Using Playlists to Differentiate Instruction


Listen to my interview with Tracy Enos or read the transcript here.


In our never-ending quest to find better ways to differentiate and personalize instruction for students, we have plenty of options. I covered a lot of the basics in my Differentiation Starter Kit. Then last year we learned how math teacher Natalie McCutchen manages a self-paced classroom. And for ESL students, there are the Can-Do Descriptors.

Now, Rhode Island teacher Tracy Enos shares her system for customizing instruction to meet the needs of every student. She calls it a playlist, an individualized digital assignment chart that students work through at their own pace.

How Playlists Work

First, consider what we usually do: When planning a typical unit of instruction, teachers map out a series of lessons to deliver, assignments for students to complete, and some kind of final assessment at the end. They might share this plan with students, but then the execution is done by the teacher: The teacher delivers the lessons, tells students when to do the assignments, and guides students toward the final assessment.

With playlists, the responsibility for executing the learning plan shifts: Students are given the unit plan, including access to all the lessons (in text or video form), ahead of time. With the learning plan in hand, students work through the lessons and assignments at their own pace. And because each student has her own digital copy of the playlist (delivered through a system like Google Classroom), the teacher can customize the list to meet each student’s needs.

Tracy Enos

Tracy Enos

“A playlist is basically like a road map,” Enos explains. “I started using them in my classroom when I looked at my room full of 26 students and I saw the variety in their abilities. I knew I needed something different so that I could meet the needs of each one of those kids. Instead of just saying, ‘OK, everybody, we’re going to work on this lesson today,’ I needed to individualize it so that different kids are working on things that they needed.”

The term playlist, by the way, was coined by one of Enos’ colleagues, math teacher Jason Appel.

Sample Playlists

Here are screenshots of three sample playlists from Enos’s class. If you click on each one, you’ll be taken to the full version to view in Google Docs. Although these examples come from a language arts class, Enos feels strongly that the playlist concept could be used in any content area.

Argument Writing Playlist

The first playlist is for a unit on argument writing. What you see here is just the first few tasks; there are 19 on the full playlist.

In the first column, Enos simply names the task. The second column provides specific instructions for the task. The third column is set up for students to record any notes they have about the task, and the fourth is where students record the date they completed the task.


Although much of the playlist will be exactly the same for each student, especially for the first few tasks, individual tasks can be customized to meet individual needs. Because the playlist is stored in digital form, the teacher can go into each student’s playlist at any time and make adjustments as needed.

In addition to adjusting certain tasks, Enos also builds space in each playlist for purely individualized tasks. If we look further down her playlist, we see that tasks #14 and #15 have been left open for individualized focus revision activities, to be determined after the student has written her draft:


Enos does place occasional hard deadlines into her playlists; item 13 above has a date assigned to it. Although students are allowed to complete the work before the deadline, having this task pinned to a specific date helps prevent students from getting too far off track from each other.

Parts of Speech Playlist

This next one is from a unit designed to review the parts of speech. Notice that some of the tasks are quite simple and quick: Students just need to log on to a certain platform, create an account, or join an online group. This makes the playlist a practical tool as well as a good instructional vehicle: One place to keep learning tasks AND the kinds of housekeeping items that accompany most units. And breaking units into smaller tasks gives students a feeling of accomplishment as they move through each item.

To see the full version of this playlist, click the image below:


Again, the “Directions” column allows for maximum flexibility. The teacher can add tech tips, reminders, or any other information that might help student complete the task more smoothly. And if this is done in digital form, the teacher can easily add tips, links, or other comments at any time, making the playlist a living document.

Book Club Playlist

The final example is a playlist created for a unit on dystopian fiction, in which students participated in book clubs.


Notice that the playlist also includes checkpoints, where students must touch base with their teacher before moving on. These can be built in at any point for any reason, such as making sure students have completed key housekeeping tasks (like in the example above) or having the teacher review a draft for quality.

