In January, James R. Delisle wrote a controversial commentary for Education Week titled, "Differentiation Doesn't Work." But what Delisle may not realize is that differentiation is not a set of prescriptive strategies, rather a purposeful way of planning to account for student differences.

Differentiation is a journey, not a one-stop fix or end point. Carol Ann Tomlinson, the guru of differentiation, also shares that it is important to start small with differentiating instruction, picking up one instructional strategy each year and working to refine it.

To support teachers who are looking for some low-prep differentiation strategies, I have compiled the top-five strategies that take minimal planning time but can have a big impact in the classroom.

1. Use small-group instruction

Using data to flexibly group students helps you as teacher begin to differentiate for students. You can target specific students who need remediation or reteaching, and provide acceleration or enrichment for students who could benefit from extension.

Two questions to help in planning for small-group instruction: "Who needs extra support with this unit?" and "Who needs extra challenge in this unit?" Be sure to explicitly plan and teach routines for independent and group work to ensure success for all students.

2. Offer options and choices

Similar to adult learners, students are motivated by choice and options for demonstrating their mastery of content. Students and teachers love choice boards (tic-tac-toe boards), an organized menu of choices created around a specific objective.

As a teacher, you are able to design the choices, and the board can range from six to nine options. For millions of precreated menus on a variety of subjects, visit Dare to Differentiate.

3. Teach and assess in multiple modes

As teachers, we sometimes find auditory and visual instruction second nature. Challenge yourself to think about your students' various learning styles and use another modality. Consider these possibilities:

  • putting key materials on tape and letting students navigate their own PowerPoint
  • adding a kinesthetic symbol for content that students can practice for key concepts
  • including a tactile processing break
  • inserting a multimedia representation using a GoAnimate comic strip or a video tutorial from

4. Offer work-alone or work-with-a-friend options

Students learn so much more from peers than us, so why not let students teach and reinforce skills together, as facilitators of their own learning? If you google Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures, you will find more than 50 different ways for students to work and learn together.

The most basic cooperative learning strategy is "Think-Pair-Share," in which you allow students to think in response to a question, pair up and take turns sharing their opinion. Similarly a "ThinkPad” allows students time to write their thoughts before sharing them with a peer.

5. Use key reading strategies regularly

If you're looking for a literacy toolkit with tons of proven strategies to reach all learners, I highly recommend "Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action" by Sarah Tantillo. This literacy toolkit was packed with strategies for close reading and closing the achievement gap, and with explicit instructions on how to unpack a standard and plan with the end in mind.

The book has examples from K-12 grade classrooms on how to prepare, introduce and use the strategies, and it comes with reflective end-of-the-chapter questions to share with teachers and a supplemental CD with templates and literacy resources. My favorite strategy is the "RACER" mnemonic for helping students effectively cite textual evidence.

In conclusion, my most important message about differentiation is this: Begin slowly, but please begin.