Ben Johnson is a 4th grade teacher who has been using DI for several years and has lots of good advice from his experience. He wrote the following as a way to share his experiences and to encourage others to share theirs. Please write your own stories in the discussion tab for this page, or send longer stories to Theron Blakeslee at Ingham ISD to publish on your own wiki page.

Hi! My name is Ben Johnson. I teach 4th grade. I’ve been using differentiated instruction in my classroom for a couple years. I’m going to describe what I do and show some examples of my materials.

Start with pre-assessment

In my classroom DI begins with pre- assessment. My goal in giving a pre-assessment is to find out who already knows the material and who doesn’t. What I use for a pre-assessment tool depends on the subject, but I try to avoid making my own pre-assessment. I use whatever curriculum materials I have that contain quizzes and or unit tests. I usually call it a Check-in (geography example, math example, government example) or Pre-unit test. I prefer the title Check-in because I will use this assessment before, during, and after I have taught a unit. The check-ins I use are short and sweet.

You may be thinking, “I don’t have time to pre-assess.” I used to think this way too, but I have found that pre-assessment is well worth the time it takes to find or make and grade. If my pre-assessment has done its job, it will pinpoint what my students need to spend time learning and who needs to spend time learning it. This allows me to focus my teaching on specific students. This does not mean I teach individual students. It means I focus my lessons on the needs of a group of students.

When I first heard of DI, I thought it meant that everything had to be individualized. I didn’t even want to think of trying to individualize a curriculum, so it had no effect on my teaching. When I started to pre-assess I began to see my class in a different way. I started to see groups of students that had similar learning needs. For instance, when I pre-assessed before a fractions unit, I had a group of students who could add fractions with unlike denominators, but couldn’t subtract when the denominators were different. I began working with these students specifically on subtracting with unlike denominators while the other students worked independently.

When you develop or choose your own pre-assessments, ask yourself:
  • Will the pre-assessment cover all of the content and skills the students will need to know by the end of the unit?
  • How can you record the results of the pre-assessment to help you identify needs-based groups?

Adapt instruction and check students’ learning often

My pre-assessment has helped me figure out: what my students need to learn, who needs to learn it, and who already knows it. My next step is to begin planning assignments for the students who need to practice the ideas and skills, how I will adapt the material for my students who don’t know it, and determine what I will use to informally assess during the unit.

First, I plan assignments for the students who already have the knowledge and skills they need. I want them to do assignments that give them practice using the skills and ideas everyone needs to know. It needs to be something that they can do independently. In math, I often use practice problems from the math book. Sometimes I create a math ticket, which is a glorified assignment checklist. In reading, and other subject areas, the students who already know the content and skills will do the same thing I am doing with the smaller group, but I expect them to be able to do it independently.

In every unit of study, there are a few students who need a greater challenge than the curriculum provides. In my opinion, this is a small group consisting of only 2-3 students within a classroom. I want them to practice the ideas and skills too, but I may push these students by giving them an activity that requires applying their knowledge of the content and skills. This could be a project from a project list or worksheets that give them problem-solving practice. In math, I like to use worksheets from Dale Seymour’s Problem Parade or Favorite Problems. Whatever I choose, my goal is getting them to apply what they know.

When the students finish these assignments I record that on my class-list (example), which I will put into the grade-book later on. Once I have the students who already know the content and skills working on their assignments, I am free to begin working with the small group who needs direct instruction from me.

When I first begin working with a small group, I teach the content or skill explicitly. I do this because I have found that there will be some students within the group who forgot the content or skill, so they didn’t know what to do on the pre-assessment. This small group work usually lasts about 15 minutes.

After I review the specific skills or ideas with the small group, I informally assess the whole group. I am constantly “checking-in” to see who has learned the specific skill or idea, and who still needs to learn it. I also want to make sure the students who are working independently are doing the work correctly. This type of check-in is informal, quick, and easy to grade. For example, if I want to know if my students can identify sensory detail in a story, I will give them a short passage and have them list all the sensory detail words and phrases from the passage. In math, if I want to know if they can divide 4-digit quotients by 10, I will give them a problem like 2400/10. My students keep journals for each subject, so they do the check-ins in their journals. When they’re done, I go around with my class-list on a clipboard and make note of who has it and who doesn’t. I use a plus sign if they get it, and a minus if they don’t. It helps to have something else for the students to work on as I check their work, so I try to provide a packet of math problems (example) they can work on independently, or ask them to do silent reading. When I am done looking at the check-in, I go over the question and answer. I find that many of my students see their mistake and learn what they need to do differently next time. If a student gets the check-in correct but the pre-assessment identified them as someone who needed my help, I have to make a decision. I can send them off for independent practice or have them continue to work under my supervision. What I do really depends on the student.

