Differentiate Instruction for Social Studies

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How to Differentiate Instruction for Social Studies

Social Studies is an incredible subject that allows teachers to differentiate instruction in multiple ways to help reach students with different learning abilities and interests. Below, are simple explanations and examples to help you differentiate instruction in the social studies classroom.

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction is when students work at different levels of ability or with different interests while working with the same information or content.

Differentiate Instruction

What are some different ways to differentiate instruction? 

Most techniques will fall within these three groups when teachers differentiate instruction:

1. Leveling

2. Learning Styles/Multiple Intelligence Theory

3. Enrichment/Remediation

What is leveling?

Leveling helps teachers differentiate instruction by focusing on the ability levels within a classroom. With levels, teachers can develop appropriate rigor for all of their students. A pretest should be used at the beginning of a unit to decide which level of rigor should be used to help each student gain the required knowledge.


What are learning styles or the Multiple Intelligence Theory? 

Learning styles help teachers differentiate instruction by focusing on how a student learns or what their interests. When used, learning styles can increase student interest in the content.

  1. Learning styles include three ways of learning: visual, auditory, kinesthetic.
  2. The Multiple Intelligence Theory describes what people are “smart” in. This theory was developed by Dr. Howard Gardner. The Multiple Intelligence Theory has also been expanded to include learning styles that go along with what the student is interested in or “smart” in. The following are the seven original multiple intelligences:

Differentiate Instruction Social Studies

You can download my Multiple Intelligence test to help you find out which Multiple Intelligences your students have for FREE! Just click on this file: Multiple Intelligence Test
What is enrichment and remediation? 

Teachers can differentiate instruction by using enrichment and remediation. This can take place at the end of a lesson or a unit. In order to place students correctly, a pretest must be given.

Enrichment can help social studies teachers differentiate instruction for students who are advanced in either their ability level or to those students who have retained the content. These students should be given an activity with critical thinking to challenge them. They should also be provided with more details and depth when learning the content.

Remediation should be given for those students who have not retained the content needed. Extra time should be spent reviewing and practicing content in a repetitive manner. For instance, as you go through a PowerPoint or a mini-lesson these students should be allotted time to review with a partner after each piece of content is given. They should be encouraged to put the content in their own words.

How to differentiate instruction during a PowerPoint mini-lesson 

PowerPoint is a tool that most secondary social studies teachers use. It is compatible with most smart boards on the market today. When a social studies teacher wants to differentiate instruction with this tool they can use the leveling, learning styles/Multiple Intelligence and the enrichment/remediation methods. The student note sheets can also be leveled to differentiate instruction.

1. To differentiate instruction using the leveling approach, the social studies teacher can create two different ability levels of the PowerPoint mini-lesson using the same content. One level should be enriched and the other should be basic. Social studies teachers should go into more details as well as include more critical thinking for the enriched version. The basic version should include the basic information that students are required to know in the most simple form. This will allow time for more repetition and review. If a co-teacher is in the room, they can use parallel teaching to present the social studies differentiated instruction PowerPoint mini-lesson. It is most helpful if an alternate room is available and the class is able to be split up using both teachers to present the content. If a co-teacher is not available, there are two choices. The social studies teacher can teach the basic level first and allow the students who will be enriched to begin on their work sessions. This will only work if the students were assigned a homework assignment that introduced them to the content the night before. Once the teachers are done presenting the basic version, they can present the enriched version. Another option is to have the students who are to get the enriched level of the PowerPoint mini-lesson go through the PowerPoint mini-lesson on their own with either a computer or a tablet. It is important to note that a pretest of some sort must be given in order to group students correctly. An example of a leveled PowerPoint slide is provided below; the enriched version is on the top and the basic version is on the bottom. The PowerPoint below shows more detail for the enriched version (top) and simplified information for the basic version (bottom).

social studies differentiated instruction

2. Another example of leveling to differentiate instruction for a PowerPoint is shown below. The enriched version encourages critical thinking by comparing two primary sources. The basic version shows the content in a simplified form. The enriched version is on the top and the basic version is on the bottom.

social studies differentiated instruction

social studies differentiated instruction

3. To differentiate instruction for a social studies PowerPoint mini-lesson using learning styles or the Multiple Intelligence Theory the social studies teacher must teach the content traditionally first then use different learning styles or the Multiple Intelligence Theory for repetition and review. Teachers can use multimedia, songs, art, connections to other material, connect to self, partner talk, writing, or have students use their bodies. An example that I use for the Inca is shown below:

social studies differentiated instruction Inca

4. If social studies teachers want to differentiate instruction even more during mini-lesson notes, they can create two different levels of note sheets. The enriched note sheets should allow students to write the notes in their own words to increase critical thinking and college prep. The basic level note sheet should have students filling in the blanks to practice good note taking skills and help them focus on the most important content within the mini-lesson. An example of this leveled method is shown below. The enriched version is on the top and the basic version is on the bottom.

social studies differentiated instruction

social studies differentiated instruction

How to differentiate instruction for anticipatory sets 

Many Social Studies teachers will have their students do a bell ringer or a question of the day at the beginning of the class in order to focus the students on the content of the day or to review the content from the day before. This is considered an anticipatory set. Teachers can differentiate instruction by giving students more or less critical thinking in the question depending on their ability level or try to change up the question by using either the Multiple Intelligence Theory or learning styles. This can be as simple as allowing them to choose whether they work alone (intrapersonal) or with a partner (interpersonal). You can use the same strategies if you give students a quick reading assignment with questions at the end in order to introduce them to the content.

