Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. The ones we have right now. All of them.

Dr. Kevin Maxwell

When teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of their students they are guided by some key principles of differentiation. These principles make it easier for teachers to respond to the needs of their students and increase opportunities for successful student learning.


Teaching in a differentiated classroom is made easier by informally grouping and regrouping students in a variety of ways throughout the day. Both teacher-led and student-led groups have been shown to increase student engagement and productivity.

Teachers organize short-term groups according to:

  • student needs

  • specific goals

  • the demands of an activity or project

  • interest

  • learning style

Teacher-led groups include

  • whole class or small group instruction

  • individual students working on teacher-directed activities

Student-led groups include:

  • pairs

  • collaborative groups

  • performance-based groups


When students have some say in their own learning there is greater engagement and motivation to learn. There are a number of ways that teachers can provide opportunities for student choice in a differentiated ELA classroom.

These include:

  • a variety of learning contexts (independently, with a partner, in a small group)

  • a variety of visual, print and media texts to read

  • learning activities that reflect different interests or learning styles

  • different ways to access new material, e.g. digital read-alouds, technology, etc.

  • a variety of ways to express required learning

  • opportunities to choose topic, genre, style and purposes for writing

  • opportunities to select topics for inquiry, essential questions for literature study, etc.


An essential factor of differentiated instruction is that learning experiences are matched to the needs of the student, in ways that are equally engaging and interesting for all students. This means the students who are having difficulty learning new information or essential knowledge are engaged in activities that are as interesting and meaningful as those given to the other learners. Reader’s and writer’s workshops are both examples of respectful tasks.

Respectful tasks :

  • are based on the same learning goal

  • are focused on essential understandings

  • require students to think critically and/or creatively

  • require students to work just beyond their current readiness

  • can be assessed with the same criteria

  • differ in depth and complexity


Students have a role to play in the classroom. They are problem-solvers. They have opportunities to discover their strengths and build on their weaknesses. They are involved with the teacher in the construction of criteria for learning. Opportunities for reflection, feedback and self-assessment are built into the learning experiences, for example with exit cards, journal entries, discussions etc. Students seek feedback from teacher and peers. Students learn most effectively when they see the big picture.


This informative article by Catherine Valentino on flexible grouping provides practical information, ideas and activities for teachers.


© 2023, Literacy Today