The movement toward inclusion has affected classrooms greatly. Now, more than ever, teachers are addressing a broader range of academic needs in every classroom. But, how can teachers reach all students when students are so academically diverse, have special needs, and/or are English learners? One way it can be done is through differentiating instruction.
Differentiating instruction involves structuring a lesson at multiple levels so that each student has an opportunity to work at a moderately challenging, developmentally appropriate level. Instruction may be differentiated in content (what you want the students to learn), process (the way students make sense out of the content), or product (the outcome at the end of a lesson, lesson set, or unit—often a project).
One type of differentiated learning with which we’ve had success is tiered learning. In tiered lessons, the content is presented at varying levels of complexity, but the process is the same for all students. As educational consultants working with the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, we work with classroom teachers designing and implementing tiered lessons for their classrooms and would like to share our suggestions for effectively using this strategy in your classroom.
Tomlinson (1999) describes tiered lessons as “the meat and potatoes of differentiated instruction.” A tiered lesson addresses a particular standard, key concept, and generalization, but allows several pathways for students to arrive at an understanding of these components.
Lessons can be tiered according to students’ readiness (ability to understand a particular level of content), learning profiles (style of learning), or interests (student interest in the topics to be studied).
In tiered lessons, students work in teacher-assigned groups according to the chosen tiering strategy, such as grouping students by their current level of understanding for the topic of study. The number of groups per tier can vary, as can the number of students per tier. Groups need not be of equal size; groups are formed based on the needs of individual students. For example, one tier may have two groups of three students; a second tier, five groups of four students; and a third tier, one group of two students.
Grouping by Readiness Level
A lesson tiered by readiness level implies that the teacher has a good understanding of the students’ ability levels with respect to the lesson and has designed the tiers to meet those needs. Many examples of lessons tiered in readiness have three tiers: below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. There is no rule that states there may only be three tiers, however. The number of tiers depends on the range of ability levels in the classroom.
Tiering by readiness or ability can apply to nearly every facet of the science lesson from reading material to hands-on experiences. For example, when the class is ready to investigate magnetism, one tier of students at a lower readiness level might work very concretely by investigating the kinds of objects that a magnet can attract given a set of 10–12 objects. A tier of students at a more advanced level of readiness, however, might investigate whether the size of a magnet affects its strength, a more abstract concept.
When tiering, each lesson is contained; tier groups are formed based on the teacher’s assessment of the student’s abilities to handle the material particular to that particular lesson. Therefore, students may be in one tier for one lesson but may be regrouped when a different tiering strategy is used.
Grouping by Learning Profile
When a lesson is tiered by learning profile, students are placed in groups according to the style of learning in which they work best. In this type of tiering, students are expected to learn the same level of content as their classmates, but the way in which the material is presented differs. For example, a lesson might be tiered to focus on three learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Students of varying ability levels would then be placed in the tier that best matches their learning style.
There are a variety of instruments to determine a student’s learning profile. Two good interactive instruments may be found at www.ldpride.net.
If you choose to tier via students’ learning profiles, it is best to control the number of tiers by using only a few different learning styles. Tiering all eight of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (Campbell 1996) in one lesson may not be a good place to start! For example, choose logical mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, and linguistic intelligence.
Grouping by Student Interest
Another possible way to tier lessons is to group students by their interest in various topics to be studied. To preassess students’ interests, a teacher can design an interest inventory that lists several topics students will be studying or several activities that the teacher is considering. Students rank their choices, and the teacher uses the rankings to assign students to groups based on their choices.
Developing a Tiered Lesson
Now that you’ve read about various ways of organizing tiered lessons, the next step is developing one of your own. This may seem challenging at first, however, the process boils down to a few essential steps:
- Identify the standard (national, state, district, etc.) that you are targeting. A common mistake is to develop three great activities and then try to force them into a tiered lesson.
- Identify the key concept and generalization. The key concept follows from the standard, and the generalization follows from the concept. Ask yourself, “What ‘big idea’ am I targeting?” and “What do I want the students to know at the end of the lesson, regardless of their placement in the tiers?”
- Assess whether students have the background necessary to be successful in the lesson. Ask, “What must have been already covered or what must the student have already learned? Are there other skills that must be taught first?”
- Select what you will tier. For example, decide whether to tier the content, process, or product.
- Next, decide how you will tier—i.e., by student readiness, interest, or learning profile.
- Based on the above decisions, determine how many tiers you will need and develop the lesson.
Once the lesson has been developed, review it with classroom management and student equitability in mind. We found it helpful to have a clearly articulated structure for the class when students work in groups. For example, we prepare anchoring activities—brainteasers or other puzzles or short activities related to the topic—for students who finish early or are waiting for your assistance. Anchoring activities promote “what’s next” thinking rather than the attitude, “I’m done!” (Suggested resources for anchoring activities may be found at www.bsu.edu/teachers/services/ctr/javits.)
We also alert school administrators and students’ parents before using new strategies in the classroom. This opens the lines of communication in case questions come up from either group.
Next, reflect on the lesson’s tiers. Differentiation means doing something qualitatively different, not quantitatively different. Take care to ensure that the lesson’s tiers differ in the level of complexity of work that students are expected to do, rather than the amount of work students are expected to complete.
