University of Pittsburgh School of Education

Differentiated Instruction

What is "Differentiated Instruction," how does it align with the LEADERS approach, and how can I use it to help meet diverse student needs in my classroom?

By Dr. Bruce Fischman, LEADERS Allentown/Muhlenberg Regional Co-Director

Many school districts are investigating various educational practices, looking for ways to make sure that their students develop the independent thinking skills and mental habits needed for successful learning. "Differentiated instruction" offers an excellent alternative.

The philosophy behind differentiated instruction calls for teachers to be proactive in using a wide repertoire of curricular and instructional approaches. This wide array of approaches should be consistently used with students who have diverse needs, abilities, strengths, experiences, and interests, in order to best support their learning.

Carol Ann Tomlinson has written several excellent books about differentiated instruction, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). She provides a number of other instructional strategies that support the philosophy of differentiated instruction, e.g. Howard Gardner's research on multiple intelligences and Jamie McKenzie's work on Scaffolding for Success.

The key characteristics for effective scaffolding (providing the supports needed for a student to succeed in work that is slightly beyond his/her comfort zone) include:
  • Provide clear directions
  • Clarify the purpose for instruction by asking essential questions
  • Keep students on task
  • Provide clear expectations for quality
  • Point students to worthy sources for help and information
  • Reduce uncertainty, surprise and disappointment to maximize learning efficiency
  • Deliver efficiency by requiring hard work, but not wasted work
Educational approaches that display effective differentiation of instruction include: The LEADERS program advocates using literacy research (e.g. the materials provided by CIERA) as the basis for best practices in classroom instruction. LEADERS supports differentiated instruction by emphasizing the following methods. You may click on any of these methods for a link to further resources.
The emphasis on Responsive Classroom strategies supports an environment conducive to differentiated instruction. Guided Reading, Flexible Grouping and Scaffolding strategies all lend themselves to the differentiation of instruction. Word Building and Word Wall activities complement Cooperative Learning activities. Literature Circle discussions honor differences and help students to appreciate listening to different points of view. Writing Workshops support the process approach for student writing and allow students to be guided by individual interests in writing stories from their own experiences. High standards are maintained by using classroom performance rubrics and rubrics for writing.

All the methods listed above are important elements of the LEADERS for Readers program, showing how well the LEADERS approach matches the philosophy of differentiated instruction.


Tomlinson, Carol Ann
How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001
Tomlinson, Carol Ann
The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999
Witherell and McMacken
Graphic Organizers and Activities for Differentiated Instruction in Reading
Teaching Resources, 2002