Online Course: Differentiated Instruction and Lesson Planning

***This thread has been cross-posted in the Math and Numeracy, Science, and Reading and Writing groups.

The LINCS Learning Portal houses self-paced, freely accessible online courses developed by U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education-funded initiatives

This discussion thread is related to the LINCS online course entitled Differentiated Instruction and Lesson Planning that is available in the LINCS Learning Portal. During and after you complete the course, you are prompted to write reflections on the issues below. Please share your thoughts and experiences with your colleagues.

  • Consider a lesson you currently teach. How would using differentiated instruction change it?
  • Consider a lesson you currently teach. Does it have effective learning objectives that are specific, observable and measurable? If so, how do these shape the lesson? If not, how would effective learning objectives change the lesson?
  • Write a reflection on how what you learned in this course shaped the lesson plan you produced and/or the success of your lesson.




With DI, I focus more on the needs of the students and less on my infatuation with the content. Being a grammar nerd, I sometimes get caught up in the structure and form of the language. Instead, I want to focus on closing the gap between where my students are and where they want to be.

For example, before DI, I tended to overwhelm my students with too much information and not enough practice. With DI, I start with the end in mind: articulate the objective, devise a simple but effective assessment, identify the main skill and sub-skills needed to succeed, and then craft a scaffold of activities with a minimum of direct instruction and a variety of hands-on, interactive activities to build understanding and confidence. 

My instruction seems more direct and focused. My students like the hands-on, active approach.

Beth, I recognize that dilemma! Wendy Quinones here, author of the DI course. And I love that phrase -- "infatuation with the content." As a fellow grammar nerd, I know how easy it is to be deeply fascinated with a grammar point while students are glassy-eyed. It sounds as though you've found a way to put DI to work in a way that will indeed help close the gap between where your students are and where they want to be. Giving them more hands-on practice might even help them come to like grammar! It also sounds as though it has helped simplify your lesson planning, which is what I found, too, when I integrated DI into my practice.I'm so glad it has helped you!

I realized teaching middle and high school that if students were behind in math or whatever, the "solution" was to cram in *everything* they missed and move faster (with the same teaching methods that hadn't worked before, though sometimes that was more an issue of being developmentally ready for abstractions).   

I decided I'd figure out what students should not leave my classroom without knowing... things like what we celebrated on July 4th (Freedom? from slavery?)   ... and in math, knowing that 2^3 was 8  --and why!!! and that 1/8 + 3/8 was 1/2, not 4/16  -- and why!!!....   I'd touch on 3/17 + 4/3 (and the absurd word problems going wiht it)... but the thing we review again and again to automaticity are those basics that actually have a chance of building understanding. The "how to do an easy one and why" made students a whole lot more likely to be able to do harder ones because the "and why" part replaced the "or maybe that's not what I need to do...I'll just guess."   







I loved your comments and direction!  I have a quick question for you and hoped you could help me out.  I also have this problem of having too much content to cover with students who should not be moving on from the type of fundamental math skills that will be needed at the next level.  My issue lies with knowing what those things are that "students should not leave the class without knowing."  For example, their are certain things that we know will be on exams the students will need to take, but that they will never use later in life.  However, there are also certain concepts that we should cover that might not be as useful in an examination, but will be able to be utilized later by that student.  So my question is, what do you consider the best way to differentiate between what you want to teach the student and what you need to teach the student?  Thanks!

Hi, Dylan. Your question must have gotten hidden from me, so I'm sorry to leave you wondering here! Many if not all instructors who work with students preparing for passing exams face that same dilemma. I can only answer from my perspective. 

Adults learn new skills and concepts when those relate to their interests and/or goals. They must connect content to their experiences. Some students, the "A" students in schools, create those connections for themselves. They don't end up in Adult Ed. However, adults who don't fit the public-school mold and who drop out of our systems often need help in making those connections.

