Meeting the Needs of Your Gifted Student: Differentiated Instruction--Overview 1/6

If you've been in the education field for any length of time, there is no doubt in my mind you've heard the term differentiation or differentiated instruction. It's hard to sit through even one staff meeting or PD session without hearing the terms once or twice, right? There is also no doubt in my mind that your understanding of what those terms truly mean, as well as your comfort level with actually implementing differentiated instruction in your classroom is likely as varied as the personalities of the students in your classes. The truth is, all of us teachers fall somewhere along a spectrum of knowledge and implementation for classroom differentiation. Some of us are well-versed and have been walking the walk for years, and some of us are just starting out--learning what differentiation is, learning what it looks like in the classroom, and learning different strategies for implementation.

I'm going to embark on a series of posts tackling differentiation. This is the first of six posts focusing on different aspects of differentiation. First, I'll outline what is really is (and isn't), and then I'll work on giving practical strategies, tips, and resources for making it work in your classroom. Differentiated instruction can be hard. Capital H hard. It can feel overwhelming and scary and frustrating. It can leave you wondering whether it is really worth the extra work it takes to make it happen. The good news is that differentiation is possible. There are some ways that you can schedule your days or lessons to make it easier, and it is 100 percent worth it. Not only will your gifted students benefit from it, but all of your students will benefit.

Differentiation is...

First, the definition. As the term implies, differentiation means different. Differentiated instruction is meeting students right where they are and giving them the content, tools, and strategies that they need to meet (or exceed) grade level standards. It's not a program, or package, or worksheets. It's a philosophy, a way of teaching. It's knowing your students so well that you can provide for them just what they need to continue learning. It's operating your classroom with the understanding that your students are all unique in their needs, and that they all need something different from you in order to have a successful school experience.  

According to Susan Winebrenner, author of one of the most useful books for educators Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom (2001), there are five ways you can differentiate for students in your classroom. Differentiating through content, process, and product are the three most common ways teachers meet student needs. However, teachers can also differentiate the learning environment and the way student learning is assessed. All are important, and my subsequent posts will follow up on these key areas.

Differentiated instruction has a few key components that are important to consider as you get started (or continue your journey!).

One, the structure of your instructional time is critical to your success in differentiating. If you're providing different activities, content, or processes for learning, you have to allow time to give students different instructions for activities or processes, or you need to carve out time to deliver different content to individuals or groups of students. One way I provided for the element of time in my classroom was by setting up guided reading and guided math groups, or a Daily 5-esque structure of mini-lessons and independent work time. This allowed me to have all students in the classroom engaged in various learning or application opportunities while allowing me to work with individuals or small groups of students. The nice (and research-based) thing about providing students with small bursts of content instruction and then lots of time to apply their learning was that not only did it address students' attention span, it freed me up to work with students and support their learning as it was happening. I could interject help right as mistakes or misunderstandings were occurring, providing on-the-spot scaffolding. I could also provide hard enough content, activities, or experiences for my gifted learners so that they were challenged appropriately.

Second, differentiated instruction must be based on knowing your students. You have to know them really, really, well.  This means you need to spend time getting to know them as people--personality, learning preferences, etc., and also as learners--what skills and strategies do they already know, and what do they need to know next. Learning what their previous achievement or IQ scores is helpful, for sure. Finding out this information is necessary so that you can plan for instruction, learning activities, and flexible groups in your classroom. However, please note: it is important not to group your students ONLY by their ability. Just because two students have an IQ of 130 doesn't mean they have equivalent skills in analyzing nonfiction text. It also doesn't mean that they are better at analyzing nonfiction text than your student with an IQ of 115. IQ is a measure of perceived potential, not of students' previous achievement. Aside from being an attentive teacher, one of the best ways you can get to know your students is by using formative assessment. The information you can glean from a simple pre-test is not only helpful, it is imperative. One of the worst things we can do for any student is to make them "learn" content or skills that they already know.

Finally, differentiation should involve student choice (at least sometimes!). Allowing students to choose what they're reading, what they want to research, or how they'll show their learning are just a few ways we can provide for students learning preferences and interests. And if we do this often, we find that our students are more engaged, more involved, and more receptive to learning new material--even when it's time to learn something they didn't have a choice about.

Differentiation is NOT...

So, just like when we teach our students new vocabulary, we have students think of examples of the word, and we also strengthen their thinking by having them think about the non-examples.  It's important to note a few important things about what differentiation is NOT. 

Differentiation is NOT tracking students by broad ability, or even grouping them solely based on ability within the classroom. Like I hinted at above, these models don't allow for enough flexibility in meeting students' needs on a case-by-case or skill-by-skill basis. Further, tracking often results in children who are in minority populations or who have lower socioeconomic status being placed in lower groups based on teacher bias and then getting stuck there because they receive lower quality teaching ( The alternative to tracking and ability grouping is flexible grouping, particularly in the areas of math and reading instruction. And IF students are grouped flexibly within their classroom, they should be matched to curriculum and instruction that is closely related to their needs (Tieso, 2005).  Cross-grade grouping in reading has also been shown to be successful (Robinson, Shore, and Enerson, 2007). 

Differentiation is NOT group work IF each group is doing the SAME thing! I've seen this happen many times. If they're working on different activities at the same time, great. However, if your intention is that they will all still complete the same activities, just at different times, this is NOT differentiation. You might as well just do several whole-group activities and save yourself some trouble because these are essentially the same thing. 

Finally, differentiated instruction does NOT mean everyone in your classroom is on an IEP! While goal setting and progress monitoring are valuable tools, and individualization is ideal, it is not realistic to think that you will be able to fully differentiate every subject for every student every day of the year. You just can't. You're only going to frustrate yourself or burn yourself out. 

If you're interested in learning more about strategies for differentiating, including tricks and tools for implementing them in your classroom, click here to visit the next post in the series about preassessment. 


Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., & Enersen, D. L. (2007). Best practices in gifted education: An evidence-based guide. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. 

Tiesco, C. L. (2005). The effects of grouping practices and curricular adjustments on achievement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 29, 60-89. 


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