Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners: Six Differentiation Strategies for New Teachers

New Teacher Survival Guide

As a new teacher, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the wide range of abilities in my classroom. How was I supposed to meet all of my students’ needs while simultaneously covering grade level content? As I learned more about differentiation, this became easier, but it still remained one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.

Now that I coach teachers in their first and second years, I can safely say that differentiation remains a huge challenge. I went out and asked the members of Teaching Channel’s Coaching Think Tank to share their top differentiation strategies for new teachers. Check out these six tips for meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Equity Sticks

Autumn Bell, a math coach for Fresno Unified School District, recommends using equity sticks to randomly call on students during direct instruction. Autumn suggests that teachers plan a variety of different questions to ask. When calling on specific students, teachers can then ask them a question at their level. Autumn stresses that it’s important to have high expectations for all students, but starting with leveled questions can help to build students’ confidence in sharing their thoughts.

Sentence Frames

When supporting students to participate in discussions, Autumn shares how sentence frames can help students in answering questions. Michelle Rooks, an instructional coach for Teton County School District, also emphasizes the value of using sentence frames in both speaking and writing. The frames can give students a way to begin or access the task, and support all students’ participation in the discussions and/or writing. Sentence frames also extend language skills and support organized thinking.

Multiple Ways to Express Understanding

All students are different, so why require them to all work on the same tasks? Stacy Davidson, an instructional mentor for Bellevue Public Schools, shares the importance of giving students different ways to respond to a task. Depending on their needs, students can respond verbally, through sketching, or by writing. When you’re hoping to assess students’ content rather than process knowledge, multiple ways of expressing understanding is key. Watch Learning Menus.

Share Air Time

During small group work, Stacy shares how teachers can use a colored cotton ball system to encourage equitable participation. Each student gets a set of colored cotton balls or cubes (one color per student), and put one of their balls in the center of the table every time they add to the discussion. Teachers can encourage groups to pay attention to the colors in the center, and to support each other in order to have a balance of colors. If a student hasn’t contributed or has contributed very little, students can be supported to encourage their peer to join in. For example, they might say something like, “Amanda, do you have something to add?”

Excerpt Texts

According to Shelia Banks, an instructional coach for Jefferson Parish School District, excerpting texts can be a great way to meet the needs of diverse readers. Shelia shares how an excerpt from a complex text can be sufficient to give students access to the text. Struggling learners can work with shorter excerpts as long as the excerpt conveys the ideas and claims of the whole text. Shelia also shares how advanced learners can read longer texts, and suggests pairing those texts with additional texts representing contrary or similar information, expanding the students’ access to claims and details.

Differentiate Rubrics

When creating rubrics to evaluate student performance, Shelia suggests differentiating rubric elements to meet the needs of all students. In one classroom, there will be a diverse mix of elements that need to be targeted for improvement. Some students may have mastered focusing on the task, but struggle with organizing their writing. Others may write well-developed papers, but lack focus. After identifying which rubrics elements certain students should focus on, Shelia suggests arranging students into homogeneous groups. These groups can work together to revise their papers using common rubric elements, and teachers can conduct mini writer’s workshops based on what the groups need to grow.

What differentiation strategies have been working well for you? Comment below to share and learn from each other.

Lily Jones taught K/1 for seven years in Northern California. She has experience as a curriculum developer, instructional coach, teacher trainer, and is also a contributing writer for Teaching Channel.

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