Also, be sure that each tier provides challenging and developmentally appropriate work, i.e., no group should be doing practice worksheets while another is doing a hands-on experiment.
Finally, consider assessment. Ask yourself, “How will learning be assessed in the lesson?” Teachers can use formative or summative assessments or a combination of the two methods to assess learning in tiered lessons. Some assessment ideas include: Recording observations of the various groups using flip cards or sticky notes; developing a rubric for each tier based on a particular assignment; or giving a formal paper-and-pencil test. Choose assessments based on the specific needs of the class and on the lesson design.
The following example shows the basic blueprint of a tiered lesson we developed as part of a unit on environments and habitats (see Figure 1). In the lesson, all three tiers address the same content standard from the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) (Content Standard C: Life Science), concept (organisms react to environmental change), and generalization (all students should come away knowing organisms depend on their environment, changes occur in environments, and organisms themselves cause some of these changes).
|Figure 1. Science lesson tiered in content according to students’ readiness.
Standard: Content Standard C: Life Science. Students will develop an understanding of organisms and environments.
Key Concept: Organisms react to environmental change.
Generalization: Organisms depend on their environment and changes occur in environments; the organisms themselves cause some of these changes.
Background: This is one piece in a unit on environments and will introduce the concept of reactions to environmental change. Each story focuses on a particular environment or series of environments. For each tier, the students will read the assigned book—or listen if the story is taped (for struggling readers who comprehend at a level higher than they can read).
Tier I: Students read Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain (Aardema 1981).
Tier II: Students read The Desert Is Theirs (Baylor 1975).
Tier III: Students read The Story of Jumping Mouse (Steptoe 1972).
Whole-Group Process: Students will choose three characters in the story and describe in writing or pictures how the change(s) in the environment(s) affected each character with respect to their basic needs. The teacher will then initiate a discussion using shared inquiry. Students sit in a circle so that they can make eye contact with each other and the teacher. The teacher has prepared a seating chart for the circle so that she can keep track of student responses and interactions.
Whole-Group Long-Term Product: Students design and paint a mural depicting the various environments they studied.
Assessment: The teacher notes the students’ responses during sharing and checks their writings/drawings for accuracy.
Before beginning the lesson, students should have studied basic vocabulary and worked through an introductory chapter from a textbook on the basic needs of living things.
The lesson’s content is tiered, and students are grouped in one of three tiers based on their ability to comprehend what they have read or what has been read to them.
In this lesson, each group reads a different book with content appropriate for their current level of understanding. For example, students in Tier I read Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, an African folktale retold in the same meter as “This Is the House That Jack Built.” The repetition and illustrations are helpful for students who have difficulty comprehending grade-level material. For students in Tier II, the selected book is The Desert Is Theirs, a more abstract tale that requires students to make more inferences when reading the material. Students in Tier III read The Story of Jumping Mouse, which involves more than one biome (the other two books deal with only one), making it an appropriate choice for students in a more advanced tier.
After students have individually read their assigned books, the teacher begins the whole-class discussion by asking an interpretive question such as, “Why do you think some animals migrate and some animals don’t?” This question gives students an opportunity to share what they learned and substantiate their point of view from their individual readings.
As students share their answers, the teacher jots down notes for a formative assessment of each student. Thoughts to keep in mind are: Which child is struggling with the concept? Which child is moving rapidly and accurately through the material? and Whose answers show more thought and insight?
To demonstrate their knowledge of environmental change and bring this part of the environments unit to a close, students design and paint a mural depicting the various environments they studied.
Time, energy, and patience are required to effectively differentiate instruction in an academically diverse classroom. Our best advice: Start small. Choose a favorite lesson in your next unit and differentiate it according to the needs of your students. Also, seek the expertise of specialists, such as special and gifted education coordinators, media specialists, and others to collaborate to improve instruction in the academically diverse classroom. Through tiering, we hope you’ll find you are able to better meet the varying needs of the students in your classroom.
Cheryll M. Adams (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Rebecca L. Pierce (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Ball State University and a fellow at the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development.
Connecting to the Standards
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Content Standards Grades K–4
Standard C: Life Science
• Organisms and environments
Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based science program for their students. In doing this, teachers
• Select science content and adapt and design curricula to meet the interests, knowledge, understanding, abilities, and experiences of students.
Teachers of science guide and facilitate learning. In doing this, teachers
• Recognize and respond to student diversity and encourage all students to participate fully in science learning.
Research for this document was supported under the Javits Act Program (Grant R206A980067) as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. Grantees undertaking such projects are encouraged to express freely their professional judgment. This document, therefore, does not necessarily represent positions or policies of the government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.
Aardema, V. 1981. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. New York: Dial.
Baylor, B. 1975. The Desert Is Theirs. New York: Macmillan.
Campbell, L., D. Campbell, and D. Dickinson. 1996. Teaching and Learning through Multiple Intelligences. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Steptoe, J. 1972. The Story of Jumping Mouse. New York: William Morrow.
Tomlinson, C.A. 1999. The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Ball State University Center For Gifted Studies and Talent
Development Presents GATE
Indiana Department of Education Gifted and Talented
Unit’s Tiered Lesson Project
The Vancouver Island Invisible Disability Association