Differentiated Instruction as a Habit

Subtext:  This post is directed to classroom teachers but parents might benefit from understanding the ways teachers can help meet their gifted children's needs.

Nothing taxes a teacher's skills like trying to meet the needs of the diverse learners in his classroom.  In a typical untracked classroom of 30 students, expect 3 special needs students, 1 gifted student and a huge range in between.  Some will be particularly talented in the content area.  Some will have no confidence in their abilities in the subject.  Some will be diligent; others not so much.  Delivering excellent instruction to all of these learners is a tall task.

(Note:  Hopefully gifted students have been clustered into a single classroom, not divided up into different classes.  See The Plight of the Gifted.)

Halfway through the school year is probably not optimal for introducing a whole new structure into your classroom but do try it with specific units this winter and spring and decide for yourself whether this should be your core operating structure in 2011-12.  This discussion presumes a typical whole group instruction classroom but can also fit a more dynamic classroom.  Try it; you'll like it.

There are six steps to introducing, teaching and assessing each unit that will accommodate your gifted students, your special needs students and everyone in between.  Here are the steps in a nutshell:

  1. Pre-assess
  2. Pre-teach or Fast Teach
  3. Teach (checking for understanding throughout)
  4. Assess learning
  5. Reteach
  6. Expand

Pre-assessment is giving a short 10-item or less quiz to ALL students (encourage them to give it a try -- no risk) of the key skills or content in the coming lesson.  If you are entering a unit on adding fractions, the 10 questions might include:  3 problems with common denominators; 3 problems with easily converted denominators; 3 problems with unique denominators and 1 word problem.  This assumes that the unit will cover all of these skills.

Let all students know that if they score 8 or more correct answers, they can waive the classwork and do alternate assignments ( see Susan Winebrenner's Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom for great tools to do this) or move ahead to the next unit or skill.

The pre-assessment should take very little time and can be corrected in class.  What's the benefit?
  • For typical kids:  a preview of the work to come, verification of what they know and don't know, a chance to demonstrate readiness for more challenging work.
  • For gifted kids:  a chance to show what they know or don't know and the opportunity to waive the regular curriculum if it's redundant of what they already know and to do deeper explorations or to move ahead in the curriculum
  • For struggling kids:  a preview of the work to come, an opportunity to push themselves, the opportunity to see solutions in readiness for instruction
Pre-Teach or Fast Teach

The first introduction to the material should come very quickly with few examples but a complete overview of the process.  Students need to know this is the "fast teach" step and to follow as best they can but not to fret if it's moving too fast.  Those who "get it" after the fast teach and are ready to try some problems should be allowed to do so.  Check their first couple of problems to be sure they're ready and, if not, bring them back to the whole class instruction.

After the "fast teach" proceed with your normal instruction at the normal pace.  Pre-teaching is specifically designed for gifted students but benefits all students:

  • For typical and struggling kids:  additional instruction and an insight into where the instruction is leading; an introduction to the material
  • For gifted kids:  correction of the issues of RATE OF INSTRUCTION that are rarely accommodated; opportunity to get an early start on the work if he "gets it" quickly; no impatience and boredom over the slow pace of instruction

The previous steps combined should take about 30 minutes once you and your students get the hang of them.  Now proceed to teach your skill or content.  Check for understanding at least every 15 minutes to be sure all students are with you.  Once you've covered Knowledge and Comprehension, move into the higher order thinking skills (Bloom's):  Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.

The breadth of curriculum in state standards and adopted textbooks can confuse even seasoned teachers about what the "big deal" concepts are in a course.  Make sure before the year starts that you can identify 6-10 key concepts, the concepts that absolutely every child in your class must know and be able to do at the end of the year.  This will be an enormous help in focusing your instruction and learning to let go of content that gets in the way of project learning, group activities, think-pair-share or other strategies that enhance learning.

Assess Learning

As a teacher, I remember how discouraging it was to give a test and see my students perform poorly.  I looked upon the test as the culmination of the unit and a way to assign grades to students.  After the dismal test, we'd move on to the next unit.  Even then I knew this was nutty.  Assessment should be part of the communication loop between students and teachers.

Make sure your test truly assesses what you wanted students to learn with emphasis on the "big ideas" and that it will inform you of what areas need more attention.  Give the test and score it.  Now proceed DIFFERENTLY with those who've demonstrated they "get it" and those who need more instruction.  For those who did well, an expansion activity is appropriate.  This allows them to apply the higher order thinking skills to the concept in challenging ways.  For those who still need more time, design a review that includes focused multi-sensory instruction on the missed concepts and additional practice.


This stage requires the teacher to divide his time between those needing more instruction and those doing the expansion activity.  Physically group students to make this easier. The reteaching should present the concepts in different ways than the prior instruction did.  Use visuals, charts, manipulatives, music or whatever is appropriate to the concepts to be learned.  Don't focus on the test items; focus on the skills and content that are being missed. 


The expansion activity should be designed to take the same amount of time as the planned review.  If the review will be 2 days, craft a higher order thinking skills activity that will take the same time.  Make it engaging and sell it well to those who will be doing it.  Additionally, students should know going into the assessment that doing well means they participate in the expansion activity.

Only a Structure

This is only a structure for allowing differentiated instruction to take place in your classroom.   Your yearlong planning, the quality of learning activities, your encouragement of students to take on challenges, the quality of your assessments and your techniques for checking for understanding are all important.  There are many volumes on each of these and becoming a master teacher means continuing to work on them all.

But for many teachers, plugging all of your good ideas and intentions into a framework is what's missing.  If you're a teacher or administrator reading this, good luck trying something new.  I realize that new structures often trigger many questions:  how to determine grades, how to accelerate students, how to pre-teach content vs. skills and so on.  Add your questions under Comments below and (together with other readers) I'll do my best to answer them all.