5 Tools for Student Differentiation

All teachers know the first quarter of school is spent tirelessly assessing students. We assess in each academic subject area to know their instructional levels. After collecting all of the massive data (both for your own groupings and mandated school assessments), where do you go from here? How do you even begin to teach so many different levels at one time? How do you find the time to create differentiated work for your students?

5 Tools for Student Differentiation

Teachers, home school parents of multiple ages, teachers of multi-level classes: I do not have all the answers to these very hard questions. However, I have a few shortcuts up my sleeve that may help you. The 5 tools for student differentiation I use to help efficiently and effectively differentiate instruction are:

  1. Class Dojo
  2. QR Codes
  3. Survey Monkey
  4. SIOP Objectives
  5. Wiki Spaces Classroom

The average classroom I had when I was teaching in California had 30% non-native English speakers. This number jumped to over 80% non-native English speakers when I started teaching overseas in an International School environment. Then add a split-level K/1 class, and I felt like the task of differentiating was impossible those first few weeks. I had kids who spoke zero English up to kids who read at a 3rd grade reading level. I had to rely heavily on technology to help with differentiation as making my own tools was nearly impossible with the time constraints.

Flexible Grouping

Before you can differentiate instruction, the first and most important step to begin is flexible grouping. Once you have done so, you can create guided reading groups, literature circles, and writer’s workshop groups. Lucy Calkins, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are the leading researchers for these areas. Their model for literacy instruction includes:

  1. Read Aloud
  2. Shared Reading
  3. Guided Reading
  4. Independent reading (literature circles, reader’s workshop)
  5. Shared Writing
  6. Interactive Writing
  7. Guided Writing (writer’s workshop)
  8. Independent Writing

For more information on how to include these strategies in your daily literacy instruction, these are the best books in the business:

differentiatedinstructionbooks
The Art of Teaching Writing
by Lucy Calkins

Guided Reading Second Edition: Responsive Teaching Across the Grades by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide by Lucy Calkins

Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers by Jennifer Sarravallo (Forward by Lucy Calkins)

For upper school teachers and parents:


After designing flexible groups, you can use the 5 tools below.

1. Class Dojo

Class Dojo is an app used by millions of teachers to build amazing classroom communities with parents and students. This program has won many global awards as it taps into creating a positive education culture. It fosters a strong home-school connection as well. The Class Dojo app allows you to message parents as a group or individually. One way I use Dojo is through the messaging tool in order to differentiate homework. For each of the different flexible groupings in class, I send home extensions to their Guided Reading books. I give students questions for reflection, writing assignments, environmental print to look for, etc. Secondly, I send links to online books so they have access to them anywhere, as well as sight/high frequency word video links to practice.

For instance, one group was practicing the digraph “sh” (as in sheep or shin), and the same video I showed in class would be sent as a message to their parents to practice at home. Another group would be practicing the vowel team ai/ay (as in day or hail).  In about 2 minutes, I can send 5 different video links for each of my guided reading groups to re-teach vocabulary, sight/high frequency words, author studies, etc. Bonus feature of Class Dojo; parents can translate the messages you send into any language on any device! This is crucial for increasing communication with parents who are not English speakers.

Since Class Dojo is more appropriate for Elementary students, the same strategy of differentiation can be done through for Grades 6-12 through a few my favorite classroom website: Weebly. Bonus: you can have students efficiently create digital portfolios in Weebly. If you haven’t already moved from paper to online portfolios, it is time to do so! 🙂

2. QR Codes

Using QR (quick response) codes is one of my favorite tools to use and this is appropriate for K-12, as well as middle and high school classes.  For those unfamiliar with QR codes, the most popular way to use a QR code is to link directly to a URL. For example, if I wanted to have my students listen to Where the Wild Things Are: first, download a QR scanner app (I use QR reader or Quick Scan) on your classroom, school, or home iPad or Chromebook. Then, I would print the QR code ( a download from TeachersPayTeachers HERE).  Next, I would give the group one of the school iPads or Chromebooks and they would scan the QR code. Finally, by scanning the QR code, the online story of Where the Wild Things Are would pop up on the iPad or Chromebook and the students would read along with the story. There is NO prep work involved; just print the QR code worksheet you want to use and you are done. In 2 minutes, you have 5 literacy centers with 5 different books (or theme studies).

Using QR codes for my classroom was important overseas since we didn’t have access to public libraries and sometimes our school library would not have the book I wanted.  I also used the QR codes strategically for the students who did not have home libraries for my 20 minutes required reading every night. In order to help students read, as well as differentiate, I would send home different leveled books for groups of students. For example, when we were studying plants, I was able to send home QR codes (you can send hard copies or save time and money by sending the QR code on Class Dojo). I could different texts that varied in length and vocabulary for different level groups.

