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Benefits of Differentiated Instruction in Early Learning—The Comprehensive List [With Matching Strategies]

Sprig Learning believes that every child is truly unique with their own learning gifts, strengths and challenges. Naturally, we endorse differentiated instruction, or differentiated learning, as a teaching method. It is the act of varying instruction based on the needs and progress of groups of students. When customized for just one student, it is known as individualized instruction. 

Multiple studies prove the efficiency of differentiated or individualized instruction. It is starkly different to whole group instruction, which is the traditional way of teaching to the whole class, instead of groups or individuals. 

It’s a lot to ask a program or an educator to introduce or change their current curriculum or teaching practice to adopt new content or teaching methods. One of the benefits of differentiated instruction is that it doesn’t require teachers to implement a complete overhaul. Differentiated instruction only requires that one of the following elements be modified to suit the needs of the student group: teaching content, process, assessments or environment.

There are many ways to vary these elements, it’s likely you already employ the concept of differentiated instruction at some level.

Some of the most popular teaching methods in preschools and kindergarten—such as the hands-on approach, cooperative learning, conference learning and play-based learning—are not mutually exclusive. Mixing and matching them is one form of differentiated instruction. The educator sees what type of learning certain groups of students are most receptive to, and modifies instruction for that group to optimize their learning.

 

Need for Effort and Seeing the Benefits of Differentiated Instruction

Of course, everytime you modify an aspect of teaching, it requires planning and effort. There is also the aspect of follow up thereafter, to see if the varied instruction had its intended effect on the students. 

It’s why understanding the benefits of differentiated instruction is crucial. With proper understanding, greater clarity is achieved on why there is a need to differentiate. 

For this article, we browsed through both industry and academic literature to gather all the benefits of differentiated instruction. Each benefit is matched with a strategy. The benefits can be realized by following the respective strategy.

 

Differentiated Instruction Benefits & Strategies to Realize Them

Addresses Learning Gaps

Differentiated instruction is effective at providing appropriate instruction to students with a wide range of abilities. Some young students learn very quickly, while others need more time to learn and absorb specific concepts. Differentiated instruction takes both speed and depth into account when tailoring instruction. 

Strategy: When flexible grouping and self-selected reading time are used, targeted students are able to improve their phonemic, decoding and comprehension skills. 

 

Considers Both Active and Passive Learning

As everything depends on the unique learning strengths and opportunities of the student in differentiated instruction, the differentiated instruction teaching method  is very open to active learning, which is experiential in nature. Usually early learners prefer to engage more in play-based learning, but there are some who prefer a more informal learning. 

Strategy: For active learners, teach outdoors as well as in the classroom. Scheduling a lot of movement breaks is considered a teaching best practice for early learners. 

 

Caters to Individual Strengths

Young students have both learning strengths and challenges. If any course material or learning style does not consider learning strengths, then they are less likely to overcome learning gaps. It’s very common for students to struggle with certain concepts and skills, but by focusing on learning strengths, it is possible to unlock a child’s full potential. 

Strategy: The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities indicates that one out of five children struggle with the process of learning to read. It is important to remind ourselves that there have been many studies conducted prior on this topic and that the evidence suggests that “teaching children to decode letters and words, incorporating a whole language technique, and utilizing phonics instruction” are useful for gaining reading proficiency. 

 

Values Individual Interests and Abilities

Differentiated instruction is student-centered. Early learners inform educators how they best learn and what interests them. This is especially relevant in children from different linguistic and cultural communities. Relevant educator resources are needed to appeal to them. 

Strategy: In a study involving 48 elementary school teachers where they documented lesson objectives and recorded pre- and post-differentiated instruction results, students felt greater ownership of the class content and their performances when they were given choices in how they wanted to learn and be assessed. 

 

Does Not Neglect the Benefits of Group Learning

Differentiated learning is not the same as individualized learning, where learning takes place on a one-to-one basis. Differentiated learning can accommodate the individual learner as well, but it recognizes all the advantages of group learning where early learners can interact with their peers.  

Strategy: Use the think-pair-share method where students conversate amongst themselves before sharing their ideas with the whole classroom. 