Many of the tasks in the playlist will ultimately result in the student submitting work through Google Classroom, or they might require a paper submission in a class that hasn’t gone quite so digital. In fact, the whole system could be done on paper—one look at how student learning is managed in a Montessori classroom and you’ll see how that can work. What’s key is that students work through the list on their own, which frees the teacher up to spend more time working one-on-one with students.

Managing Student Pace

If students are truly working at their own pace, wouldn’t that mean some are way ahead, even finished with a unit, while others drag way behind? Setting a few hard deadlines (as shown in the argument writing playlist) can help keep the pacing from spiraling too far out of whack, but if our goal is true individualization, then we shouldn’t want everyone to be too closely aligned.

This can be managed on a day-to-day basis. Students who are taking longer to master key tasks will likely get more one-on-one assistance from the teacher or be placed in groups to help them. Those who finish the required material quickly can be given enrichment tasks that take the learning to more advanced levels.

Homework also takes on a different role in a class that uses playlists: Because students work through the playlists on their own, they decide whether they get homework or not. If a student is moving through a playlist quickly, they may not have a need to spend extra time on the work at home. Conversely, if a student finds he needs extra help in class, he may decide to catch up on a few videos at home.

Learn More and Share Your Experiences

For a more in-depth exploration of playlists, listen to my podcast interview with Tracy Enos using the player above or by listening on iTunes or Stitcher (for Android). If you have questions, ask them in the comments below and I’ll have Tracy come over and answer them. And if you have used a system that’s similar to playlists, please share your experiences in the comments so we can all learn together.♦


There’s a lot more where this came from.
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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.


  1. I really like this idea, but I am curious about a couple of things: I use Google Classroom for everything, along with Interactive Notebooks (real notebooks, not digital because not all of my students have access to the Internet outside of class), do you do any kind of lecture or introduction of the objectives or key concepts your students will be learning as they work their way through these playlists prior to them starting the tasks? If so, how long before you assign them the playlist, and how much time do you give students to complete the playlists?

    • HI Angela! I too use Google Classroom and Google docs. The introductory information varies depending on the topic/ unit. I do generally give the students an overview of the process at the start. The important concepts may also be sprinkled in as they progress through the unit/playlist when it is appropriate. It’s important that the students understand their role and responsibility in the process, as well as the goal of the unit. This introduction does not have to be long though. I would let the kids jump in pretty quickly and then touch base on an individual level once students are working at their own pace. Individual conferences are very productive. The specific time-frame of the playlists depends on the purpose. A writing unit may take 2-3 weeks, introductory material for a novel maybe 3-4 days, the book club playlist took about 4 weeks. The beauty of the playlist is that it can vary based on your students and their needs. They can all be modified as needed. I do like to have some deadlines as they progress, or at least suggested milestones they should hit by certain times. The flexibility and organic nature of the playlist is what really excited me! Seamless differentiation!

    • Hi– I’m using this (awesome) playlist idea with my AP Lit students for the first time. I’m wondering if someone can help me. I sent the playlist to them via Google Classroom– it’s a google doc and every student got a copy. One of the things that I thought was cool about the playlist idea was that I could differentiate and update the playlist for students, but I can’t seem to be able to do that. I tried to add a link for ALL students, but it won’t update on their document. Is there a way to do this?

      • HI Elizabeth!
        I’m so excited that you’re trying the playlists out! I think I understand your question, but please correct me if I’m wrong. I also send mine (in a google doc) out via Google Classroom, making sure every student has his/her own copy. This should create their own document that you share ownership with. Once a student opens the doc you should be able to go in and change/ comment/ view anything on the doc. It’s great for individual modifications. When you have shared the assignment, though, you can’t change their individual doc without going into them all and updating it (which would be a pain). If I want to add / change anything for an entire class of students I will just tell the class to update their own docs. Maybe you can just add the link in classroom as an announcement and then the kids can access it there or paste it into their doc? Please let me know if that helps. 🙂

  2. I love this idea and plan to give it a go this school year. Even after doing this for over 30 years, I love learning new techniques and strategies. Your blog is so helpful, and I love you!