Given what we know about how adults in our programs learn, I advocate targeting instruction to what students perceive to be useful and meaningful. That's how they will learn. Once they gain confidence in the learning process and become skilled in some important areas, like you described, then, then, then they will themselves commit to learning what they are missing to pass exams. In my view, we initially engage them in learning; they continue to process on their own with our guidance if passing exams now becomes an achievable goal for them. In that sense, instruction integrates the student into the process, differentiates activities to attract the greatest number of buy-ins, and lets students take it from there. What do you think? Leecy (Reading and Writing CoP Moderator)

This was a very interesting read.  I am familiar with differentiated instruction from my past years as a Montessori teacher of multi-age students.  I appreciated the six dimensions of differentiated instructions.  They are very important in designing a lesson for students of varying ages and levels of readiness.  I am now, after many years of working with middle school student, am doing the same for adult learners.  I find that " student's interest" is a key area in differentiating the lessons.  Most importantly, giving students an understanding of how the skills presented will be needed by them in the workforce or daily lives.  A lesson in fractions can be taught in so many ways that can peek the students' interests and be delivered to show it need in everyday living situations.  The idea of working backward to design a lesson plan is great.  I find that many teachers use this approach somewhat automatically when trying to meet the need of an adult education classroom.




Chris, you certainly grasp the intent behind differentiating instruction. You are so very right that "A lesson in fractions can be taught in so many ways that can peek the students' interests and be delivered to show it need in everyday living situations." Adults only connect to instruction when we connect to them! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important approach! Leecy

The last lesson plan I created could have been more tiered, allowing for more observation of the students grasp of the skill being taught. The learning objectives were clear, specific, observable and measurable. I will allow for more observation due to the information in this course.

Sounds like a plan, Kay! You mention observing students. We often forget, however, to give students time to observe and reflect during sessions. I hope you'll consider that aspect. Many learners like to observe a lot before being asked to perform. Thanks for your comments. Leecy

Hi, Kay. I'm going to post your question in the Teaching and Learning community, asking members there to address your questions. You can access comments made in that group, but you will need to join the group to response to what others are saying. Hopefully, you'll start a good thread regarding you question. Thanks! Leecy

Differentiated instruction would increase the students knowledge of the lesson because I would be using different styles. The different styles of teaching would insure that each student would understand better. I would use hands-on-activities appropriated for them. The students would be instructed on their levels of understanding. I would use old learning to teach new learning.

Each student is instructed to divide their life into six categories. A list of 36 possible categories is given to each. based on individual experiences, they choose from the list the six categories that pertain to them. They are then instructed to reflect and think about 16 items that pertain specifically to each category they have chosen.

Jerry, I love this idea! I hope you'll share it in the communities to which you belong. I notice you belong to the ELL community. I moderate the Reading and Writing CoP and would love to have you post this there. If not, I would love permission to post it as an idea for differentiating instruction! If you can add the list of 36 possible categories, that would help even more. Thanks. Leecy

The group who did this lesson were pretty close in ability in Algebra and Geometry.  Determining the equation that fit a set of data was new to most of them (This was the learning objective of the lesson.)  The task involved collecting available data from the NASA website and determine the area of a rectangle proportional to the one that was one of the solar panels on the moon camera.  Then the students had to determine how many grains of dust the proportional rectangle would hold altogether.  Finally they had to predict when the actual solar panel would be inoperable because it was totally covered in moon dust.  The activity was done in groups of two or three.  Because they worked together, they all accurately produced an answer within 95% of the actual number that NASA published on its website.  The best part of the task was that the groups found the problem interesting and "doable."

Winifred, what a charming and effective lesson! It is an example of an integrated, differentiated, and collaborative activity that is also fun! I hope you'll post this activity in the Math and Numeracy community. Please share. Thanks! Leecy

Leecy Wise, Moderator
Reading and Writing CoP


The group who did this lesson were pretty close in ability in Algebra and Geometry.  Determining the equation that fit a set of data was new to most of them was the learning objective of the lesson. The task involved collecting available data from the NASA website and determining the area of a rectangle proportional to the one that was one of the solar panels on the moon camera.  Then the students had to determine how many grains of dust the proportional rectangle would hold altogether.  Finally they had to predict when the actual solar panel would be inoperable because it was totally covered in moon dust.  The activity was done in groups of two or three.  Because they worked together, they all accurately produced an answer within 95% of the actual number that NASA published on its website.  The best part of the task was that the groups found the problem interesting and "doable."

In working in correctional education classrooms, I find that the use of choice menus works wonders to differentiate instruction. As an example, I created a tic-tac-toe menu for activities connected to the students' novel reading in English. In a correctional ed classroom, a teacher may have students in English I-IV at all levels of skill ability and progress (e.g., 1st semester of English I when it's actually 2nd semester). By delivering mini lessons and then issuing a choice menu, students of all levels are able to learn the same concept at different depths of knowledge.