Now that I have assessed again, I have really nailed down who needs me the most. What I do at this point depends on what I sense will help the students learn the required content and skills. Most struggling learners benefit from direct vocabulary instruction, so I may teach vocabulary. In reading, I may have students match strips of paper that have causes and effects written on them, or partially fill in a graphic organizer. In math, I might have students who don’t seem to understand the traditional multiplication algorithm abandon it and learn a different method.

After I adapt something, I check to see if they are starting to learn it. My goal is to have every student know the content and skills without help, so what I do has to move them toward independence. When I sense the group I’m working with is beginning to get it, or most of the class is finished with their independent assignments, I will give the whole group another check-in to see if my class is ready to move on. If I still have students who don’t get it, I will try a different way of adapting the required content and spend more time helping them. I follow this pattern of adapting, then assessing throughout the unit until my students have learned the ideas and skills they need. When I think most of the class is ready I will begin gathering data to determine if the class is ready for the post-unit assessment.

When you look at assessment data to identify the holes in your students' learning, ask yourself:
  • How will you address the holes in their learning?
  • What do students need to know to move toward independence?
  • How can you modify the process or skills to help move them toward independence?
  • How will you meet the needs of students who already know the ideas and skills? What do you want them to do for practice? How could their knowledge and skills be applied?

Give the post assessment only when students are ready to pass it

The school district where I work uses pacing guides for various subjects. I don’t oppose pacing guides, but I will say that they don’t facilitate differentiation. I’m sure the authors of these documents understand that the students in a classroom won’t all understand the needed skills or ideas in two to three lessons, but often teachers become afraid they will be reprimanded for not keeping up with the pacing guide. I’ve never met a teacher who was afraid they would be scolded for going ahead of the pacing guide. This is backwards! I need to pay attention to my class and the individuals in it. I am the one who knows when it is time to move forward and when to take more time so the students can learn the necessary content. I don’t give a post-unit assessment anymore just because the pacing guide said all the lessons in the unit were completed. I want to make sure my students are ready before I give them the test, so I will spend time giving them an informal check-in on each main topic or skill covered during the unit. I use my clipboard and put a plus by the students who get it, and a minus by students who don’t. This is time consuming, I know, but I like to know who is ready for the assessment. If I have done my job of adapting and assessing during the unit, and my students have done their job of learning, they should be well prepared for a post-unit assessment.

If a student is prepared, I give them the assessment as soon as possible, so the skills and ideas are fresh in their minds. If a student is not prepared, I don’t give them the assessment. Instead I have them continue to practice the ideas or skills until I am confident they can succeed. I may need to make more adjustments and re-teach some of the lessons to them, but I would rather take more time and have my students learn what they need to, than give them an assessment I know they will fail, in order to keep up with the pacing guide.

I do remediation while others take the assessment. For those students who finish the assessment early, I prepare extension materials to keep them productively busy. In the past I have had them do review worksheets, silent reading, and extra credit folders. This year I am planning memory work stations. The stations will give them practice memorizing states and capitals, multiplication and division facts, poetry, and other keys facts and ideas from social studies and science.

One thing I have tried and wouldn’t recommend is moving on to a new unit while a few students continue to practice skills and learn ideas from the previous units. I tried this once when I had 3 students who weren’t ready for an assessment. I did re-teaching and I also used a computer tutorial to give these students more practice during lunch. During regular class time I taught lessons from the next unit. When I thought they were ready I gave them the assessment. I thought the increased time would help them, but it didn’t. I think they had difficulty sorting out the ideas from the two units. I have noticed this pattern among students who struggle to learn. For some reason, they have a difficult time switching back and forth between skills and ideas within a main topic.

For me, assessing my students before, during and after a unit is what drives differentiated instruction in my classroom. Frequent assessment allows me to make the best use of my time and helps me determine what I need to teach and who needs me to teach it to them the most. My goal is not covering content, rather it is getting as many students as I can to learn the skills and ideas they need in order to be successful on the post unit assessment. Many people call this differentiation instruction, but I just think it is good teaching.