Tiered Instruction and Assessment


Adolescent learners vary widely in their physical, emotional, and cognitive development. For many teachers, the most challenging aspect of teaching middle school students is the constant problem solving energy required to meet their diverse needs. When diversity is at its peak, we are sometimes left feeling that short of super-human feats on the part of heroic teachers, it’s not possible to meet the varied needs of the children before us.

When varied learner readiness is the aspect of diversity confronting us, it can be a challenge to ensure academic growth for all. If students appear bored or overwhelmed, a common response is to track them into ability-based classes. Whether we isolate high achieving students into accelerated courses, learning disabled students into special education classes, students who have fallen behind into remedial classes, or English language learners into a stream of their own, we frequently do so at a cost to both the students themselves and to the mainstream population from which they’ve been separated. If we embrace full inclusion without applying effective differentiation strategies, we fail as well.  Diverse classrooms where every learner makes significant progress are possible in part through tiered instruction and assessment.

For the most part, this blog details the journey of the middle school math department at Jakarta International School from 2006-2011, the years needed to institutionalize a tiered approach. The purpose here is to share the rationale, describe the process, provide examples, and a share some results.


Consider this… You’re teaching a very heterogeneous class of learners. Planning with the end in mind, you design a course assessment encompassing all course learning goals. Meeting the standard indicates preparedness for future academic success. At the end of the course, all students perform well on the assessment. It’s time to reflect.

There’s reason to celebrate. All students have met the grade level proficiency standard. This is no small feat. Students are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to work successfully in subsequent grade levels.

We might feel less enthusiastic while reflecting on our students’ growth. Depending on their initial readiness for success, different students have had different growth opportunities. Students at the beginning end of the readiness continuum have learned the most. Students in close proximity to the learning target have grown less. Some highly advanced students have experienced no growth at all. We feel pride that struggling students have made significant gains and disappointed that advanced learners have stagnated.

This scenario illustrates the most basic premise for a tiered approach. When we establish a single common learning destination for students in mixed-ability classrooms, one outcome seems inevitable – all students will not have equal growth possibilities.

Our guiding vision for student learning includes academic and personal development for all students.

Middle school math teachers around the world face the challenge of teaching students with varied readiness levels for success.  The graph below shows a typically diverse breakdown of algebra readiness test results for JIS 7th graders at the beginning of a school year.  The diversity reflected in the graph is pretty universal to heterogeneous, middle school math classrooms.

Some students are advanced, already capable of succeeding in a typical algebra class, while other students are far from ready, which isn’t too alarming since it is the beginning of 7th grade.

Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow” offer guidance.  The research from both of these psychologists, not to mention our common sense, suggests we should offer learning challenges suited to each child’s readiness level in order to create the optimal conditions for learning.  Realizing that our students’ readiness levels differ so much, we offer varied challenges so every student can learn in a state of relaxed alertness.

I like the graph below, which Csikszentmihalyi uses in part to make the point that we can create the conditions for “Flow” by either increasing our skill level with a given activity or by boosting the challenges we face.  Tiered instruction and assessment enhances a teacher’s ability to do both on behalf of students.

Bill and Ochan Powell’s framework for effective teaching supports the use of tiered instruction to work within a child’s ZPD and a challenge-by-choice approach to increasingly shift ownership for learning to  students.


That we should differentiate for varied readiness levels is not so controversial.  The challenge lies in how to do so.

In a tiered class, students engage essential course content at varying levels of depth and breadth.

Students choose the challenge on homework assignments and assessments that will help them maximize their learning.

Three different levels of challenge are offered. We designate each by a color.


There are some steps we consistently follow when planning tiered lessons.

A lesson will have 1 or more learning goals.  For example, the goal of a geometry lesson might be to have students apply equation solving skills while learning about triangle properties.

Following whole-group instruction, students are asked to select the challenge level that will help them maximize their learning. For example…

This learning cycle repeats itself as the unit proceeds.  Click for more samples of…

***Tiered Problems for a Variety of Middle School Math Topics***

Tiered lessons share some general characteristics.

After developing tiered assessments and assignments, we started thinking more and more about how to manage our tiered classrooms. Essentially, any strategy that develops cooperative learning skills and/or promotes self-reliance is worthwhile. Similarly, planning lessons with big ideas in mind promotes a sense of cohesiveness between all challenge levels.

At the end of a unit, students select the assessment challenge level that will enable them to best demonstrate the extent of their learning. The following graph shows the breakdown of color choices for all middle school students at JIS on all summative assessments during the 2006-10 school years.

Following a unit’s assessment(s), students reflect on their learning experience during the unit.

Reflections generally reveal students feeling appropriately challenged. In the majority of cases, students felt that they had selected a level of challenge that was an appropriate learning target towards the goal of maximizing their learning. Sometimes students believed they could have made a better decision. In few  cases did they perceive that all targets were outside their zones of proximal development (situations where students who selected green felt  the assessment was too difficult or students selected black and felt the assessment was too simple).


The psychological benefits of feeling appropriately challenged seemed to translate into improved learning outcomes. Compared to the difficulty level of assessments in previous years (prior to offering choices), green level assessments are the most similar.  With the introduction of the blue and black level challenges, it’s clear that students are now tackling greater challenges, on average, than in the past. The graph below shows that grades held steady at the same time, suggesting an overall increase in student achievement.

Before introducing tiered assessments, students at the beginning end of the readiness spectrum tended to bring average test scores down.  After, students at the beginning end of the readiness spectrum (those who selected green level assessments) performed at an accuracy level comparable to students taking blue and black level assessments. The performance of students working at a “green level of readiness” seemed to improve following the implementation of a tiered approach.

During the 2009-10 school year, JIS began giving students the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) assessment.  Students were tested at the beginning and end of the school year.  Results indicate the tiered approach is having its intended effect: students across the readiness spectrum are meeting or exceeding expected growth rates.

Each student has a RIT, a number that represents their current skill level in mathematics.  Over the course of the year, students are expected to grow by different amounts depending on their starting points.  The horizontal axis represents student subgroups across the readiness continuum.  The Blue bars represent JIS 7th graders’ mean growth.  The Red bar represents the mean target growth set by NWEA, the organization that administers the MAP, based on historical growth rates.

