Differentiated Instruction: Online Instruction for Special Education and English Language Learners

By: Matt Rhoads, Ed.D

Dr. Matt Rhoads is a Tech and Instructional Leader and Innovator with hands in Adult Ed, K-12, and Higher Education. He is the author of several books and is the host of Navigating Education – The Podcast.

ransitioning directly to online education is a huge undertaking and transition. Once our classroom is built online, we need to think about instruction, but also differentiated instruction. In my previous post, I discussed Implementing Instructional Strategies and Lesson Plans with Edtech and your Online Classrooms, which focused on various instructional strategies we can utilize with a multitude of edtech tools. Now, I want to focus on how we can differentiate instruction for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and English Language Learners (ELL). Much of what I am going to discuss are on how we can embed differentiated instruction into the content we create for reading, writing, and mathematics. Additionally, during this conversation, I will focus on describing how we can develop alternative assignments that we can specifically assign to individual students or groups of students that may need further support to allow them to interact with the content you are teaching in your online class.

Special Education & English Language Learner Online Supports

Before speaking more specifically about embedding supports within your content you are creating to differentiate your instruction, I wanted to touch on a number of factors I want you to consider while teaching students enrolled in Special Education and ELL’s in your classroom. I have five components I want you to first focus directly on while setting up your online class as well as in your content creation with these students in mind.

  1. Set and Model Clear Expectations and Routines: What this means is to initially show your students through a guided video or during your initial synchronous live class sessions how your online classroom functions. This means going through routines like how students turn in work, where do students access the weekly information slideshow, accessing the classroom calendar, reviewing edtech tools you will be using at first, the addendum to your syllabus that outlines the expectations for online learning, and how to best contact you. All of these facets are critical to your student’s understanding of what to do when interacting with your online content. Record your synchronous sessions reviewing these expectations and routines or post screencasts on your learning management system for your students to have resources to view if they need a refresher in these areas.
  2. Chunk Content as Much as Possible: While you are explaining directions/modeling to your students, be sure to chunk your content as much as you can. Be sure to ensure when you screencast or post video content, the shorter the videos, the better. Additionally, while you are editing your screencasts, you can make segments of the video by providing signposts signifying the steps you are on. Also, for your slideshows, chunk the content; do not put everything on one page and it incredibly dense!
  3. Incrementally, break everything down in steps so your students can review it multiply: This relates to chunking but in a different way. What I mean here is to write down step by step directions when you are providing your students with assignment directions on slides, on a document, or through email. You can also highlight various steps of different colors to signify what you must do for each.
  4. Foster Online Verbal Discussions to Develop Community: At least once per week, have a short synchronous live session to check in with your entire class or ensure your students visit you at least once per week for office hours. Also, utilize a platform like Flipgrid to develop online discussions among your students on the content you are working on or on a personal topic. Students can respond to you via video and their classmates, which allows them to still maintain some form of communication with their classmates.
  5. Provide Feedback through Email, Comments on Students Assignments, and by Video: Be available to your students. That does not mean you have to reply to their questions immediately. What this means is you respond via email, commenting on assignments, or by a video response during the course of the school day. This can also take the form of providing your entire class feedback, group feedback, or individual student feedback. It depends on the scenario; but, ultimately be available for feedback as it is the most valuable thing you can do as a teacher while teaching online.

Differentiated Reading, Writing, and Mathematics Supports

Now, I am going to discuss differentiating the content for your online classes. I will be providing several examples of how to differentiate and provide embedded supports in reading, writing, and mathematics. My hope is that each of these strategies can be utilized for both students in Special Education and ELL’s.

Differentiation Supports for Reading

One of the easiest ways to differentiate reading for your students to show your students how to utilize read aloud on Google Docs as well as how to highlight and comment on the documents interface. Once this groundwork has been completed, create two types of documents, the original document students will interact with and the rewordify document. Rewordify is a tool that allows you to copy and paste your reading passing and then reconfigures the difficult words/phrases of the passage and transforms them into words/phrases students with reading levels a third to fifth-grade reader would understand. Thus, with two documents, students can refer to the original document to highlight, paraphrase, and annotate digitally and then have another document they can refer to help them in interacting with the document they are reading. Lastly, Google Read and Write, is a paid-for extension schools can buy that supports students reading by providing images, vocabulary definitions/images, and read alouds to students to help breakdown complex text. I recommend all students have access to this extension as it can really help them comprehend and evaluate texts in a multitude of modalities (reading, seeing, and hearing).