    • Same, Angela. (-8=

      I just wish I’d found this fantastic resource at the beginning of the summer rather than right after school started. I’ve shared this article with my PLC and plan to implement it ASAP.

      • That’s fantastic, Niki! I only started working with playlists last year myself! Anytime is a great time to jump in 🙂 Please let me know if I can help with anything or bounce ideas around! 🙂 Enjoy the year and Stay in touch! Tracy

  3. I love this idea! How long does it take to create a play list? It looks like you put a lot of time into making these. Do you have any tips to help make the process of creating a play list less daunting?

    • HI Shari!
      Setting up the initial playlists do take time, but it’s really time invested at the start of the unit, instead of as you go. You would be putting the resources and activities together anyway, this way it’s just at the start. Once the playlist is in place and the students are on the journey, you get to work with the kids. I do give myself, say, a full Saturday morning at least (with a good-size cup of coffee!) to finalize a playlist. 🙂 The first tip I would suggest is to keep the format and tools relatively the same for the different units. The continuity helps you in the planning process and helps the kids become familiar with the process as well. Also, it’s super easy to get overwhelmed with tools and options, try to limit them to your favorites. The tools that are the most flexible always capture my heart. The second tip I would offer would be to start small or transform a unit that you already have building blocks for. That way you’re not starting at zero. The third tip I have would be to find your tribe! 🙂 Find people who are teaching similar topics and maybe do it together 🙂 Share ideas, resources, docs! Pick and choose what works best for you, but don’t be afraid to ask for help! Using others to bounce ideas around always helps me out. Remember, though, once you have a playlist done (and it goes well), you only have to tweak it or change parts for next time.
      Let me know if you have any more questions! Oh, and sign me up for your tribe! 🙂

  4. This idea reminds me a great deal of webquests, which my students and I have had great success with in the past. Having the point-by-point checklist would definitely make certain that kids are hitting every point they need to, and it would make “collecting” and grading a cinch because everything would be kept in one digital platform. (I also champion GoogleClassroom.) Thank you so much for sharing the concept of playlists on a unit-level! Why not make it easy for students to catch up if they miss school, and to give the students the directions to arrive at the desired destination? I think I’ll try developing one for “Beowulf” (just imagine that’s italicized) in October, and we’ll see how it goes! Brilliant share, Tracy Enos. ^ ^

    PS – I’ve found so many helpful and uplifting posts on your site, Jenn. Keep up the fantastic work! It’s making a difference.

    • That’s fantastic, Melissa!! Making it easier for students who miss class is so spot on! It’s as if they have a Miss Enos or Mrs Mabus right in their pocket when they need you 🙂 Putting students in the driver’s seat! 🙂 I’d love to hear how your Beowulf playlist goes! Keep in touch!

  5. I really enjoyed the podcast and thank you for sharing the example documents on the website. I teach 9-12 Ceramics classes and picked up new ideas to try in my classroom. I am moving towards a more choice based art class and the concept of playlists fits in perfectly. It reminded me that I need to guide students, perhaps more than I sometimes think, towards independently making choices in both the content and process of their art making.

    • Ceramics! I love it! The format is so organic and flexible! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with new ideas or methods, but we just need to find what works best for us and our kids and dive in! 🙂

  6. Do you think this is something that is feasible for rosters that include 130 students?

    I’m waiting for the day when Google Classroom will allow you to assign different assignments to different groups of students!

    • Ceramics! I love it! The format is so organic and flexible! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with new ideas or methods, but we just need to find what works best for us and our kids and dive in! 🙂

    • Wow! 130 students in a class?! That is a lot to manage, but with google docs for communication, I bet it could be done! I would certainly rely heavily on groups and curate resources that the students find helpful and can refer back to often. Blending would help you have more face-to-face time with your students though.

      • Well, I have 4 classes with 25-35 students per class. I was thinking about it today, and I was wondering if I could make playlists for various groups of students, email them attachments that would force them to make copies in Docs, and then when they are finished, they can upload/attach the finished playlist to Google Classroom (or any work they complete).