I recently did a lesson with adult learners on the essential concepts of probability: mean, median, mode, and range. I had it all planned out that since attendance-wise I have a fickle group who show up at different times, I would have the definitions of the four terms on the board and then a copy of the practice worksheet, and that after it was completed (banking on it taking about 20 minutes) students would move on to their own individually paced content and curriculum. What could possibly go wrong? The answer to the rhetorical question is nothing went wrong, so much as nothing went right. Although, it did provide me with a good opportunity to look back.

I knew my learning objective: all learners will be able to identify mean, median, mode, and range, and then apply them with a data set. I even had assessments chosen. Where things fell apart- or more likely were less efficient- was in my anticipation that all my learners would be able to accomplish the tasks in the same way. My "higher," independent learners would be okay with my plan. My "middle" learners would be okay with a couple of examples. My "low" learners would need direct instruction, guidance, and continual practice until they started being able to solve things on their own. If I had actually identified and applied this, things may have gone much smoother. Planning for differentiation is something I struggle with.

A lesson I am currently teaching is on using evidence from a reading to support a stance. I am preparing my learners for the HSE, and want them to do well on the writing section, specifically the essay. The learning objective is fairly cut and dry: "After the lesson, students will be able to locate a sentence in an assigned reading that supports an argumentative statement they have written." I know what I am looking for, as well as how my learners are going to demonstrate that they have nailed the lesson.

If I had not prepared this lesson with anything more than the idea that "I want my students to be able to use evidence," then maybe we would get to the end of the lesson, maybe we would not have arrived at the end. Maybe I would know what I am looking for, or maybe I would not know.

The learning objective for me is not so much of a challenge as much as preparing learning activities. 

I am a MI-BEST Basic Skills Instructor.  I work with AE students who are co-enrolled in Adult Education classes and a Career-Tech Pathway. I concentrate on the student weaknesses.

This is how I use differentiated instruction. Currently I am working with 2 students who are taking Heating and Air  classes. They lack basic math skills. One student is in the beginning level so I work with him on applying his multiplication skills. the other student is in the intermediate level. I work with her on doing word problems related to her actual HVAC course. Consequently this is giving them more practice in math and preparing them for their upcoming math GED test.

Dianne, it's great that you can have those two students practice different math skills within HVAC. If you work with them at the same time, there are many ways to have them practice occupational math online. That way, you can give one your individual attention while the other becomes engaged online. I have used a lot in the past while integrating academic skills into occupational interests. It's a very old site that is no longer maintained, but the resources are valuable. The HVAC area is If you Google "HVAC math," a big list develops. Just ideas. Leecy (Reading and Writing CoP Moderator)

I work with Mi Best students who are in the Diesel Equipment Technology Career Pathway.  I  work with them individually as well as team teach in their English Composition I class.  Currently, they are working on passing the writing section of the TASC, and they write on different levels.  With my advanced student, I allow him to write and proof his paragrapghs and essays independently.  Then, I give him additional practice with grammar as needed.  With my lower level student, I cover a different grammar topic with him weekly on an individual basis.  He proofs sentences and paragraghs individually, and then I go over each one with him.  I provide power points and videos on the topic at hand.  I give him supplemental grammar exercises to complete as well.  Then, he writes his paragraghs, and we proof and edit them together.  I enjoy working with both of these students and look forward to their success on the TASC as well as in the DET program. 

Amye, it sounds like you and Dianne (above) are using very similar approaches, and I applaud you both for integrating math and writing into occupational topics. Using reading passages from occupational training and having students comment on those in writing as you appear to be doing is a great strategy. Your level differentiation is so important in retaining students! Nice work.  Leecy

Since today is 9/11, I am showing a short video from the History Chanel that gives a timeline of events as they occurred on 9/11/01. I have assigned various assignments to different groups in my classes. Some are creating a timeline and listing facts in order of their occurrence. Some groups are writing an argumentative essay on citizens privacy rights. Others are researching other acts of terrorism throughout the world and building a short power point presentation on what they have found. Others are defining a list of vocabulary words pulled from the video and using them in a sentence. There are many different things going on in the classroom but we are all on the same subject and topic. 

My lesson objective when teaching the format of a paragraph was not specific enough. I changed " Student will be able to write a properly formulated paragraph" to "Student will be able to write a properly formulated paragraph that includes a topic sentence and three supporting sentences." Grammar and punctuation as well as transition words will be added in later on in the lessons.

