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5 Easy Ways to Differentiate Worksheets 

Our classrooms are full of students with diverse needs. We want to ensure that all students benefit from instruction and practice, but how can we differentiate without using our entire planning period to differentiate one worksheet or activity? 

While some differentiation requires significant time, other ideas can be implemented rather easily with these tips. Here are some of my favorite ways to differentiate worksheets. 

1. Differentiate worksheets by making expectations clear. 

Make it clear how to answer questions: 

Have you seen questions that require more than one component within a single question? If this is the case, I will number the answer line with the number of answers needed. If possible, I will do this before making copies, but if not, I can add it to certain papers on the fly or make an announcement for all students to add numbers. 

Picture of worksheet with handwritten notes to clarify directions
Some questions can include multiple parts that students need to answer. Numbering the parts of a question or breaking down the parts of a question helps students provide all the parts of the answers that are required.

Highlight key words:

If the directions include specific key words I can literally mark them with a highlighter or underline the words before copying. For example, if a question asks students to compare 2 different texts, I can highlight the word compare and highlight the number 2 so that they stand out as students read the directions. 

Student worksheet with highlighter marks to point out the most important key words.
This communities page has the most specific words for each section highlighted to help students focus on the key part they should answer.

Depending on how many students need the differentiation, I like to use an actual highlighter or colored pen because this helps draw additional attention to the directions. I find this is especially helpful for students with ADHD to stay focused on the most important part of an assignment.

2. Differentiate worksheets by reducing the amount of questions 

Give students even or odd problems 

Math assignment with odd problems highlighted and directions that read, "complete the odd problems only" as a way to differentiate worksheets
Differentiate worksheets by just assigning odd or even problems for either classroom or homework. This is especially helpful when problems are similar as in the case of this (FREE) divide by 7 worksheet.

Assigning only even or odd problems allows you to give a student half the amount of work. On a math page or math workbook, usually similar type of problems are grouped together. This means that when you assign only evens or odd, students are still working through all the different types of problems.

Select Given Questions based on Difficulty 

This can take longer to prepare but can help differentiate to provide support and additional challenges to students who need it. One of my previous math curriculums listed practice problems based on 3 levels which I was able to use when assigning independent work to students. If a teacher manual provides this information, be sure to use it! 

Notecard with notes about different problems to complete based on student group
I had a math curriculum that used to list problems numbers based on 3 levels for each set of independent practice problems. Since my students were already grouped for guided math lessons, I used this information to assign independent practice.

You can also do this on the fly based on students’ questions and accuracy as you are working. If you notice a particular problem, suggest that the class skip it until the end if time allows. This will allow students to skip problems that will take up too much time to complete or mentally drain them. However, if they have time they can go back to complete the problem. 

Provide Fewer Answer Choices

Eliminate multiple-choice options

If a worksheet has multiple-choice options, you can cross out an option to change a worksheet from 4 possible answers to 3 answers. If you need to do this for multiple students you can do this before copying or do it on the fly for certain students. You might do this for only certain questions or for an entire worksheet. Make sure to have your answer key handy to make sure you don’t eliminate the correct answer. 

Give Fewer Options with an Answer Bank

If students are given an answer bank, you can give students fewer options to choose from by color-coding the answers and questions. For example, if an answer bank has 12 choices highlight 6 options. Circle the 6 questions where the highlighted words should fit. Now students know that highlighted options only work with the highlighted questions and non-highlighted words go with non-highlighted questions. 

Picture of states and capitals test with answer bank. Half the answers are highlighted with the corresponding problem highlighted.
To reduce answer options on this Southeast states and capitals test (without changing the format) I highlighted 6 choices from the answer bank. Then, I circled the answer lines for these 6 answers. Students are told to make sure to put highlighted answer choices on highlighted spots.

3. Differentiate Worksheets by Chunking the Assignment 

Have Students Look at Only Part of the Assignment 

You can cut a manilla folder into half or thirds and slip an assignment inside. Open up just one section of the folder so that students see a smaller portion of the assignment at a time. This can help reduce visual clutter and allow students to focus on just a few questions at a time.   

Image shows how to differentiate worksheets by placing in a manilla folder cut into thirds with an assignment in the middle.

You can also have students fold a piece of paper in half or thirds to achieve the same result. 

Build-in Breaks Along the Way

Have students work on a given amount of problems or for a given amount of time and then have them take a break. For example, ask a student to complete the first 3 problems and then have them take a short break. A break might include running an errand, doing a preferred activity, or just a high five.

4. Differentiate Worksheets by Providing Sentence Stems 

Sentence stems are one of my favorite ways to differentiate for learners. Simply, a sentence stem is the start of a sentence that helps direct students’ thinking.  If a worksheet requires a sentence or extended answer, sentence stems can help students organize their ideas and give an answer that matches the question.

Worksheet with sentences started as sentence stems to support students

You can either add these sentence stems directly on a student’s paper or list them on a whiteboard for all students to use as needed. If we are going over sentence stems as a class, I also like to have students practice orally filling in the stems before working on the worksheet independently. 

5. Differentiate Worksheets by Selecting Resources for Differentiated Options

Sometimes students need changes to assignments that will take significantly longer to do. If I know this is the case, I look for resources that already include differentiation. This makes it easy for me to make copies of differentiated options. 

Depending on what type of activity you are completing, there are different options for differentiated resources. For example, NewsELA provides reading passages that can have the Lexile level changed with a click of a button. You can also find resources that have different math options based on student needs.

Check out some of my favorite already differentiated options! 

States and Capitals Tests 

See if your students know their U.S. states and capitals with various options to support all learners. First, decide if you want to test students with all 50 states at a time or by dividing the states into regions. Then, you can either have students provide their own answers, use an answer key, or complete the activity with multiple-choice options. 

Picture of states and capitals test with 3 different testing formats to differentiate worksheets

Text Structure Practice 

I love teaching my students about text structures because it helps their overall reading comprehension and because so many reading comprehension questions are rooted in understanding text structure. My text structure resources have digital options that work great for differentiation because students can either type in their responses on graphic organizers or use a drag-and-drop feature. 

Computer screen with a child completing a text structure activity
My text structure sets include both printable and digital versions of an activity. For the digital activities, students can either highlight and type their own answers into graphic organizers or use the drag and drop versions that allow for easy differentiation.

You can further differentiate these activities by allowing students to use this text structure key word chart.

Interactive Math Review

Help students review before a math test by using this engaging review activity. Students love this activity for so many reasons, but you might love it because it is easily differentiated. Two different recording sheets help reduce the number and type of questions. 

2 different recording sheets for the same activity

Differentiate Those Worksheets! 

I hope these ideas can help you differentiate your worksheets today (or tomorrow)! I would love to hear if any of these ideas worked well for you and your students or if you have any ideas to add to the list! 

Make every teaching moment count! 

Signature that says, "Love, Julie from Llama with Class"
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