Another great way to differentiate reading instruction online is to use adaptive software to meet your students at their current reading level. Readtheory, Achieve 3000, and Freckle are all platforms that initially assess your student’s reading levels. Once they are done assessing tudent reading levels, their reading lessons and passages are adapted to your student’s individual reading levels. Adaptive reading software can be used as independent practice that students can do daily and weekly to work on their reading comprehension skills like finding the main idea, key details, passage structure and syntax, and the synthesizing information from the text.

Differentiated Writing

Writing can be differentiated through a multitude of different avenues. For Google Docs, speech to text is one of the first tools your students become familiar with. This allows students to begin writing out sentences before going back to revise them. Then, to revise their sentences, I recommend you have your students download the grammarly extension to Google Docs, which is an AI-based grammar/punctuation revision application. Students can see where they have made grammatical or punctuation errors in their writing when grammarly is enabled. What this does is allows students to see their mistakes and then see how to correct them.

Another avenue teachers can take is to build sentence frames into the documents they want their students to complete their writing on. For various groups of students, the sentence frames can be more guided and less guided depending on the students’ needs. This can be done by assigning the differentiated assignments with the differing levels of sentence frames to targeted students to meet them where they currently are in their writing. Learning management systems allow you to assign different assignments to a student without having to post it for the entire class.

Lastly, I wanted to discuss the importance of teachers using the revision/comment feature on Google Docs to provide students with feedback during the writing process. For online learning, this is huge as it can provide students several examples of areas they need to improve. It can also be considered for points of emphasis to discuss during office hours or a synchronous live class.

Differentiated Mathematics

Mathematic differentiated instruction online can be tricky, but completely doable. I first recommend providing multiple video tutorials of how a particular type of problem is solved. For example, if you are teaching your students how to do linear equations, provide at least three short videos that show step by step of how they are solved. You can find the videos online or develop your own screencasts. With screencasting tool like screencastify or screencast-o-matic, you can record your screen on a whiteboard tool like whiteboard fox to do live problems for your students. Ultimately, by providing multiple ways in which mathematical problems are solved, is one strategy that is evidence-based that has shown to help students learn a mathematic concept.

Another way to differentiate mathematics is to provide different groups of students in your class with step by step graphics of how problems are solved in their assignments. Coupled with this strategy, is to provide different groups of students in your class with a different set of problems. There could be an original problem set and then a modified problem set that covers the same concepts, but could be shorter and may only have one or two complex multi-step problems versus the original assignment having around ten of these problems.

One last area you can differentiate mathematics instruction is to provide your students access to adaptive edtech tools like Khan Academy, Freckle, and Mobymax. On Khan Academy, you can assign different groups of students or individual students individual tutorials and practice problems that relate to areas they need to improve in. On Mobymax and Freckle, students can take a pre-assessment where the software can determine what areas need improvement. Then, once the assessment is over, students are given individual tutorials and lessons geared towards what they need to improve in. Teachers can track student progress and provide assistance along the way.


I hope I have provided some insight into how you can differentiate your instruction. This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you can do. There is a multitude of different things you can do for your students that can take what I have explained here to the next level. However, my goal here was to provide some basics to help you begin differentiating online; because it’s something that takes work as you have to build additional content to what you are building for your general education students. My hope is that your Ed. Specialist and English Language Coordinator at your school site can work with you collaboratively to help you differentiate your instruction for these students. Give them access to your learning management system and email them to consult with you on some of the first decisions you are going to make to differentiate your online instruction. This will be key as you want to start off slowly and then add more differentiation as you go as you become more comfortable doing so as your online class progresses and evolves as time goes by.

Published by Matthew Rhoads, Ed.D.

Innovator, EdTech Trainer and Leader, University Lecturer & Teacher Candidate Supervisor, Consultant, Author, and Podcaster

One thought on “Differentiated Instruction: Online Instruction for Special Education and English Language Learners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: