Different Students, Different Needs: How Teachers Differentiate by Abby Mallett

A fourth grade teacher sits at her desk, the first rays of morning sunshine cutting through the blinds and striping the stained carpet. Her eyes move swiftly across the screen of her computer, open to a student’s writing from yesterday.  The only sounds are the click of keys and scribble of a pen as she types comments into the document and makes notes on a chart next to her.

The bell rings, jolting her out of concentration.  She quickly switches the document to a morning message to display on the screen for her students.  The teacher proceeds to the door, opening it with a smile.  She greets her students with a “Good morning” in a cheery voice.  The quiet room becomes a hubbub of children’s voices and movements as they unpack backpacks, sharpen pencils, and recount stories of yesterday’s adventures to their friends.

The teacher joins the hubbub, moving quickly, but unhurried around the room.  She stops at a student’s desk and discreetly gives him a graphic organizer to help with his morning spelling assignment.  “I hope your sentences make me laugh again today,” she tells another student with a wink.  A student struggling to hang up a backpack gets a hand from the teacher and a gentle point to remind him to read the morning message.  An energetic girl runs up to her, eyes lit with excitement.

“Guess what!” she exclaims.

“Your dad got home last night?” the teacher replies.  The exuberant student proceeds to tell the story of mighty Dad’s return while teacher listens patiently.  This girl obviously needs to tell her story this morning.

This classroom of 31 students contains 31 humans with unique needs and distinct personalities.  Their reading abilities range from 2nd grade level to 7th grade level.  One student lives and breathes sports, while another is content reading a book even while walking down the hallway.  One student needs to know the daily schedule to curb anxiety, and another can’t wait for surprises.  One student will write pages in minutes but with no punctuation, while another takes 20 minutes to write two sentences.

And the task for the teacher?  Every day, give each of these students the tools, nurturing, time, interaction, challenge, and materials needed to grow academically and meet the high expectations of the fourth grade curriculum.  How does she do this?  In a word, differentiation.

What is differentiation?  Watts-Taffe et al (2012) define it as, “responsive instruction designed to meet unique individual student needs” (p. 304).  In other words, the teacher does what is necessary so that each student receives what is needed to be successful.  The key word in that definition is responsive: teachers’ instruction responds to students.  Differentiation is not one strategy a teacher uses, it’s how the teacher uses a toolbox full of strategies to meet the students where they are.  How she uses the tools will always depend on individual students.

For example, take the students in the fourth grade classroom.  One student needs help with a backpack and a nonverbal cue to get going in the morning, while another needs her story heard and then she can go about her business.  The teacher gives each of those students what he or she needs to begin the day and start learning, even though the strategies are different.

It might help to think about how parents differentiate for their own children.  Imagine two siblings arriving home from school in the afternoon.  Brother immediately pulls out his homework and begins working on it at the kitchen table.  Sister drops her backpack and beelines for the iPad, opening Minecraft.  Mom says to sister, “Remember, you can play Minecraft when your homework is done.  If you want to play outside before doing homework, you can go play for a little bit.”  Sister groans, puts the iPad down and heads outside.

Mom sits next to Brother and asks, “What are you working on?”  He explains his math homework and continues working.

In this scene, Mom approaches after-school homework with each child differently.  Brother was obviously motivated to get homework done right away, while Sister needed the clear expectation that homework must be finished before video games.  Mom knew Sister needed a break before doing more academic work, so she encouraged her to play outside.  Mom differentiated her parenting for each child’s needs.

Parents tend to focus on social and emotional needs, and teachers do this too!  Teachers must differentiate for affective and academic needs. For example, the fourth grade teacher is sure to listen to a student’s story at the beginning of the day, meeting her affective need to be heard.  The teacher also provides support for an academic task through a graphic organizer, helping a student organize his thoughts to complete a writing assignment.

Differentiation is not an easy task for teachers (or parents!), but a good teacher does it masterfully.  Think back to the fourth grade teacher reading students’ writing before the bell rings.  She is taking time to read through her students’ writing from the day before to see what their needs are for today.  The teacher makes notes about what each student is doing well and areas of need.  She will look for trends and use that information to teach today.  For example, she will pull a small group of students in writer’s workshop to teach more about conclusions because she saw these six students needed more help revising their endings.  She’ll also be sure to check in with one student because he left a comment in his Google Doc that he needs help using powerful words in his persuasive essay.

Creating flexible groups or individual conferring based on students’ needs (and these needs can change daily) are just two examples of how teachers differentiate in the classroom.  These approaches translate to other subjects as well.  Flexible groups and conferring work well in reading and math too.  Other common ways teachers differentiate are to give extra time or shorten assignments, ask open-ended questions, provide different texts about the same topic, and provide learning through different modes for different learning styles.

There is no finite list for differentiation, however.  The list of ways teachers differentiate is as long as the list of ways students learn.  Observe the same fourth grade teacher the following school year, and you’ll see her do six different things in the morning routine.  What you see her do will be as different as the students.  In fact, you may see her do something different with the same students a week from now.  Her teaching responds to her students.  They are evolving and changing, and therefore so is her instruction.



Watts-Taffe, S., Laster, B.P., Broach, L., Marinak, B., McDonald Connor, C., Walker-Dalhouse, D. (2012).  Differentiated instruction: making informed teacher decisions. The Reading Teacher, 66 (4), 303-314.


Abby Mallet teaches 4th grade at Superior Elementary in Superior, Colorado. She completed CWP 1 in June of 2015. This is an article written to inform parents about differentiation.  

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