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Summarized by Cindy Perras, M.Ed., OCT
Educational Consultant, LDAO

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is a flexible approach to teaching in which a teacher plans and carries out varied approaches to address content, learning processes, learning style, practical procedures, presentation strategies, and assessment tools. It results in a more personal, proactive learning environment, inclusive of a wide variety of learners (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2011).

According to Tomlinson (2004), differentiated instruction (DI) is based on the idea that because students differ significantly in their strengths, interests, learning styles, and readiness to learn, it is necessary to adapt instruction to suit these differing characteristics. One or a number of the following elements can be differentiated in any classroom-learning situation (Tomlinson, 2004):

  • The content of learning (what students are going to learn, and when);
  • The process of learning (the types of tasks and activities);
  • The products of learning (the ways in which students demonstrate learning);
  • The affect/environment of learning (the context and environment in which students learn and demonstrate learning).

Teachers can differentiate content, process and product, according to the student’s readiness, interests and learning profile, to increase growth, motivation and efficiency:


Process Product



Learning Profile

Growth Motivation


The Ontario Ministry of Education (2004b, p.1) outlines what differentiation is and is not:

Differentiated instruction includes:

  • Providing alternative instructional and assessment activities;
  • Challenging students at an appropriate level;
  • Using a variety of groupings to meet student needs.

Differentiated instruction does not include:

  • Doing something different for every student in the class;
  • Disorderly or undisciplined student activity;
  • Using groups that never change or isolating struggling students within the class;
  • Never engaging in whole-class activities with all students participating in the same endeavour

How is Differentiated Instruction used in the Classroom?

Tomlinson’s article, “What is Differentiated Instruction?” (Click here to access the article.) provides specific examples of how elementary teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

Differentiating Content:

  • Using reading materials at varying readability levels;
  • Putting text materials on tape;
  • Using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students;
  • Presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means;
  • Using reading buddies; and
  • Meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners.

Differentiating Process:

  • Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity;
  • Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them;
  • Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early;
  • Offering manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them; and
  • Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.

Differentiating Products:

  • Giving students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels);
  • Using rubrics that match and extend students' varied skills levels;
  • Allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and
  • Encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements.

Differentiating Learning Environments:

  • Making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration;
  • Providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings;
  • Setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs;
  • Developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and
  • Helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly

Click here for the full article by Carol Tomlinson, on the Reading Rockets website: What is Differentiated Instruction?

Click here to watch a video by Carol Tomlinson on differentiation: Differentiation: Proactive Instruction


British Columbia. Ministry of Education. (2011). Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers. British Columbia: Author.

Ontario. Ministry of Education. (2004b). TIPS (Targetted Implementation and Planning Supports): Developing mathematical literacy. Toronto: Author.

Tomlinson, C. (2004). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Pearson.

Tomlinson, C. What is Differentiated Instruction? Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/263.


Differentiated Instruction Professional Learning Strategy Website – EduGains, Ontario Ministry of Education

Reach Every Student Through Differentiated Instruction – Ontario Ministry of Education

Learning for All: A Guide to Effective Assessment and Instruction for All Students, Kindergarten to Grade 12 – Ontario Ministry of Education

Differentiated Instruction Teacher's Guide: Getting to the core of teaching and learning - Ontario Ministry of Education

Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers – British Columbia Ministry of Education

Professional Learning Guide: Differentiated Instruction – Connecting Practice and Research in Mathematics, Ontario Ministry of Education

Differentiated Instruction for Reading

Differentiated Instruction for Writing