Differentiated teaching and learning

Differentiated teaching and learning


The school prioritises the identification and understanding of each student’s individual learning needs, responding with evidence-based classroom activities that effectively address these needs.

Differentiated teaching and learning

NSW School Examples

  This video from the National Smarter Schools website about Punchbowl Public School in Sydney, illustrates how the collection and analysis of student performance data has informed a whole school improvement agenda for literacy and has allowed individual student learning needs to be effectively addressed
  A PowerPoint from Rosemeadow Public School situated near Campbelltown, describes the extensive analysis of student data when planning for differentiated teaching that addresses student learning needs at a whole school, classroom and student level. 
  This PowerPoint from St Joseph’s School, Walgett illustrates a range of strategies adapted by the Kindergarten teacher to engage all students, including those shy and reluctant learners, in enriching activities to boost reading, comprehension and story-telling skills. 
  In this video from Cowra Public Schooldifferentiated teaching strategies provide meaningful learning experiences, especially among Aboriginal students and their families. 
  A teacher from Mountain View Adventist College discusses how a collaborative approach across a Stage has enabled more effective differentiated teaching
  This Powerpoint from Sawtell Public School describes an approach to making sustainable resourcing decisions, especially for purchasing technology to deliver numeracy programs which meet individual learning needs.
  • Differentiated teaching and learning - in detail


    A key to effectively engaging students

    Differentiated teaching is the key to purposeful student engagement. Many teachers prioritise a thorough understanding of students’ background, both from a personal and learning perspective.

    Effective principals in case study schools (Erebus International 2012 and 2013) reported their encouragement of teachers to develop a thorough understanding of each child's learning needs and to develop classroom contexts that directly responded to such learning needs. For many teachers, such professional actions are nothing more than good teaching, yet not all teachers appear to either engage in such activity or understand how to undertake this important prerequisite for student learning.


    Improving student outcomes

    The research of Goddard and Goddard (2007) indicates that well implemented differentiated instruction can significantly improve student learning outcomes. This involves teachers

    • adjusting teaching and learning activities in terms of both content and complexity
    • pacing the provision of appropriate resource
    • development of appropriate support levels
    • scaffolding to meet students’ differential readiness to learn.


    NSW schools use effective strategies

    Each of the strategies above responds directly to students’ learning preferences, styles and interests. Research, supported by case studies in NSW schools (Erebus International 2012 and 2013), implies that teachers need to engage in the following activities if differentiated teaching and learning are to have an impact on enhanced student outcomes:

    • developing a clear understanding about what students’ learning needs actually are
    • including what students need to be able to understand and also to do
    • ensuring that teachers have a clear and comprehensive knowledge of what students already understand and can do
    • understanding when instructional methodologies need to vary to accommodate differences in student learning needs or pace
    • ensuring a range of strategies that can be employed to build variation into their teaching plan.


    A whole-school approach

    Effective schools ensure that staff have the skills, tools and support that they need to build differentiation into their instructional/class plans. Examples of this include principals who clearly understand the importance of developing a K-6 learning continuum, where teachers build a professional repertoire to engage students effectively in learning, irrespective of their learning background and challenges.

    Whalan (2012) endorses the use of in-school professional learning teams and the systematic use of available expertise, both in school and out of school as a means of ensuring a focus on differentiated teaching and learning. Whalan’s research indicates that professional learning of this kind results in a more consistent and systematic approach.


    Explicit teaching targeted to individual need

    A systematic approach is supported by the work of Zbar et al (2010), who emphasise the importance of the explicit teaching of key concepts and skills, especially in the foundational areas of literacy and numeracy in the early years of schooling. Differentiated teaching and learning is enhanced when teachers innovatively use communication technologies and other teaching resources for individual or small group learning responding to individual students’ learning needs.

    Sugai (2008) advocates a three tiered approach towards student learning and teacher actions to ensure that individual learning needs are catered for. As the model below indicates, the first-tier is the approach adopted for the vast majority of students where syllabus outcomes are aligned to instruction for all students. At the second level supplemental interventions are developed for students identified as being exposed to some learning risk. The third tier is specifically focused on supplemental interventions tailored for students identified as being high risk learners.

     Response to Intervention Model

    Response to Intervention Model (Sugai and Horner, 2009)



    Erebus International (2012). Evaluation of the take-up and sustainability of new literacy and numeracy practices in NSW schools – Final Report for Phase 1, undertaken on behalf of the NSW Minister for Education

    Erebus International (2013). Evaluation of the take-up and sustainability of new literacy and numeracy practices in NSW schools – Final Report for Phase 2, undertaken on behalf of the NSW Minister for Education

    Goddard, Y., Goddard, M. (2007). A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record Volume 109 (4), p. 877-896. Retrieved 4/14/2009 from http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12871

    Sugai and Horner (2009). Responsiveness-to-Intervention and School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports: Integration of Multi-Tiered System Approaches. Exceptionality, 17:223-237, 2009 Routledge.

    Whalan, F. (2012). Collective Responsibility: Redefining what falls between the cracks for school reform.  Rotterdam: Sense Publishers

    Zbar, V.,Kimber, R. and Marshall, G. (2010). Getting the Preconditions for School Improvement in Place: How to Make it Happen. Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Bulletin 193: Melbourne


Whole school factors

Opportunities for student improvement are enhanced when there is whole school commitment to interventions based on clearly identified student needs.


Classroom/teacher factors

The teaching learning cycle begins with an identification of each student’s learning needs, informed by all available data.


Individual factors

Individual Learning Plans (ILP’s) are a powerful tool in assisting teachers to plan, implement and monitor students’ individually tailored learning experiences, especially when parents are engaged in the process.


See also

Explore the DEC resources about Differentiating the Curriculum, including strategies for gifted and talented students.

Read about planning and designing for Differentiated Programming, developed by the NSW Board of Studies.

Read about Personalised Learning and other online resources published by the School Improvement and Governance Network.

Review this research from the Successful Language Learners (SLL) project, a joint initiative of the DEC and the CEC NSW, making significant improvements to the language learning of ESL students.

Examine research comparing two models of one-on-one strategy tutoring for primary students with persistent spelling difficulties, from Avondale College of Higher Learning.