Wormeli (2006) states that "Differentiation is doing what is fair for students" (p. 3). In many secondary classrooms whole class instruction is the norm. Differentiation moves toward a more individualized way of teaching that privileges students' knowledge and learning styles to move them "substantially beyond where they began" (Jackson & Davis, 2000, p. 76). It is giving students the strategies and tools to handle whatever instructional challenges they encounter.
Based on analysis and diagnosis, teachers can differentiate using three dimensions: content, process, and product (Tomlinson, 1999). When teachers differentiate in terms of content they may focus on what students are expected to know, the materials that are needed to support this learning, and the topics assigned. For example in an English classroom, a teacher who normally assigns The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald may choose for some students to read the contemporary young adult novel that deals with the same themes and plot line like Jake Reinvented by Gordon Korman. Here the materials are changed in order to reach the same goal of studying the themes found in Fitzgerald's work.
When teachers choose to differentiate process they may change the way the engagement looks but not the end product or the content. For example, during writing teachers may offer a graphic organizer to some students while others might begin drafting immediately. By scaffolding the writing experience depending on the students' needs, teachers meet students where they are and are able to move them forward in the writing.
The last dimension, product, is when the same expectations are held for all students, but how they show their learning may differ. So after reading a novel, students may choose how they wish to show their learning through blogs, videos, written essays, etc. By focusing on the overarching goal and recognizing that people have individual strengths and weaknesses, differentiated instruction offers teachers a way to reach all children regardless of background, experience, and/or skill in the English language (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).
These three dimensions often overlap in an English classroom in which literacy processes are valued. The following classroom example shows how one teacher differentiates her unit on The Great Expectation using all three dimensions of differentiation.
Great Expextation - a lesson plan
Jackson, G.A. (2000). Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. New York: Teachers College Press.
Tomlinson, C. A. (1998). For integration and differentiation choose concepts over topics. Middle School Journal, 30(2), 3-8.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn't always equal: Assessing and grading in a differentiated classroom. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.