We believe these consistently strong results from year to year (with 2 out of 3 teachers being different) speak to the power and importance of systematically implementing a tiered approach.  An articulated tiered curriculum (the learning goals we have for students across the readiness continuum in addition to the materials that support the attainment of these goals) is a critical component of effective differentiation.  Each teacher has been able to focus their energy on helping students be successful towards reaching tiered learning goals, rather than focused on developing a tiered curriculum, which while intellectually stimulating and fun, is also quite challenging.

The JIS 7th grade results are particularly dramatic examples of the power of Challenge by Choice.  7th grade math classes tend to have an enormous range of readiness levels because the breadth of topics covered is so wide and these topics extend learning from previous years.

Differentiation in 7th grade also exemplifies the importance of supporting advanced learners through a balanced offering of acceleration and enrichment.  Rather than moving on to a relatively narrow set of 8th grade algebra learning goals via a traditional tracking system, advanced kids get the chance to grapple with rich problem solving challenges for a variety of important math topics like probability and statistics; ratio, proportion and percentages; and measurement.  When topics lend themselves to acceleration, like equation solving, advanced kids are accelerated through above grade level learning goals like solving systems of equations as an example.

Remember the algebra readiness test results from the beginning of the year.  A similar test at the end of 7th grade yields dramatically improved results.

Another positive development has been the decreasing need for a remedial 8th grade math course.  For years, the math department felt that a remedial course was needed to serve the needs of our most vulnerable students.  Teachers never felt very satisfied with the effectiveness of the course, but we didn’t know what to do. Having previously tracked students, it didn’t feel possible to have all students successfully complete the same 8th grade math course. Over time, it’s been wonderful to see our 8th grade math teachers feeling more comfortable with differentiation and our students feeling more confident in their skills. Both developments have led to the elimination of our remedial 8th grade math course, and a single math course has now been offered at each grade level (with no remedial 8th grade option) since 2009.

Besides academic development, adolescents also need and want opportunities to struggle, opportunities to make decisions, and teachers who guide them with a broad view of their development.

Achievement test scores and enrollment figures are easy to report as measures of success, but they only tell (a relatively insignificant) part of the story.  Tiering’s impact on class culture and other aspects of our vision for student learning has been even more significant. Listen to some teacher, student, and parent reflections on the “Perspectives” page to develop a sense for how people feel.

Beyond achievement gains and encouraging stakeholder sentiments, research on effective teaching and learning consistently supports a tiered approach. The following are some recommendations for supporting learners of different readiness levels.  Tiering makes it possible to support all students in the way that’s consistent with how they learn best.

An added benefit of the tiered approach is that heterogeneous student groupings can be preserved. The advantages of effective differentiation vs. ability based tracking are numerous. Here are some benefits brainstormed by the JIS Math department.

The challenge of meeting diverse needs is universal.  A wonderful aspect of the work at JIS is that it’s been done by an extremely diverse math faculty.

It would be irresponsible not to mention certain “dangers” or downsides that accompany this work. The upfront workload is significant.  I’ve developed tiered learning materials on my own, and I’ve also done it alongside colleagues. Both approaches can work but it goes without saying that the more you divide the work between team members, the easier, more effective, and FUN the work will be.

Another caution relates to the green challenge level. In our experience, it’s critical that green level expectations be rigorous and respectful. Using a tiered approach can have an incredibly positive impact on the sense of community in a classroom.  On the flip side,  class culture can deteriorate quickly if students perceive that green problems are for the “dumbies” or beneath the mainstream expectation (for more on this point, see “Finding Tiered Problems.”)

I hope this brief introduction leaves you feeling more interested to think about using a tiered approach with your students.

36 responses

23 03 2008

Following whole-group instruction, students are empowered to select the level of challenge that will help them maximize their learning. For example, after a lesson on triangle properties, students might be presented with problem solving tasks similar to the following.

Hello Dave, from North Carolina. One aspect of tiered instruction we seventh grade teachers struggle with is not the assessment but the differentiated ‘instruction’ itself. Could you share how you structure your class period (how much time do you have?) to teach the three color groups and the differences in how you deal with kids who need some more concrete work vs the abstract-ers. I would imagine: general lesson followed by working with the green, blue, blacks?

24 03 2008
David Suarez

Thanks for the question, Ginny. Know that we similarly struggle on the question of how to differentiate the instruction itself. Our philosophy is built on the premise that we should start with the end in mind, identify tiered learning goals that allow all of our students to experience growth given that they arrive to us at very different starting points, and then work from there to facilitate the growth. We’ve spent much of the last two years focused on creating tiered learning goals. We’re excited that the obvious (or at least what seems obvious to us at the moment) next step is to really think about how to make this differentiated learning happen in the classroom. Right now, there are 10 middle school math teachers at Jakarta International School who are working to address this challenge. I assure you that all of our approaches are unique, so whatever I write is just one of many approaches.

We teach 90 minute blocks that meet every other day. Having taught math with daily 50 minute periods, my personal preference is to have less frequent, larger blocks of time to work with. It’s easier to structure blocks so that I can address the three different tiers in one way or another during a single session.

What you imagine is definitely a popular approach. So, after the whole group part of the triangle lesson, for example, that might last 20-30 minutes, I’d let students know what the three practice assignments are. What happens from there is really dependent on the particular topic and difficulty of the assignments offered. I want students working at tables so that there is at least one other student who is working on the same color level they’re working on. Whether or not the whole table is working on the same color or not depends on my mood and the dynamics/culture of a given class. The one constant is that seating must be flexible. I like to have a seating chart that groups students heterogeneously to begin class. What happens when students begin independent work varies from class to class.

