Differentiating Science and Literacy Content with Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears

One-size fits all learning is a thing of the past. Current educational research confirms the importance of differentiated instruction; today’s diverse student populations demand it. But what, exactly, is differentiated instruction? And how can elementary teachers differentiate science and literacy content?


Simply stated, differentiated instruction means adapting instruction to meet individual student needs. Teachers may choose to differentiate four classroom elements: content, process, products, or the learning environment itself.

Differentiating content can mean modifying what students learn or how they access information. It can include using a range of reading levels, audio recordings, modified spelling lists, and small group instruction.

Differentiating process means modifying the activities that students use to learn content. Learning centers, manipulatives, tiered activities, and extended time are all ways to differentiate process.

Differentiating products means modifying projects or assignments that demonstrate learning. Providing options for an assignment, allowing small group or individual work, and using appropriate rubrics can achieve this type of differentiation.

Finally, differentiating the learning environment can include providing materials that reflect and celebrate diversity, establishing classroom routines that allow students to get assistance when needed, and creating spaces for quiet and collaborative work.

Differentiated instruction also involves the use of continuous and formative assessment and flexible grouping to meet students’ changing needs.


Did you know that each issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears provides an opportunity for you to differentiate science and literacy content? You’ll find this in the Feature Story column of the Science and Literacy department. In each month’s column, you’ll find an informational article written for students at three grade levels: K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. The scientific content and principles, for the most part, are consistent across grade levels; but the vocabulary and text structure are modified. As always, consider the needs of your individual students before selecting a grade level for use.

In addition, the articles are available in three different forms: a simple, text-only version, a full-color, printable book, and an electronic version that includes audio narration for students as they read along with the text.

This month’s story, “Reader of the Rocks,” is accompanied by templates and graphic organizers that provide guidance in the nonfiction reading strategy of determining importance. These templates are appropriate for use with the grades 2-3 and 4-5 versions of the story! You can find the templates, as well as more information about the reading strategy, in this month’s literacy article, “Determining Importance: Helping Students Recognize Important Points in Content Text.”

You can browse all the Feature Story columns on our “ Stories for Students page. Check out each month’s issue for a new story with differentiated content!


The following articles and web sites provide more information about differentiated instruction in all content areas and across all grade levels.

CAST: Universal Design for Learning: Differentiated Instruction
Comprehensive overview, including links and references for further reading.

Reading Rockets: What is Differentiated Instruction? by Carol Ann Tomlinson
A basic overview of differentiated instruction. Excerpted from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s article “Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades.”

Mapping a Route Toward Differentiated Instruction by Carol Ann Tomlinson
This article describes how solid curriculum and instruction must be in place before differentiation occurs. Three fictional “case studies” provide clear examples.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright September 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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