1. What is differentiated instruction?
2. Tools and Strategies
3. Technology
4. Group Work/Project Work
5. Co-teaching
6. Leveled Homework
7. Classroom Management
8. Benefits
9. Challenges
10. Sources

What is differentiated instruction?
Organizing a mixed ability classroom at the middle school level is a difficult task for any educator. When considering strategies and tools to help complete and support the success of this task it is always important to understand your learners first. Understanding student needs and group dynamics are essential for apply differentiated instruction and making it successful.

Carol Tomlinson supports three criteria for establishing differentiated instruction within a classroom setting. She states that a differentiated classroom should "offer a variety of learning options designed to tap into different readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles." The three criteria Tomlinson suggests that are needed for all students to be successfully educated involve the teacher using
(1) a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content
(2) a variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to understand and "own" information and ideas, and
(3) a variety of options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learned.

Tools and Strategies
The most important aspect of differentiating instruction is recognizing the qualities that do not define appropriate differentiating. According to Tomlinson, "a class is not differentiated when assignments are the same for all learners and the adjustments consist of varying the level of difficulty of questions for certain students, grading some students harder than others, or letting students who finish early play games for enrichment. It is not appropriate to have more advanced learners do extra math problems, extra book reports, or after completing their "regular" work be given extension assignments. Asking students to do more of what they already know is hollow. Asking them to do "the regular work, "plus" does not get them excited about that "extra" they are doing (Tomlinson, 1995a).When it comes to differentiating instruction teachers must not only be able to define what it is, but they must also be able to validate its purpose. As a teacher differentiates instruction takes researching different strategies and tools, as well as trying them to see if they work. Like any intervention, anthology, or required curriculum instruction an educator is required to try what they think and always assess it's success. Teachers need to assess themselves as often as possible to make sure every instructional minute is being used wisely.

In this current age of technology, classrooms are relying more on the tools available that will help teachers to differentiate lessons and make successful learners. It is important to use technology to reach students because within today’s classrooms educators encounter a variety of interests that reflect a student's readiness and their ability to apply their learning styles. Another aspect of a child's life that reflects their learning is their cultural and family differences that shape their social personalities. The best part of differentiated instruction is that if it is done properly and takes all of a child's needs into consideration it can help any learner succeed (Smith and Thorne 2009). Having students tap into their technological cravings while learning prepares them to interact with technology in the future, and is also enjoyable for them to partake in.

Among the latest popular technological tools are Smart Boards. Smart Boards look like a large flat television screen. They are hooked up to a projector, usually on the ceiling of a room, and people are physically able to touch the board and manipulate it like a computer. Some Smart Boards also allow interaction with a multitude of drawing tools. To see a picture of a smart board click on the following link. Smart Board Visual

Having Smart Boards in the classrooms allows teachers to have access to online information immediately. Smart Boards also allow educators to develop a lesson which can easily be differentiated. Educators are able to differentiate a variety of areas when planning their lesson including, process, product and content. According to research done by Stansbury, allowing students to have an hands on experience with their lesson allows them to personalize the information. Stansbury also gives credit to Smart Boards enhancing learning with multimedia components, helping students construct new knowledge, and motivating them with their work (Stansbury 2009).

Students in middle school are already quite familiar with computers and technology. When students know that their instruction involves the regular use of technology, they become more interested in the lesson which helps them to become active learners. This allows teachers to meet their students varying emotional, physical and intellectual needs.
By using technology in the classroom, teachers are given the opportunity to reach all of their students.

Group Work/Project Work
According to J.W. Wood (2009) “Whole-group instruction does not provide the best benefits to students academically: Questions go unattended, easily distracted students remain off task, and students become lost in the masses. Instruction continues to move along, leaving students with special needs and those at risk lost and confused, which in turn means that many of these students drop out of school” (Wood, 2009). This is why there is a need to individualize the learning that must occur within a classroom setting. Individualizing learning can be accomplished through a variety of creative grouping or group work. Group work is simply when two or more individuals are working together to meet a common goal or outcome. In education we see a variety of grouping practices but overall research has shown that when we put students in a variety of grouping practices students do better. Middle school students have a strong need to socialize, make decisions, and validating what they are learning within a group atmosphere. Working in groups helps to meet the needs of the middle school pupil (Sapon-Shevin, 1994).

