Differentiation is the way a teacher prepares instruction to meet the needs of all the children in an inclusive classroom, from the most challenged to the most gifted. Differentiating instruction is not only going to help your special education students fully participate, it will also enrich and improve the experience of the general education students. Everybody wins.
A well designed differentiated lesson will include some of the following: A strong visual component, collaborative activities, peer coaching, a multi-sensory approach to presenting information and differentiated assessment based on strengths.
A strong visual component: Aren't digital cameras and online image searches wonderful resources? Children with reading problems have a great deal less difficulty dealing with pictures than symbols. You might even have teams of children work together to gather pictures for instruction, or you might ask Mom to email you favorite vacation pictures. I use a lot of cards for my autistic students, to teach sight vocabulary, attributes, safety signs and to evaluate new vocabulary.
Collaborative activities: Collaboration will be the mark of a successful leader and employee in the future, so this is a skill all students will need. We also know that children learn best from peers. One of the strongest reasons for inclusion is the fact that working across ability groups "pulls up" the lower functioning group. You need to take time to teach collaboration, using a "fishbowl" approach. Have a group of students model the process of collaboration, and then evaluate their performance as a group. As you are teaching a lesson using collaborative teams, spend time evaluating them as a group: Did everyone get a chance to talk? Did everyone participate? If you observe that groups are not functioning well, you may need to move in, stop, and do some coaching.
Peer coaching: It's a good idea to create several "partners" for every child in the class. One method involves 4 pairings in each class a clock face to illustrate: a 12 o'clock partner, with a student most like each student in ability (assigned by the teacher,) a 6 o'clock partner, who is the opposite level of ability, and 3 and 9 o'clock partners of their choosing.
Spend time early in the year training your students to work in partnerships. You might try "trust walks" with your partners, having each child take turns walking their blindfolded partner around the classroom with only spoken directions. Be sure to debrief with your class, and talk about the importance of listening to each other and understanding each others' strengths and weaknesses. Be sure you model the kind of positive interpersonal interactions you want to see from kids.
Peer coaches can help each other with flash cards, with written assignments, and with collaborative activities.
A Multi-sensory approach: We are way too dependent on print as a way to introduce new information. Some of the children with IEP's may have strengths in unexpected areas: they may be great illustrators, creative builders and very capable gathering information visually on the internet. The more sensory avenues you engage as you are introducing new material, the more likely all your students will retain it.
Do some tasting with a social studies lesson: how about coconut for a unit on the Pacific, or trying some salsa when you are learning about Mexico?
How about movement? I used a "molecule" game to teach children what happened when you heat elements. When I "turned up the heat" (orally, and raising my hand to raise the temperature) they would rush around the room as far apart as possible. When I would drop the temperature (and my hand) the students would gather together and move just a little bit, slowly. You can bet every one of those kids remembered what happened when you heat a liquid or gas!
Assessment that builds on strengths: There are lots of ways to assess mastery other than a multiple choice test. Rubrics are one great way to create clear ways for students to show they have mastered the materials. A portfolio may be another way. Rather than asking a student to write, you may ask a student to sort or group pictures according to criteria you have learned, name pictures, or have the students answer questions that help them display knowledge of new materials.