Educational Research in Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is “a way for teachers to recognize and react responsively to their students’ varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning and interests” (Thousand, Villa & Nevin, 2007, p 2). Teachers systematically, methodically and intentionally discover characteristics about their students and mold lessons around these characteristics through planning. Through the use of differentiated instruction, students’ individual learning needs can be met.Educational Research in Differentiated Instruction

Liftig (2010) introduces differentiated learning as a concept which has been around for decades but has recently received more attention. This academic approach to teaching and learning requires dedication from the teachers in analyzing students’ needs, strengths, prior knowledge and even their attitudes towards topics and learning in general. At times, the application of differentiated learning may require teachers to get help from others in order to implement it effectively. It is the process by which learning strategies and activities are designed and executed to generate mastery level outcomes in every student through scaffolding, pacing, monitoring, assessing and adjusting instruction.

While Liftig provided some interesting points regarding differentiated instruction, I disagree with her promise of every student achieving a mastery level in each content area. I feel she has contradicted herself by emphasizing individual characteristics and then promising that every student will succeed. Such a promise seems to negate the very nature of individuality unless she is basing that premise on the fact that every student is considered successful on their level of understanding as supported by Schaumm, Vaughn & Leavell (1994). However, Liftig does not either elude to or imply such a stratified mastery.

Scigliano & Hipsky (2010) develop an analogy between differentiated instruction and a three ring circus. A three ring circus tends to overstimulate the senses just as differentiated instruction can overstimulate a teacher’s senses because of the seemingly daunting task to cater instruction to individual needs. They advise instructors to focus on one arena at a time just as a viewer of the three ring circus focuses on one ring at a time.

In differentiated instruction these three rings include:

  • content (subject matter),
  • process (how a student takes in the information),
  • product (the end result).

The three rings can also be applied to students using learning profile, ability and interest. Each of the student characteristics were applied to events within a circus. The learning profile was associated with the strong man, ability to high wire act and interest to the parade of performers.

Scigliano & Hipsky state that through the focusing on one point at a time that enjoyment is enhanced for both the instructor and student. But there are other benefits which are highlighted through the use of differentiated instruction. Such benefits for the students are higher self-efficacy, increased content learning, learner empowerment, increased academic achievement and the inclusion of each student in the learning process.

I found that Scigliano & Hipsky reiterated the foundational principles of differentiated instruction in a manner which made the process seem manageable. The instructional technique is repeatedly sited as being overwhelming or daunting to instructors (Smutny, 2004; Plumley, 2009) and despite its benefits many teachers are reluctant to attempt its application within their classroom (Breaux & Magee, 2010).

I agree with their point of view and the comparison to the circus. Their understanding of the reluctance for many educators to use this technique in their classroom propelled them toward an analogy which could be easily understood by anyone. The analogy familiarized the concepts of differentiated instruction to the reader and made the more comfortable in using the technique.

Knowles (2009) applied the principles of differentiated instruction to a reading curriculum based on the premise that every student is unique. She quickly dismisses reading programs which profess that one size fits all. She reiterates the foundation of differentiated instruction as content, process and product but pushes onward to reinforce the essential nature of pre-assessment and continual as well as frequent informal assessment throughout. She encourages instructors to search out materials which are challenging, stimulating and thought provoking.

Differentiated instruction within reading should take part in large blocks of time with plenty of material. Additionally, she encourages all the student’s peers to participate in read aloud and modeling. Methods such as grouping are shared in differentiating instruction for reading. Another connection can be made between reading and writing with little effort.

The author emphasizes the importance of involving school, community and family to make reading both appealing and exciting to students. Parents have a special role through their continual daily contact with the student to model daily reading. They are encouraged to read aloud to their child, give consistent encouragement engage in book discussion as well as provide opportunities for their child to visit both the library and bookstores.

The information presented by Knowles built from the essential component of any differentiated instruction model to specific applications within reading. I agree with her application of these principles on both levels and especially applaud her emphasis on parental involvement which has been documented repeatedly (Michigan Department of Education, 2010). Her tips for working with differentiated instruction and parental involvement have the potential to contribute to creating a successful, lifelong reader.

Differentiated instruction can be an essential component to the success of each student through the consistent application of its principles in the classroom by teachers. These principles on the instructional side: content, process and product in conjunction with the principles associated with the learner: learning profile, ability and interest create a foundation where lifelong learners are created. They can transform a student into a confident contributor of society.


Breaux, E. & Magee, M. (downloaded 2010 June 25). How the best teachers differentiate             instruction. [Online]. Available:    7140-9_How_Best_Diff_Instruction.pdf

Knowles, L. (2009 January). Differentiated instruction in reading: easier than it looks. School   Library Media Activities Monthly, 25 (5), 26-29.

Liftig, I. (2010 February). Differentiated instruction to the rescue. Science Scope, 33 (6), 36-42.

Michigan Department of Education. (downloaded 2010 June 26). What research says about      parental involvement in children’s education. [Online]. Available: 

Plumley, K. (2009 May). Differentiated instruction for special needs. [Online]. Available:          differentiating_instruction_for_special_needs

Schaumm, J., Vaughn, S. & Leavell, A. (1994 May). Planning pyramid: a framework for planning for diverse student needs during content area instruction. The Reading Teacher,           47 (8), 608-615. Available:        readinginservice/planning_pyramid.pdf

Scigliano, D. & Hipsky, S. (2010 Winter). 3 ring circus of differentiated instruction. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 46 (2), 82-87.

Smutny, J. (2004 September). Differentiated instruction for young gifted children: how parents can help. [Online]. Available:

Thousand, J., Villa, R. & Nevin, A. (2007). Differentiating instruction: Collaboratively planning and teaching for universally designed learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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