Creating Lesson Plans for All Learners

By Lynch, Sharon A Warner, Laverne

With appropriate planning, teachers can differentiate instruction to effectively meet the needs of a variety of learners. Carrie is looking forward to her second year of teaching third grade. Last year, she successfully included two students with learning disabilities and learned much about creative and responsive teaching. This year, Austin, a nine-year-old with autism, is part of her classroom. Austin is able to read fluently, but has difficulty with comprehension. Changes in the classroom routine are difficult for him, and he makes strange humming noises and has a limited attention span. After about ten minutes of an activity, Austin gets out of his chair and wanders around the room, flapping his hands. Carrie knows she will need to adapt instruction to meet the needs of all learners in her classroom, including Austin.

Teachers today must meet the needs of a variety of learners, including students like Austin. In addition to the broad array of cultural differences and varying disabilities teachers encounter, their classrooms reflect a wide range of abilities among the “typical” students (Warner et al. 2007). In each classroom are some learners with medical conditions, other learners who cannot read grade-level material, and still others who need additional practice and instruction to master concepts. In addition, a small number of students enter the classroom with enriched experiences and background knowledge; they master concepts quickly, working well above grade-level.

A number of reasons account for these variations: diversity of society; increased focus on inclusion of learners with disabilities; use of heterogeneous grouping as a research-based practice; and the requirement to ensure high-quality instruction in the general education classroom before referring to special programs. Regardless of the reasons, teachers today find that the large-group “one-size- fits-all” lesson is not likely to be effective. When teachers incorporate into their lesson plans activities designed to meet varying needs, they ensure all students’ access to the curriculum, so all students are able to respond and learn. This practice is commonly referred to as differentiated instruction. This article discusses the lesson planning process using the principles of both differentiated instruction and universal design for learning (Council for Exceptional Children 2005).

Why Differentiate Instruction?

Early support for differentiated instruction is found in the conceptual framework of Vygotsky’s (1986) sociocultural theory of learning. Considering Vygotsky’s principle of the zone of proximal development, teachers design lessons to extend the learner’s current developmental level, building on what the student knows while encouraging the student to extend beyond his or her current level (Kapusnick and Hauslein 2001). When teachers plan lessons that are grounded in differentiated instruction, they are able to make them conceptually challenging, yet manageably difficult for a variety of learners at multiple levels of ability.

Additional contemporary theories that support differentiated instruction include brain-based learning and multiple intelligences. Brain-based instruction suggests that students are better prepared neurologically for learning when they are in a comfortable learning environment, appropriately challenged, and able to attach meaning to concepts through significant associations (Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch 1998). Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences focuses on eight specific factors that comprise different types of intelligence, as opposed to a unitary view of intellectual development (Gardner 1999). When teachers create opportunities for all learners through multiple forms of instruction and assessment, they are better able to respond to the needs of learners who may demonstrate different types of intelligence other than the linguistic and logical- mathematical abilities that traditionally have been valued in academic settings (Campbell, Campbell, and Dickinson 1999).

An emerging research base supports differentiated instruction as a strategy that enables learners at multiple levels of ability to benefit from instruction. Patricia Hodge (as cited in Subban 2006) found that students who had received differentiated instruction had increased gains in mathematics scores. McAdamis (2001) reported that differentiated instruction resulted in significant improvement in test scores for low-achieving students across grade levels. In addition to improvements in test scores, another result of differentiated instruction, according to other studies, is increased student engagement. Johnsen (2003) found that differentiated techniques were engaging and stimulated student interest. In a study by Linda Affholder (as cited in Subban 2006), teachers who used differentiated techniques experienced a greater sense of effectiveness and were more willing to try new instructional approaches.

Using Differentiated Instruction

Integrating a universal design for learning (Council for Exceptional Children 2005) at the planning stage is essential for ensuring that all students can participate and benefit from instruction. The lesson plan can include differentiated content, teaching strategies, instructional settings, or student behavior management (Hoover and Patton 2004). The principles of universal learning incorporate equitable access for all students, flexibility in terms of methods and pace, simplicity of implementation, perceptible presentation of information in multiple formats, tolerance for errors, low physical effort, physical accessibility to all, promotion of socialization, and fostering acceptance of all learners. When teachers consider these principles in planning, the students can be more successful in learning (Tomlinson 2001).

