Responding to Student Needs

We have been discussing the Backward Design model for instructional planning. We have looked at the first two stages of the model that emphasized articulating our desired results through developing learning objectives and identifying assessment tools appropriate to gather evidence of student learning. Before moving on to Stage 3, where we start planning our instruction, we need to discuss how we might accommodate student needs during assessments and instruction.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to

  • Differentiate assessments based on the strengths and weaknesses of learners.
  • Provide multiple ways for learners to demonstrate knowledge and skill.

Differentiated Instruction*

Differentiation refers to various teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Tomlinson (2001) declares that differentiated instruction is the intentional application of specific lesson planning and multiple learning approaches to support all learners. In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—ensuring all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student. Still, teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations. Teachers who employ differentiated instructional strategies will usually adjust the elements of a lesson from one group of students to another so that those who may need more time or a different teaching approach to grasp a concept get the specialized assistance they need. In contrast, those students who have already mastered a concept can be assigned a different learning activity or move on to a new concept or lesson.

Keys to Differentiation*

Also called “differentiated instruction,” differentiation typically entails modifications to:

  • practice (how teachers deliver instruction to students),
  • process (how the lesson is designed for students),
  • products (the kinds of work products students will be asked to complete),
  • content (the specific readings, research, or materials, students will study),
  • assessment (how teachers measure what students have learned), and
  • grouping (how students are arranged in the classroom or paired up with other students).

Some teachers argue that the practical realities of using differentiation—especially in larger classes comprising students with a wide range of skill levels, academic preparation, and learning needs—can be prohibitively difficult or even infeasible.

Yet other educators argue that this criticism stems, at least in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy. In her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, the educator and writer Carol Ann Tomlinson, who is considered an authority on differentiation, points out a potential source of confusion:

“Differentiated instruction is not the ‘Individualized Instruction’ of the 1970s.” In other words, differentiation is the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible. Still, it does not entail creating distinct courses of study for every student (i.e., individualized instruction).

Components of Differentiation*

To differentiate instruction is to recognize students’ varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, and interests; and to react responsively. As Tomlinson notes in her recent book Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2014), teachers in a differentiated classroom begin with their current curriculum and engaging instruction. Then they ask what it will take to alter or modify the curriculum and instruction so that each learner comes away with the knowledge, understanding, and skills necessary to take on the next important learning phase. Differentiated instruction is a process of teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. Teachers, based on characteristics of their learners’ readiness, interest, and learning profile, may adapt or manipulate various elements of the curriculum (content, process, product, affect/environment).


  • Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content. These include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitudes, and skills. The variation seen in a differentiated classroom is most frequently in how students gain access to important learning. Access to content is seen as key.
  • Align tasks and objectives to learning goals. Designers of differentiated instruction view the alignment of tasks with instructional goals and objectives as essential. Goals are most frequently assessed by many state-level, high-stakes tests and frequently administered standardized measures. Objectives are frequently written in incremental steps resulting in a continuum of skills-building tasks. An objectives-driven menu makes it easier to find the next instructional step for learners entering at varying levels.
  • Instruction is concept-focused and principle-driven. Instructional concepts should be broad-based, not focused on minute details or unlimited facts. Teachers must focus on the concepts, principles, and skills that students should learn. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with all students, but the degree of complexity should be adjusted to suit diverse learners.
  • Clarify key concepts and generalizations. Ensure that all learners gain powerful understandings that can serve as the foundation for future learning. Teachers are encouraged to identify essential concepts and instructional foci to ensure that all learners comprehend.


  • Flexible grouping is consistently used. Strategies for flexible grouping are essential. Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content big ideas followed by small group or paired work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to support the completion of assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. As one of the foundations of differentiated instruction, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process, changing with the content, project, and ongoing evaluations.
  • Classroom management benefits students and teachers. To effectively operate a classroom using differentiated instruction, teachers must carefully select organization and instructional delivery strategies. In her text, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2001), Carol Tomlinson identifies 17 key strategies for teachers to successfully meet the challenge of designing and managing differentiated instruction.
  • Emphasize critical and creative thinking as a goal in lesson design. The tasks, activities, and procedures for students should require that they understand and apply meaning. Instruction may require supports, additional motivation; and varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom.