The classes of ESOL at the local college contain adult students of all ages and backgrounds.  Some students have had no prior education from their home country and others have had college certificates.  I have noticed that the mind's ability to learn is different from those who are illiterate compared to those who have had college education.  I have the classroom objectives divided into several categories.  I start the class with a phonics lesson pinpointing to a specific vowel sound.  I introduce the phonic sound and vocabulary with a word search and movie on Monday.  I have developed Quizlet sets to introduce the sounds through rhyming words, opposites, and pictures.  I utilize the phonic strategies from Tutor Ready.  This activity is good for the intermediates because it strengthens their ability to pronounce the English words correctly.  For the high beginners, I introduce/maintain singular/plural nouns using more words with the same vowel sound.  For the students who are intermediate, we will practice the 4 P's of verb tenses by using charts.  The benefit of the whole class participating is that the beginner students see what goals they need to achieve when learning English language. 

Other activities conducted during class time is technology session by introducing several web sites to enhance the vocabulary of English.  The students access addition websites that read

My assessments are watching and listening when the students speak to me.  I watch their writing skills to see if they are able to produce a sentence or spelling words correctly.  I do not know any other languages so they have to use their English to ask me questions.  I give them a lot of credit when they try. 

This course has reminded me to be more specific in my lesson planning and searching for different activities to enhance the students' ability to learn.   


Jennifer, thanks for providing great examples of differentiating instruction. You are addressing the learning needs of a big variety of students well! You said, " I have noticed that the mind's ability to learn is different from those who are illiterate compared to those who have had college education." I wonder if you would comment more on that difference. Very interesting. Leecy

Since I work with adults who come from Spanish speaking countries, I cater my lessons to accommodate their needs. And that means teaching my lessons in Spanish so that they can better understand the information. Also, because I have much older students at time I have to make sure that I explain things in ways that would make it easier to understand. And that may be me sitting down with them and going over the material in a simpler way or giving more explanations. This technique is extremely helpful and necessary in the lessons that I teach. 

I teach courses in child care regulations. I will adapt the lesson using DI principles into three levels. The beginner level will learn the abbreviations and the matching vocabulary in a given regulation. Intermediate level students will learn how to come up with ways to look up these state regulations. Advanced level students will be able to implement these regulations in their child care setting. 


Leonidas, your second example here for having learners approach tasks for the same topic at different ability levels is a good example of differentiation, where all get to contribute their own strengths in developing knowledge and skills around a topic. Your first and earlier example describes an approach that many advocate for teaching a new language although it is not as much of an example of differentiation. I invite you and others here to consider taking that approach one step further, showing how you might differentiate tasks in that Spanish-speaking group of older adults. Thanks for your examples! Leecy

I teach ESL to adults who know little or no English. They come from a variety of educational backgrounds and literacy levels - some can read and write in their own languages while others cannot. For the first few weeks of class, my lesson objectives include recognizing and producing targeted English sounds. To bring differentiated instruction into these lessons, I could try and group students by their readiness for both recognition and production. Students with less readiness could use flashcards with targeted sounds for recognition (place different sounds in stacks like "P" in one and "B" in another, etc). Students with more literate backgrounds could work in pairs to produce the sounds both orally and in writing (one student says the sound and the other writes it).  

Recently, I taught a lesson that required adult students to locate four resources (library, recreation center, park, and hospital) in their community and answer basic questions about those resources. Some of these questions included hours of operation, contact information, and directions to the resource. Since I considered all four resources important information, it never occurred to me to differentiate the instruction.

One way I could change my instruction is to require the less proficient students to find fewer resources than those students whose English and technological skills are more advanced. Further, I could change some of the questions to better fit the students Zone of Proximal Development. For example, I have a few students who are still struggling to understand the English alphabet, so writing directions to the different resources proved a difficult task. I could have differentiated my instruction my having those students draw a map instead of hand write out multi step directions.