Here are some ways teachers can integrate the principles of universal design in lesson planning (McGuire, Scott, and Shaw 2006):

* Consider multiple learning styles when presenting information. Some students understand concepts better when presented visually, or with manipulatives. Learners like Austin, who have autism spectrum disorders, benefit from visual supports, such as pictures and objects, as concepts are introduced. When information is presented in brief segments followed by hands-on activities, students with attention problems like Austin’s can work more easily with the group.

* Promote engagement by giving students choices of content, assignments, responses, and materials. For example, when the third- grade class studies heroes, students can develop reports by choosing their heroes among several options provided by the teacher or selecting heroes on their own. How students report on their heroes can vary, consisting of a combination of oral descriptions, writing, drawings, videotapes, or information from Web sites.

* Allow students to respond to assignments in multiple ways. In addition to the typical written responses, students can demonstrate understanding by speaking, drawing, acting out concepts, creating art projects, or offering technology-based responses. For example, Austin’s response to a lesson on the Plains Indians might consist of drawing, writing on the computer using children’s software such as Kidspiration(R), or recording using a digital voice recorder.

* Teach to multiple levels of ability. When developing objectives, the teacher can decide in advance what all students will learn, what most students will learn, and what some students will learn. Often referred to as the learning pyramid, this format provides for the student who needs additional instruction and practice, as well as the student who masters concepts quickly (Betts 2004). In a unit on world explorers, Austin may not learn all the material that the most advanced learners in the class master, but his teacher ensures that the basic content is part of instruction for everyone in the classroom.

* Use curriculum overlapping. When students with significant disabilities cannot participate at the academic level, the teacher can address another curricular area, such as language or motor skills. For example, when the group is working on reading, this student can work on language skills. For the typical student, this is a literacy activity; for the student with special needs, this is a communication activity.

* Use ongoing assessment. The teacher continuously observes and uses informal methods to ensure that learners understand concepts (Lewis and Batts 2005). With Austin and his classmates, Carrie uses sticky notes on which she writes a student’s name and records observations as she circulates during lessons and related activities. She later puts these sticky notes in work folders she keeps for each student.

Steps in Planning the Lesson

After developing objectives using the learning pyramid described earlier, the teacher decides how to organize the lesson or sequence of lessons. Gaining students’ attention serves as an introduction to activities in the lesson. This is often called the anticipatory set or focus, and it can be as simple as saying, “Today, students, we’re going to be talking about types of transportation.”

Some groups of students respond better to concrete approaches and, in this case, the teacher could show students a toy truck or train, display pictures of types of transportation, or share books about the topic. Using objects is one way of addressing the needs of learners like Austin who may not relate to your simply telling them about the topic. Also helpful for students with autism is a written or picture schedule of the day’s activities so they know what to expect. When the teacher introduces the lesson, the student is better able to pay attention if it is on the daily schedule. By providing a schedule on a regular basis, the student also is better able to adapt to changes; this practice may decrease off-task behaviors such as roaming the classroom. Once students’ interest is directed to the lesson, the teacher goes on to develop the body of the lesson. What is included in the body of the lesson depends on the creativity of the teacher and the age of the students. Teachers can organize class discussions, writing assignments, dramatic presentations, independent research, singing, playing games, choral reading experiences, small group activities-anything designed to help students learn about the topic at hand. Varying selected activities assists in maintaining students’ interest in the subject and helps them remember concepts presented. Variety also helps meet the needs of learners with limited attention spans.

After discussion and activities are completed, review of the lesson’s content is the next step. This review, often referred to as closure, helps students remember the concepts discussed. Closures also help students recall concepts in preparation for later assessments of what they learned. In the transportation lesson, for example, the teacher could show pictures of various types of transportation, asking them to name the types as the pictures are shown. For some learners with disabilities or memory difficulties, frequent review is critical to learning.

