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How to Differentiate Math Instruction

Instructor: Rebecca Harkema

Becca teaches special education and is completing her doctorate degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

In today's diverse classrooms, teachers must differentiate their math instruction in order to meet the needs of a variety of learners. This lesson will explain the main principles of and strategies that support the differentiated math classroom.

Introduction to Differentiated Instruction

Imagine you are a fourth grade teacher planning an upcoming math unit on fractions. As you think about your class of 22 students, you know that you have three students with learning disabilities, four students who are English Language Learners, and two students that are gifted. Instead of being overwhelmed by the variety of needs you must meet, you decide to implement strategies to help differentiate your math instruction.

Differentiated instruction helps teachers respond to the variety of needs of students in the classroom. We know that students enter classrooms with different skill levels, educational backgrounds, and interests. Instead of delivering content in one way hoping to engage some of the students, differentiated instruction helps teachers tailor instruction to meet the needs of all learners.

Teachers can differentiate instruction by adjusting the content, process, or product of a lesson keeping their students' interests and readiness levels in mind. Let's break down what we mean by content, product, and process differentiation.

Differentiating by Content, Process or Product

When teachers differentiate instruction, they need to decide to differentiate the content, product, or the process. Let's examine each of these types.

Content Differentiation:

When teachers differentiate by content, they adjust the specific skill being taught in the lesson. For example, if you were planning to differentiate your unit on fractions based on content, some students may work on adding fractions with common denominators, but other students may work on adding fractions with unlike denominators. Both groups are studying fractions, but the specific skill between the two groups differs.

Process Differentiation:

Teachers can also differentiate the process students engage with to learn the material. Some students learn best by seeing something demonstrated, others need to hear it explained, and some students need to work with the material in order to understand. If you were going to differentiate the process of your fraction unit, you could have some students watch a video demonstration about adding fractions and some students could practice adding fractions by using hands-on materials.

Product Differentiation:

When differentiating by product, teachers give students options to demonstrate what they have learned. Some students may be able to show their learning by completing a worksheet of fraction addition problems, but other students may prefer to demonstrate their learning through making a poster, writing a story, or applying fractions to a real-life scenarios.

Differentiated Strategies for the Math Classroom

Now that we have reviewed the basic principles of differentiated instruction, let's discuss some strategies that support assessment, instruction, and management in a differentiated math classroom.

Assessment Strategies:

When differentiating instruction, teachers must use ongoing assessment so that they know the interests and readiness levels of their students. One assessment technique is a student survey. Teachers can have students complete a brief survey about their interests or previous experiences with a topic.

Teachers can also have students complete an exit slip after a lesson. By having students answer a simple prompt or question about the lesson, teachers can create instructional groups and activities for the next lesson.

Instructional Strategies:

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