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Differentiation by Modality

This week will be posting a series of blogs from NCCAT Lead Fellow Dr. Deb Teitelbaum on Differentiated Instruction. We talked about why yesterday and today we move to the how.

So how do teachers differentiate by modality? First, we have to consider what modalities teachers use most often. Mostly, we talk.

If you consider the structure of the human head, you can immediately see a problem. A dog takes in information primarily through scent; this is why most dogs’ noses are out in front. This is something that believers in evolution and intelligent design can agree on.

On a human head, the eyes are in the front. The ears are waayyyyy off to the side. Yet we talk incessantly and use very few graphics. PET scans of people asked to encode pictures show far greater brain activity than those of people encoding words (Grady, McIntosh, Rajah, & Craik, 1998). The simple act of adding pictures to your PowerPoint presentations can increase retention. If you further encourage your students to draw cartoon representations in their notes—even those who cannot draw—they will be apt to remember the concept associated with the picture. Encourage them to use colored pencils or fine-tipped markers.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Dr. Deb. Get to the good stuff,” I hear you cry. Okay, let’s talk kinesthetic modality. There are infinite ways to employ movement in your instruction. The links below are for videos of teachers using Whole Brain Instruction. One is a kindergarten language arts lesson; the other is a high school mathematics class. Notice that the technique is the same for both groups; only the content changes.

You need not become WBT certified to use movement. You can have students do something as simple as partner up and stroll from one side of the room to another while they discuss a concept. The act of moving while talking in the classroom is novel and, therefore, it forces students to pay attention. In addition, the concept may become fused with the mental image of the spot where the students were standing when they discussed it. I can remember taking a geology test in college. (Rocks for Jocks. Science was not my strength back then.) As I struggled to arrive at the answer on our final, the first thing I recalled was an image of myself standing at the lab table. As that picture solidified, my lab partners and what we were discussing gradually came into sharper focus until I was able to answer the question.

For review purposes, you can take the standard study guide and repackage it in moving form. Take two cube-shaped tissue boxes and cover them with colored paper. On one, write numbers from one to six. On the other, write things you expect students to know. For example, an upcoming test in a sixth grade science class (I’m trying to redeem myself from my Rocks for Jocks days) might focus on the structure, classification, and physical properties of matter. So the six sides of the cube might have the following items written on them:

- Name of elements

- Ways to identify a substance

- Things that happen to a substance as it is heated

- Things that happen to a substance as it is cooled

- Liquids that are lighter than water

- Atomic numbers of elements

Student toss both cubes and then provide X number of examples (noted on the number cube) of whatever turns up on the other cube.

Fill-in-the-blank or very short answer questions can be turned into the old fortune tellers we used to make by folding paper. Some folks call them cootie catchers. You can purchase or download pre-made fortune tellers, but I prefer to have students create them for homework and then quiz each other during class. I’ve provide a link to a blank template below.


I think I’ve given you more than enough to chew on for today. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about musical modality.

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