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Podcast Articles, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Jan 30, 2022

Let’s take a more intuitive approach to tiered and differentiated instruction.

By Tia Butts

High School ELA

Let’s take a more intuitive approach to tiered and differentiated instruction.

By Tia Butts

I remember years ago when I was teaching and the term differentiation was a hot education topic.

Teachers were constantly told to provide differentiation in their lessons and at one point, in the district where I was teaching at the time, differentiation was included as an element in our evaluations.

Teachers were constantly told to differentiate and give examples of differentiated instruction (such as tiered assignments, flexible grouping, and student choice) but I don’t remember ever being told exactly what differentiation was.

It was not until years later (after taking a professional development course outside of my school district) that things clicked:

Differentiation is when we modify our lesson plans and instruction to meet students where they are.

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You can find out where students are by giving pre-assessments at the beginning of the school year or you can simply make that determination after you get to know them and grade several assignments.

Differentiation has always been something that should have been implemented in classrooms, but I think the need is more dire now than before considering that we have students performing on a range of different levels, and in most schools, virtual learning has impacted students, both positively and negatively.

Here are some simple suggestions for differentiating in large classrooms with diverse learners.

#1 Start with 3 tiered lessons/assignments and modify as needed from there

When we talk about meeting students where they are, teachers often think, Does this mean I’m expected to make a separate lesson plan for every student?

No, you don’t have to make a separate plan for all students, but you will have to do some extra legwork when you initially make lesson plans.

Tiered lesson plans will require you to break down each lesson into different levels.

For example, let’s say that you’re doing the initial lesson to introduce students to the narrative essay. A tiered lesson would require you to break this down into three parts – early learners, ready learners, and advanced learners. Here is what the individual lessons might look like if you plan an activity, for example, to introduce narrative writing:

  1. Early Learners –  Look up the definition of narrative. Describe in 4-5 sentences what an interesting narrative might be about.
  2. Ready Learners – Look through an example of sample student narratives. For two of the narratives, create a plot diagram and identify the strongest examples of figurative language.
  3. Advanced Learners – Look at samples of published memoirs. Think of a topic personal to you and write a paragraph that mimics the style of one of the authors.

Yes, tiered assignments require you to do work ahead of time, but if you have students that are functioning on varying levels (which is very likely) this extra work will probably be worth it.

#2 Provide more student choice in the content rather than the assessment

I still remember being a high-school student and being forced to read the same book as the rest of my peers in my class. Luckily, times have changed. The idea of meeting students where they are also includes making accommodations based on student interest.

Our 10th-grade English team decided that we wanted to get students into reading more, but we gave students a choice of reading instead of selecting just one book for the class to read. I thought trying to force students to read (since they probably had not read significantly since the pandemic) would end in significant behavior problems, but it didn’t.

In fact, students were engrossed in reading every time we had time to read in class.

I was blown away by how much they were engaged in silent reading. It took me a while, but I realized that they were engaged because they chose a book they were interested in reading.

Choice is not only for reading. Student choice boards are a great way to give students the feeling that they are in control and have a choice in what they do. However, the teacher is still able to adapt a choice board so that while the options may be different, the same standards and objectives are being fulfilled.

For example, Think-Tac-Toe is a great idea. The teacher sets up a board (like a Tic-Tac-Toe game) and has the student pick three options in a row vertically, diagonally, parallel, and perpendicular. This is a great activity for smaller assignments.

It’s simpler to provide choice in content than in assessment, so when possible, use the same rubric for all assignments, regardless of the choice in content, if your rubric is skills-based.

#3 Offer a mix of digital and paper assignments rather than assuming all students prefer tech and are proficient at it

Another way that you can differentiate to appeal to students’ preferences is to give a healthy balance between written work and digital work. Even in our technologically dominated world, some students (and adults) still prefer pen and paper at times. In fact, some people feel that they are able to perform better if they write their assignments down.

I admit that I recently became very obsessed with going 100% digital, but I don’t think it was always the best instructional decision to make for my students. After many months of staring at a computer screen, many students returned to in-person learning feeling burned out on technology.

As teachers, we often put EVERYTHING online but expect the students to limit themselves on their cell phones. However, when we create a balance between the assignments that are on paper and on the computer, we give ourselves control over which days are digital and which are not.

I recently did some things differently in my classroom. I originally had my students submitting all assignments online, but at a certain point, I just started to have a computer burn-out.

On a regular basis, there was always some type of technical glitch that only seemed to slow us down even more. Some students needed to reboot their computers, some had intermittent Internet issues, and then some had to keep shifting back and forth to charge their computers.

So, I decided to just go back to the basics and have students write the rough draft of their upcoming essay on paper. I initially did it just as a time-saver — at least then there would be no issues with having to wait for them to take out computers or having to deal with managing those that forgot their computer or charger.

This paper and pencil rough draft lesson ended up being one of the most productive days I had experienced in weeks. I think that based on what my students needed, time away from the computer on that day was essential.

The one thing that also adds differentiation to these types of lessons is scaffolding personalized for that group of students.

I didn’t just have students get out a piece of paper and start writing. I had pre-printed papers with templates that helped them write the rough draft and under each template (that focused on individual paragraphs) there was space for the students to write. This scaffolding was necessary for my group of students, which are mainly reluctant writers and ESOL students.

#4: Use pre-assessment scores to guide instruction, but never devalue informal assessment 

Using pre-assessment scores (or any other baseline data) to guide instruction is the most important factor because differentiation is based on data. If you plan to use data from the very beginning, use a pre-assessment as your baseline data.

You can then use those scores to break students up into tiers (early learner, ready learner, advanced learner) and to put them in flexible groups.

You could even use these tiers to help you make a seating chart that mixes all learners together. For example, when doing shoulder partners, you could put a ready learner and an advanced learner together, or an early learner and a ready learner together.

The best part is you don’t have to do this in the beginning of the school year, I’m usually so busy then trying to get to know students that I don’t use the first pre-assessment or test for differentiation. I like to take the time to get to know the students first so that I can look at the dynamic of how they work together before grouping.

So it’s fine to start using certain data as a baseline, but it doesn’t have to be in the very beginning. As long as you use your student scores to guide instruction as you teach, you are differentiating.

It’s fine to use a more intuitive approach to your differentiation instead of always relying on data. You know your students and who’s struggling, and you can prepare lesson scaffolding even without data “proof” that students need it.

Right now, differentiation is essential because diversity is ever increasing in classrooms. These examples are perfect for any teacher that is just starting to use differentiation and doesn’t want it to be too complicated.

Differentiation can become much more complex, but these are great ideas to implement if you want to meet students where they are but slowly become more familiar with how differentiation can help you personalize instruction to fit your students’ needs.

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Tia Butts

High School ELA

Tia Butts has a Master's degree in Secondary Teacher Education. She has been teaching English for eight years at the high school level. She has taught in three different states and enjoys exploring different instructional practices to meet the needs...
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