In addition to closure, many teachers provide follow-up activities to help students remember what they have learned. These are called extensions, and they enable learners to review and extend the lesson content through the use of classroom centers, classmade displays, or special group projects. For example, a Book Corner might provide several picture books about the concepts from the lesson for students who might not yet be reading or do not read well.

The use of centers and other strategies is an excellent approach to differentiating instruction (Warner and Sower 2005). Learners like Austin may need guidance in how to participate in centers, as well as in how to use materials independently and interactively. As students participate in extension activities, opportunities arise to review and evaluate what they know about the content of the lesson at the level of their comprehension.

Other components of the lesson plan cycle include guided practice, independent practice, evaluation strategies, and reteaching concepts. Guided practice refers to activities students do with teacher assistance, allowing them to rehearse what was learned in the lesson. Independent practice occurs when students demonstrate, without the teacher’s help, what they learned from the lesson. An evaluation strategy enables teachers to determine whether students have become competent with the knowledge and skills acquired during the lesson. Evaluation strategies often lead to the assignment of grades reported to parents and administrators. Reteaching may become necessary after guided practice, independent practice, or the evaluation processes, and requires that teachers teach some portion or the entire lesson again if students need more instruction.

Lesson Plan Format

A sample lesson plan using the format just described (adapted from Hunter 2004) is presented later in this article. The components of the lesson plan are summarized here.

* Objectives. What will students learn as a consequence of the lesson?

* Anticipatory Set or Focus. The anticipatory set is an attention- getting device teachers use to pique students’ interest in the lesson plan topic.

* Body of the Lesson. Activities are designed to teach the targeted concepts. This portion of the lesson also includes a check for understanding, guided practice, and modeling.

* Closure. This is a brief review of lesson content.

* Extensions. These follow-up activities may be offered in addition to closure.

* Independent Practice. This part of the lesson cycle allows students to demonstrate what they have learned during the lesson. If necessary, the teacher reteaches information that students did not learn.

* Evaluation Strategy. Students demonstrate what they have learned through evaluation techniques defined for each lesson.

* Reteaching. Based on the evaluation, the teacher is able to plan future instruction while considering those areas where the students need additional practice, as well as those where the students demonstrate mastery.

Lesson Plan Example with Differentiation for Diverse Learners

An example on state emblems illustrates how the lesson plan format can be used with differentiated instruction for a second- grade social studies lesson.

Lesson Plan for Second Grade on State Emblems


* Students will be able to name the state capital, state bird, state tree, and state flower at 80 percent accuracy.

* Students will be able to recite the state motto with 95 percent accuracy.

* Students will be able to write a story about the meaning of one of the state symbols using complete sentence structure with 95 percent accuracy.


Consider the learning pyramid. The lesson objectives indicate what most students will learn. For students with mild disabilities, the teacher may expect them to

* select and point to the state capital, state bird, state tree, and state flower when pictures are presented;

* recite the state motto chorally with the class as a group; and

* dictate a story about the meaning of one of the state symbols.

For learners with significant disabilities, the lesson focuses on language or socialization. For example, the teacher may expect the student to

* respond to questions using phrases of two or more words;

* answer yes/no questions;

* answer who, what, when, and where questions;

* follow two-step instructions;

* take turns during social interactions; and

* remain seated for a ten-minute instructional period.

For learners who work above grade level, the teacher may expect students to

* compare and contrast the state capital, bird, tree, and flower with those of another state;

* research and explain the history of the state motto; and

* write a story about the meaning of one of the state symbols. (For this activity, no differentiation is necessary to accommodate this group of students.)

Anticipatory Set/Focus

Begin by displaying a large classroom map of the state of Texas. Tell the students that in today’s lesson, they will learn about some state emblems.


To meet the needs of learners with special needs, begin by reviewing the city where the students live (Houston, for this example), and show it to the students on the state map. Explain that they live in the city of Houston and the state of Texas, which has many cities. Use a color map large enough for the students to see well. Explain that emblems are something people think of when they hear about a state. All states have a state capital where laws are made, a state bird common to the state, and a state flower that grows in the state. While discussing each concept, show related pictures. For accelerated learners, teachers can ask students why we have state emblems or other questions requiring higher-order thinking skills.

