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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.

12 Comments
I enjoyed reading about these options for differentiation in the classroom. The Equity sticks and the Sentence Frames are ideas that I use regularly in my classroom. I also have seen that Sentence Frames have been a must with my second language learners. I allows them the scaffolding needed to be able to contribute to discussions or during writing activities. A differentiation strategy that I want to incorporate in my classroom next year is differentiated rubric (goals).
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In our district we already have implemented the use of sentence frames. Sentence frames can be used in all subject areas. They are good tools for all students, especially our second language students. In the article, I like the idea of Share Air Time. It seems like a good way to monitor who is sharing within a group and who has not used the opportunity. It also keeps the students accountable to each other. I think I may try this idea next school year with my second graders.
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Re: Michael's question Great suggestions...love the share air too. You may want to try combining share air with sentence frames (we keep a pencil box with a few generic frames for group work). Students may only feel comfortable asking a question or agreeing with a team member (i.e. Can you tell me more about_______; I agree with _________ because________). Come up with some more advanced thinking frames, along with simpler ones so that everyone can participate at their level and toss in a cotton ball. We expect everyone to participate.
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I am a second grade teacher. Has anyone used the strategy of Learning Menus in the primary grades?
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I really enjoyed reading these strategies. Reading these strategies helps me feel that I am on the right track as I have seen and/or used most of these strategies you list in the actual classroom, with the exception of the cotton ball strategy for sharing air time. The share air time idea sounds great. However, it does lead me to one question. Do you have any suggestions for getting students to open up if the encouragement from others students does not work? I have seen some students just totally shutdown. The reasons they shutdown and not take part in talking during shared air time vary. Some may still feel singled out because of their diversity even with the encouragement from others and the teacher. Some simply have a fear of talking. Are there any suggestions to overcome these types of issues? I did have one student that I worked with some that would totally not talk in any situation. I found myself empty of ideas to help him open up, that is why I ask if you have any other suggestions.
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