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When teachers tier content, all students complete the same activity (e.g., a worksheet, report), but the content varies in difficulty. When teachers tier process, the activities by which the students learn information vary in complexity.
One way to differentiate process for heterogeneous classrooms is to design tiered lessons. When teachers tier a lesson, they design instructional tasks that are challenging for students at different levels of readiness: low, middle, and high levels. Although the students should master the same content or core skills, the means by which they do so vary. The activities assigned to the low, middle, and high groups often differ in complexity, depth of information, or level of abstraction.
Before tiering a lesson on a particular skill or topic area, the teacher should preassess the students. She should then use that information to help assign students to each of the readiness levels and to begin designing the lesson.
Consider your students’ range of knowledge on the topic or about the skill, their prior knowledge, and their reading levels. Also keep in mind your students’ interests and learning profiles.
Create an activity that is challenging, engaging, and targets the topic or skill.
Some teachers prefer to begin with the middle group and then design activities for students who are struggling and those who are more advanced. Others prefer to design an activity that is challenging for the advanced learners and modify for the average and struggling learners to ensure that high standards are maintained for each group. The table below outlines features for a tiered lesson with three groups that target struggling, average, and advanced learners.
|Group 1: Students who are struggling with a topic|
|Group 2: Average learners|
|Group 3: Advanced or gifted learners|
Adapted from Spencer Northey, S. (2005). Handbook on Differentiated Instruction for Middle and High Schools. Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education, p. 76
Below is an example of a lesson that is tiered in process (according to readiness). Note how each group is working on different tasks even though all students are working on the same key concept.
|Language Arts–Fourth Grade|
|Key Concept: Reading books with chapters to show how ideas are advanced.
Lesson: Chapters 3 and 4 of the book Help, I’m a Prisoner in the Library (students have previously read chapters 1 and 2.)
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3|
|This group will work on knowledge/ comprehension tasks for chapters 3 and 4.
(Note: For illustrative purposes, only 3 of 10 questions have been listed.)
Now draw a picture of some part of chapters 3 and 4 that you think is the scariest.
|This group will work at the analysis level to study the events in chapters 3 and 4.
Share with the class your descriptions in your Venn diagrams.
|This group will work on synthesis/ evaluation tasks for chapters 3 and 4.
Share your work with the class during sharing time.
Adapted from http://www.doe.in.gov/exceptional/gt/tiered_curriculum/languagearts/la4r.htm
A learning center is a defined area of the classroom organized around a topic, theme, or activity in which students learn, practice, or build on a concept or skill. Learning centers, most often used in elementary classrooms, are an effective way for teachers to offer a range of activities that can target students’ readiness levels, interests, or learning profiles. The center should contain the instructions and the materials that students will need to complete the activity. If the teacher is using the center to differentiate by readiness level, it is helpful to color-code the materials. Although students can work in small groups or pairs to complete a learning center activity, they often complete these activities independently.
This is an example of a learning center based on readiness level (struggling students, red folders; average students, orange folders; advanced students, green folders).
Unit of Study: Insects
Materials: Plastic models of each stage of the butterfly’s life cycle, pictures of all stages of the life cycle, poster of different caterpillars and the corresponding butterflies, books about the butterfly’s life cycle, a bug box containing several caterpillars.
Students find learning centers more engaging if they are decorated with items that relate to the topic of the activity. For example, during a history unit on the Pilgrims, the learning center might contain a trunk of period clothing and be decorated to represent the deck of the Mayflower.
In addition to learning centers, learning stations and interest centers offer students opportunities to acquire information about a topic or skill.
Learning stations are areas of the classroom organized around a topic, theme, or skill. They can target students’ readiness levels, interests, or learning profiles. The teacher creates several stations that cover portions of the material. To learn about the topic, students must complete the activities at each station. For example, during a unit on weather, the teacher might create four learning stations: temperature, atmospheric pressure, clouds, and the water cycle.
Interest centers are a type of learning center. They provide an opportunity for students to acquire in-depth knowledge about a topic of interest. Unlike in traditional learning centers, students are not required to complete the activities in the center but can choose to visit the center when time allows. The topic might or might not be related to the unit of study. For example, when teaching about metamorphosis using the life cycle of the butterfly, the teacher might also create an interest center focusing on the life cycle of the frog so that students can delve deeper into the topic.