Essentially, I want everyone problem solving, asking questions, and finding help when difficulties arise. When students get stuck, they tend to first seek help from those closest to them. If that fails, students might seek out a classmate at another table grouping. If that option isn’t available or doesn’t work for some reason, students call on me. When I’m helping students, I’ll frequently try to make it known to the rest of the class what I’m helping out with so that students who are interested can join the conversation. This plays out for the remainder of the period. Ideally, all students would get their questions answered. Inevitably, students take work home and end up with more questions. So, what I left out is that before the main lesson topic of a day, I’ll typically take requests from students for problems they need help with. I try to always assignment homework problems that have answers available so that students are able to immediately self-assess their understanding. Occasionally, I need to spend a few minutes giving answers to problems which didn’t have solutions offered. Either way, students end up making their misunderstandings known, and I’ll leave these requests on the board until I’ve been able to address them. In this process, I try to gauge the severity of the misunderstanding. Given the request, what are the chances that the student’s misunderstanding is of a severe nature? How many other students had issues with the same problem? Would the whole class, or a large group, benefit from a discussion of the problem? As a teacher, this gets pretty exciting because it involves a lot of problem solving on the fly. I must be flexible about how to proceed depending on what I find out from students as they make their difficulties known. As long as no individual student has an overwhelming lack of understanding (which would likely require more intensive one-on-one support outside of class), most students are able to function while waiting for support on the problems they requested help with. Most often, I’m able to get to student requests on the day requests are made. Infrequently, though it does happen, some requests will not be addressed until the next class. Requests that can afford to wait are usually of the higher difficulty variety. Because of the foundational nature of green level challenges, it’s usually far more disadvantageous to allow a student who struggled with a green level problem to linger without the quickest intervention possible.

Another favorite approach of mine is to already have prepared key problems at the different levels of difficulty for the “guided instruction” phase of the lesson. These green, blue, and black level problems are posted, and students are told how to proceed. Frequently, I’ll ask students to start with green and move up in difficulty. Occasionally, it’ll be appropriate to let students go directly to their color level of preference without regard to the others. I’ll monitor progress as students work together. When I feel like the green problem(s) has gotten as much productive attention as it’s likely to get, I’ll discuss the problem with students (sometimes not worrying if students aren’t listening who feel confident with the challenge offered). At some point, I’ll post individual practice problems. Students realize that they should work out problems during the guided instruction up to and including the difficulty level they plan to shoot for. In this way, students might proceed to green level individual practice after they’ve achieved success with the guided green level problems. While this is happening, other students might still be engaged with the guided instruction phase, working with peers and/or waiting for the problem to get discussed. Deciding when to post the individual practice assignment takes some creative thinking. Depending on a variety of factors, sometimes I’ll post the individual practice assignment quickly. Other times, I’ll withhold it if I want students to stick with the guided practice assignment for longer than they might if the individual practice was already offered.

I’ve gone on for a while… hopefully this spurs some thoughts about how to possibly approach the challenges you face. If it raises more questions, keep shooting.

10 12 2008


I have one other teacher with me in this operation. We have been doing only different levels of homework, but the same tests and quizzes. After doing this for a couple of months, we are going to start giving leveled tests.

With the homework, the most interesting result was that some of the kids were getting help from their parents to do the blue or black levels. That is cool. There were a lot who were happy doing the green level – which is fine as that’s grade level work.

Tomorrow, I am giving the first test where they can choose their level. I gave them a glance at the different tests today so they could have as idea of what they need to study. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

I must say that the kids seem to really like the fact that they can choose their level of challenge – they feel a little in control of their learning.


10 12 2008
David Suarez

Kevin, what you’re seeing is consistent with what we’ve experienced. I like seeing kids getting extra help on the blue and black level problems. It’s nice that all students have the opportunity to experience the challenge on homework problems that results in them seeking extra help instead of just the earliest readiness students who frequently see themselves as the only ones who ever need extra help on homework when one assignment is offered to all.

1 12 2010
Rochelle V. Gray

Does the program have a Language Arts or Social Studies pieve.

1 12 2010
David Suarez

Hi Rochelle,
I’ve worked with CbC in science and math classes, but the strategy is a general one applicable in any subject area. I just don’t have any specific guidance to offer for language arts and social studies. Sorry!

12 01 2011

I am interesting on writing about tiered task for my thesis proposal. i found it difficult to find some literature discussing this particular topic. i wonder if anybody can suggest me any website, books, and journal discussing about this topic. I live in Indonesia by the way, and in my country it is difficult to find some books or journals written in english.
Thank you in advance for your help


12 01 2011
David Suarez

Hi Pitriawati,
As a starting point, Rick Wormeli discusses tiering in “Fair Isn’t Always Equal,” and it’s also mentioned in Tomlinson and McTighe’s “Integrating Differentiated Instruction and UBD.”
I’d love to hear back from you as you discover additional resources and complete your thesis.

23 03 2011

Hello David

I have watched your videos on differentiated instruction within the maths classroom with much interest. It seems you have developed an excellent way of differentiating effectively at this level. I was wondering if you yourself teach in this manner with high school students in Grades 9 and 10, or if your colleagues do, in preparation for AP/IB Diploma mathematics.

Many Thanks


23 03 2011
David Suarez

Hi Dan,
I’m thrilled to know you’re interested. My classroom experience is limited to middle school. I’ve recently been in touch with an advanced algebra teacher who has begun tiering with two challenge levels in his classroom. Thus far, he’s seen results similar to what I experienced early on in middle school classes. He’s happy. I’m confident CbC with Tiered Instruction and Assessment can be effectively applied in grade 9 and 10 classes. If I’m lucky, I’ll have the chance to work with some grade 9/10 teachers interested in tiering. Anyway, if you have any inclination whatsoever, you should give it a shot. The approach works really well. Your students will appreciate it. Please keep in touch.