 

Equally Qualitative and Quantitative

Differentiated instruction uses both qualitative and quantitative data to teach and assess early learners. When varying teaching content between differently skilled learners, it’s important to vary the difficulty of work. When assessing young students, it’s important to note all information about their learning environment.

Strategy: The whole basis of differentiated instruction is that not everyone is equally good at everything. Thus varying the length or quantity of assessment exercise or scaffolding the same learning activity into varied levels of difficulty are popular differentiation methods. While they are more tactics than strategy, they can be collectively looked at as a strategy. 

 

Increases Participation

Differentiated instruction has been proven to increase student engagement. Without active or passive participation, learning can often screech to a halt. 

Strategy: In the same study mentioned prior for “Values Individual Interests and Abilities”, it was found that students were more “motivated to stay engaged” in classes when they had greater say in the course content and methods of assessments. They displayed higher energy levels.

 

Includes Comprehensive Assessment

In order to differentiate, there is no getting around the need for a holistic assessment. It’s interesting that a distinction is made between educating the “whole child” versus targeted learning. In reality, both can be combined where the right targeted learning can be applied only after understanding the whole child.

Strategy: Use holistic assessments to unleash a comprehensive understanding of student learning. Not only does this approach gather numerous data points when screening students to properly understand them, it also considers subsequent formative assessments that will be conducted on the basis of this initial understanding. 

 

Ensures Flexibility for Teachers

The majority of this article is about students. But what about teachers? Differentiated instruction also takes educator preferences into account, where it provides them the opportunity to design lessons meant for particular groups of students. The approach is not restricted by a rigid curriculum, but can be creative in finding solutions of how to best teach the curriculum content to all students. 

Strategy: Regardless of the learning approach chosen, it must consist of “respectful activities”. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an education innovator and teacher, considered to be the pioneer of differentiated instruction, uses that term to refer to activities that are not dull drills or just fluff. Students have to continually work on tasks that motivate them and are considered valuable.

 

Is Inclusive Towards All

Differentiated instruction is aware of the current inequity in education. Based on this understanding, it attempts to provide students a high-standard quality of education so students have the opportunities and resources to excel regardless of their background or circumstances. 

Strategy: Depending on where your school is located, it’s important that the curriculum is reflective of the needs of the student body. When children see their culture and language reflected in classroom materials, they are more inclined to learn. 

 

Assessment is Thorough and Ongoing

Differentiated instruction uses formative assessments to monitor the growth of all students. It’s often that a student’s interests change or that their improvement accelerates or decelerates over time. Thus, in between summative assessments such as yearly progress reports or report cards, it’s important to keep track of learning trajectories. 

Strategy: Allow for do-overs when it comes to assessment. Sometimes young learners understand a concept but for whatever situational reason, may not be able to demonstrate that learning. In such instances, allowing them more chances to prove themselves before shifting anything else is worth exploring. It is an underutilized strategy.

 

Gels Well With Technology

Differentiated instruction is no doubt linked with collecting data. For years teachers have painstakingly collected notes on student files and organized them into folders. All of this takes time away from their actual teaching activities. Thanks to the ease of technology, all observatory notes, performance evaluations, and assessments can be stored electronically. 

Strategy: Technology assisted self-paced learning is optimal for differentiation, but for early learning all such activities must be supervised by adults. Despite the advantages of gamification of learning, it’s better that learning happens offscreen but that adults (teachers and parents) have a way to track progress using technology. 

 

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) Are Accommodated

IEPs are a form of individualized instruction, where teachers are required to modify their teaching practices for special needs students. But just because a student is a part of an IEP, does not mean that their unique strengths and challenges cannot be differentiated further just like any other student. They can also be grouped with similar students with learning difficulties so they can benefit from group learning. 

Strategy: IEPs have specialized and intensive supports specific to a child’s IEP information, goals and objectives. Examples include waiting for a longer period of time for responses and prompting when response is not given.

 

Further Differentiated Instruction Strategies

While any other differentiated instruction benefits can be grouped under one of these benefits, it’s not the same for strategies of which there are plenty more. For example, there are choice boards, learning contracts, tiered assignments, etc.  

Differentiated instruction’s positive impacts have been proven in both preschools and kindergartens, so it’s important that educators, school leaders, and education technology providers are on the same page when it comes to determining the best strategies. 