Group work is the ideal way to meet Tomlinson's criteria requiring the need of a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, and a variety of options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learned. When teachers use group work they are able to foster their students’ abilities to come to an understanding of the information and demonstrate their ideas. When it comes to the organization of groups in a classroom Hall, Strangman, and Meyer state that it is the strategies for flexible grouping that are essential. Specifically, "Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content" (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003).

Teachers can conduct a whole-class introductory discussion before breaking off into groups, or they may model rotations and expect students to break off into groups successfully once group time is announced. The great think about middle school-aged children is that if they feel comfortable enough they can be excited to work in groups, and that will drive their independence and behavior.
When designing group work the teacher needs to create groups that require interdependence, make sure the work is relevant, the assignments meet the student’s skills and abilities, and the group work can be divided up fairly. If at all possible make the groups compete with others; although this is not advisable in all situations but where applicable it is very successful. What studies have found is that when the pupils perceive that the group cannot succeed without the entire group being successful then the interdependence compels students to reach a consensus and divide the work to ensure that everyone is working towards the common goal. As students become better acquainted with the material and/or procedures the assignments are able to be increased in difficulty level (Davis & Jossey-Bass, 1993).

When developing groups at the middle school level it is essential that working together is modeled and monitored before they are expected to do it independently. “When students have little or no experience with cooperative learning, simply placing them in cooperative groups and instructing them to “cooperate” is not likely to be sufficient. Issues of race, class, and gender will not automatically be resolved by the use of cooperative learning groups. Social skill may need to be taught explicitly. And the curriculum and the task need to be structured so that students must work together in order to be successful” (Sapon-Shevin, p. 184).
Possible Organization Tips for Grouping:
  • Sizing them with four to five pupils (less if the members are less skillful)
  • Teaching coping skills regarding how to deal with a member who refuses to do work
  • Explain deadlines and roles within the group
  • Have students sign a written contract or group plan to ensure they are meeting expectations and groups responsibilities
(Davis & Jossey-Bass, 1993)

Suggestions for Choosing Which Students will Work Together:
  • Creative Grouping- different styles of groupings being manipulated simultaneously. This may include learning stations, seatwork, small group instruction, peer tutoring, and research group all at once (Wood, 2009.
  • Student Teams-Achievement Divisions (STAD)- Mized level, gender, and ethnicity group where the teacher presents the lesson but the students work with their team to master it. Students take individual assessments on the material and then assessment grades are averaged together to get a group grade (Slavin, 2003).
  • Teams-Games-Tournament (TGT) which presents the material like STAD but instead of assessments there are weekly tournaments where teams compete against other teams to accumulate points.
  • The Learning Together Model- has students work in groups of four or five on one assignment sheet and are assessed on the group product.

Robert Stevens developed a middle school literacy program that focused on promoting more personalized learning environments. In the project titled Student Team Reading and Writing: A Cooperative Learning Approach to Middle School Literacy Instruction, Stevens developed specific examples of how to incorporate learning groups into a literacy program.

An example of group work for reading would be partner reading. “Students read the selection silently then read it orally with their partner. During oral reading the students take turns reading, alternating after each paragraph. The listener follows along and corrects any errors the reader may make” (Stevens, year). The repeated reading process allows for extra practice and this helps reading fluency on future reading tasks. Activities to go along with this would be Comprehension of the Selection where the pairs work together to get “students to apply their skills to solve problems and make inferences about what they have read, activities more relevant for the abilities of early adolescents.” (Stevens, 2003). A Word Mastery Activity has students work on mastering new vocabulary words through developing meaningful sentences in the group. Summarizing the Main Points of the Selection has the pairs prompt partners with specific question about important elements of the reading.

With any teaching strategy it is imperative that it being used correctly and it “must be an integral part of teachers’ techniques before the students an benefit. The teacher is the key to successful implementation of cooperative learning”(Bassett, Mc Whirter, & Kitzmiller, 1999). I feel this is also important for all types of group work. It is also important that once the teacher has a good understanding of how to implement the teaching strategy that they give adequate time and effort in explain to their students how to work in these different types of learning environments.