        For instance, I have seven newcomer students from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico (non-English speaking at the moment). They aren’t in one class, but they are spread out through four periods. If I created an email list for those students and emailed them their playlists…maybe that could work? I’m just not sure if I’m setting myself up for a hassle! I foresee having at minimum five groups.

        Thank you, Tracy!

        • Also…I just realized that the same playlist you’ve created is given to ALL of your students! LOL I do something very similar already, but I guess the term being thrown around these days is “hyperdoc”. However, I much prefer the term playlist.

          Sorry for all of the comments/questions. As I was listening to the podcast, it just clicked–hey! I actually do this. ;o) Thanks again! You’re playlist idea just confirms that I’m on the right path!

          • HI Chandra!
            I love your comments and questions!! I prefer to share the same general playlists (even if some activities are left blank at the start) and then differentiate them as we go if needed. It helps me stay organized to have them all in one place instead of students sharing different playlists with me. I can still go in and change activities, add resources, and eliminate tasks as the kids need them. Much of the differentiation also comes in allowing choice within the activities and control over pace. For the kids who are totally new to English, why not create their own google classroom? Even if they are in different actual classes, that might be a great way to keep their playlists together. I’d love to hear more about what you do! We’re all explorers together 🙂 Keep in touch!

  7. How often are you checking in on the student? What about those students who are not doing the tasks?


    • HI Todd,

      Check-in varies by student. I have built in spots within the playlists for scheduled check-ins, but I’m constantly mingling and touching base all throughout the class (and after school thanks to technology). As far as the students who are not on task, it is very similar to any activity 🙂 I try to engage them with the activity, try to relate an assignment to something they are passionate about, use collaboration, and offer choice. Although students are working at their own pace, we do have some deadlines that they have to meet. I teach 8th grade and I think it’s important for the kids to learn how to manage their time wisely.
      Have a great day!

      • Hi Tracy,
        Thanks very much for the reply. I am thinking of this to do with my G 11/ G 12 Psychology classes. I use google drive every day which include my notes and embedded in those notes are videos etc. I want to try this but start small – with psychology it is such a content base course that i’ll really have to be creative with learning activities so the students can meet those objectives. Have you done any playlists that involve content based course? I listened to the podcast and it sounds alot like independent learning which is what i’m trying to incorporate into all of my classes. Any suggestions would greatly appreciated.
        Thanks for your time,

        • Hi Todd!
          I’m not entirely sure what you mean by content classes vs. noncontent classes, but in addition to my English classes, my sister has also used playlists all year for her high school math classes. I would just think about all the standards and content points you’re addressing and lay them out on a roadmap. Since the playlists take advantage of technology, the variety of activities are great. I suggest trying edpuzzle for delivering content notes/ lecture, padlet, Voxer, or Today’s Meet for backchannel discussion. Diigo for research. All the google tools for lots of activities 🙂 Goformative for formative assessment along the way! Recap is also a fun way to have students respond to questions. The possibilities are endless 🙂 Focus on the student’s experience as they learn the content in their journey. I would also give them lots of time to work together and allow them some control over pace, space, product, or process, if possible. I’d love to chat with you further about options!
          Have a great day!

          • Thanks alot Tracie – I guess what i mean by content is that in IB psychology students essentially need to know the content and display their learning through essay style question/answers. I try to incorporate hands on activities in my lessons as much as possible – but i struggle with generating ideas within a playlist that would help them deepen their understanding as well as strengthening their writing skills. I guess what i’m trying to say is doing meaningful activities/exercises etc that will benefit them come assessment time. That’s something I’ll have to spend more time thinking about. How do you assess for understanding if students are doing different activities? Thanks again for the feedback!