Meggin, you description of how you might differentiate the activity you implemented provides an excellent example of the practice! Having some students work together might also help in completing assignments. Nice work. Thanks for sharing very useful suggestions. Leecy

In my ABE class, I see this approach as particularly useful as I have learners at vastly different levels working on the same skills. The lesson I am currently working on to try this approach would be about word choice. As I have varying levels, the vocabulary knowledge is a significant challenge. Some students are ready for difficult words, and some struggle with more basic words. In previous lessons, we have defined connotation and denotation, and I would like to create an activity that focuses on lists of words to place in positive and negative categories. This would be a good opportunity to differentiate as to build several lists, instead of one list for all students. It would be best to provide a usage example for each word, helping students work in their "ZPD". I can have a few words that are more difficult to understand, but provide context clues in the example to help students discover the meaning (students have learned context clues and do continual practice with these techniques during class).  As they develop proficiency with connotation and grouping, I would have them build sentences of similar meaning, but one sentence with the positive and one with the negative word. Again, this is a good opportunity for differentiation as some students can work with compound and complex sentences and some with simple sentences.  The learning outcome is the same, but the process to get there is nicely differentiated as to capture the wide array of student skills.

You are right on track, C! You have different strokes for different folks! Another form of differentiation, depending on your group, would be to have different tasks assumed by different students: define, illustrate, apply in..., discuss different meanings, Websites, etc... Sounds like you'll have fun, so your students will, too! Leecy

Initial assessment should be analyzed, then test level and score would be considered in determining what learning plan to apply. Each learning plan could be individualized with the teacher creating general beginning, intermediate and advanced lessons. Then make individualized changes according to quantitative and qualitative skills of the students.

Indeed, Micaela, initial assessments, if they are not too serious, can provide could clues for differentiation. Of course, you don't have to always differentiate by levels. You could do so, as I suggested to C. above, to use strengths, fill gaps, and more. Thanks! Leecy

I currently teach a lesson writing a claim statement for the ASE RLA GED Extended Response. The LO for the lesson is to write a statement that picks a side, uses the author's name and title, and lists three specific reasons the argument is superior to the other. This is a very specific learning objective that is measurable and guides the lesson.  The students use significant background knowledge from previous lessons regarding elements of an argument and identifying author's purpose, tone and word choice. When approaching this lesson, the students find the goal to be attainable. They do need to read the selections, make a choice, and have 3 reasons supporting their decision.  I show several essays with clear, precise claim statements to give examples, as well as having them rework sentences on their own and then in pairs, analyzing claim statements and supporting reasons. This lesson is always one of the more successful lessons I teach because, I believe, the LO is very specific and the students have had a few weeks of background information to help them reach the goal.

Hi, C. Thanks for sharing another example of differentiation with us here. I love the plan and the fact that your objective is so specific. Does the differentiation occur at the start, with students reading selections that match their different reading and writing abilities? Differentiation could also occur through different rubric criteria at different levels. Just thinking here. 

Thanks!  I do use essays that have a good, basic structure and are concise for lower students so they have an easier time identifying elements of argument, but we move on to more "GED like" essay readings which are not as well constructed as time goes on. I use a differentiated rubric for those with lower skills and work hard on scaffolding readings throughout the course by first modeling my own reading process and skills (I highlight, write comments, reread sections, and begin to identify elements of argument as we learn them - Ethos, Pathos, Logos).  Eventually students slowly start working the process on their own and then in groups with varying levels so the more advanced students can share their findings with the lower students helping them identify the elements of argument (I like to use highlighters of different colors for them to identify claim, facts vs emotional arguments/word choice, and any logical fallacies - different colors really help them SEE the structure of the argument from a glance after analysis; it's pretty amazing as it allows them to compare the elements visually side by side).  The rubric for lower students is differentiated for the LO (I.e. find one specific type of logical fallacy vs several unspecified types for more advanced students). 

Hat's off in your direction, Cynthia! You have provided some very helpful comments here regarding differentiation in teaching writing to adults. Since the Reading and Writing community doesn't necessarily participate in this course forum, I wonder if you would consider sharing some of your comments with that community! We haven't had a discussion regarding this topic in that community. It would be great if you could start one! Thanks! Leecy

Prior to starting this course, I thought that teaching one room of students at varying skill levels would be very difficult. From reading these reflections, I now understand that I could create a differentiated lesson plan for fractions for an example. Students at a basic level could work fractions with all common denominators, mid-level students could find common denominators and reciprocals as well as convert mixed numbers to improper fractions. The upper-level students could work algebra problems with fractions. We would all be working on the common lesson objective of using fractions.



Danette, you provide a perfect example of differentiating instruction for a multilevel classroom. Students could also be tasked with illustrating fractions or using manipulatives to express them in different ways. Different strokes for different folks! Thanks! Leecy