To read further on a study involving group work please click on the following link:
UK Study on Attitudinal Changes through Group Work

According to Marilyn Friend (2008) co-teaching is described as being when two or more certified educators contract to share instructional responsibility for one group of students in a designated classroom or workspace. Within this workspace these educators must make a joint effort to deliver specific content objectives with dual ownership, resources, and joint accountability. The key to co-teaching is that the level of participation throughout the entire curriculum and school community may vary (Friend, 2008). When breaking down this criteria it is important to recognize that the co-teaching model must be included in the entire school expectations, especially if the school also has educational settings that are more traditional, i.e. one teacher in charge of all of the responsibilities listed above.
There are many benefits of co-teaching in an environment that includes students with special needs, gifted/talented abilities, typical learning capabilities, and those who are at-risk for failing out of school. These benefits depend on which co-teaching model is used within the learning environment. The different approaches are listed below:
1) One teach, One observe
2) Station Teaching
3) Parallel Teaching
4) Alternative Teaching
5) Teaming
6) One teach, One assist
For more information on the specifics of these approaches please see the following link:
Co-teaching Approaches pg. 7-8

Leveled Homework
Some subjects and concepts are too easy for some students while others may have to struggle to gain understanding of the same concept. This is why it differentiated instruction is so important in classrooms. Today all classrooms are considered mixed ability classrooms. The days of putting all of the high ability students into one classroom, the low ability students in another classroom and either making a third classroom for all of the remaining students, or splitting them up between the two existing rooms are long past. Now students of all levels are mixed together and are learning together.

Instruction in the classroom has to be leveled so that the information is comprehended by all ability levels, the same can be said for homework. Even though students are not completing homework during school hours, that does not mean that their ability level changes. When a single homework assignment is given to all students and the expectation is the same for all students, there is a problem.

As with instruction in the classroom, homework can and should be leveled depending upon ability level. Sometimes the higher achieving students are not challenged enough by homework assignments, while in some cases, the assignment is so overwhelming that lower ability students may become frustrated and choose to not do the work at all. The following link offers some tips for leveling homework in the classroom, Leveled Homework.

Classroom Management
“Classroom management refers to all of the things a teacher does to organize students, space, time, and materials so student learning can take place” (Wong, 2009). In the differentiated classroom there needs to be a consistent level of expectations for all the students while still allowing room for different physical and emotional needs to be met. Just as we have shown examples of differentiating the work in the classroom, we now need to adapt the classroom’s management to meet the needs of all students. One of the best ways is to teach the students what you expect from their effort and how you expect them to behave. Also, there may be a need for several different behavior modification plans but this should be incorporated into the classroom’s routine.

With the work by Harry and Rosemary Wong in The First Days of School, it is imperative to realize and understand the importance of having good classroom management. They stated, “Effective teachers have three characteristics: 1. they have classroom management skills. 2. They teach for lesson master. 3. They practice positive expectations” (Wong, 2009). The first step in developing classroom management skills is establishing an environment that all students understand. If the environment is going to be consistent then routines need to be practiced. Students also need to be involved and there needs to be cooperation in all classroom activities that foster a positive work environment. The environment needs to be organized and clean and the materials must be accessible to get and put away.

In addition to the physical layout of the room, “a well-managed classroom has a task-orientated environment where students know what is expected of them and how to succeed “(Wong, 2009). If students can predict what is going to happen as a result of an action, then they classroom management is allowing them to succeed.

When developing the “rules” and expectations of the classroom the teacher must also be aware of cultural differences. This may mean that you need to actively educate your students on what it means to “behave”, “be respectful” and “participate”. What one culture sees as participating may not be the same for another cultural group. Also, instead of indirect directions it is important that the teacher clearly states their goal. Instead of saying “would you like to take your seat?” The teacher should rephrase that to “sit down”. You can also show the students how the question “Would you like to take your seat?” means the same thing as “sit down”. Again, the need to be explicit in your expectations is essential. The teacher may also want to directly point out similarities and differences in cultural groups through opening day activities that highlight them while promoting a sense of belonging to all students.

Another area that will help with classroom management is being culturally aware of cultural norms in behaviors. According to Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlinson-Clarke (2003) when teachers who view the behaviors as reactions of cultural norms are better able to remain calm and non- defensive it allows them to work with the student to consider a variety of more constructive options to solve the problem and come to a mutual understanding.