26 03 2011

Please clarify some concerns of mine.
When I read about tiering, many sites tier by starting at the standard, then below grade, and above grade. ‘…based on your choices above, determine how many tiers you will need and develop the lesson. When tiering according to readiness, you may have three tiers: below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level…’ So if a student is placed in a below grade group, how can you give them a passing grade? I’m confused.
Another example recently presented to me was in drama. The assignment was to present a scene. The tiering had speech as the standard and below standard was miming. If the standard must include speech, then anyone who does not speak must fail? Why would you include miming as an option if it does not allow the student to meet standard? I pointed this out, but was told that it allowed the student to participate at their current level of readiness and therefore it was tiering and valid. What am I missing?
Another point that troubles me is when teachers give the students’ choice in the 50%, 60% and so on ranges. Shouldn’t we rather give them the standard as the goal and scaffold to get them there? Doesn’t this model reinforce that the student isn’t capable? How does that help them see themselves as a successful learner?
Another scenario that confuses me is this- A math teacher gives out practice sheets with varying levels of support (tips and some key answers already in). If a student completes the sheet with a high degree of accuracy, but it was more heavily supported, could they feasibly get a higher grade than a student who takes the sheet with less support and who is less successful?
I understand that grading “assessment as learning” and “assessment for learning” is frowned upon, but realistically we required marks to justify the reporting grade and cannot base it on one or two end unit grades. So, how do I come to terms with this dilemma?
I can “wrap my head” around the lesson presented on the website above that starts with the standard and “goes up” in level of difficulty. The blue and black levels would translate to 80 and 90s, correct? But I see other lessons that people tell me are tiered and I just don’t see how they can be what was intended, how they can translate into a grade or how they can truly motivate a student.
Please help!

8 04 2011
David Suarez

1. when curriculum is modified below grade level expectations, such modification needs to be noted on a report card, or a passing grade should not be granted.
2. i agree that miming isn’t an appropriate tier if the learning goal involves speaking.
3. yes, we should scaffold to help kids reach rigorous learning goals.
4. on the math example, one would need to closely look at what students successfully completed to evaluate their learning.
5. about grading with few assessments… very, very good question. to benefit students, only the most recent evidence of learning should be included in a grade that’s intended to reflect mastery – add that piece of complexity to your puzzle. i feel comfortable with grades being based on very few quality assessments.
6. i’m really not clear on your reference to point values (60s, 70s, 80s, 90s). i wonder if you’re asking about what grades are possible at the different levels of complexity. in our school, kids can earn A grades on any level of complexity. we report both the level of complexity attempted and the achievement towards that level.
Summary – tiering curriculum can be done well and it can be done poorly. it’s an intellectually challenging exercise to effectively plan tiered lessons that maximize student learning.
hope some of this is helpful. sorry for the slow reply… good luck!

31 08 2011
Shashi Krishna

Hey David,

I teach IB Computer Science and have, from this year, started implementing the tiered approach for students to solve Java programs in so that they choose the kind of challenge they want to work with. Now, I am not sure how familiar you are with the IB program but the kids are graded from a score of 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). My understanding is that in tiered assessments the basic curriculum content would be a 5, perhaps, and any advanced and higher order thinking strategies that kids apply will get them a 7? So that is to say – kids who choose level 1 task consistently will probably keep getting solid 5s or the occasional 5/6 but not higher. Those who challenge themselves and solve more complex problems will get 6 and advanced programmers get 6/7 or 7. Is this the right way to approach this?



3 09 2011
David Suarez

Hi Shashi,

I’m thrilled to hear you’re applying this approach in your computer science classes. It seems like an entirely appropriate fit. I haven’t used the IB grading scales before, but I’m familiar and attempted last year to incorporate some its spirit into a rubric used for evaluating students in math (as we moved away from points and percents). Here’s what our department came up with after a few iterations over the course of a year.

– All learning goals are met within the topic of study
– Accurate and attentive to detail at all times
– Sophisticated understanding shown through application, analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation
– Consistently presents work in a clear, logical and organized way

A top score was earned by students satisfying all of these requirements. Whether students completed a Standard, Advanced, or Highly Advanced assessment, they were expected to satisfy these criteria to earn a top score (A). This forced us to include opportunities for students to demonstrate higher order thinking skills on all levels of challenge. Standard level assessments had less opportunities as a percentage of the entire assessment than Advanced and Highly advanced tasks, but some were included, and students who earned A’s on standard assessments really were working to a very high standard. Students earning A’s on Advanced or Highly Advanced tasks were working to an insanely high standard. When another school I worked with offered lower possible grades for standard level work, some of the power of the tiered approach was lost as students and parents saw the work as being of a substandard (not standard) rigor level. The school raised the level of rigor on their standard assessments, adjusted their grading approach so all students could earn top marks, and the results were positive.

In the case of my school, students working at any level of challenge were able to earn an A (or whatever), and this grade was accompanied by a challenge level descriptor. In this way, a Highly Advanced A was a higher achievement than a Standard A, but any student could earn an A. This approach was used in middle school, though, and I understand the implications for high school may be different (especially if GPA’s are calculated). The different IB math tracks come to mind, though, as I think about how the middle school approach I’m describing is possibly still justified. I believe all students who take IB Studies, IB Standard, or IB Higher math courses can earn 7’s in their respective courses. I’d like to think the tiered approach is analogous to offering all three tracks in a single classroom. What I don’t know about the IB grading scales is how 5’s are perceived. If 5’s are a significant achievement, then it may not matter. If 5’s are perceived the way C’s are perceived in a traditional system, I believe it will.

Hope this is somehow helpful. I’d love to hear how you end up going forward and how things turn out!


3 09 2011
David Suarez

I just thought of one more thing, Shashi. Offering a top score of 5 for your basic level of challenge seems consistent with the Layered Approach advocated by Kathie Nunley. Maybe checking out her site will help you:

27 09 2011
Elena Sentevska

I am an educator from Belgrade. We are currently getting ready to organize a CEESA learning institute in Belgrade, with a relatively small group of learning support specialists and counselors from the region. My presentation is on alternative math strategies. Can I use your differentiation model when I talk about differentiation in math? Also, last year Bill and Ochan Powell showed a video of your class, but I cannot locate the link (if you don’t mind sharing that as well)?
Greetings from Belgrade,

27 09 2011
David Suarez

Hi Elena,
Wonderful to hear you’re talking math differentiation in Belgrade! I would love for you to share this strategy with your colleagues. Bill and Ochan Powell use parts of the clips contained on the Classroom Video’s link (located at the side of this page); you should be able to find what you’re looking for there. My guess is that the clip you viewed came from one of the first videos. Do you see it? Good luck!