An interactive journal, sometimes referred to as a dialogue journal, is a notebook in which the student and teacher communicate through writing. The teacher can differentiate instruction by varying the journal prompts for different groups of students based on interests or readiness level. The teacher should introduce journaling as an in-class activity. He or she can allow students up to ten minutes at the beginning or end of class once or twice per week to complete an entry. When students understand the procedures for completing a journal entry, the teacher might assign this activity as homework. After the students complete their entries, the teacher should read them and respond in a timely manner. Because this activity is meant to encourage students to write openly, the teacher should not correct grammar, spelling, or content. Instead, the teacher should model good writing. Below is an example.
By staggering the reading of student journals across several days, teachers give themselves more time to respond thoughtfully.
Teachers can use journals as a form of ongoing assessment. By reading a student’s journal entry, the teacher can determine his or her depth of understanding and identify gaps in his or her knowledge.
A graphic organizer, sometimes called a web or concept map, can be a diagram, outline, or chart on which students arrange information. By using graphic organizers, students can:
As a general rule, graphic organizers should be simple in nature. To maximize differentiation, the teacher should be very flexible when using graphic organizers. The teacher can do this by:
To learn more about different types of graphic organizers, see the table below.
An organizer that helps students understand what information two topics have in common, as well as what is unique to each.
An organizer that helps students learn about new concepts. The new word is written in the middle and the student fills in the remaining boxes.
An organizer to determine what students know about a topic, what they want to learn, and what they have learned. The first two columns are filled in before reading the material and the last column is filled in as the student progresses through the unit (e.g., added to column at the end of each day) or at the end of the unit.
An organizer that helps students describe a process or other sequential information.
An organizer that helps students describe a process or other sequential information. An organizer that helps students gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of a word.
The word is written in the center and synonyms, antonyms, and examples are written in shapes that surround the center word.
An organizer that helps students understand hierarchical relationships.
Jigsaw is a cooperative learning strategy in which the class is divided into small groups consisting of five to six students. These small groups serve as the students’ home base. Each member of the home-base group is assigned to an “expert” group to learn a portion of the content. After the students meet in their expert group and learn their specified content, they return to their home-base groups to share what they have learned with the other group members. This strategy allows everyone in the class to learn all the content relevant to the subject, as opposed to just the piece they were responsible for. The jigsaw strategy can be implemented during one class period or across a number of class periods, depending on the depth or complexity of the content or skill being learned.
In the example that follows, the teacher uses the ten steps listed above to implement the jigsaw strategy during a unit on Brazil. He implements this strategy across a one-week period.
|On the first day, the teacher divides the thirty students into five home-base groups.|
|He also chooses a leader for each group (denoted by ).|
|Because each group contains six students, he divides the lesson into six sections or topics:
|He assigns one student at each table a topic (e.g., culture) based on his or her readiness level and interests.|
|He allows the students thirty minutes in class to read the materials on their topic and allows them to complete their research as homework.|
|The second day, the teacher instructs the students to get into their expert groups (e.g., culture). On the second and third day, he allows them to discuss their topic and to practice their presentations. As the students work, the teacher walks from group to group to monitor their progress and to provide help when needed.|
|On the fourth day, the students meet with their home-base groups to share their expertise.|
|During this fourth day, the teacher allows thirty minutes for the students (approximately five minutes per student) in the group to report what they have learned about Brazil.|
|Again, the teacher monitors the students and provides needed support.|
|On the fifth day, the teacher assesses the students’ knowledge of Brazil.|
Teachers can differentiate instruction by providing manipulatives for those students who are having difficulty understanding a concept. Manipulatives are concrete objects that students can use to develop a conceptual understanding of a topic or skill. These objects help students represent the idea they are trying to learn or the problem they are trying to solve. For example, the teacher might demonstrate the idea of fractions by slicing a pie into pieces. It is important that the teacher make explicit the connection between the concrete object and the abstract concept being taught. Below are several examples of students using manipulatives.
A student uses a number line (i.e., a visual representation) to add two single-digit numbers.
Two students use an abacus to practice counting by fives.
A student uses colored cubes to work on pattern recognition.