Getting Started with Differentiation

By Jennifer Bontempi Concepcion, Elementary Educator

We are going to start a series here based on small tips you can do in the classroom to help provide for the needs of your gifted learners. These tips will be short, easy entry methods to work into your usual routine.

These tips are not designed to change the way you have been teaching–you are a rockin’ teacher already. But you are here because you want to give a little bit more to those couple of kids who could really benefit from some deeper thinking.

Hopefully, you can work these tips into your regular classroom instruction. And if not, check back as we add other ideas on differentiation.

The Debate

Let’s kick this off with some honesty. This differentiation stuff is not so straightforward. And differentiation for highly gifted kids is a whole other ball of wax (more on that in a future post).

Differentiation, in most classrooms, can be difficult because the needs and outside demands in just one class can vary so much. How many of you have classrooms with learners one or two grade levels below, a few ELLs, some students with identified Learning Disabilities, a handful of 504s and then the emotional needs on top of all that? Now go teach and make sure everyone gets a proficient score on that test!

To now add more differentiation for the kids who already “get it” can sound overwhelming. Don’t worry–we are starting off with these “low floor, high ceiling” activities to get you warmed up and in the game.

Did you know? Researchers in this field have been debating this topic as well. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a strong promoter of differentiation, defines it as when teachers make changes to their content, process, products or environment to meet the different learning needs of the students in their classroom. You are likely doing some version of this already with Daily 5, Daily 3, Menus, WIN time, reading conferences, etc. On the other side of the debate we have Jim Delisle, a gifted advocate. He notes that differentiation doesn’t work because of the vast range of differences teachers have within one classroom.

Using Questioning to Differentiate ELA

Today we will just look at differentiation on a small scale for any newbies to this process. The demands on a teacher are great, so if you are looking to help the one or two kids in your class that need a bit more, these are some great tips to get you started.

If you are already differentiating your curriculum, please share in the comments how you would add to this tip.

I had one mentor advise me to write down my higher order questions beforehand. This is essential. Sometimes those extemporaneous questions rock, but it is hard to immediately have them at hand.

Usually those on-the-fly questions work best when the kids’ conversation drives you there. However, if you are looking for making this a daily part on your students’ day it is necessary to spend a little time preparing questions.

Now, I know I said no extra prep… so bear with me. In one classroom, you may have a textbook series, which already gives you access to some on-grade level questions and some higher order thinking questions. Pull them out onto a sticky and make sure you work them in.

Alternately, if you need more than that, or you don’t have a textbook series, here is what you can do:

Look at the ELA standards

Start at the highest level in your class, make some generic questions with those above level standards, giving your students the depth in questioning that matches their reading level. You can easily dial this back for the rest of the class. You may even have this already if your school requires you to post EQs/Learning Targets/etc. With these generic questions at hand, you can (even on the fly) adjust the questions to meet the topic at hand.

To see what I mean, let’s look at the CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL standards for grades 6th down to 2nd. You can see that it is essentially the same standard that builds in difficulty as the text increases in difficulty. There are many resources out there for standards-based questioning so you do not even need to create the questions–just select the ones that you need for the lesson.

  • 6th Grade: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • 5th Grade: Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • 4th Grade: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • 3rd Grade: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
  • 2nd Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

Questions During Comprehension Skill Practice

First, let’s think about how you teach ELA-R in your classroom. If you are doing whole class novels, versus SEM-R, versus a textbook series, your approach to differentiation changes. But with today’s topic of looking at questioning we are close to being on the same footing.

Let’s start with looking at the standards in comprehension. If you browse the learning progressions of reading and understanding literature you can for sure see how the standard is increasing in difficulty, as the level of text would. However, the core instructional component of the content is similar.

You are already prepared with questions to ask the grade level students that probe their thinking to deep understanding of their grade level standards. Likely you have already invested time in some questions that will help the students achieving at lower levels to scaffold their understanding up to grade level work.

We can take those grade level questions, change out a few terms, and have some fast, easy, higher level questions for the above grade level achieving students. Why not add just another question or two that allow those reading (independently or in your classroom) at much higher levels to delve just as deeply but at a different place in the continuum on that same standard?

The nice thing about this is that the questions will sound similar enough that it isn’t an obvious calling-out for those students or groups where that might be an issue. And it won’t require you to seek out the details of that higher standard (since at this time we are just talking about differentiating the instructional discourse, not assessments or other work).

Here are some examples:

Let’s say that the standard I am working on relates to “Determine the Central Idea of a short piece of literature.” I could ask:

What is the article mainly about?


One main idea of the article is ?


What is the main idea of the section on pages 4-5?


Here is one main idea. What is another main idea of this article?


Which statement from these listed is the main idea of the whole article?

The awesome thing in ELA-R is that you can be the coolest teacher without tons of stress on your part to do some great differentiation. Websites like NewsELA let you pick articles you want the class to read. Then you select the Lexile level and the website automatically generates a list of text-dependent questions at the level of the text.

Now all you have to do is change the level of the text (the questions change as well) and print off one or two copies for those high kids to give them a challenge. It is such an easy thing to do. The answer keys print off as well, so you can easily check their answers. And since the topic is the same, you can have a common discussion.

Questions During Conferencing

If you do reading conferences in your classroom, this is a great time to provide differentiation for your high readers. Break out of the assigned reading level for the grade level and let those students reading above level read books at their level.

Just in having them read at a higher level, when you ask even an on-grade level question, they have to think deeper to get the answer since the text difficulty is already making them work harder. You can top it off with a higher level question to push them even more.

Of course, these kids tend to need a longer conference time, since they might have a bit more to say. You can certainly use technology to have them record an audio response and share it with you if you have your conference time tightly scheduled.

I hope these ELA-based strategies work for you. Share in the comments what has worked for you, and what you would suggest. Kids are different in every classroom. What works this year may not work next year, but may work again the following year.