17 11 2011

What a bunch of bullshit.

IB students are such good students that they probably don’t even need the help of ANY teacher, they are self – motivated students already because of the high influenced backgrounds of their parents.

18 04 2015
2 06 2015
Rob Miller

Hi, I teach at a high school and we have two levels of classes. Academic and Honors. I’m thinking of trying this method for the academic classes because the ability ranges are so extreme. My question is about actual grades. If a student chooses the green quiz while another chooses the hard quiz and they both get a B on their respective quizzes, how do I adjust the grade for their report card? How can colleges tell the difference when deciding acceptance? The students may end up with the same GPA but clearly one student has higher ability. Thanks.

2 06 2015
Rob Miller

Hi again, please disregard my last post. I just found your other thread on grading practices. Thank you.

7 11 2015

Hi David,

I love watching your videos and reviewing your materials. One idea I was planning for tiered teaching that I have found successful in the past as a math teacher is to set up tiers of problems and challenges when grouping my students that is based on their level of proficiency, build social and community presence and identity, and allow them the opportunity to choose where they may begin the process. For example, I am working with my sixth grade class on fractions and we are in the process of determining how the part compares to a whole in given situations. After I present whole class the purpose of the lessons and activities I then begin the journey of breaking students into flexible groups. For my ELL students I do provide instructions and work materials in Spanish and I try to group them with their bilingual buddies so they can socially collaborate with their peers as needed.

For this lesson, and I align it to my CCSS, I have three stations. The first are primarily visuals of part to whole concepts whereby students can match parts. For example, for my “green” tier, I might provide three pieces of a pizza in visual format and they can match it up to create a whole and see how ⅓ can add to make a whole. As stated in this post, it allows me to work with students who may not have a mastery of the language and are building basic foundations and building blocks in seeing how fractions and parts fit together. For my “gold” tier, I may provide actual number representations of fractions and begin to have them assimilate different parts and pieces – I can also use Cuissenaires cubes as manipulatives and that helps a great deal, as far as language barriers or students who struggle with written language. For my “black” tier of students, I might consider providing word problems (in both languages) so students can team together and collaborate on real-world scenarios and construct based on applying the number to the problems. Obviously, students can move from one level to the other and I try to keep it self-guided with monitoring sheets so students can assess themselves AS learners throughout the process.

I think the reflection sheets for after are the most valuable to me as I try to build on my lessons and understanding where students are throughout the process. I also try to remove the issues of boredom and overtasking in the “flow” described in the slide above because I think this is important to student motivations. Hope this idea follows along with your teachings and can help others along the way…:).

10 11 2015

Sounds awesome and amazing, Jim. What you’ve shared reminds me a bit of what I’ve read about “layered curriculum” in that your top level involves applications that you probably want all of the kids working towards. To me, that’s a bit different from the tiered approach I use since most of what we include in the black level represents work that’s far beyond what’s appropriate for many students in the grade level. In my opinion, you’ve thought hard about how to differentiate the process, but also the content in terms of the complexity kids are working with, probably within the realm of what you hope kids achieve with a “rigorous” grade level standard in mind. If your gold level actually represents tasks that are beyond a reasonably “rigorous” grade level standard, then I’d say what you’re doing is very much in line with how I’ve approached the tiered approach described in this site. Anyway, thanks a lot for sharing your good work!

9 11 2015

Excellent resources!

10 11 2015
Deni Drinkwater

First, I am new to this blog, there is a wealth of info in here so thanks for that. As an art teacher I feel differentiation often looks very different than it might in a math or ELA classroom. I am not sure if what I am doing really fits the Tiering system and would appreciate any feedback you all might have to offer and suggestions for improvement. I would like to share an activity with you and see what you think.

Food Art Grade 6

THE LESSON OBJECTIVE: The students will learn about Pop Art and the artist Wayne Thiebaud. The students will create an art piece using food imagery influenced by the work of Wayne Thiebaud.

THE ELL LANGUAGE OBJECTIVES: The students will develop their English language skills, through discussing the work of Thiebaud and writing a statement bout their own work.


ALL LEVELS: The students will watch and discuss teacher PowerPoint on Pop Art and the art of Wayne Thiebaud. The class will discuss food in art, looking at paintings of food in various time periods. The students will be asked to name their favorite food.

I have listed activities by the three levels of Challenge By Choice

GREEN LEVEL: The students will choose to paint or sculpt their favorite food. They will use Acrylic paints or colored Sculpy to create their work.

BLUE LEVEL: The students will choose to paint or sculpt their favorite food, They will use Acrylic paints or colored Sculpy to create their work.. They may also choose to create an image of the food on the computer using the Acorn graphics program.

BLACK LEVEL: The students will choose to paint or sculpt their favorite food, showing an understanding of value/shading in the painting and detail/proportion in the sculpture They will use Acrylic paints or colored Sculpy to create their work. They may also choose to create an advertisement for the food on the computer using the graphics program., designed to make the viewer want to eat the food.

I chose the activities at the Green Level because the students at this level are able to create the artwork successfully and they will be able to show their understanding of Pop Art and the food art of Wayne Thiebaud. Having two activities to choose from gives the students either the chance to work with something new or to work with something familiar and develop their skills.

I chose to have the students at the different levels have access to create the same art pieces but with higher expectations at the different levels. So, the students at the Blue Level also can choose to use the computer program.

The Black Level students have the ability to choose any of the art pieces, but are expected to create work at a more advanced level using shading in the paintings, detail in the sculptures and creating an ad not just an image.

This gets tricky and it is where knowing your students comes into play. Art is different from language arts or math, I may have a student who may be WIDA Level 1 and speak little English but may be experienced or talented in art and create work at a Black Level of proficiency. A WIDA Level 3 student may have enough understanding and fluency in English to understand the content but may never have worked with the art materials before. I think that giving the students choices and knowing what their experience and skill levels are the guiding forces in differentiating and tiering instruction in an art class.

