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Differentiation in the Classroom: Content, Process, or Product?

by Model Teaching | June 5, 2020.

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “Fair is not always equal.” This is especially true in a classroom setting when you are dealing with a group of students with different reading levels and academic skillsets. And then there are other things to consider like their home life, educational background, and emotional needs. All students do not need the exact same support in order to be successful in a classroom setting, and that is where differentiation becomes critical.

Differentiation in the classroom

Carol Ann Tomlinson is an educator and author, well-known and respected for her research and work with differentiated instruction. She believes there are four ways to differentiate instruction: through content, process, product, and learning environment. For the purposes of this blog post, we are going to focus on the first three only.  Below is an explanation of each of those three methods, as well as a few examples of each.

  1. Content – Content is differentiated when students are given fewer vocabulary terms or mathematical formulas to learn, or a different text to read. This type of differentiation can also relate to the vertical alignment of standards. For example, if a third-grade student does not understand the idea that multiplication is repeated addition, something they should have learned in second grade, the current teacher will need to reteach that content before moving on to grade-level content.
  2. Process – Teachers differentiate their instruction when they work one-on-one with a student needing extra help, or pull a small group. Even something as simple as repeating directions, or offering written directions, is considered a way to differentiate instruction. For this type of differentiation, like setting/environment differentiation, the academic standards are not being changed or “watered down”, it is simply a method of scaffolding so that students can be successful with grade-level content.
  3. Product – Tasks are differentiated when you modify the length or scope or offer extended time to complete it. When the scope of a task is modified, it may possibly include lower-level thought processes, but only with the intent of scaffolding student learning so that eventually, they are ready to meet grade-level content expectations.

The above examples showed just one way to differentiate each method. For a more complete list of strategies, download the Differentiation Strategies resource.

But let’s be honest, it is not realistic or even feasible to differentiate content, process, and product for every single lesson. So as a classroom teacher, how do you know which of the three methods you should differentiate? Your differentiation methods should be based on the needs of your students and the purpose of your lesson. Consider the following examples:

  1. If you have a student that is reading below grade level, you will likely need to regularly differentiate content for him/her by offering a text at their instructional or independent reading level.
  2. If you have a student with dysgraphia, you may need to differentiate his/her learning process to ensure that they have access to a word processing program, rather than having to handwrite their assignments.
  3. If you have a student with a learning disability and accompanying IEP that designates reduced test length, then you will have to differentiate the product by shortening the assessments you give.

As you consider the needs of your students, think about these six aspects:

  1. Special Needs – This is probably the most important aspect to consider because it is often legally required. If you have students on a 504 plan or with an IEP, any accommodations or modification listed in those plans is a legal obligation you must meet. These methods of differentiation are not optional and can include all three methods.
  2. Level of Prior Knowledge – If a student has gaps in his knowledge from the prior year, you will likely need to differentiate content in order to catch him up, before he is able to learn grade-level content.
  3. Reading Level – As mentioned in the example about, a student reading below level will need access to appropriately leveled texts. The same can be said for students reading above grade level. Remember, differentiation is not only to help struggling learners!
  4. Student Behavior – If you have students with severe behavior issues or on a behavior contract, often times their learning processes may need to be differentiated. This might include having them work alone instead of in a small group or keeping them separated from a particular student, or even ensuring that they always work alongside a teacher or aide.
  5. Learning Styles – Do you have students that are strong visual learners, and always learn best from graphs, illustrations, or graphic organizers? What about students who really only take in information if they can talk it out themselves? Or maybe you have students that are very tactile and need to manipulate objects in order to solidify concepts in their mind? All of these examples represent different learning styles and might be a reason why you would differentiate process (how they learn) or product (how they demonstrate their knowledge).
  6. Lesson Purpose – Consider the purpose of your lesson. If the purpose is for students to learn presentation skills such as public speaking and debate, then you can easily differentiate the content to a topic that students are passionate about. However, if the purpose of the lesson is definitive content that MUST be learned, you would not be able to differentiate content, but might allow some flexibility in the process or product.

For a more thorough understanding of how these six needs of students play a role in choosing a method of differentiation, download the Choosing a Method of Differentiation Matrix below.

If you only take away one thing from this blog article, let it be that differentiation is the process of adapting an activity or its instruction to make the content accessible and appropriately rigorous to all childrenAll children is the key phrase! Differentiation is not just limited to students who struggle academically and need support but is done authentically based on the needs of each student in a classroom.

It is also essential for students to use these words in their writing as well. To encourage this, you could provide a word bank when having students respond to a prompt and explain they must use all the words in the word bank accurately in context as they respond. See Figure 1 for an example of this next. You can provide a prompt for students to answer, but require students to select vocabulary from a provided work bank to help them reinforce their understanding of each word they previously learned in class. In this example in figure 1, students are participating in a science class, and the teacher has prepared a simple prompt using vocabulary words related to their astronomy lesson. Notice the words chosen for this activity- these words, like revolution, could have multiple meanings depending on the classroom in which the child is learning. These tier 2 words selected help reinforce student’s understanding of the English Language while simultaneously helping them review important academic content they learned in class.

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Choosing a Method of Differentiation Matrix

Choosing a Method of Differentiation Matrix

Use this tool to determine which of the three methods you should differentiate, based on the needs of your students.

Instructions for Use: Locate characteristics that describe your student or student groups, then see the last two columns for a component you might consider differentiating, as well as the rationale for it. This is not a comprehensive list, but simply a guide to help you think through the best rationale for choosing your method of differentiation. Use this resource in conjunction with the Differentiation Strategies tool to choose appropriate strategies.

Differentiation Strategies

Differentiation Strategies

This resource is a list of potential strategies for differentiation, organized by content, process, and product. It offers suggestions for five core content areas: math, reading, writing, science, and social studies.

Instructions for Use: Use this as a resource of strategy ideas you might implement for various content areas.


Refer to the Choosing a Method of Differentiation Matrix, and think about your particular students. Focus on one student, or a group of students with similar abilities, and use the matrix to determine an area of differentiation for an upcoming lesson you have planned. Next, refer to the Differentiation Strategies resource and choose at least two strategies you can implement that will help that student or group of students meet their learning objective. Implement these strategies as you teach the lesson, and then take time to reflect on the success of the student(s). Did the differentiation strategies help them achieve their goal? Would these strategies work in other lessons or content areas? Use the answers to your reflections to help you continuously improve your future lessons and ensure that your differentiated approaches to instruction support each child so that every student is successful.


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