Here is a picture of my homework (extra credit for my lowest group). I sent the same sheet to all my students and assigned them numbers based on their reading group. Ex. My lower reading group was assigned to watch the song and short video, while my higher groups were assigned the facts. However, all student had access to all of the QR codes if they chose to do more.

plantfun

Here are two examples of QR codes you could use in your literacy lessons:

Shark Study QR codes

Kevin Henkes Author Study QR codes

I also utilize QR codes to send a “secret message” to my different groups to preview their next book, give new vocabulary words, games to play with family members, etc. Another strategy is to send students on Scavenger hunts around school/home by hiding QR codes. From experience, using QR code scavenger hunts will transform your class from bored to enthusiastic about any subject.  For differentiation purposes, I would color code my QR codes the same color as their flexible group so when they found the clue, they could scan the correct code for their level. I utilized the Teachers Pay Teachers website for differentiated QR code scavenger hunts.

My favorite scavenger hunt for Grades 5-8: Measurement

A popular scavenger hunt for Grades K-2: Addition and Subtraction

If you are feeling SUPER motivated, teachers and parents can make your own QR codes using your own documents or resources the following 2 ways:

  1. GR Code Generator – this free website allows you to create various types of QR codes for text or URLs as well as different social media platforms
  2. Kawya – another free site with great options for QR codes

3. Survey Monkey

Survey Monkey is my #1 go to strategy for grades 2 and up for pre-assessments and post-assessments. This tool allows me to quickly differentiate a pre/post test to document student learning and growth.  For example, with my lowest groups, I would use lists of people/places and have them classify them into groups, use only one paragraph to look for information, and use true/false type questions. With middle groupings, I would use a mix of multiple choice questions as well as true/false questions. I might also use questions to answer main idea questions in the paragraph. For high performing students, I would use open-ended questions that ask students to infer (read between the lines) as well as answer detailed questions in paragraph/essay form.

How does this save time? You are asking the same questions for your topic/unit but the amount of information you are soliciting from the student is varied. When you go to make your survey monkey test, you choose the template format and can quickly develop 3-4 differentiated tests rather than trying to change your curriculum test to match your learners by hand.

I also love this tool for creating surveys and polls for students, as well as a confidential way to have students and parents reflect. I learn a great deal from the feedback I receive from both students and parents on if the unit/topic lessons, assessments, projects, and homework effectively taught the content.

4. SIOP Objectives

SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) is a systematic way to relay your content and language objectives to your students. To increase engagement and increase student learning, each lesson you do should have clear objectives (goals). Students are more likely to struggle if they do not know what they are learning or what the teacher expects them to do. Therefore, having both content and language objectives (goals for learning) clearly posted and clearly stated, helps to set students up for success.  A content objective “identifies what students should know and be able to do at the end of the lesson and leads to assessment.” A language objective is “a process-oriented statement (action verbs) of how students will use English with the content; reading writing, listening, or speaking.”  For example, for a history class lesson:

Content Objective: You will learn about the causes of the Civil War.

Language Objective: You will be able to write 3 differences between the Civil War and the American Revolution.

The language objective should always be observable and measurable.

Further examples of using SIOP:

3rd Grade Reading Lesson

6th Grade History Lesson

By giving these objectives or goals in writing. you can review these at the beginning and the end of the lesson. For example, you can write the goal or objective up on the board or at the top of your handout. You can also give them the goal electronically on an outline for those teachers who use laptops in class. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy, you can give the same content objective for you whole class. However, I develop differentiated language objectives for my students. For example, if we are studying maps, the content objective would be “We will design a map of our classroom.” The differentiated language objectives (utilize reading, writing, listening, and speaking for scaffolding learning) would be:

“With a group, we will draw a map of our class.” (low group)

“We will draft a map of our classroom that lists the different areas.” (middle group)

“Our table group will make a list and debate the important areas to include on our classroom map.” (high group)

The language objective for each of your groups should be at their instructional level where 90% of students can understand independently. Reading the objective should not cause frustration in reading or comprehending the assignment.

5. Wiki Spaces Classroom

Using Wiki Spaces Classroom will revolutionize your communication to students, but also how they can communicate with each other. This is a free website for educators, but also has low-cost options for parents, higher education, and school districts.  Visually, it is a lot like Facebook in how the students and teachers collaborate through a news feed. I love this for setting up group projects and differentiating assignments for each. You can create a project and assign them to groups of students in seconds. It will also track student engagement in real-time. This enables you to track progress on an assignment or project. More importantly, it allows you to see if there is an equal distribution of work within the group.

Other features include having students develop wiki pages. Again, aesthetically this will look like a Facebook page for posting homework, pictures of learning, field trips, extra credit, etc. This is a safe and fun way to track student growth and data. You also have options for collaborative writing to be inclusive of all levels of learners. With Wiki Spaces, you can post questions for your different groups the same way you do in Survey Monkey. Teachers can choose between true/false, multiple choice, essay or open-ended response questions. For students now choosing online college/university platforms,  this tool is conducive for teaching online collaborative learning.


The tools for differentiating are many, but finding the time to use them is increasingly smaller each school year. Students on both ends of the spectrum tend to be neglected, but especially the high level or gifted students. I hope you can utilize these tools to meet the needs of students who might be otherwise relegated to “independent reading.” I know the pressure for scoring well on standardized tests is higher than ever each year. However, learning how to engage your learners more effectively through differentiation will meet these goals.

5 Tools for Student Differentiation

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