Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction (DI) is defined as the planning and delivery of classroom instruction that considers the varied levels of readiness, learning needs, and interests of each learner in the class. Instructors practice this approach by using a range of routines and tools to engage learners at varying levels of readiness in multiple ways and by offering them options for demonstrating their understanding and mastery of the material.

Figure 8 presents some of the analogies TEAL teachers contributed to a wiki called “In Your Own Words” in the DI online course. It captures various ways to think about what DI mght mean.

 a football team, tailored clothes, welcoming melting pot, a family, a piano, improvisational jazz ensemble, let go of the reins and trust the horse, perfect goal, a chef cooking chicken noodle soup, a community, harmony, a shoe store, soccer team.

Differentiating instruction encompasses an instructor's response to learner differences by adapting curriculum and instruction on six dimensions:


  • Content (the what of the lesson)
  • Process (the how of the lesson)
  • Product (the learner-produced results)


  • Interest
  • Profile (strengths, weaknesses, gaps)
  • Readiness

Getting Started

Take it one dimension at a time. Look at your teaching—try to vary the content, process, or product for a particular lesson or across a unit. Look at your learners—get to know something more about their interests, profiles, or readiness. Consider incorporating the following ideas into your classroom management, instruction, and approach:

Ideas to consider for adapting the content, or the what:

  • Changing the complexity of the lesson
    • Vary the complexity along the lines of concrete, symbolic, or abstract explorations.
  • The resources you provide for the lesson
    • Vary the resources, involving narrative, informational, multimedia, experts, and guests.
  • The context of the lesson
    • Vary the context from classrooms, programs, communities, and virtual environments.

Ideas to consider for adapting the process, or the how:

  • Changing how you deliver direct instruction
    • Work variously with the whole group, small groups, and individuals.
    • Reconsider how material is framed; try breaking up a lesson or unit in new ways to chunk and compress material.
  • Changing how you structure cooperative activities
    • Arrange flexible, changeable groupings and peer activities.
    • Provide roles and clear expectations for group members.
  • Changing the way you structure inquiry
    • Use problem-based learning, service learning, and performance-based experiences.

Ideas to consider for adapting the product, or the result:

  • Expecting student work that reflects multiple intelligences
    • Consider all eight intelligences in your planning: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.
  • Assessing completeness through various means
    • Collect and use portfolio, rubrics, peer reviews, and performance-based learning.
    • Get quick feedback through paperless routines such as thumbs up/down, ranking with fingers 1–5, etc.

Become a Student of Your Students

What are your students’ interests? Take time to find out through methods such as the following:

  • Journals and responses to prompts. For example:
    • If you had your GED or college degree tomorrow, what would you want to be doing?
    • What is one job you would want to have and why?
  • Informal conversations and ice breakers
  • Sharing opportunities with the whole class
  • Community events
  • Program support staff and transition specialists

Ideas to consider for accommodating learner profiles:

  • Disability screening results—know how to accommodate learning and attention difficulties
  • Cultural and linguistic factors
  • Health and wellness factors
  • Age and years out of school setting
  • Past educational and academic experiences

Beyond test scores, think about what you know about your learners’ readiness as evidenced by:

  • Past educational achievement
  • Background knowledge
  • Self-efficacy (How do they attribute success and effort?)

Put It Into Practice

Thanks to a TEAL teacher from Texas, for asking the following “get-real” questions about DI in adult education contexts:

Q: How does DI help teach to the multilevel class with variations in age, ability, goals and motivation, educational background—you name it?

A: Embrace diversity, don’t fight it! Here are some ideas to treat diversity as a resource:

  • Create intergenerational peer projects.
  • Assign roles in cooperative groupings so that everyone has a task (e.g., timekeeper, note taker, reporter, researcher).
  • Encourage students to work on projects of personal interest.
  • Provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement for lessons and across units.

Q: How does DI work when teachers don’t get timely or useful reports from students’ test scores?

A: Here are some ways to determine students’ readiness and learning profile in the classroom:

  • Design short quizzes to determine knowledge on the lesson topic; do these the day before you begin the topic, so you have a sense of what the students know.
  • Establish paperless routines that can give you a sense of the class in a quick scan.
  • Up or Down: Have students give a thumbs up or down on whether they feel confident with a particular skill (e.g., where to put commas, how to identify the main idea, how to calculate diameter).
  • Rating 1–5: Have students rate their self-assessment of a particular skill on a 1–5 scale by holding up one to five fingers.
  • Ask students to rank their own abilities with class materials. Before you begin a unit or at the start of the semester, put out your materials and give students time to browse through them. Have the students indicate which materials they could work with by categorizing them as On My Own, With Some Help, or Need Instruction.

Q: How can teachers implement the flexible grouping required in DI? Adult students don’t always work well in groups.

A: Classroom management is everyone’s responsibility! Train yourself not to answer off-topic questions and train students to:

  • Try three strategies before asking the teacher (post some strategies in the classroom).
  • Rely on others in the group.
  • Jot down a question for later.

Q: How can teachers work with multiple levels of classroom materials? The leveled workbooks are not aligned by week or topic!

A: Adapting the content is critical—here’s how:

  • Create an index to find lessons in various workbooks that are on the same topic. (This is a good volunteer task!)
  • Begin with a common, shared text and have different activities to assign based on it.
  • Find various ways to categorize your materials into thematic units, so that you can do some focused whole-group instruction and then assign varying groups to dig deeper. Your materials may not all be exactly alike, but what do they have in common? Think in general terms—do you have enough variety to designate a biography theme? A space exploration theme? A how-to or do-it-yourself theme?

How Are Teachers Incorporating DI?

Here are some goal statements TEAL teachers shared:

In my teaching, I plan to incorporate the DI principles of readiness and variable content. I will do this by establishing an intake process that has assessment processes that allow the instructor to meet the student where they are and gear the instruction to the student’s goal. Content will be determined by grade-level classes but will be adjusted to meet the wide variety of learning styles and academic levels within that class. I will monitor my progress on this goal by student assessment, student grouping, and student exit surveys. —Jami Anderson, Wyoming TEAL Team

In my teaching, I have already changed my plans and incorporated the DI principles of content and process. I did this by slowing down the amount of new material that I taught at once. I monitored my progress on this goal by the immediate response of the learners. I asked my students about their feelings on the new material and immediately decided to hold off on the other two new concepts for that day. Instead of discussing it all at once, I spread the lesson out over three days with lots of practice and discussion, which seems to be very successful for this group of learners. —Kelsee Miller, Wyoming TEAL Team

For more information, see the TEAL Center Fact Sheet on Differentiated Instruction at the end of this section.