  • Initial and ongoing assessment of student readiness and growth are essential. Meaningful pre-assessment naturally leads to functional and successful differentiation. Incorporating pre- and ongoing assessment informs teachers so that they can better provide a menu of approaches, choices, and scaffolds for the varying needs, interests, and abilities that exist in classrooms of diverse students. Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures.
  • Use assessment as a teaching tool to extend rather than merely measure instruction. Assessment should occur before, during, and following the instructional episode, and it should be used to help pose questions regarding student needs and optimal learning.
  • Students are active and responsible explorers. Teachers respect that each task put before the learner will be interesting, engaging, and accessible to essential understanding and skills. Each child should feel challenged most of the time.
  • Vary expectations and requirements for student responses. Items to which students respond may be differentiated so that different students are able to demonstrate or express their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways. A well-designed student product allows varied means of expression and alternative procedures and offers varying degrees of difficulty, types of evaluation, and scoring.


  • Developing a learning environment. Establish classroom conditions that set the tone and expectations for learning. Provide tasks that are challenging, interesting, and worthwhile to students.
  • Engaging all learners is essential. Teachers are encouraged to strive for the development of lessons that are engaging and motivating for a diverse class of students. Vary tasks within instruction as well as across students. In other words, an entire session for students should not consist of all lecture, discussion, practice, or any single structure or activity.
  • Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks. A balanced working structure is optimal in a differentiated classroom. Based on pre-assessment information, the balance will vary from class-to-class as well as lesson-to-lesson. Teachers should ensure that students have choices in their learning.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning, often referred to as UDL, is a framework to optimize teaching and learning for all learners (CAST, 2019). The UDL Guidelines offer recommendations that can be applied to any classroom setting to ensure that all learners can access and participate in learning opportunities. There are three principles in the UDL framework: engagement, representation, and action and expression.

Student motivation is a critical component of the learning process. To optimize learning experiences for all learners, teachers are encouraged to find multiple ways to engage students in the learning process. Some suggestions from the UDL Guidelines include providing your students learning activities that they find relevant and meaningful while also offering students choices in how to demonstrate they have met your learning objectives.

Tips from the Pros: Empowering Students to Self-Select Scaffolds

Check out John Spencer’s post about lessons he learned attempting to differentiate instruction for his students and how adopting UDL principles helped him empower students to self-select the scaffolds that best met their needs.

Students differ in the way they perceive and comprehend new information. Using the UDL framework, teachers can address the different needs of their students by varying how they provide information. Providing information in a variety of formats allows students choice in how to interact with the content. Also, viewing new information in multiple representations helps students build connections and transfer learning to similar contexts.

The last UDL principle deals with how students demonstrate their learning. The action and expression principle guides teachers to give students more than one way to interact with the content and to show what they’ve learned. For example, students might choose to take a pencil-and-paper test, give an oral or visually based presentation, or do a group project.

The key takeaway from the UDL Guidelines is that there is not one special method that will be optimal for all learners. However, following the UDL principles allows you as the teacher flexibility to do what is best to meet the needs of your students to ensure that everyone has access to the learning experiences you plan. Now there are some situations where we as teachers may need to extend the suggestions of UDL for certain student groups, specifically students with disabilities, English language learners, and gifted students.

What this means is that as teachers, we should be looking for ways to provide flexibility in the way our students access content (representation), engage in the learning process (engagement), and demonstrate learning (expression). For more information about UDL, consider the following resources and the self-guided learning module found at the end of this chapter.

Explore the suggestions on the “Getting Started with Universal Design for Learning” for ideas you might consider using in your future classroom.

Accommodations vs. Modifications

When teachers plan to assess their students, they must consider how they will ensure that all learners have equitable access to the assessment. To address this issue, teachers often resort to either providing accommodations or modifications during an assessment. Accommodations refer to any practice that provides students with disabilities access to instruction or assessment. An accommodation unlocks the activity in a way that does not alter the skill being assessed but allows the student to perform the task without the inference-distorting effects of their disability (Popham, 2017). Accommodations allow you as the teacher to collect the evidence you need to fully assess a student’s knowledge. Accommodations often align perfectly with the UDL principles.

In contrast, modifications alter learning tasks in a manner that lower expectations. Some students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) may have specific modifications written into their plan. However, often the subset of students requiring modifications that reduce the expected level of learning required is very small. The majority of students with disabilities or English Language Learners will only need accommodations to help them either access information or demonstrate their learning. A key thing to remember when working with these student populations is that your goal is to have them achieve the same learning objectives as every other student.