17 11 2015

Hi Deni –

I’m not sure why you’ve used the language “students may” under the blue/black level expectations. Perhaps you’re indicating that working towards the blue or black expectations isn’t required.

Regarding your last comment, I believe the same thing can be true for math. Plenty of kids who struggle with language might be highly capable mathematical thinkers who may choose to pursue black level work.

14 11 2015

Hey David,

I am a math teacher, teaching 9th grade Algebra 1 to a group of students who are made up of mostly ELL students. I am new to tiering assignments, so I was hoping to see if you would be able to let me know if I am off to a good start with tiering my assignments.

LESSON OBJECTIVE: “Students will be able to add unlike fractions by using the area model.”

LANUAGE OBJECTIVE: “Students will be able to draw an area model to explain how to add fractions.”

In my class, we are introducing the addition of fractions with different denominators. I would like all of my students to be able to do these, but I have created tiered problems to help all of my students access these problems. Here is an example of the problems and how they are tiered:

WIDA Tier 1 (Green): 1/2 + 2/5 (add)
[I thought that this would be a good problem type for the WIDA Level 1 because the students do not need to be able to read proficiently to get the problem done correctly. Also, I put in the word “add” to show that the “+” symbol means “add.”]

WIDA Tier 3: John has 1/2 of a tray of brownies. Janet has 2/5 of a tray of brownies. Find the sum of the brownies that they have.
[I thought that this would be a good WIDA Level 3 problem, as it involves simple language and academic language. The sentences are simple, and there is no room for debate as to what the question is asking.]

WIDA Tier 5: John has one half of a tray of brownies. Janet has two fifths of a tray of brownies. John says that together their brownies is more than one tray, while Janet says that together their amount is less than one tray. Who is correct and why?
[I thought that this would be a good WIDA Level 5 problem because it doesn’t explicitly tell the students to add, as they need to identify the operation on their own. Also, this problem has the students not only add, but to make a decision as well, deciding who is correct based off of their computations. Notice that there are no numbers given, so they need to translate the words into numbers.]

I would appreciate any feedback or advice on this. Thank you very much!


14 11 2015

Hi Mike,
It seems like you’re sensitive to your student’s language development needs. You’ve taken the time to identify a language objective and have considered how each task is progressively more complex from a language standpoint. Having a good sense of where your students are and how they’ll access a lesson’s concepts is an essential step when planning tiered lessons.
Given the objectives you’ve mentioned, I find myself wondering how the tasks you’ve described fit into your larger lesson plan. I could see students successfully engaging with any of the tasks you’ve described while failing to show that they’ve mastered the lesson objectives. If I were to tier a lesson with the objectives you’ve identified, I’d start by asking myself what I want all kids to be able to do relative to those objectives. I’d call that green level. I’d then think about extensions for kids who’d benefit from additional challenge. Then, I’d think about the instruction that might lead to success at the green level and beyond. I could see the tasks you’ve designed being part of the lesson plan you’ve designed to support student success at the green level. However, if some students only complete the first tier, it seems like they’ll be missing out on the chance to develop their language skills. This is different from the way I normally approach a tiered lesson. If I wanted all of my students to be able to complete the tier 5 task, I’d simply call the problems Green level 1a, b, and c and figure out how to support their growth to the highest level. So, as I’m writing, it’s striking me that your approach reminds me what I’ve read about “layered curriculum.” My understanding is that the teacher encourages all students to perform at the highest level, but provides different layers of complexity. An “A” grade requires success at the highest layer. Here’s a link: http://www.help4teachers.com/. This is different from the approach I’ve described on this site in that I’d say my “green” level might involve layers as Nunley describes, but then in addition, I plan a blue and black level that goes beyond what I hope all kids are able to do.
What do you think, Mike? Do you agree that your approach more closely matches the spirit of layered curriculum, or am I missing something?

15 11 2015

As I read your post, I was thinking about applying this to teaching science and social studies to my first grade ELL students. Any comments or suggestions are welcome, and thank you for providing such an informative and helpful blog.

First Grade Social Studies Lesson

–Lesson Objective: Students will interpret maps and other graphic representations of familiar places.

–ELL Language Objective: Students will work together and discuss using appropriate map vocabulary. Students will ask and answer questions in order to interpret, construct, and analyze maps.

Guided Practice:

–Green: Students will interpret a map of the classroom in order to find clues that will lead to a “treasure.”

–Blue: Students will construct a map of a familiar place (classroom or other area of the school).

–Black: Students will analyze and compare two maps, one of a familiar place and one of an unfamiliar place.

Explanation of Guided Practice:
The green group of students are currently working at grade level and with supports could appropriately use a map and its legend to find a hidden treasure within the classroom. For this group, the treasure serves as an extra motivator to master the skill.

The blue group can extend what they learned about maps in order to create one themselves. This provides an additional challenge because it requires students to apply what they’ve learned about reading a map to creating a map for a familiar space.

The black group’s activity further extends beyond the two previous groups because it requires them to analyze two different maps (one of those being an unfamiliar place which requires additional abstract thinking) and then compare and contrast the two. The skill of comparing and contrasting two maps is a second grade Social Studies standard in the state of Illinois.

15 11 2015

This is an excellent blog with wonderful information for differentiation in the classroom. I teach younger students (third grade) and would like some feedback on an activity that I would like to try with my government unit. I often find that this unit is difficult for students to understand, especially students that are ELL, so a tiered/differentiated approach might be the best approach to help my students. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

Three Branches of National Government (Third Grade)
Lesson Objective: Students will identify the jobs, locations, and people associate with each branch of the National Government.

ELL Language Objective: Students will develop their English language skills, through discussion of the three branches of the National Government (roles, responsibilities, and locations in Washington, D.C.).

Activities: All students will view a video about the three branches of National Government. The video details the “head” of each branch, the roles and responsibilities of each branch of government, and the locations/headquarters of each branch in Washington, D.C. Students will also use pages in the social studies book and additional visual resources/flow charts illustrating the above mentioned features.

