How to Differentiate Without Creating 30 Individual Lessons


We’ve all heard it… the suggestion to write an individual plan for every single student in your class in order to differentiate instruction. The last time I heard this, I went into panic mode. I had 96 students and about 20 minutes of solid planning time. I had no idea how to differentiate for that many students.

In the defense of the well-meaning administrators suggesting that we write down a plan for every student, they want every student to succeed. Luckily, us teachers do as well. We just need a way to differentiate for students that doesn’t totally consume our lives in and outside of school. I strongly believe that planning should be done during school hours because it’s not fair to our families when we’re at school until 9pm. So here you are – some great ways to differentiate that work well for you AND your students!

“On the Fly” Differentiation

I don’t think that all differentiation needs to be planned. Even after pre-assessing a student, you may find that they need more or less help than it seems. Many teachers know how to differentiate naturally during their lessons without even thinking about it.

Here are some examples:

  • Bobby has an AHA! moment in math small group and rushes back to his desk to finish subtracting the cost of supplies for his lemonade stand PBL. He ends up ahead of the other students. You put him on the computer to research the cost of a special sign he wants to design for his lemonade stand.
  • Cam did well on the pre-assessment showing that she knows how to write an introduction, but she’s struggling to come up with ideas for her hook. You pair her with a very talkative student and give them some question prompts that will help her come up with a hook.
  • Billy normally does very well in reading class, but he seems very tired and unmotivated today. You move him to read with a partner in a well-lit area where he and his partner can stand and read to each other.

These “on the fly” actions allow for very specific differentiation for each student based on what they need at that exact moment in time. Not every student will need modifications for every lesson, so this allows you to only differentiate as much as needed!

How to Create Built-in Differentiation

Differentiation can be built into our lessons in a way that’s very flexible (and allows for those “on the fly” modifications). Here are some ways you can plan for differentiation in one single lesson plan.


Plan a 5-minute pre-assessment before the lesson. It’s important that you determine how you’re going to use this information before you give the assessment. I’m totally guilty of giving pre-assessments, registering the information in my mind, and then just teaching my regular lesson. Build differentiation into your lesson based off of the different groups of students you’ll have after the pre-assessment. If you don’t have students for every group that you planned, that’s ok!

Your students will probably fall into these three groups:

  1. Students with no background with the skill.
  2. Students that have the building blocks for the skill.
  3. Students who have mastered the skill.

How to Differentiate for Students Without Background Knowledge

Even if your lesson is a continuation of yesterday’s lesson, you may find students that are still at square one. You may even have students that aren’t quite ready. Here are some things you can plan to help this group:

This is a stock photo of a teacher and four students looking at a laptop in a classroom

  • Assist students using technology
  • Pull into small groups
  • Use mini-lessons to fill in gaps that are prerequisites to this skill
  • Prepare examples and/or text at a lower level
  • Outside help: If you have instructional aides, student teachers, or interventionists, plan for help during this time. For example, aides can sit with a student and provide one-on-one intervention. If you don’t have these people, team up with another teacher to provide extra help to these students during an enrichment activity.

How to Differentiate for Students Who Have the Building Blocks for the Skill

These are the students that your regular lesson and activity are built for. You give instruction on the skill and then give them practice activities that guide them to mastery. You won’t need as many modifications to the lesson with this group as you will with the other two, but you may find yourself doing more “on the fly” modifications when students “move” groups during the activity.

This is a stock photo of how to differentiate with students working together on a tablet

Incorporating different learning styles into your activity will help keep these students engaged and enhance learning for everyone!

  • Visual (spatial): pictures, images, and spatial understanding
  • Aural (auditory-musical): sound and music
  • Verbal (linguistic): words, both in speech and writing
  • Physical (kinesthetic): hands-on activities
  • Logical (mathematical): logical activities with reasoning opportunities
  • Social (interpersonal): group or partner work
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): independent work

How to Differentiate for Students Who Have Mastered the Skill

Surprisingly, these students are often the ones that get left behind. We’re used to handling students that struggle, but the ones that already know the concept baffle us. You might have some lessons these students don’t take part in, and that’s ok. However, you should still always plan for this group, even if you think the concept is way too hard for a student to possibly have already mastered!

Although it benefits students to help other students, you want to mix in activities that allow them to go beyond the activity. Extended inquiry is the best way for these students to get the most out of the activity. Plan extra work that allows these students to go above and beyond, not just extra worksheets of the same practice problems.

  • Introduce these students to the next skill.
  • Give them more difficult problems.
  • Allow them to use technology and other resources to further research the topic.

Why Project-based Learning is Great for Differentiation

Different Approaches of Lesson Delivery

In project-based learning, students have many chances to understand the content. Before you start planning a PBL, you always want to have a goal in mind. What skills do you want them to practice? What do you want them to show in the end? Once you’ve answered those questions, you can come up with multiple ways to deliver the information. This connects close with different learning styles. What learning styles do you have in your classroom, and what approaches of lesson delivery have worked well with these students?

Here are some easy things to incorporate into PBL to deliver your lesson in different ways:

  • Videos
  • Reading selections
  • Writing assignments
  • Building a 3D model
  • Discussion

Different Learning Styles

One of the essential elements of PBL is student choice and voice. Not only do students have a choice in how to show what they’ve learned in the project they turn in, but they also have several choices throughout the project. All of my project-based learning activities include a choice in each step. Students can choose where they want to go with their project and how to get there. Everyone has to do the math calculations, but it can be done with the strategies and tools that work for the individual student. PBL gives students a chance to learn through technology, text, art, multimedia, and much more. It accommodates every learning style.

Find out more about differentiation during project-based learning here!
I’m ready to launch PBL!

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April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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