What is differentiated instruction?

By Geri Coleman Tucker

At a glance

  • Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to students’ different learning needs.

  • It lets students show what they know in different ways.

  • It doesn’t replace the goals in a child’s IEP or 504 plan.

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to all students’ learning needs. All the students have the same learning goal. But the instruction varies based on students’ interests, preferences, strengths, and struggles.

Instead of teaching the whole group in one way (like a lecture), a teacher uses a bunch of different methods. This can include teaching students in small groups or in one-on-one sessions. 

Students have “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn,” says Carol Ann Tomlinson, an educator who has done innovative work in this area.

According to Tomlinson, there are four areas where teachers can differentiate instruction:

  1. Content: Figuring out what a student needs to learn and which resources will help
  2. Process: Activities that help students make sense of what they learn
  3. Projects: Ways for students to “show what they know”
  4. Learning environment: How the classroom “feels” and how the class works together

This approach works well with the response to intervention (RTI) process used in some schools. The goal of RTI is to address learning struggles early. Students get extra support before they fall behind their peers.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Kylah Torre is an instructor in the department of special education at Hunter College.