Activities Listed by Challenge by Choice/Tiered:

Green: Students will be provided a chart listing each branch of government. The chart will resemble a tree with three branches. Students will be provided words and corresponding pictures pertaining to each branch of National Government (example: President with a picture of the current president. White House with a picture of the White House. Supreme Court Justices with a group picture of the justices, etc.). Students will cut and paste the correct words and pictures into the correct category.

I chose this activity for Green due to some of the language limitations of ELL or special education learners in my classroom. The pre-made chart and the use of visuals can help both populations with various skill levels. The standards and content remain the same but the level of scaffolding is more supportive.

Blue: Students will be given construction paper of various colors. Students must create a tree to illustrate the three branches of the National Government. Students will be provided with a word bank of terms that pertain to the three branches discussed in the whole class instruction. Students must creatively apply the terms to the tree with brief descriptors for each term.

I chose this activity for Blue because it allows for less scaffolding and more independence. Students will still have the word bank to support them, but the activity relies more on the student to provide an explanation for each portion of the content area.

Black: Students will be given a poster board/large paper. Students must create a visual representation of the three branches of the National Government. Students must use the text, other supplemental materials provided, and his or her own research to explain in detail each branch. As an extension, students can also include information to explain how each of these branches acts to “check and balance” one another.

I chose this activity for Black because it relies on the student to be most independent. Given the initial lesson, the student is left alone to rely on his or her own abilities to synthesize the information and take it a step further. Students at various levels can attempt this level due to the openness of the activity. The extension can be made mandatory or optional given the students decision in terms of challenge.

Working with English Language Learners can be a challenge when it comes to this set up. Are these activities too challenging? I think that many students at various WIDA levels can achieve at the varied challenge levels. I suppose I could also have the option of students working with peers on this sort of project depending on the comfort level and need of each student. I think regardless, all of the above speak to differentiation and the importance of it in our increasingly diverse classrooms.

19 11 2015

While reading this post, I was thinking about how I could apply this method during math in my kindergarten classroom.

Kindergarten Cloud (Cotton Ball) Math

Lesson Objective: Students will be able to fluently add up to 10.

ELL Language Objective: Students will be able to verbalize, represent, and record the total number of clouds.

Guided Practice:

Green: I will show a few examples of addition story problems about clouds. I will read story problems and model how to use clouds (cotton balls) to solve the problem. I will then read a few story problems to the group as the students use the cotton calls to illustrate the story. The goal for the students is to add the two numbers together. Their recording sheet would have ____+______= ____ already copied so they can record the appropriate numbers. The students will also have access to a number like to assist them in number writing. The students will be working with numbers 1-5.

Blue: I will read a few story problems to the students. The students will use the cotton balls to illustrate our story problems. The students will be practicing adding numbers 1-10. I will show the students how to write the number sentence and model a few examples. Then, the students will be able to write the number sentence that matches the story problem on their recording sheet.

Black: The students will read their own story problems about clouds. Unimportant information will be included in the story problem for the students to determine what information in needed to accurately solve the problem. The students will use cotton balls to illustrate their story problems. The students will be working on adding numbers 1-10. After using cotton balls to solve the problem, the students will record the number sentence independently. This group could also use the cotton balls to find different ways to make the same number. For example, how many different ways can you make 6?

Explanation of Guided Practice:

The students in the green group are working below grade level and need extra support with the addition process. The teacher is there to help guide them through each step of the process. The students will have access to the number line to help them write the numbers.

The students in the blue group are working at grade level. With a few examples they will be able to independently complete the task. The students will be able to record the number sentence for their clouds.

The students in the black group are working above grade level. They are able to decode the necessary information within the story problem and solve it. They can accurately record the number sentence that matches their story problem. Additionally, they will be able to use the cotton balls to find different ways of make the same number.

21 11 2015
Charlotte P

Similar to many of the recent previous replies, I am new to this concept and am thinking about how I can apply it to ELLs. I currently teach 11th grade history—a class called Contemporary American Issues—and have a handful of students who are at varying levels in their English language development. I’d also like to post my preliminary ideas and see what comments people have.

Content Objective: Identify pros and cons of isolationism leading up to WWII

Language Objective: Describe the main ideas from a text

Students would read excerpts from two speeches: one as testimony in favor of the US staying out of the WWII and another in favor of intervention. In terms of language production and demonstrating understanding of the material, here are some activities I would provide for the varying challenge levels:

GREEN (WIDA level 1): Students read a version of the text in their native language. Reasons for and against isolationism would be given in a single list (if possible and accessible for students, this list would be in simplified English). Students would have to sort them into a “pro” list and “con” list based on the readings. Then, they should briefly summarize the “pro” and “con” perspective by drawing a picture or fill in the blanks of a sentence using words from a word bank. I think this would be appropriate as students have limited knowledge of English at this point. Providing the speeches in their native language differentiates the content for them. When they come to the language objective, they are allowed to produce an understanding of the text in a more basic way.

BLUE (WIDA level 3): Students read a modified English version of the text with the most important details highlighted and more difficult words translated or defined. They should then identify which of those key details are “pro” and which are “con.” They should summarize the “pro” and “con” perspective in 1-2 sentences each. Sentence starters could be provided if necessary. At this point, students should have some knowledge of the language and should be able to grapple with more manageable portions of the text. The whole speech will be provided, but if they only focus on the key details that are highlighted, they will still be able to walk away with critical understandings. In producing the language, there are still supports in the form of sentence starters.

BLACK (WIDA level 5): Students read the original version of the text, though some of the highest vocabulary may still be defined. They should select their own evidence to show the “pros” and the “cons” of isolationism. They should summarize the “pro” and “con” side in 1-2 sentences each, but must also use higher level vocabulary words from a word bank in their response. At this point, students should be nearing proficiency. Therefore, it is essential that they grapple with the English version of the text as much as possible. In producing the language, students will be challenged to continue to expand and utilize a more varied vocabulary through the word bank.

25 11 2015
Jason Beer

I have enjoyed reading this blog, as well as all the thoughtful and professional responses and comments. I thought the information was very well organized and easy to follow with great examples. I currently teach high school diverse learners, with some of these students being ELL. Using the information provided from the site, below is a sample tiered lesson I have constructed. Everyone’s feedback would be much appreciated!

