilitate effective small group instruction in every classroom. 

Tips for Organization and Management

 The one question I hear most from teachers is how to organize and manage small group instruction so that each student gets the most out of that time. This is especially difficult for primary grade teachers who have lots of wiggly bodies to engage and support. Here are a few tips to think about if you are planning on trying small group instruction in your classroom.

  • Organize your classroom to allow for movement from one area to another. Set up the independent activities in easy to locate areas of the room. 
  • Explicitly explain and model each activity for students. If students are expected to work on a task independently, they must have already had some experience with the activity. For Kindergarten and first-grade students you may even need to show them how to transition between areas. Make each part of your small group time clear and unambiguous. 
  • Include clear instructions in kid friendly language at each activity (add photos for younger students).

 A few notes about supporting ELL students

When it comes to differentiating for our ELL students, we need to do everything we would do for our students whose first language is English, but there are a few additional ways we can provide support. 

– By making connections to students’ first language, we can facilitate greater understanding for ELL students (Diamond et al., 2018).  

-We must providing second language learners with the core instruction in reading, but that alone it is not enough to help them become proficient readers and writers. They also need explicit instruction and repeated practice opportunities in oral language and vocabulary (Diamond et al., 2018). Using lots of visuals such as picture cards and physical responses can help them make connections to English. 

-We need to provide many opportunities for our ELL students to talk (Tomlinson, 2017). This can happen through partner responses, small group collaboration, recording a response to text, etc.

-Become acquainted with the students home language and make an attempt to learn a few words. This will also show the student that you are interested in their language and background. It can open doors to greater understanding and help the child feel welcome in the classroom. Try to research the student’s first language to see what differences there are in sounds that might be more challenging for that student. For instance, “”in Spanish b and v are pronounced with the same sound, like the letter b in balloon” (Diamond et al., 2018, p. 60). For English words that begin with v, students may mispronounce the beginning sound. This is just one example of how having knowledge about the home language might help you as the teacher develop a greater understanding of how to help your ELL student. It is also important to be aware of language cognates, “words in two languages that share a similar spelling, pronunication, and meaning” (Diamond, et al., 2018, p.64). For example, banana, doctor, and television are the same words in English and Spanish.



Diamond, L., Honig, B., Gutlohn, L. & Inc. (CORE) Consortium on Reading Excellence. (2018) Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Third Edition. Nevato, CA. Arena Press.

“New Teacher Survival Guide: Differentiating Instruction.” Teaching Channel, September 1, 2011. https://www.teachingchannel.org/video/differentiating-instruction.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms. Third Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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