But before that happens, it’s important to ask if differentiation instruction is serious enough to be considered a major objective? If the answer to that question is yes, then the right strategies (both included in this list and others) can be proposed. But first, we should closely examine the need for differentiation. We hope the list helps.

How Differentiated Learning Supports All Forms of Early Learning

Carol Ann Tomlinson, an author and educator, is credited with pioneering differentiated instruction. Since its inception, differentiated instruction has gained massive popularity. In many ways, it is connected to all forms of modern early learning approaches. Differentiated learning is often used interchangeably with differentiated instruction. They are one and the same.

In a survey of 601 teachers, 98% said they differentiate their instruction weekly. Of that 98%, 86% say that differentiation is extremely effective. 

In this article, we will define the term differentiated instruction, clarify what it means for early learners, highlight differentiated instruction strategies, and make the connection to other learning approaches for young students. We will conclude with a word on the future of differentiated instruction.

Differentiated Instruction. The Clearest Definition.

Differentiated instruction is described in many ways. We’ve chosen the following definition:

Differentiated instruction is a planned teaching approach that recognizes the differences and similarities among students and adapts accordingly. 

In other words, it acknowledges the diversity of learning needs, styles, and backgrounds of the student, and accordingly modifies instruction for each student.

Differentiated instruction is ready to help every early learner by knowing as much about them through assessments. It is also willing to modify instruction based on student responses at the onset of the school year, or at any other time during the school year.

From the student’s perspective, it’s called personalized learning, but from the teacher’s perspective it is differentiated instruction.

What Exactly Is Differentiated?

Having understood what differentiated instruction is, the best way to delve deeper into its nature is to highlight what exactly educators can differentiate to adopt such a teaching approach. 

There are four things that can be differentiated to provide a unique learning experience.

Content

Content refers to the knowledge, understanding and skills that young students have to learn. 

A school curriculum defines content for young learners. Curriculum mapping is the process by which teachers plan their instruction throughout the school year. This ensures the goals, objectives, learning materials and course assessments all align to what is being taught to the students. 

Example of differentiated content: Leveled readers, optional mini-lessons, text materials that are digitized through audio or video.

Process

Process refers to the activities or practices by which students understand content. 

By internalizing, practicing and by associating with the teacher and other students, the students figure out what they have learned and its applications beyond the classroom. 

Example of differentiated process: Different pace of instruction, different support, customized groups of students.

Product

Product refers to the outcome of the process and content. When a process is applied to certain content, learning occurs. The students then get to demonstrate this learning via assessments or other means. 

Example of differentiated product: Different check-in points, formative assessments and holistic assessments, different criteria for success.

Environment

Environment refers to the set and setting where content, process and product happens. It accounts for the student’s feelings on what they were able to learn as a result of following a process on particular content. 

Example of differentiated environment: Outdoor learning, individual instruction, centre-based learning.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

The four modifiable differentiation components offer many opportunities to tailor an educational pathway that is personalized for the young learner. 

It’s best to have learning strategies available that reflect all four components. Here are key examples:

Project-based Learning

Project based allows teachers to differentiate by teams. It’s a great way to cluster students according to their reading level, or other strengths, interests, or social skills such as collaboration and empathy.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are used to monitor learning and provide ongoing feedback. They are distinct from summative assessments in that they are conducted throughout the school year, and not only at certain times of the year. 

They allow educators to take corrective action quickly when they see skills are not progressing as they should. Formative assessments were specifically designed as a tool for differentiated instruction in the classroom.

Learning Stations

Customizing learning stations is an effective teaching strategy. Stations are set up with different content and purpose in terms of the student in each group.  Teachers can also rotate students between stations so everybody has a chance to learn from each experience.

Learning Profiles

A learning profile looks at a student’s interest and readiness in various subject matters to accurately capture and support their learning strengths, needs and challenges. 

It allows teachers to focus on any learning gaps and optimize teaching based on what the students have a natural inclination towards.

Differentiated Instruction’s Relationship to Early Learning Approaches

There are other very popular approaches to early learning. We explore the connection between differentiated instruction and these other learning approaches. 