Strategies for Students with Disabilities

When working with students with disabilities, it is common to provide accommodations that alter the presentation of information, student demonstration of understanding, assessment settings, and timelines for completion. Similar to the UDL Guidelines, accommodations for students with disabilities may include providing various methods to interact with information. For example, providing alternatives to text such as recordings and either tactile or visual models can allow students with hearing and visual impairments to interact with the content and help learners with cognitive disabilities access information. Along those same lines, providing students with options to demonstrate their understanding through assisted graphic organizers or even via oral report may allow you to see evidence of student learning that may not be possible on a standard constructed-response test. This is where you as a teacher can be creative in allowing students choice in how to demonstrate their learning. Lastly, some students may need accommodations in the physical environment to perform an assessment or even the time required to complete the task. Most of these options will be pre-defined for you by a student’s IEP, but as the teacher, you have the right to provide such accommodations for all your learners based on your professional opinion of their needs.

For more information, see the following resources:

  • Review the Oklahoma Accommodations Guide
  • Explore the digital version of the Accommodations Manual published by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Focus your attention on the following sections:
    • Section III: Step 2
    • Appendix B: Universal Features
  • If you prefer, here is a PDF version of the Accommodations Manual. Focus your attention on the following sections:
    • Step 2: Learn about Accommodations for Instruction and Assessment
    • Fact Sheets 1-5 (Fact Sheet 5 gives suggested accommodations broken down by physical & cognitive disability)

Strategies for English Language Learners

Some schools are fortunate enough to have support staff that works directly with English Language Learners (ELL). Some schools are not so fortunate. Regardless, as a teacher, you should be aware of some basic things you can do to accommodate the needs of ELL’s. When providing learning activities or assessments in a written format, some ELL’s may need a version where the language load is reduced, in other words, written at a basic level of understanding. Providing dual-language dictionaries and the opportunity for recorded versions of the instructions may also prove helpful. Some ELL’s may have strengths in reading the English language but struggle writing their responses or vice versa. Therefore, providing students options in how to respond, such as orally or written in either English or their native language, may still provide you the opportunity to assess their knowledge of the skills and concepts without their proficiency in the English language interfering. Lastly, like your students with disabilities, ELL’s may benefit from extended time to complete learning tasks.

For more information, review the following resources:

  • Investigate CCSSO’s Accommodation manual for ELL’s (PDF). Focus your attention on the following sections:
    • Step 2: Learn about Accommodations for Instruction and Assessment (p. 8-13)
    • Tool 3. Assessment Adaptation Grid (p. 31-38)
    • Tool 4. Accommodations from the Student’s Perspective (p. 39)
  • Compare the recommendations from the CCSSO accommodation manuals to the practices and strategies used in schools across the country when working with ELL’s.

Strategies for Gifted Learners

The last group of students we focus on this week is often overlooked in the secondary classroom. Gifted students often are viewed as the top students in the class who complete all their work quickly, flawlessly, and effortlessly. Too often, we as the teacher ignore that we could, and should, be challenging this group instead of burdening them with extra work or tasks that do not extend their knowledge. Examples include extra worksheets or extensive use of peer tutoring. Instead, gifted learners should benefit from a curriculum that is accelerated, compacted, and extended. This means that gifted learners should be allowed to move through the curriculum at a pace that is comfortable for them and that gets compacted because they can skip the content they already show mastery of. This accelerating and compacting of the curriculum open the opportunity to extend the curriculum to deeper learning. All of this should be facilitated by the teacher and done in a group setting with students with similar strengths. This does not mean the gifted students sit in the back of the room, isolated from the class and the teacher. Gifted students should still participate in the class regularly, but there will be times that they are allowed to move on to more advanced material as the class works on the content they already understand.

For more information, review the following resources:

Consider the Gifted Education Strategies suggested by the National Association for Gifted Children.


Summarizing Key Understandings

Peer Examples

Suggested Activities

References & Attributions

Attribution: “Differentiated Instruction” was adapted in part from Instructional Methods, Strategies and Technologies to Meet the Needs of All Learners by Paula Lombardi, licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

CAST. (2019). About Universal Design for Learning [Website]. Retrieved from

Popham, J. (2017). Classroom assessment: What teachers need to know (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD


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