10 Effective Differentiation Strategies for a Variety of Learners

1. Varied challenge levels

This is a super simple, but effective differentiation strategy for any teacher. Think about the level of learning you want each student to achieve and start there. You may be asking one student to identify elements of a story, looking for main idea and details. But, another student may need deeper questions such as asking them to analyze the story’s theme or purpose. Levels vary from concrete or basic knowledge to abstract and critical thinking.

2. Varied reading levels

This isn’t always the simplest differentiation, but not all students can read and comprehend on the same level. You might select a very detailed version of The Three Little Pigs for one student, but a leveled reader or simpler version might be best for another student. I see this quite a bit with my science lesson sets. The informational texts in these elementary lesson sets have real facts and real learning, so middle and high school teachers will use my elementary sets to differentiate the reading and activities for their struggling readers.

3. Grouping learners by levels

This can work in 3 simple levels: below level, on level, above level. This can help when planning lesson outcomes, reading levels of texts, or challenge levels of activities. When small group time is needed, I will have 2 or more of each level groups to make my groups small enough for close instruction.

4. Choice boards

A choice board or menu can allow students to select their own learning path. Choices give students more ownership of their work and allows a variety of ways for students to process their learning. These will be activities that expand on the main learning activity, but in different ways. This might be a response to a reading or informational text. Everyone reads their text, and chooses the way they would like to respond. Examples on this board could be: graphic organizer, summary writing, poster or infographic, writing the story with a new ending, adding a paragraph to the informational text with new information they find through research, retell what they read to the teacher.

5. Varied learning styles in instruction

Let’s look at some different way students learn within one lesson topic. If we were teaching the states of matter to a wide variety of learners your lesson activities might look like this:

Verbal/Auditory/social learners – reading the informational text in partners or groups. (Allow students to read individually if that fits their style better.)

Visual learners- graphic organizers, visual note taking, or info graphics for students to process the reading.

Kinesthetic learners- stations, Science Says game for vocabulary, or building models to represent the three states of matter.

Kinesthetic/Naturalist learners- scavenger hunt to find examples of the three states of matter around the school campus.

Musical learners- create a song to explain the three states of matter or remember vocabulary terms.

Reflective learners- a quick write about what they learned and what they did well in the lesson also thinking about what they could have done better to learn more about the topic, exit slips.

6. Small group mini lessons

This is my favorite way to differentiate learning and where I always see the biggest results. More one-on-one time with the teacher allows for a tailored lesson that meets students where they are or where they struggle and builds them up to where they understand it better. In reading, I break my groups into reading levels and meet them where they are in their reading spectrum. It’s important to build any missing or lacking foundational skills so students have those steps to climb in becoming a higher level reader.

In science, my small group time is spent reteaching a concept students just don’t seem to be fully grasping before or after a test. A secondary informational text, summary writing, vocabulary focus, and scavenger hunt make a perfect reteach before a test. I like to cover everything step by step with my struggling students so we can hit any points or methods they might have missed in the whole group lessons. This is when you can set up extension activities for your on level and above level learners. Give them projects to work on or creative thinking activities that extend their learning past the lesson. Small group mini lessons after the test can be going back over the test. Thinking aloud and modeling how I would think through each test question is a great way to reteach after a test and model the process for those students.

7. Visuals, Visuals, Visuals

Illustrations, anchor charts, visual note taking, graphic organizers, and diagrams all provide students with a better understanding. Videos can be another effective visual. Visuals like this help organize information to simplify understanding. Visuals explain the topic in addition to verbally explaining or reading. Visuals can be both teacher input activities or student output activities.

Vocabulary Visuals: Illustrated Word Wall

Vocabulary helps students understand what they read and builds schema for new information to grow on. Visuals help students remember the vocabulary better. They can see what that word looks like and gives them a visual cue for that word. This is especially helpful for English language learners. I love having students create their own illustrations based on what they are learning about the word as. But, I like to have images or realistic clipart of the word on the word wall to make my illustrated word wall.

8. Use manipulatives

Manipulatives take an abstract concept and make it concrete. Manipulatives are most helpful in Math from counting bears to fraction pieces. But, manipulatives in reading can be dots helping students sound out a CVC word or letter/sound cards for building words. Manipulatives in science can be models and parts of cycles. This not only allows students to learn in a more concrete way, they can learn kinesthetically and in a more memorable, meaningful way.

9. Centers or Stations

Having a collection of activities, manipulatives, visuals, audio, technology, reading, writing, or exploration set up for a topic allows you to hit a variety of learning styles. Students will experience the topic in a variety of ways which creates more opportunities for exposure to the topic. This gives students more ways to connect with the topic and make it memorable for them.

10. Group work

Working with other students in groups exposes kids to more language and ideas from different thinkers. Collaboration brings ideas together and helps students develop their thinking. Seeing how others think through a problem or new information can help students expand their thinking. Homogeneous grouping is good for building skills in areas of struggle, but heterogenous grouping can help grow student thinking. Both groupings are helpful and serve different purposes.

And one bonus strategy!

11. Interest based learning

Allowing students to explore the topic in a way that interests them will make the learning more meaningful. Allowing them to select a topic of interest will engage even your reluctant learners. An example of this could be a lesson on animal adaptations. Allow students to select a animal to research. They can present their findings to the class which lets everyone learn a variety of animal adaptions through the interests of others.

I hope this list helps get some ideas rolling as you plan your lessons to reach each of those precious students in your classroom! My lesson sets always have a variety of activities to help you teach your variety of learners. The varied levels of my lesson sets, which always have real learning at every age level, can set you up for easily differentiating your science lessons!

Happy Teaching, friend!!

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