A Teacher’s Guide To Using Effective Differentiation In Teaching

Differentiation in teaching is one of the most important considerations on any teacher’s lesson plan. It shows how they plan to meet the needs of students and tailor learning to maximise the learning outcomes for the whole class.

In a classroom with 30 or more students, it is unlikely that every student has the same skills and needs. This makes tailoring lessons for each student difficult.

This article explores in-depth what differentiation is, its benefits and challenges. It also includes strategies to help you implement effective differentiated support in your classroom today. 

What is differentiation in teaching?

Differentiation in teaching is the purposeful selection of instructional strategies to meet the individual needs of all learners. 

It is particularly important when students in the same year group or grade level are at different ability levels. Differentiation begins with identifying what every student needs from the lesson based on students’ readiness to learn and prior knowledge. 

Teachers then determine whether they should differentiate the learning goals for the lesson, along with the most appropriate teaching strategies. 

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Why is differentiation in teaching important?

Differentiation is essential to the learning process because it enables teachers to meet student needs. Employing different teaching approaches, setting different tasks, and providing a safe learning environment helps to raise student outcomes. 

Differentiating for students with physical disabilities or special educational needs is particularly important. They may need adjusted resources ahead of the lesson (such as enlarged font or printing on coloured paper).  

Whether students work in mixed-ability classrooms or in homogeneous groups differentiation is necessary. How much differentiation depends on how different students are from each other.  

Understanding students’ prior knowledge, level of attainment and how they learn best helps teachers differentiate accordingly. In turn, this improves the outcomes for all pupils. 

Carol Ann Tomlinson’s model of differentiation

Student learning improves when teachers use differentiation to meet the needs of all learners. Researcher and professor, Carol Ann Tomlinson, describes differentiation in teaching as how teachers consider students’ needs while planning and delivering instruction. 

Tomlinson identified four important areas for consideration when designing a differentiated classroom experience:

  • Content
  • Process
  • Product
  • Environment
Differentiation in teaching model


Teachers can differentiate according to the content presented to students. This often starts in primary schools. Students complete tasks in small groups based on their ability. 

At this stage, teachers normally employ flexible groupings. They may move students to different tables depending on the subject (e.g. mathematics or English). Similarly, students receive different reading books based on their reading ability or familiarity with English language.  

In secondary school, differentiation takes the form of streaming or setting. Students work in groups for whole lessons based on their ability and prior knowledge. Even within the same room, it is possible to differentiate content. For example, students complete different worksheets after the same initial instruction. This often occurs through extension work for the most able students or those who complete core work ahead of others. 

Differentiation by content is also referred to as differentiation by task. Students receive different activities based on their prior knowledge or ability.  

A disadvantage to low-ceiling approaches is that some students are denied access to more challenging tasks. Perhaps because they are not in the ‘top’ group. It is difficult to identify students’ potential when they lack the opportunity to show what they are capable of.  

This method of differentiation is damaging to students’ self-esteem if they know they are completing easier work than their peers.


Process refers to how teachers structure their lessons so students can work at different rates or access different content. It may mean developing a routine which allows some students to begin work ahead of others. The teacher thenprovides further explanation, small group support, or delivers extension material.  

Alternatively, students learn the same content but in separate classrooms, with different teachers and different activities. Some teachers opt for an enquiry-based model of delivery which allows all students to work at their own pace. This approach tends to be more effective for highly able students.  

In general, explicit instruction is more effective, particularly for novice learners.


Differentiation as a result of product is also referred to as differentiation by outcome. Students receive the same instruction and content as each other but produce different work.

This approach gives all students the same opportunities to succeed and access higher grades. For this reason, it is an approach most suited to mixed ability groups and subjects that are skills based.  

All students experience the same instruction and complete the same task. But how much of the task they complete and to what level depends on the student’s ability. For example, a teacher asks students to write a paragraph in French about their hobbies. Some students will write two sentences in the present tense containing some error. Some will write two or three sentences in one tense with fewer errors. Others will write five or six sentences in two or more tenses.  

The benefit of differentiation by outcome is that they are low-threshold, high-ceiling tasks. Teacher expectations do not limit students.


This aspect of differentiation is possibly the most important but easiest to overlook. The goal of differentiation is to meet the needs of every student in a classroom to maximise their attainment.  

It is easy to see how the role of instruction, task, and outcome can contribute to students’ attainment. But, teachers must also ensure that the classroom environment is conducive to learning and meeting the needs of all learners.  

