Last year I wrote for Edutopia a six-part series that’s spanned two months. What a great experience it’s been to share ideas. The response by readers has been amazing. So what follows is that deeper dive, including added resources since the posting of the original article. Here’s an article that goes to the heart of student choice.

Join me through this blog on Opening Paths, especially the resources and follow me on Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS for open dialog about what our students need, and what we as professional learners can do so that ALL students succeed. Contact me for dialog, coaching, and to inspire your staff along their pathways to helping all students learn and achieve.


6 Good Tools to Differentiate Instruction by John McCarthy, Ed.S.

The secret to Differentiated Instruction is that there is no such thing as “differentiated strategies.” Yes, there are sites and books that promote lists of “differentiated strategies,” and what is provided are tools to use in classrooms. The problem comes when those resources are placed in the hands of well-intentioned educators who are looking for a plug-in to make their lessons better for all students, but perhaps lacks an understanding the differentiated instruction is based on good classic instructional practices–something I address in an Edutopia article and on this blog regarding the Formative Assessment Cycle.

Differentiated Instruction Lens on Learning (DILL) defined:
Use formative assessment data to diagnose learning gaps and needed higher challenges, and craft learning experiences using the various strategies in your toolbox.

So if any strategy can be differentiated based on student needs, why am I about to share an annotated list of “differentiated strategies”? The ones listed here have student choice embedded in them to meet needs. They are most effective when the DI Lens on Learning is applied:

Think Dots

This strategy offers 6 activities that students must complete. Each activity is best structured around a learning profile, so that learners explore the concepts from different perspectives. Students roll a six-sided die to determine the random order that the activities are completed. For example, if a 5 is rolled first, then the 5th task is completed. Then with the next die roll of a 2, the second task is worked on. This process continues until all assignments are completed. Note: For schools that ban dice either use a randomization cube or have students pick the order in which the activities are completed.


Here are some examples + template.

Make two or more versions of the Think Dot to address content at different readiness levels. Now it targets students grouped by those with common skill gaps and those needing greater challenge.

Task Cards

As a cousin to Think Dots, this strategy places activities on laminated index cards. Punch a hole into the cards and placed them on a circular keyring or lock carabiner. Where Think Dots are usually in sets of 6, Task Cards can be made of any number that the teacher needs for the learning activity. No dice required. Students go through the tasks in order or randomly based on teacher directions.

Learning Menus

I just had dinner with my son at the Salt & Pepper Savory Grill in Holland MI (YelpTA). Great menu choices from Appetizers, Main Dishes, and Desserts. Learning Menus have the same savory categories:

  • Appetizers are 2-3 options that students choose from to do as a warm-up activity.
  • Main Dishes offer 2-3 options. These may be structured to allow students to pick from, or be assigned to groups of students based on their readiness needs (skill gaps and need for greater challenge).
  • Desserts give learners 2-4 options to extend their learning. Not all students finish their main dish with enough time to have dessert. Those who do finish their meal with time to spare choose from the dessert options as fun activities that provide greater challenge–appropriate to their readiness level. Desert keeps everyone on task during the remaining work time.

Curry School of Education (Charlottesville VA) offers a great resource. The Teaching Channel offers a video.

Learning Centers

This approach is widely used at the elementary level, and less often as students move up grade levels to high school. It’s such an effective strategy that can be effectively used into the college level. Each station has a task to be completed. Some options to consider are:

  • Students choose which stations to complete such as 3 of 5 or 4 of 6.
  • Students complete tasks based on their readiness level. Each station has two or more folders that are coded by color or some other symbol. Students open the folder that matches their assigned color or symbol. Use a different coding each time so that students do not feel pigeon-holed in on specific category.
  • Do a combination of the two options above.

So All Can Learn Video Playlist

Here’s a video playlist that provides more details. Also more resources are on my Edutopia blog about Readiness.

Think-Tac-Toe menus

Students complete tasks that are 3 or 4 in a row, depending on the size of the tic-tac-toe matrix used. Following the same choice style as Think Dots, students complete tasks of their choosing in whatever order that they desire. Sometimes the guidelines are that students much complete a task in each row so that they explore different concepts. In this case, it’s less important that the choices be “in a row” but rather students pick any task in each row. (Example from Curry School of Education)

Frayer Model

This strategy looks at a concept in four different ways.


This example has non-traditional topics for a Frayer Model to illustrate how the 4 options can challenge learners to think about a concept in unique ways. Here is the frayer model template. Typically this strategy is used for vocabulary building.

There are more strategies that can be differentiated, which I will share in later posts. Although, my six part series on Edutopia proves a wealth of ideas: Post 34, 5, and 6

Share in Comments:

What are some of your favorite strategies that when differentiated helps students?