9 Ways to Differentiate Your Whole Group Instruction

Differentiating your instruction can be overwhelming. I get it. 

When you hear the word "differentiation" do you automatically start breaking your class into small groups? Or maybe you start scouring Pinterest for ways to differentiate the task students will do after you teach a lesson.

What I want to share with you here are ways you can differentiate your whole group instruction... tailoring the teaching you do to your whole class so it better fits each of your student's needs.

Here are 9 ways you can differentiate your whole group instruction. These differentiation ideas will really help you meet each student's needs during the lessons you already teach.

Hang on now. Doesn't differentiation butt heads with a whole group setting? How can you differentiate a lesson being taught to the whole class?

Here are nine ways:

Let's say you are planning to introduce a new reading strategy tomorrow, "synthesizing" for instance. You know this first lesson will probably go right over the heads of your lower readers and you'll be playing catch-up during guided reading for the next two weeks.

Instead, today try pre-teaching the main focus of the lesson to that small group of students. Do it just like you plan to do it tomorrow to the whole group. It's like you are letting these students in on a little secret. They'll be one-up on their classmates heading into tomorrow, a feeling they rarely have when it comes to reading, and you'll have them primed for the content to really sink in. Plus, you'll get a feel for the flow and the wording, like a dry run.

You don't have to choose your lower level students either. Even pulling six random students for a pre-teaching group still gives you six students during tomorrow's whole group lesson who will have a basic understanding and will know what to expect, able to help those nearby whom you can't always reach right away.

Where students sit can be effective in helping you differentiate your lesson. I like bringing students to a gathering area on the floor, having them sit where they choose. Then I do a quick scan and make some changes: "Charlie, switch spots with Luke. Anna, switch with Tommy. And Ria, you switch with Harley." 

My goal is to move some students, who I expect to struggle, forward so I can interact with them more easily. To avoid any stigma getting attached to which students I move, I don't always move the same students, and I always make an "unexpected move." Maybe I move Super-Smart-Samantha to the front, just so the class doesn't start thinking the movers always need help.

If I did any pre-teaching, I'm also looking to spread out those students so they can help coach others. But in general, I'm trying to set a tone that says the spots students pick for themselves are not permanent. I want to be able to move Tanya up close to me halfway through the lesson, after I notice a totally confused look on her face, and it won't be a big deal at all to the rest of the class.

No matter how eloquent you are with your words, your visual learners are going to benefit greatly from seeing the lesson, rather than just hearing it. So as you teach, keep a visible record of what you are saying, whether it's with an anchor chart or simply using the board.

A huge benefit that comes along with making your teaching visible is the natural tendency to simplify and organize information when recording it. I encourage you to play up this tendency: use lists, charts, graphic organizers, and symbols. What you are really doing is conveying your message a second time, just in a different form. And by doing so, you are connecting to more students.

Changing how we ask questions to the class during a lesson can help with differentiation. Specifically, try using these two types:

Split Question
With a split question, you actually ask two related questions, one more sophisticated than the other, and have students answer the one that better fits their current understanding. It might sound like, "Boys and girls, I'm going to write two questions on the board, and I want you to jot down your thinking to the one question that challenges you just right. Either, 'which detail tells us the most about Roy?' or, 'why do you think the author told us so much about Roy's shoes?'"

Build-On Question
With a build-on question, you ask the class a question and give an additional step for those who finish the first part. "Boys and girls, try highlighting the words in this paragraph that personify the wind. If you finish that, write down another way the author could have used personification for the wind."

When you have students turn and talk to a neighbor about something related to the lesson you are teaching, you are adding student engagement and an easy way to formatively assess students' progress. But if you get in there and get involved in these turn and talks, you add a way to differentiate your instruction, too. 

Pose a question to the class or statement to think about and have them turn and talk about it with a neighbor. Then try popping into one or two of the conversations that ensue. As you listen, be aware of opportunities to differentiate: to push some partners further and to help some get back on track.

An easy way to add a bit of differentiation to your lesson is to simply give more wait-time. When you ask the class to share their thinking, don't immediately call on the first student who raises her hand. If you wait before allowing a response (even if you end up calling on that same student), you are giving your lower students more time to process and think things through.

Bring up a student or two during your instruction to use as an assistant, even for the simplest of things: holding up a poster, pointing to items on the chart, scribing what you say, modeling an action (e.g. "Every time we use the word 'synthesize' Henry is going to do his special move.") Your assistant's tasks may not even be truly necessary, but it's an easy way to pluck a struggling student from the crowd and engage him before he tunes out, OR to give a thriving student some extra responsibility.

My favorite, and simplest, way to involve a student assistant is during a lesson in which I would model my own thinking. Instead of explaining my thinking out loud to the class, I attribute that same thinking to the student who I pulled up with me. "Now, boys and girls, let's say Henry is a synthesizing master. So right at this moment, I know he's thinking about how this new text detail is going to fit into what he already understands from the story. Isn't that right, Henry?"

Think about differentiating one element of the lesson. For a lesson on a reading strategy, you might provide two or three different texts to use, each at a different level. Or if you're confident the skill you are teaching could apply to any text, have students choose their own book to bring with them to practice the new strategy that you'll teach them.

In a writing lesson, try varying the topic in order to interest more students, since the skill probably isn't based on the topic with which you'll use to practice it. Maybe you are teaching paragraph structure with an anchor chart. Instead of modeling with a topic you had prepared, try splitting the chart in half, asking volunteers to suggest two topics, and model the paragraph structure techniques with both topics, one on each half of the chart. Or dip into #7 above, and use a student assistant to model with one topic while you model with the other.

After introducing a new strategy or skill within your lesson, you often want to give students a chance to respond, reflect, or try it for themselves before you move on to the next stage. Especially with something brand new, try allowing a head start, and then following up with some help. "Boys and girls, I want you to try writing in your notebook what the author is really trying to tell you in the section we just read. Give it a go. Now, if you need a little jump start, I'll be giving some guidance in just a moment."

Differentiation need not always require drastic changes to your lesson. Utilizing a few of the ideas I've shared will help your whole group instruction better sink in to each student.

As you transition from the teaching to the task with which students will use to practice, be sure to read about the 8 Practical Ways to Differentiate a Student Task I wrote for Upper Elementary Snapshots.

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If you're looking for differentiated resources to help your students respond to their reading, be sure to check out my Reader's Notebook Response Pages for Literature or for Informational Text.


The pages are differentiated at three levels to meet each student right where they need to be.