A positive learning environment is likely to have the following qualities:

  • Students feel safe to ask questions and make mistakes
  • Teachers manage behaviour effectively
  • Students receive the help they need; from a teacher, peer, or other source
  • The room is free from distractions
  • Students are supportive of each other
  • Positive relationships between staff and students
  • Access to resources
  • Ongoing formative assessment identifies students’ needs
  • Teachers’ expertise and pedagogy enable them to support all students

The benefits of differentiation in teaching

Differentiation benefits not only students but teachers too. Meeting the needs of every student in an academically diverse classroom: 

  • Drives forward teaching and pedagogy
  • Accelerates pupil progress
  • Improves students’ learning experiences  

When teachers prioritise differentiation, their classroom practice improves and they create more learning opportunities for every student. This makes it more feasible to have mixed ability groups. Research on mixed ability grouping vs ability grouping shows mixed abilities are beneficial to students who would be in a ‘lower’ or ‘foundation’ group. 

Differentiation encourages the use of ongoing assessment such as formative assessment to identify students’ needs. It ensures the use of appropriate teaching strategies and learning activities to meet every student’s needs. 

Challenges associated with differentiation in teaching 

With 30 plus students, it is difficult to identify the plethora of learning needs within a whole class.  It is more difficult to determine how to differentiate instruction to meet everyone’s needs, particularly with larger groups of students.  

Differentiation in teaching requires ongoing formative assessment. Often, this incorporates diagnostic questions to identify the needs of each student and subject-specific pedagogy to determine the best approach to move learning forward. 

Classroom management also presents its challenges when using differentiated instruction.  Managing students working on different tasks or having small groups of students working independently while another group is working with the teacher can be difficult to manage, especially for newly qualified teachers.  

To help to maintain a positive learning environment:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Reinforce routines
  • Have a consistent approach to managing behaviour  

How can educators differentiate in teaching?

There are many differentiation strategies. The most appropriate depends on the age and ability of students within the class and the topic taught.  

Here are ten examples of effective differentiation in teaching.

Flexible grouping 

Arrange students into small groups within the classroom so that they are working with students of similar abilities. The groupings may change depending on the topic or subject. Classroom seating should accommodate flexible groupings and allow students to change seats when required. 

With flexible grouping, the activities each group completes can be set at different levels. 


Separate students into different classes according to their prior knowledge and differentiate by processes such as teaching strategies and content.  

This approach is popular in mathematics when students follow separate courses such as foundation and higher GCSE. 

Group work 

Select students with different strengths to work together during group work so they are able to support each other.  

Set the same task for each group and differentiate by outcome. Each pupil will contribute to the activity to the best of their ability and possibly in different ways.

Learning objectives

Use differentiated lesson objectives to allow all learners to be successful. ‘Must, Should, Could’ and ‘All, Most, Some’ are common ways to present differentiated learning objectives.  For example:

  • All: will be able to calculate the area of a rectangle
  • Most: will be able to calculate the area of a triangle
  • Some: will be able to calculate the area of composite shapes
  • Must: be able to find terms in a sequence using the nth term
  • Should: be able to find the nth term for a linear sequence
  • Could: be able to the nth term of a quadratic sequence

Small group interventions

Use formative assessment examples to check prior knowledge and identify students who would benefit from short-term intervention activities to address any gaps in knowledge. 

Interventions are an effective teaching strategy to catch students up, but best carried out outside of class time. For example, if a child needs a math intervention, try not to pull them out of the maths lesson. Interventions should be additional teaching, not instead of high-quality first teaching.  

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Ongoing CPD allows tutors to use assessment for learning to implement adaptive teaching. They change the pitch and pace of the lesson to meet the student’s needs in real-time.

Formative assessment is built into every lesson in the form of post-session questions. These allow the tutor to assess the student’s understanding of the learning objective. 

Schools receive reports after every session for every student to track pupil progress

ease ks3 transition in maths


Students are set homework tasks based on their ability or every student receives the same homework with three or more levels of difficulty. Students choose the appropriate option.  

The former option means that all students can attempt the most challenging questions set on their homework. With the latter option, while students can choose which challenge they attempt, teachers can also suggest which questions individual students should try first.


Differentiation in teaching can happen through tasks. Provide students with different levels of scaffolding following whole-class teaching.  

A simple way to create scaffolded worksheets in maths is to use partially worked examples. As learners become more secure in their understanding, decrease the number of steps included.

Effective questioning is another form of scaffolding for differentiation in teaching. Teachers aim less challenging questions at lower ability students and harder, more challenging questions at higher ability children. 

Not only does this differentiate work for students, it allows all students to participate in a safe learning environment. 

Tiered worksheets

Present students with a worksheet containing increasingly difficult questions to differentiate the task. The teacher can decide whether all students must work through the sheet from the beginning and get as far as possible, differentiation by outcome. Or whether different groups of students start at different parts of the sheet, differentiation by task. 