The following link is a great source of ideas and materials for many areas of classroom management

Benefits And Challenges
As with any new theory or method, panic will set in. It is always hard to change the way that we are used to doing things. Using differentiated instruction in a classroom will at times leave a teacher feeling overwhelmed and wondering how and why they ended up with so much work to do. Teaching a mixed- ability class will always be challenging, but the suggested tools and strategies available to teachers will help to ease the panic. It is true that there will be a lot of planning and a lot of changes in lesson plans, but once you have a differentiated plan for a particular learning plan, you will be able to access that information for years to come. Below are some of the benefits and challenges involved in differentiating instruction for a mixed ability classroom. While there are many others, and will probably be many more in the future, this list will at least help individuals to understand what the job ahead of them will include.

  • Differentiated Instruction can reach all the different students and their varied levels in the classroom.
  • The energy used by the teacher in a DI classroom is different; it’s more engaging and less draining on the teacher.
  • Differentiated Instruction allows the teachers to adapt the instruction to not only meet the student’s varied level but also to meet the student’s learning style.
  • Differentiated Instruction allows for the middle school student to meet their ever growing needs to become more independent and also allows for some time to socialize with peers.

  • DI takes a lot of work, materials, readiness, and thought on part of the teacher.
  • DI takes a lot of staff development to accurately and effectively implement DI in the classroom.
  • DI students become dependent on individualized instruction they may have difficulties in a non differentiated classroom.
  • The teacher can’t control the conversations going on in group work as the teacher would in a whole-class discussion.
  • DI can’t always be done and it needs to develop slowly to correctly implement DI.
  • During group work time, some students may feel insecure and/or too shy to effectively participate in the activities. This can also be said for those students who don’t want to participate. Often times, there is one or two students in a group completing the majority of the work.

Additional Links:


Seven Practices for Effective Learning


Bassett, C., Mc Whirter, J. J., & Kitzmiller, K. (1999). "Teacher Implementation of Cooperative
Learning Groups." Contemporary Education. 71 (1). 46-51.

Davis, B. G., & Jossey-Bass. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: University of California,

Friend, Marilyn. (2008). Co-teaching: Creating Successful and Sustainable Teachers. Paper
presented at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education Satellite
Conference. Retrieved June 3, 2011. From

Hall, T., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2003). Differentiated instruction and implications for UDL
implementation. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum.
Retrieved August 20, 2006 from

McTighe, J., O'Connor K. (2005). “Seven Practices for Effective Learning”. Educational Leadership. 63 (3). 10-17.

Pearson Education. (n.d.) Teaching Tips: Teaching Mixed Ability classrooms. Retrieved from
Pearson Longman’s Website: on June 5.2011.

Pell, T., Galton, M., Steward, S., Page, C., & Hargreaves, L. (2007). “Promoting group work at
key stage 3: solving an attitudinal crisis among young adolescents?” Research Papers in
Education. 22 (3). 309-332.

Slavin, R. E. (1996). “Cooperative Learning in Middle and Secondary Schools.” Clearing House.
69 (4). 200-205.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1994). “Cooperative Learning and Middle Schools: What Would It Take to
Really Do It Right?” Theory Into Practice. 33 (3).183-190.

Smith, G., & Throne, S. (2007). Differentiating instruction with technology in K-5 classrooms.
International Society for Technology in Education. Eugene, Oregon: International Society
for Technology in Education.

Stansbury, M. (2009). Technology empowers differentiated instruction. Retrieved June 5. 2011

Stevens, R. (2003). “Student Team Reading and Writing: A Cooperative Learning Approach to
Middle School Literacy Instruction.” Educational Research and Evaluation.” 9 (2). 137-160.

Soodak, L. C. (2003). “Classroom Management in Inclusive Settings.” Theroy Into Practice.
42 (4). 327-333.

Weinstein, C., Curran, M., & Tomlinson-Clarke, S. (2003). “Culturally Responsive Classroom
Management: Awareness Into Action.” Theory into Practice. 42 (4). 269-276.

Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. T. (2009). The First Days of School. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong
Publications, Inc.

Wood, J. W. (2009). Pathways to Teaching Series: Practical Strategies for the Inclusive
Classroom. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.