Classroom, Curriculum, Elementary, High School, Junior High

How to Effectively Differentiate Content in Your Classroom

When we talk about differentiation in the classroom, there are quite a few different things we can and should be altering based on different students’ needs.

Primarily, teachers deal with differentiating content, process, product, and environment. There are extremely effective ways to differentiate all of these areas, and teachers generally use an assortment of these methods every single day, often without even realizing it. Yeah, that’s just how good we are.

Today I’m going to take the time to discuss differentiating content itself. This one can often be the most difficult thing for teachers to differentiate as it generally requires use of a different curriculum. It can also be difficult to make every child feel equal when they can see that others are learning different things.

I personally have a significant amount of experience differentiating content from my years working in special education, and it’s one of my biggest passions in teaching. I have a lot of experience working with students with cognitive disabilities and require a completely different curriculum, as well as students who have learning disabilities and require curriculum from a different grade level.

In all of my classes, I always emphasize student differences. I do this immediately at the beginning of the year and use the phrase “equal does not mean the same” all the time. I differentiate as many things as I can (without becoming completely overwhelmed myself) in my classroom, and my goal is for each of the students to personally grow individually and to learn what tools and strategies work best for them.

Therefore, it isn’t particularly strange in any of my classes for students to be working on different things, using different tools, working in different areas, and so on. Still, we all know that kids don’t like to be “different” and certainly don’t want their peers to see them as weaker. In fact, it’s when kids begin to feel this way that they start to dislike school and begin to see themselves as failures. This breaks my heart, especially because I see it begin to happen as early as grades 1 or 2.

Content is probably the most difficult thing to differentiate in a subtle way. Kids are smart– when they’re working on 2 + 2 and the student next to them is doing long division, they’re going to notice. This is what I work hardest to avoid, so I put a lot of effort into creating, purchasing, and finding resources in which students can’t easily recognize major differences.

Here are a few tips for differentiating content and some of my favourite ways to differentiate content in the classroom:

Know your students

Obviously, the best way to serve your students is to understand who they are and exactly what area(s) they need to improve in.

For example, a student who is learning English will need to focus on building vocabulary, while a gifted student will need coursework that is enriched or even accelerated.

Make sure that you build relationships with your students, read their files, talk with their parents, and utilize pre-teaching assessments to figure out exactly what they need from you.

I have no tolerance for teachers who claim they refuse to read student files because they want to “build their own perception” of a child. This isn’t best practice; it’s lazy.

Not only does it assume and imply that previous teachers were not doing their jobs and did not fully understand the student, it’s a flagrant neglect of an important part of our jobs.

Moral of the story: don’t be that person – read about your students, trust that your teaching peers are professionals, and build upon what did or did not work for students in previous years.

Make sure you give kids work at their level

Now this may seem super obvious and implied, but it’s shocking how often teachers give students work they just aren’t able to do. Of course, sometimes this may be because parents refuse work at a different level, or because of some district policies.

However, whenever and wherever possible, students need to be given work which is challenging, but that they can actually do.

There’s no point in handing a student who is reading at a kindergarten level a grade 5 book – they’re just going to stare at it and feel terribly about themselves.

Give kids work at their level and this will ensure they’re working on the building blocks required for more challenging work.

Teach to every ability level in your lessons

This can be challenging and difficult with the short time-frame we have to “cover curriculum” as teachers, but it can be done. In fact, you can easily disguise this as review.

What may be review for the majority of students will actually be extremely helpful for those three or four who are a year or two (or often more, unfortunately) behind.

For example, if you are teaching math and working on addition, start where the lowest student(s) are working when you lecture or demonstrate to the class.

Ask the whole class to start with something like 1×3, show how to solve it on the board, then slowly move up to grade-level curriculum.

This practice ensures that the lowest students are included and (hopefully) engaged without being singled out, and the higher students think you are simply reviewing past work.

Then, when the kids move to doing on their assignments for the period, that’s when you give them the work at their individual levels.

Take advantage of online resources

One of the best parts of online resources and sites is that, generally, students are focused on their own screens and don’t notice what their peers are working on. Also, several online sites look the same, no matter what curriculum the students are actually working on.

For example, kids working on Mathletics can’t tell that the student next to them may have a different assignment.

We can also easily assign various things to kids on Google Classroom without anyone else knowing. This is fantastic for kids who don’t want to stand out as different. Often they won’t even realize themselves that their work is different than their peers.

Of course, we don’t want kids to always be working online, but when they do, it’s great to have go-to websites in which you can assign different students different work based on their ability levels.

Use centres

Most teachers stop utilizing centres past third grade, but I’ve used them well into junior high with great success (I definitely read that with a Borat accent, though I didn’t initially intend it that way).

I haven’t personally used them in high school, but I’m sure they’d still work great with the proper planning and execution.

The best part about centres is that you can easily target specific skills and content with specific kids without making it obvious.

As long as you continually rotate the groupings so kids don’t associate certain kids with being “stronger” or “weaker”, then students never need to know what their peers are struggling with.

Centres are an obvious choice for things like reading, writing, and math, but they also work great in subjects like science and social studies. You can have groups of students working on things like vocabulary, questions, research, reading tasks, and so on, while you work with students on specific skills or concepts you know they need more support with.

Create various student groupings

When you break students into groups to do their assigned work, make sure you don’t always put the same students together.

Of course, there are times when all of your English language learners may be working on learning the same vocabulary words, or another similar scenario. Just ensure the same students aren’t always together.

There are many different assignments and tasks in which certain skill sets are needed and student groupings can be varied.

Sometimes students will need to be working on the same material as their peers, other times, they will benefit from working in a group with varying skill levels from whom they can learn from.

Make sure you mix up how you’re grouping students consistently to ensure they’re learning new things and working with different personality types.

Emphasize and embrace differences

Finally, it’s really important that student differences are not only accepted but embraced.

At any and every inkling of students trying to comment negatively about being “weird” or “different”, don’t only shut it down, but talk about it.

Discuss how great it is that everyone is different, learn about differences among students, cultures, and so on. Plan lessons, projects, and assignments which celebrate and acknowledge how different people are.

This ongoing openness and celebration around differences help make students feel special and included instead of weird or out-of-place. It makes our classrooms feel safe and welcoming, which every student benefits from!

Well, what do you think? Are these ideas you’re already using? Did I miss anything? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

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