Flipped learning

Flipped learning is a teaching strategy that requires students to learn the content independently ahead of the lesson. Usually, students watch videos or read material. Students then spend time with the teacher interacting with the new content in different ways, including:

  • Discussions
  • Answering questions
  • Making inferences

Flipped learning can aid differentiation in the following ways:

  • Present material given to students prior to the lesson in different ways and at different levels to support students’ needs.
  • It removes the need to deliver new content and gives more time for the teacher to work with individuals or small groups who need support. This helps them understand the content while others use it to deepen their understanding.
  • Students can vary the time they spend learning the material before the lesson. They may revisit it as many times as needed and make notes. This reduces the potential knowledge gap when presenting students with the same material simultaneously and in the same way. 

Differentiation in different subjects 

In the same way that effective teaching methods vary according to the topic, differentiated teaching varies between subjects. 

Skills-based subjects, such as English, are likely to favour differentiation by outcome. All students complete the same activity but with different lists of success criteria.  

For content-based subjects such as mathematics, teachers are more likely to use differentiation by task. For example, answering a different set of questions, or streaming and teaching separate topics.  

Differentiation myths

Many myths are associated with differentiation in teaching. Here a few differentiation myths are debunked. 

Self-directed learning

Differentiation does not mean that students must direct their learning. Differentiation can occur in student-led activities or enquiry-based learning, but not limited to these conditions.  

Teacher-led differentiation in response to ongoing formative assessment is most successful. Explicit instruction is a perfectly valid form of differentiated teaching. 

Learning styles

Teaching the same topic in different ways to address students’ preferred learning style is not a form of differentiation. There is no research evidence to suggest students who are ‘kinesthetic learners’ learn more effectively through hands-on and interactive activities. Similarly, direct instruction is not always best for ‘auditory learners’. 

Learning styles are students’ preferred method of learning, but this does not mean they are the most effective method. It is much more important that teachers use the topic (and subject) they are teaching to inform decisions about pedagogy.  

Learning profiles based on student interests or preferences can be useful when encouraging students to engage in different activities. But, they should determine students’ learning needs. Formative assessment is a much more effective way of achieving this.

Special Education Needs 

While differentiation such as using coloured paper for students with dyslexia is likely required for students with special education needs, differentiation is relevant to all pupils. The purpose of differentiation is to meet the needs of every student in the class, not just those with special educational needs.  

In addition to special education needs such as dyslexia, ASD, or dyscalculia, students can also require differentiation to address gaps in prior knowledge, attainment level, a physical disability, or poor well-being in certian subjects such as maths anxiety. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom suggested the following categories of educational goals: 

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analysing
  • Evaluating
  • Creating 

However, he never intended that this list of skills would present as hierarchical or sequential. While the categories provide a useful framework for differentiating activities, do not assume that the ‘higher levels’ are reserved for students of a higher ability. Nor are the ‘lower levels’ are a prerequisite for the higher ones. 

Blooms taxonomy for differentiaition in teaching

Tips to help teachers achieve effective differentiation

  • Focus on the goal of differentiation: to meet the individual needs of all students.
  • Use ongoing formative assessments, such as exit tickets and hinge questions, to check students’ understanding and assess prior knowledge.
  • Consider the range of teaching strategies and activities that are most appropriate based on the content taught and the students in the classroom.
  • Vary the differentiation methods used across the term or semester to identify those most beneficial.
  • Consider varying the learning objectives, especially for mixed ability students, and use formative assessment that directly measures progress towards these objectives.
  • Encourage students to work at their highest level and teach them to appreciate that this will vary depending on the subject or topic.
  • Use flipped learning wherever possible to preserve lesson time to support students to consolidate and applying the new material.

Watching colleagues teaching and sharing best practice are both valuable forms of professional development that can help promote differentiation. 

Senior leaders must support teachers to grow their repertoire of differentiated instruction strategies and provide time for them to work with other colleagues or attend professional development courses.

Differentiation FAQs

What is differentiation in teaching?

Differentiation in teaching is the purposeful selection of instructional strategies to best meet the individual needs of all learners.

What are the four ways that teachers can differentiate?

Students arrive in lessons with different prior knowledge and with different learning needs; differentiation allows all learners to have equal access to learning opportunities and opportunities to succeed.

What are three examples of differentiation?

• Flexible Groupings: arranging pupils into groups according to their ability and changing these groups according to the topic being taught.
• Streaming: separating students into different classes so that they can be taught different content.
• Tiered Worksheets: presenting questions arranged by their level of difficulty and either assigning different questions to specific students (differentiation by task) or allowing all students to work through the questions at their own pace (differentiation by outcome).


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