Home      Organizing Induction      Improving Practice   

Tool: Differentiating instruction in elementary mathematics

Many teachers feel comfortable teaching students with diverse learning needs in language arts but say they do not know how to differentiate in mathematics. In fact, the Writing Workshop is a useful analogy for diversifying instruction in mathematics. In a Writing Workshop, children may all be writing fairy tales, but these stories may be of widely different lengths, and the skills students work on within the stories may also be quite different. It is possible to use a similar approach in mathematics. This tool is designed to help you begin that work by considering the way an individual lesson might be modified to meet the needs of each student in your room.

Differentiating instruction in elementary mathematics

How could you create multiple access points?

(Could students use a range of numbers to solve the same problem? Could students choose numbers?)


What supports could you provide to help struggling students?

(Would hundreds charts or multiplication tables make it possible for all students to engage in the significant work of the activity?)


Could students work for a set time rather than a number of problems?

(If students are practicing basic facts, could everyone work hard for 15 minutes and then stop?)


Could you use centers to differentiate instruction either as the main part of the lesson or as an activity for when students complete their work?


Could students choose their own problems?


Could you draw on student strengths in other areas (literacy, science, geometry, measurement, interpersonal relationships)?


Here is an example of a problem with multiple access points for a second-grade class. If students routinely encounter such problems, they quickly learn how to interpret them. In this format students choose the color of numbers to work with. Most students can make appropriate choices on their own, but, of course, teachers can intervene if necessary.

Jayden collected ( 14 26 43 ) leaves for her science project, but some of them blew away on her way home. When she pasted them down, she saw she had ( 9 12 27 ) left. How many did she lose?

Notice that not only do the numbers grow progressively larger, but also the mathematics grows more complex. It would be possible to do the subtraction with the red numbers by counting on fingers; however, this would be more difficult with the green numbers. The purple numbers offer the opportunity to subtract with regrouping. When differentiating in mathematics, it's important to think about making problems more complex, not simply increasing the number of problems required or the size of the numbers.