 Enriched and Average Basic
In which region were agriculture and plantation life most prevalent?
A. the Middle colonies
B. the Southern colonies
C. the New England colonies
D. the western colonies
Where were most of the plantations located during colonial time?
A. the Middle colonies
B. the Southern colonies
C. the New England colonies
D. the Western colonies

How to differentiate instruction while teaching vocabulary 

This should be done right after an anticipatory set or even as the anticipatory set. I like to use a three column chart which has the vocabulary word on the far left column, the definition in the middle and an option to use the word in a sentence correctly, draw a picture representing the word or relate it to self. The definition section uses leveling to differentiate instruction. A teacher can provide the entire definition to the lower ability level, slotted for middle ability level, and none for the highest ability level. The high ability level should be able to write the definition in their own words, challenging them. The middle will be able to focus enough to write the missing words in and will be directed to the most important parts of the definition. The lowest level might have trouble reading the definition and that will be challenging enough for them. The far right column with the options will not only interest students and give them more responsibility for their own education due to choice, but also challenge each and every one of them. Examples of the vocabulary sheets that I use in my classes are shown below:


social studies differentiated instruction
social studies differentiated instruction
social studies differentiated instruction

How to differentiate instruction for a work session activity 

Try using the Multiple Intelligence Theory to make the work sessions more interesting to students. Allow them to choose out of 3 or 4 different activities based on different multiple intelligences. Click here to find out more.

How to differentiate instruction while using graphic organizers 

1Graphic Organizers can help social studies teachers differentiate instruction because they use the following multiple intelligence learning styles:

  • Spatial Multiple Intelligence Learning Style
  • Logical Multiple Intelligence Learning Style
  • Intrapersonal or Interpersonal Multiple Intelligence Learning Style
  • Linguistic Multiple Intelligence Learning Style

2. Graphic organizers can also differentiate instruction by using the leveled approach because they can help students simplify and organize information. The basic ability level students should be provided a word/phrase box to help them. Another way you can level is by providing the main content to the basic students and then have them fill in the word. The enriched students should be provided the word and then fill in the content that goes with it which uses more critical thinking. Below is an example of how you can level graphic organizers. The basic version is on the top and the enriched/average version is on the bottom.

social studies differentiated instruction social studies differentiated instruction                           

3. The third way to differentiate instruction with graphic organizers is to use it for remediation while other students who have mastered the content do enrichment activities. I have created over 100 graphic organizers. Click here to to see them individually. My graphic organizer BUNDLE can be found by clicking here. You can also download my ’1 Cause 1 Effect’ graphic organizer for FREE here: 1 Cause 1 Effect

How to differentiate instruction for writing assignments (Being Updated March 2019)

You can use leveling to differentiate instruction for writing. Use a leveled writing system to help bring your lower students up while still challenging advanced writers. A leveled writing system can be used in the RTI process because it measures improvement. The lowest level could be working on writing a topic sentence and listing three facts while a higher leveled ability student could be working on the elaboration of a paragraph. To find out what level a student should start with, have them write a paragraph. You should decrease the level depending on the amount and types of structural mistakes that are made. If there are not structural mistakes, you can increase the level by allowing them to create essays or they can continue to do paragraph writing depending on the assignment. I created a leveled writing system that can help you differentiate instruction for your students. You can find it by clicking on the following link: UDL DBQ Writing System

How to differentiate instruction for concluding sets

Concluding sets can be leveled by ability level. Use simple vocabulary for the lower levels. Increase the difficulty of the vocabulary as the ability level increases. Teachers can also bring in the Multiple Intelligence Theory to help interest students. I usually have a discussion on the essential questions of the day. I have the lower ability students talk to a partner of a higher ability level to help them with the questions as I walk around the class to make sure they can put it in their own words. I then call on the lower ability level students to answer the questions. The higher ability level students are challenged because many times they have to reteach the content to the lower ability level students.

More Information about Differentiated Instruction

Click on the links below to read some of my blog articles about differentiated instruction.

1. Differentiated instruction gets my students excited!

2. Differentiated Instruction Systems

Please share your ideas and opinions with us so that we can grow as teachers!