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March 3, 2021

Differentiate Direct Instruction: Accessible Content For All Students

New Teacher Survival Guide

As a teacher, you are the deliverer of information. You have a curriculum, know the content, and are charged with the responsibility of getting that information into the minds of your students. Instruction “positions the teacher as a metaphorical ‘bridge,’ helping students connect the knowledge and skills they already know (or are currently learning) to the essential outcomes they need in order to continue developing as learners and human beings” (Tomlinson, C. A. and Imbeau, M., 2010, p.22). Being an educator means you have accepted the challenge of figuring out how to be that bridge. How you deliver your instruction matters and will determine whether or not that content is accessible to all of the diverse learners in your class.

In education, we talk a lot about differentiation. We realize that a “one size fits all” curriculum won’t meet the needs of the wide range of unique learners in our classrooms and so we differentiate our instruction in order to meet their needs. In one of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s books on differentiation, John Stroup says, “differentiated instruction recognizes that students are not the same and that access to equal education necessarily means that, given a certain goal, each student should be provided resources, instruction, and support to help them meet that objective.”

While valuable learning happens in differentiated small group instruction and with collaborative group work, differentiated whole group instruction can also be really impactful in making learning accessible and more engaging. And it just takes a small shift in thinking and practice to make it happen. Here are some quick tips for making your direct instruction more accessible to all students.

Use a Variety of Modes of Communication

You can differentiate your whole group instruction by thinking about the ways you are delivering information. Using more than one mode of communication means that your students will have more than one opportunity to understand. If you know you plan on explaining a concept orally, targeting those auditory learners, put some of the key ideas and phrases on the board too with visuals so your visual learners and ELL students will have a greater chance of understanding.

Another option is to come up with a movement that can help students understand the concept, which will really appeal to your kinesthetic learners. For example, when teaching my fourth graders that water expands when it warms and contracts when it gets cold, I had students stand up and stretch out their legs and arms when I said, “The water is warming up!” They’d say back to me, “It’s expanding!” I had students curl into a ball, wrapping their arms around themselves when I said “The water is cooling down!” They’d yell out, “It’s contracting!”

Add More Time for Student Talk and Processing Time

When planning your direct instruction, try to keep lecturing and teacher talk to a minimum. Students benefit from having opportunities to share ideas with each other and process information throughout the direct instruction portion of the lesson. In this article about speaking and listening, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey said, “It matters who’s talking in class because the amount of talk that students do is correlated with their achievement. In classes in which students have opportunities to talk about the content, the thinking falls on them.” Project GLAD, an instructional model that supports and encourages language acquisition and English language development, suggests a model of 10 and 2, two minutes of student processing time for every ten minutes of teacher talk time. An easy way to get students talking and processing during instruction is to use a simple “Turn and Talk.” Ask students to turn to a partner and discuss:

  • their response to a content-related question
  • a connection they’re making to what is being taught
  • how they’d explain/reteach what’s being explained in their own words
  • wows (interesting connections/thoughts) and wonderings (questions they have)

SHOW and Tell!

Not all students are auditory learners and many students, especially those who are learning English as a second language, benefit from seeing information and directions in addition to hearing them. Write key points and directions on the board. Bold, underline, or write in color the most important words that you really want students to see and remember. And remember that modeling is a powerful teaching tool too! We sometimes take it for granted, but modeling critical steps in a task can be an effective way to create a bridge of understanding for many students.

When in Doubt, Sketch it Out

Drawing is a powerful strategy that helps the brain make connections and you don’t have to be a confident artist to make an impact! My classroom was always a visually rich environment, where pictures helped students make meaning. A quick sketch next to a new vocabulary word you’re introducing can help students immediately start to build their understanding of the word. I often encourage students to sketch in their notes too in order to give them another path to understanding.

No matter what combination of instructional strategies you choose, you are giving your students more opportunities to build understand and make connections. Differentiation is the process of making information accessible and meaningful to all students and it starts with your direct instruction. 


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