Developing Practical Strategies, Projects, and Lessons for Differentiated Instruction. One Size Does Not REALLY Fit All!

Differentiated instruction is simply factoring in individual student learning styles, interests, and levels of readiness before designing a lesson plan. It is a mixture of whole-class, small group, and individual instruction that is flexible (i.e., flexible grouping). When students are given more options on how they learn the material, they assume more responsibility for their learning and they are more engaged learners. Research also supports differentiated instruction to show this teaching method greatly benefits a wide range of students from the learning disabled to the gifted and talented.

So, how does differentiated instruction work? First, let’s look at different ways to differentiate by process, content, and product.

Differentiation by Process

Differentiated instruction may require a teacher to teach the same material to all students but with a variety of instructional strategies, thus differentiating the process (how the students go about making sense of ideas and information).

Differentiation by Content and Product

A teacher may design different projects and lessons at varying levels of difficulty to meet the abilities of each student, thus differentiating the content (what the students learn) and the product (how students demonstrate what they have learned).

Examples of Differentiation

Process Content Product
  • Tiered Assignments
  • Learning Centers
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Simulation
  • Learning Logs
  • Group Investigation
  • Individual Learning
  • Paired Learning
  • Small Group Learning
  • Flexible Group Learning
  • Multiple Texts & Supplementary Print
  • Resources
  • Varied Computer Programs
  • Varied Audio-Visuals
  • Varied Support Mechanisms
  • Varied Time Allotments
  • Interest Centers
  • Contracts
  • Compacting
  • Tiered Products
  • Independent Study
  • Community-Based
  • Products
  • Graduated Rubrics

Now, we will apply differentiated instruction to some strategies, projects, and lessons. Level questioning is asking questions moving from the simple to more complex. Think remembering and understanding to applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Example of Leveled Questions: 2nd grade reading

While the majority of the class is reading the story of Cinderella and discussing the story elements as a whole class, a few more capable readers are exploring several examples of Cinderella across cultures. One student who is highly proficient and interested in writing is creating a fairy tale patterned after a current event. The teacher and instructional aid then work with students who have more difficulty with the follow-up activity below. In doing so, they may encourage the ELL student to share a version of Cinderella from their native culture to build more understanding and background knowledge. The follow-up activity for all of the students is a set of leveled questions based on Bloom’s Taxonomy or Costa’s Level of Questions. The questions can be assigned to each student based on their ability. The sample using Cinderella includes a few questions so you can see how they increase in difficulty.

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
1. What was the name of the 3 stepsisters? Compare and contrast Cinderella to her stepsisters. Justify why Cinderella’s stepsisters are so undesirable to the prince.
2. Who grants Cinderella her wish to attend the ball? Why did the Fairy Godmother allow Cinderella to go to the ball? Predict what happens if the Fairy Godmother does not grant Cinderella her wish to go to the ball.
3. Explain the changes that happened as a result of the Fairy Godmother’s magic. Revise the changes that happen as a result of the Fairy Godmother’s magic. Analyze what might happen if the Fairy Godmother’s magic was evil and not good.

Another idea for differentiating instruction is using menu options (i.e., choice boards). Students may be required to do a number of the assignments listed that have varying interest and challenge, or you might let the students choose a certain number of activities to do.

Example of Menu Options: 5th grade spelling

Making More Words

Write all of your spelling words and at least two additional words that can be made using the letters from the original word:

Ex. character = care, trace

Dictionary Dig

Find your words in a dictionary (book or online). Write each word and definition in a notebook, or on a computer at home.


Write each word, divided into syllables.

Cover, Write, Check

Complete to reinforce your understanding of the spelling of the word, as well as the word pattern.

Vowels and Consonants

Practice writing all of your words by writing the vowels in red and the consonants in blue.

ABC Order

Write all words in alphabetical order.

Silly Sentences

Create a silly sentence for each word. Include at least one Tongue Twister.


Print each word on two separate index cards. Play a game of Memory or Go Fish.

How Much?

Find out how much each word is worth and the total

vowels = $5

consonants = $10

You’re an Author!

Write a story using your own words. Underline the spelling words and illustrate the story.

Poetry, Please!

Write an acrostic poem for at least ___ of your words.

Word Search Creator

Create a cross word puzzle with an answer key using all of your words.

Example of Menu Options: 8th grade science

Directions: The project ideas are listed below with the possible points. You must complete enough projects to earn ___ points (or specify the number of points per each grade A, B, C, D, U).

Project Choices? Taxonomy

50 points each

  • Create a 5-minute PowerPoint lesson for taxonomy. Explain the role of producers, consumers, and decomposers.
  • Design a board game with good and bad natural consequences for the different types of players. Include first-order consumers, second-order consumers, and decomposers. Be sure to make rules for the game.
  • Conduct a biodiversity study by marking off a meter square outside the school. A native grass or heavily wooded area that is not disturbed by humans would work best. Collect data on the number of producers, consumers, and decomposers present in your plot sample. Organize your data on a plot map by first-, second-, and third-order consumers, and include producers as well. Construct a food web comprised of the organisms within your plot sample

The teacher can add additional 30-point, 20-point, and 10-point choices with a mixture of products that arouse the students’ curiosity, pique their interest, and address a wide variety of learning styles.

Another idea for differentiating instruction is using learning centers. Yes, even at the high school level! The students either rotate around the stations or are assigned to/select a center of choice. In this example, the students are assigned to a station that deals with the major rivers of ancient civilization; they rotate through the stations, spending 2 days/station. Then time is spent sharing and evaluating their projects in a whole-class setting.

Example of Learning Centers: 12th grade history

  • Station #1 The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers

Activity: Create a drawing with colored pencils of the communities around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Include in your drawing how the irrigation system may have worked.

  • Station #2 The Yellow River

Activity: Use clay to create symbols that stand for the most important items needed for survival along the Yellow River. Explain the symbols in text (using index cards).

  • Station #3 The Nile River

Activity: In a first-person narration (journal format), explain how you used each item (soil in a baggie, vegetables and fruit, and water in a jug) as someone living along the Nile River.

  • Station #4 The Indus River

Activity: Use your background knowledge to help create a collage of the most important items to people living along the Indus River. Develop a role-play that summarizes the items in your collage.

Let’s face it. Teaching is hard work, and differentiated instruction requires time–lots of time in lesson planning. Some teachers may feel inadequate and need more training and professional development resources that are not available in their school systems. And making it even more difficult, the classrooms of today are changing rapidly with new teaching methodology.

You can learn more about differentiated instruction and how to develop additional practical strategies, projects, and lessons to make learning come alive for your students, strengthen your teaching skills, ignite your passion for teaching, and help you earn graduate-level semester credit…all at the same time. Teacher Friendly offers a variety of professional development courses that are specifically-designed for educators like you to enhance their professional growth in any classroom setting or educationally-related program.

Published by: