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How to Use Differentiation in Elementary School

written by: Margo Dill • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 2/14/2012

Elementary teachers often use differentiation in their classrooms to meet all students' needs. This way, students start learning topics at their current ability level, and new material challenges them. Differentiation takes preparation and good classroom management skills to be successful.

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    Which Subjects to Differentiate?

    Any subject area or any grade level teacher can use differentiation. Elementary school subjects that are easier to differentiate than others are reading, language arts, and math.

    Reading naturally lends itself to differentiation because in one classroom, you will have children reading at various reading levels. When you group students together to do guided reading groups, you are using a form of differentiation. Elementary school reading workshop is another form because students are individually choosing books on topics they like and on their own reading levels.

    Language arts lends itself to differentiation because many times, students will have individualized spelling lists based on their abilities. Writing workshop, where students are writing and publishing their work at their own pace, is also differentiation.

    Math is another subject that is easy to differentiate. In your classroom, you'll have students who know their basic facts and are ready to be challenged with tougher problems while others are learning multiplication and division facts.

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    Start Small

    When administrators want to get started with differentiation, elementary school teachers often try to implement too many strategies or programs at one time. It is hard to keep up with differentiation if you take on too much at the beginning. First, look at your classroom and write down the ways you already differentiate for your students' ability levels. You may be surprised at how often you are doing this without realizing it. Next, pick one subject to concentrate on from the section above: reading, math, or language arts. Finally, write goals for differentiation (elementary school teachers write them for one month at a time). At the end of the month, assess these goals and see if they were successfully implemented into your classroom. If yes, then you are ready to do more with this teaching method. If no, then try and figure out where the problems are and create new goals for the same subject area.

    For example, let's say you choose reading. You are already doing guided reading groups, which is a form of differentiation. Your goals for the month are to differentiate the reading skills you teach. Some of the groups need to focus on basic story structure (characters, setting, events, climax) and how these affect the plot. Other students are ready to work on inference and character motivations. At the end of the month, ask yourself if you were able to focus on these different reading skills during your guided reading groups and assess how differentiation worked in your classroom.

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    Teacher Partners

    With any new teaching method, it can help to have a teaching partner join you in your quest to implement differentiation. Elementary school teachers can find someone at the same grade level at a larger school. You can bounce ideas off one another and even switch students to teach skills to children working at different ability levels. If you teach at a smaller school and you are the only teacher in the grade, find a teacher in a grade near yours. They might be able to share materials with you for students working above or below grade level, and then you won't have to create your own. Students may be able to take part in these classrooms as part of implementing differentiation in elementary school.

Differentiation in K-5

If you are interested in using differentiation techniques in your classroom to reach all learners and give them meaningful educational experiences, then these articles will provide tips and ideas to get you started and keep you going.
  1. How to Use Differentiation in Elementary School
  2. Differentiation in Science Class to Reach All Learners
  3. Differentiation Ideas for Teaching Gifted Students
  4. Differentiating Instruction for Gifted Students in the Regular Education Classroom

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