Differentiated Literacy Instruction

For Parents and New Teachers

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction (also known as differentiation) is a theory in the educational field that supports the idea that students have varying needs and teachers have to accommodate those needs for successful learning. It is not a specific strategy, rather the use of multiple strategies to meet the needs of all students (Taffe, Broach, and Marinak, 2013).
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Why use differentiated literacy instruction

  • The use of differentiated instruction ensures that an entire class has an opportunity for success.

  • Not all students will qualify for support services, even though they may need or benefit from them (Tobin and McInnes, 2008).

  • Expectations can be created on different levels while still working towards the same ultimate goals (Tobin and McInnes, 2008).

  • Studies have been conducted and proven that when differentiated instruction has been utilized, students have improved reading and comprehension skills (Taffe, Broach, and Marinak, 2013).

What areas can be differentiated?

Content: Content refers to what the students are learning (Knowles, 2009). While the entire class is going to learn the same goals, standards, and objectives, they can accomplish this through different content. For example, content can be differentiated by offering reading material at different levels. All the students may be reading different text on different levels but still learning the same strategies.

Process: Process refers to how the material is delivered (Knowles, 2009). The teacher can deliver the same lesson through various methods and still achieve the same outcome. This can be thought of as taking different routes to the same location. Two people may follow different directions but arrive at the same place. For example, some students can listen to a lecture while others read the material. They are still going to learn the same information. They just accomplish the process in different ways.

Product: Product refers to how the student presents or demonstrates what they have learned (Knowles, 2009). Students can express what they have learned in different ways as long as it shows the desired result of accomplishing the learning goal. For example, students could give an oral report or a written report. The teacher can choose which areas to differentiate or could choose to differentiate in all three areas in an individual lesson.

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Ways to differentiate

Click the name of each method to view a video on this topic!

Guided Reading: This is the process of working with small groups of students that read on the same level, offering support as needed, and practicing reading strategies.

Literature Circles: This is similar to an adult book club. The students read independently but discuss their reading within a group structure. This allows for the ability of students to choose reading topics that interest them.

Words Their Way: This is a literacy program that is used to improve reading and writing by focusing on spelling, phonics, and vocabulary. Students study patterns in spelling.

Choice Boards: These are a list of activities from which the students choose what activity they would like to do. The choices would all be viable options to accomplish the content, process, or product of a given lesson depending on which point in the lesson you choose to use this method (Logan, 2011).


Before differentiated instruction can occur, the teacher must understand where each child stands.Therefore, assessment would be the first step in differentiating instruction (Cobb, 2003). Once the teacher has assessed a student and begun instruction, Cobb (2003) explains that there needs to be a continuous process of assessment to determine the progress being made. Teachers need to know what the student is gaining or lacking from the instruction so they can alter their instruction as needed. Students’ needs will not always stay the same. As a student develops, their needs can change and so should the instruction. Assessment is not simply to determine how much the student has learned, it is also to guide the teacher’s instruction (Dalhouse, Risko, Esworthy, Grasley, Kaisler, McIlvain, and Stephan, 2009).

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Additional Resources

For more ideas on how to incorporate differentiated instruction into your literacy instruction you can visit these websites. They are full of helpful ideas and information! Additionally, you can feel free to contact me and I will help in any way I can. My contact information is listed in the following section.

For Teachers:





For Parents:


Candace Daughtry

I am a senior at East Carolina University. My major is Elementary Education with a focus in reading.


Cobb, C. (2003). Speaking to administrators and reading specialists: Effective instruction begins with purposeful assessments. The Reading Teacher, 57(4), 386-388. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20205374

Dalhouse, D., Risko, V., Esworthy, C., Grasley, E., Kaisler, G., McIlvain, D., & Stephan, M. (2009). Crossing boundaries and initiating conversations about rti: Understanding and applying differentiated classroom instruction. The Reading Teacher, 63(1), 84-87. doi: 10.1598/RT.63.1.9

Knowles, L. (2009). Differentiated instruction in reading: Easier than it looks. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 25(5), 26-29. Retrieved from http://jw3mh2cm6n.search.serialssolutions.com/

Logan, B. (2011). Examining differentiated instruction: Teachers respond. Research in Higher Education Journal, 13(1), 1-14. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.jproxy.lib.ecu.edu/docview/889136509?accountid=10639

Taffe, S., Laster, B., Broach, L., & Marinak, B. (2012). Differentiated instruction: Making informed teacher decisions. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 303-314. doi: 10.1002/TRTR.01126

Tobin, R., & McInnes, A. (2008). Accommodating differences: Variations in differentiated literacy instruction in grade 2/3 classrooms. Literacy, 42(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9345.2008.00470.x