If you’re using differentiation in the classroom, how do you organize your students? The purpose of differentiation is to keep students engaged! Kids that are engaged learn more, learn faster, and feel better about them selves. When content is too easy or too hard, they mentally check out. Differentiation is a huge buzzword in education, but how many of us manage to do it consistently?  Read on to learn teaching strategies that will transform learning standards into outlines for differentiation.


What Is Differentiation?

Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.”– Carol Ann Tomlinson, What Is Differentiated Instruction?


“On-the-Spot” Differentiation: Helpful, but Inconsistent

Some differentiation doesn’t need much pre-planning. I like to call this “On-the-Spot” differentiation. You probably do this all of the time and don’t realize it. When you modify a question or procedure for a student; when you ask an open-ended thinking question and give kids time to investigate a new answer; when you make up questions or problem based on variations in student ability, you are differentiating! Here are strategies you may already use FOR ANY SUBJECT…

  1. Use open-ended questions/activities. (More than one “right” answer.)
  2. Ask for an in-depth elaboration.
  3. Ask for a demonstration in a different learning style.
  4. Ask students to apply the concept, skill, or vocab to a real-world situation.
  5. Ask low-level students to just complete 3-5 of the easiest tasks before moving on.
  6. Ask higher-level students to complete 3-5 of the hardest tasks before moving on.
  7. Use a word list from Bloom’s or Marzano’s Taxonomy to help you form questions quickly.


Transform Learning Standards into Outlines for Differentiation

Learning Scales make differentiation more valuable because you have planned your lessons and grading. Start by choosing a learning standard from your grade level. Break it down into easier and more advanced levels for different students. These levels may include CONTENT form different grade levels, COGNITIVE skills, processes, or final products. The planning that goes into scales means that these decisions have already been made! The next step is to organize your lessons and resources to match each level of proficiency on the scale. Here is an example of a 6thgrade ELA Learning Scale relating to Vocabulary acquisition. I refer to this scale every time I plan or grade vocabulary assignments. I post this scale in a place that students have access to, so they can be visually reminded of what the expectations are. We review it as necessary, when I grade or assign vocabulary work.

Click here to learn more about Learning Scales.

Visit my FREEBIES pageto download examples for your grade level!


Use the Scale to Organize Your Lessons

To keep things simple, I would keep my whole-groupinstruction content the same for everyone and plan 2-3 variations of daily practice. Whole group instruction was where the grade-level content was being reinforced, which is what you want ALLkidsto participate in.(This is important because every child takes the same state test, regardless of ability!)This is also the time to do a quick review of easier skills or explain the patterns in the higher levels.

For this particular scale, 6L6, I assign slightly different activities with the same unit word list.

Level 1s will be responsible for creating sentences that define each word. They aren’t ready to apply definitions to new contexts yet. They may work with me or each other to complete this because they need the most support.

Level 2s will be expected to apply every new word in a real context. Your word list may relate to Math, Science, Social Studies, Health, or Literature, so give some examples of how to create sentences in the appropriate context.

Level 3s are expected to create a context for using 3 of the new words. This might look like a paragraph explaining a new science concept. (This assignment is in addition to the expectation that they will learn and be tested on the definition of everyword.)

Level 4s are expected to create a context for using 5 or more new words.


Remember, this process is flexible. YOU get to decide what each level focuses on, and who does what. Once you have this outline for differentiation it is VERY EASY to switch students from one expectation to another at any moment. That is powerful! Once you have an outline completed for this standard, you can also RE-USE it every time you have a new word list or unit. Daily practice could be a project that takes all week to complete, or one period. Homework is another easy place to differentiate the practice assignments.

I found that organizing my materials could take a lot of time, or I didn’t have materials for multiple levels. Often I made my own lessons based on the learning standard, instead of the resources I was given. You don’t necessarily have to change everything you usually plan, and you don’t need to have a different activity for each level of the scale every day. That would be unreasonable. It is helpful however, to refer to your posted scale (mentally and verbally) when you are planning differentiation ahead of time, or modifying an activity on the spot.

Get a free editable copy of my planning template here!


Here are some other ways to use scales when planning different experiences for your students…

  1. Prepare centers that practice high or low level skills for a whole unit. Group students by ability.
  2. Establish a few long-term projects or independent work folders that kids can pull out whenever they need something productive to do. (Works best with your high kids). These activities should be well structured and routine so you don’t have to supervise their progress every minute or stop to give directions.
  3. Create some general menus for each subject area (Math, ELA, Science, etc.) where students can choose activities related to the classroom topics. Menus like the one below gives students with different learning preferences some choice to practice skills in ways that work best for them. You may even assign a different number or difficulty of words for each level of the scale. (Read on to find the link for this FREE editable document.)



For more information on Differentiation in the Classroom:

Here’s a great article related to ELA Differentiation; What Is Differentiated Instruction? by Laura Robb

Here is THE BEST article I’ve ever read related to Mathematics Differentiation;

Tiered Lessons: One Way to Differentiate Mathematics Instructionby Adams, C. & Pierce, R. 

Want even more detailed ideas? SIGN UP to “FOLLOW by EMAIL” in the side bar. You will receive a free copy of Mrs. L’s Guide to Marzano Scales: Making Research Practical. It’s like walking into my classroom. 😉

Thank you to Emmalee P. for her recent comments regarding…

” This is great. You can see where kids are at and meet them on their level, and see specifically which step in math they need help on to get where they need to be. It shows the progression of each standard to lead students to the point they should be in 6th grade and tests them on their level instead of on something they have not mastered yet. Very well put together!” – April 12, 2018



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