Play-based Learning

Also known as active learning or experiential learning, play-based learning is when young children learn through interactions with people, objects and the environment that they are in. 

By engaging with what is around them, they exercise their impulse to play and understand the world. It is self-chosen and usually led by the child. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Play-based learning is a powerful way to differentiate the process of learning.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL teaches young students how to develop self-awareness, social-awareness and interpersonal skills. 

It leads to better academic performance, positive behavior and healthier life choices that influence the quality of life in future years. By better understanding their emotions, children are able to better manage themselves and make responsible decisions. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: SEL is all about the interaction with others and giving space to feelings. As such, it’s an extremely useful method to support those learners who are more social or affective.

Inclusive Learning

Inclusive learning recognizes that all children have the right to a learning experience that respects their unique situation or circumstance.  It enables all students to participate by removing all barriers to learning for anyone with a different background. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Differentiated learning is inclusive by nature. It ensures that no one is kept from reaching their potential simply because the content, process, product or environment was not right for them.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is an educational approach that modifies the lesson plan based on each student’s unique skills, abilities, needs and interests. The focus is on one student and it is from the student’s perspective. From the teacher’s perspective, it is called individualized instruction. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Individualized instruction deals with one student at a time. Rather than assigning the same group of students to an activity or assignment, each student is shuffled according to their pace of development and learning needs. It can be part of an overall differentiated instruction strategy, which deals with groups of students.

Is Differentiated Instruction the New Normal?

Research conducted on differentiated instruction demonstrates its effectiveness as a teaching strategy for students with varied needs. In a three year study, researchers found that differentiated instruction yielded positive results for several groups in mixed ability K-12 classrooms in Alberta.

To demonstrate its sway on the culture, there are now courses that offer early childhood development with differentiated instruction.

But as differentiated instruction can be resource intensive and time consuming, it has not become the norm just yet. The industry, the government and academia are working together to introduce new solutions that make it easier to apply differentiated instruction across classrooms in North America. 

When differentiated instruction is added to a program, early learners often show significant gains in oral language vocabulary, print knowledge, phonological awareness, and math. The ubiquitous nature of technology has definitely helped to propel the advancement of differentiated instruction.

Vince Hill, former principal at Grasslands School Division, states how over half of teachers surveyed say that technology helps them individualize their classroom instruction. Collaborating with Sprig Learning has helped him to apply differentiated instruction at his school, which has a mix of students from varied socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. He stresses the importance of collecting data in a safe and secure way to account for the learning needs of all and to measure the progress of such a diversity of students.

Holistic Learning–The Epitome of Differentiated Instruction

One of the best ways to create a strong foundation for early learners is through holistic learning. It makes use of holistic assessments that support differentiated instruction by not only looking at the student, but also their parents and the community they live in. 

Similarly to differentiated instruction, holistic learning has links to all other types of learning. It considers play, sociability, emotions, inclusiveness and personalization. 

Furthermore, holistic learning compliments Indigenous learning perspective where equal emphasis is given to the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual areas of development. This opens up many doors to learning such as visual learning, auditory learning, kinesthetic learning and of course reading and writing.. 

But to get to the level where early learners can build the foundational literacy and numeracy skills, early development such as oral language and problem solving is crucial! Holistic learning is thus key, where more than one mode of learning is available to the young student.

Differentiated Instruction as a Way of Thinking

Certain events can force you to think about differentiation. For example, alternate modes of learning such as e-learning, could have been seen as a differentiation tactic in the past, but the pandemic forced all schools to think about it regardless. 

Approximately four of ten school districts reported last year that they do not have the ability to provide e-learning for students, even for a single day. So when thinking about differentiated learning, it helps to be prepared so you will be able to serve different students based on their situation at the time.

But even beyond contingency plans, it is important to see differentiated instruction as a concept, and not as a tool or tactic. 

We hope this article sparks your interest in differentiated instruction. When you understand the fundamental concept of differentiated instruction, you can’t help but notice it in teaching methods and strategies already used in the classroom. If you ever need to brainstorm ideas, here is a list of 50 strategies to differentiate learning. But as educator and teacher advice columnist Larry Ferlazzo says “Differentiating instruction is really a way of thinking, not a preplanned list of strategies”.