Body of the Lesson

1. Ask whether anyone knows the name of the state capital (Austin). Continue the lesson by telling students some other basic facts about state emblems:

* Texas is called the “Lone Star State.”

* The state bird is the mockingbird.

* The state tree is the pecan.

* The state flower is the bluebonnet.

2. As each emblem is mentioned, show students pictures or photographs so they can conceptualize what each emblem looks like.

3. Tell students that the state motto is “Friendship.” The motto originated from the first settlers in Texas, the Tejas Indians, whose name means “friendly.”

4. Mention that other states have mottos associated with their names. California is called the Golden State, and Indiana is referred to as the Hoosier State.

5. Assign students the task of investigating and writing a brief story about any one of the emblems associated with the state of Texas.


As each emblem is presented, ensure that learners who need additional help can see it. For Texas, show a picture of the flag when explaining that it is the “Lone Star State.” Using video clips or portions of movies also helps to meet the needs of learners at multiple levels. Ask “why” questions requiring higher-order thinking to engage the accelerated learners. These higher-order thinking skills also challenge typical students and promote engagement. For the story students write, allow them to respond in multiple ways: drawing a picture story or cartoon, creating a classroom mural, making a diorama, or tape recording their story. Students who work above grade level may engage in additional research on emblems of other states as well as their own state.

For those students who have significant disabilities, the activity can have an expressive language objective rather than an academic content focus. Consider having students work in pairs or small groups, assigning tasks to each student. This could be a good way to capitalize on a student’s strong oral reading ability, while providing opportunities for social interaction and varying the activity by working with a peer.


Ask students to recall the information presented in the lesson by asking them to name the state tree, flower, and bird, as well as identify where the state capital is located.


For students with expressive language difficulties or those with autism spectrum disorders, using a leading sentence may be more effective than asking a question. For example, review information using the format, “The state tree is . . .,” or “Our state bird is . . .” with students who are unable to respond to direct questions reliably. Because research and writing assignments require extended time and may span a period of days, closure reminds them that their stories should be completed by a predetermined date. Evaluation Strategy

Plan to develop a mural for the hall outside the classroom. Divide students into small groups and have them spend a portion of the day focusing on assigned symbols from the lesson, drawing pictures, and summarizing the information learned. After the mural is displayed in the hallway, invite students from other second- grade classes to view the work and hear brief reports about each of the symbols. Suggest informally that students invite their parents to come see their mural as their schedules allow.


For learners who need additional help and instruction, allow them to respond as you first begin the lesson closure by having them select the state tree, flower, or bird from several pictures. For learners who work above grade level, ask them to tell about the state tree, flower, or bird of another state. Another possibility is to ask these students whether they might select a different tree, flower, or bird for their state. This type of activity promotes the use of abstract thinking among these students and typical learners as well.

Closing Thoughts

The lesson presented here illustrates how instruction can be differentiated at the planning stage. Additionally, the lesson demonstrates how a single lesson can effectively meet the instructional needs of learners who are working well above or below grade expectations. This type of lesson planning not only structures teaching to ensure learning, but also helps to meet the needs of the diverse groups of students who comprise today’s classrooms. When differentiation is incorporated at the start of planning instruction, the teacher is better able to avoid situations where students are not engaged and, as a result, exhibit problem behavior. Differentiated lesson planning is a win-win proposition in which teachers feel pride in the accomplishments of their students at varying levels, and where all students;-including Austin-can show they can learn.


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Sharon A. Lynch is Professor of Special Education at Sam Houston State University and Associate Counselor for the Delta Theta Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi. She served 18 years as a public school teacher, educational diagnostician, and speech-language pathologist. Among her areas of interest are inclusion and assessment.

Laverne Warner is Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Special Populations at Sam Houston State University. She served as Counselor of the KDP Delta Theta Chapter for 16 years and as a public school teacher for nine years in Texas, Vermont, and Indiana.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Fall 2008

(c) 2008 Kappa Delta Pi Record. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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