        • HI Todd!
          The content could be the same for the kids. Maybe you could just individualize how they can show mastery of the subject. There are so many ways students can show learning. Teach Thought had a great post on this http://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/assessment/60-things-students-can-create-to-demonstrate-what-they-know/ Letting the kids respond and show mastery in a way that they choose is a powerful way to give them control over their learning. In addition, they could also be working on the same lessons in the playlists, but have some control over pacing… some may need more time, some may be quicker, but they can decide when they feel comfortable with the material and are ready for the assessment. Or maybe they decide that they need more practice time. My sister, the Math teacher, used common assessments for her units even though her kids were at vastly differing levels. Perhaps vary activities by grouping– Letting kids work alone or with a partner. Or (if appropriate) you could have some students read an article, some listen to a podcast on a subject, some watch a video, or some get a face-to-face lesson from you. It could all be on the same/ similar topics, but just varied in terms of delivery. Individualizing can still be done with common material. My Anne Frank intro playlist basically covered four learning stations. Each group was able to focus on what interested them the most as a whole.
          This is a fantastic conversation! I’m enjoying it! 🙂 Thanks!

          • Hi Tracie,
            Thanks again for the info. I feel like i’m taking away more than i am giving haha. This is definitely some helpful suggestions. I feel class time feels very rushed – like there is so much to do before the bell etc – i think the playlist could help slow things a bit and allow students to take time with their learning – i guess that’s why this makes this way of learning appealing to me. I’m going to give this a try and see how the students respond – i think if i can get the checking for understanding down – i’ll have the proverbial grip on this. Thanks again,

  8. I like this idea of playlists a lot! I was wondering if Tracy might be able to share a math example. I teach math and would like to “see” what a playlist might look like in that curricular area.

  9. How do you make the chart? Do you create it in Google Pages and then link to the classroom. I would love to learn how to put it together. I teach Gifted in elementary and this may be great for projects!

    • Hi April!
      I use google docs to create the playlists. Then I distribute them in Google Classroom. Google classroom then creates a playlist for each student that I have access to see and change anytime. The technology out there makes it so much easier for us! It really is a fun time to be a teacher 🙂 Playlists would be great for projects! 🙂

  10. Hello, I am a student in a math secondary education program and I find this to be a very interesting way to differentiate the classroom for students. I also appreciated the math example you posted above in the comments because it gives me an idea of what this could look in a math classroom. My only concern is with managing the pace of students who get ahead. You mention assigning enrichment tasks, but what if these students are not motivated to complete those. That is, what if a student rushes through what is “required” and then decides to stop working, potentially even becoming a distraction to others? Do you have any tips on how to approach a situation like that in a positive manner? I would love to hear your thoughts/ideas! Thank you!

  11. Hi John! I’m Tracy’s sister (the math teacher :-)). I let students work at their own pace through the whole unit. So we didn’t have kids waiting to move on when the other kids were still working. I did have a special group who could work on some extra credit work at the end of each section, but I kept it invitation only (so of course kids were interested!). The kids did a great job overall and stayed on task the whole unit! I also had on going study strategies and khan academy missions that students could work on if they were ahead of others. But it was always their choice.

  12. I wonder about simplifying this playlist, and having students complete work based on pre-test scores. There could be preparatory work, required work, and extension work. Teachers can prioritize essential learning, and then guide students towards what they need based on their pre-test. This way, each student would get the same play list, but would personalize that play list for themselves.

    • HI Rebecca!
      I”m curious about what playlist you are specifically referencing you here, but you’ve hit the nail on the head for most of them! Individualizing the playlists for student need is exactly what I’m aiming for. It’s the beauty of technology that makes it all so seamless!

  13. I’m making an assumption here that many of you doing this are in a 1:1 environment. Is this possible without technology? Our resources are limited in that regard.

    • HI Melanie,

      Yes, I am in a 1:1 environment, but, typically, if you were working on a writing assignment you are able to get some computer lab time or even a cart. The playlists could be used then. Also, you wouldn’t necessarily need all students to be working on computers all of the time. You could strategically order assignments to vary between hard copies and digital work. The technology really comes in handy for quick formative assessment, but it’s not a requirement! You may also want to check out Jen’s post about blended stations. Station rotation may be a good choice for your kids!

  14. How do track this much differentiation in an SIS/LMS gradebook? With a few differences I can see no problem from an admin point of view. A lot of differences would result in a LOT of EXEMPTS in the gradebook. Curious!!

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