Lesson Objective: Students will be able to identify the similarities and differences of World War I & World War II.

Language Objective: Students will be able to explain the similarities and differences of World War I & World War II through written description or shared discussion.

Tier 1: Using a venn diagram, classify the similarities and differences between World War I & World War II

I chose to use a venn diagram for Tier 1 as most students in my class would be able to easily follow the structure and layout. Graphic organizers are proven to be successful interventions and would expect most of my students to be able to construct one.

Tier 3: Read a text on the causes of each war and then describe the differences or similarities between these causes while citing specific evidence from the text.

I chose a textual reading for this tier while also requiring the citing of textual evidence. Most of my students would be able to complete this, but certainly not all as students are faced with the additional challenge of connecting textual evidence back to the main point.

Tier 5: After reading text on each war, choose one war that you believe was the most beneficial for Americans. Construct a detailed outline citing specific textual evidence and be prepared to debate the issue with a partner.

For Tier 5, I chose to pose a specific question that would challenge the students to think more critically. I thought that not only answering this question, but being prepared with an outline and able to discuss with specific evidence would challenge the organizational and critical thinking skills of my students.

27 11 2015
Samantha N (11/27/15 3:46)

Great article. I really learned a lot about tiered instruction that I did not previously know. As I read about tiered instruction, I was thinking about my class, and wondered how can I make it fit my 9th grade algebra class. I currently teach an algebra class in a special education setting, with students who are also english language learners. I have attempted to create a lesson using tiered instruction, and would be open to any feedback you can provide.

Students will write linear equations in slope-intercept form.

Students will describe how they created their linear equation in slope-intercept form.

Students will be given a set of two coordinate pairs. They will have to use the slope formula to find the slope. After they will use the slope and a coordinate pair to find the y-intercept. Once they find the slope and the y-intercept, they can use the information found to create an equation in slope-intercept form. They will finally graph the formula they created.

Students will be given a set of word problems. For each word problem, they will have to determine the y-intercept and the slope using the formulas given during instruction. They will use the information they found to create an equation in slope-intercept form. Finally, students will graph their equation.

Marble activity: Students will be given a beaker of water, and marbles of the same size and shape. Students will drop marbles into the water one-by-one and record the water increase. The students will use their findings to to create an equation in slope-intercept form that represents the increase in water. Students will then use their equation to figure out the height of the water if 100 marbles were added to the water. Last, students will graph their equation.

Students will do a learning walk to demonstrate their learning. The sentence starters below will be given to students to help with their explanation of the process.
Wida Level 1: Slope is ______
y-intercept is____
equation is ______

Wida Level 3: I found the slope by ______
I know the y-intercept is _____ because______

Wida Level 3: As I add a marble to the water, the height increases by ____. This is known as the ______. The y-intercept is ____. I know this because _______. My graph explains _____

27 11 2015
Elizabeth Mc.

Thank you for writing and maintaining such an informative and helpful blog. I know it can be a lot of work to keep up with and we appreciate your feedback. The method of Tiered teaching is very interesting and I am wondering how it might work with Early Childhood students. I teach a diverse classroom of 34 ELL 3, 4 and 5 year olds (in two sessions). I planned a Social Studies lesson using the Tiered approach and I would be very grateful if you (or any other reader) would look it over and let me know if I am on the right track. Thank You!!

Lesson Objective: Students will be able to demonstrate knowledge of the characteristics of living things.

Language Objective: Students will be able to describe the process of the seasons changing using a model of a tree.

Guided Practice:

Green – Students will be able to use the felt model of a tree and the supplemental materials (leaves of different colors for Fall, flower buds for Spring, snowflakes for Winter and green leaves for Summer) to show how the tree looks in each season. Students will state the names of the seasons in English or Spanish.

For the green level, I would provide the student with the “season” orally and they would use the materials to model it on the felt tree. I want all students to show mastery at this level.

Blue – Students will be able to use the felt model of the tree (with leaves, flower buds and snowflakes) to sequence, using content vocabulary, how the seasons change.

For the blue level, students should be able to create a sequence of the seasons when given a starting point – winter – and use the materials and the vocabulary they have learned (the names of the seasons in English and Spanish, deciduous tree, conifer tree, snow, leaves, trunk, roots, etc.…) to describe it.

Black – Students will be given a paper with four boxes and they will create a tree for each season. They should be able to dictate the name of the season for each box and use content vocabulary to describe their pictures.

For the black level, students should be able to construct their own models based off of their background knowledge and the group discussion.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read over my plans. Feel free to let me know your thoughts.

27 11 2015
Elizabeth Mc.

Thank you for writing and maintaining such an informative and helpful blog. I know it can be a lot of work to keep up with and we appreciate your feedback. The method of Tiered teaching is very interesting and I am wondering how it might work with Early Childhood students. I teach a diverse classroom of 34 ELL 3, 4 and 5 year olds (in two sessions). I planned a Social Studies lesson using the Tiered approach and I would be very grateful if you (or any other reader) would look it over and let me know if I am on the right track. Thank You!!

Lesson Objective: Students will be able to demonstrate knowledge of the characteristics of living things.

Language Objective: Students will be able to describe the process of the seasons changing using a model of a tree.
Guided Practice:

Green – Students will be able to use the felt model of a tree and the supplemental materials (leaves of different colors for Fall, flower buds for Spring, snowflakes for Winter and green leaves for Summer) to show how the tree looks in each season. Students will state the names of the seasons in English or Spanish.

For the green level, I would provide the student with the “season” orally and they would use the materials to model it on the felt tree. I want all students to show mastery at this level.

Blue – Students will be able to use the felt model of the tree (with leaves, flower buds and snowflakes) to sequence, using content vocabulary, how the seasons change.

For the blue level, students should be able to create a sequence of the seasons when given a starting point – winter – and use the materials and the vocabulary they have learned (the names of the seasons in English and Spanish, deciduous tree, conifer tree, snow, leaves, trunk, roots, etc.…) to describe it.

Black – Students will be given a paper with four boxes and they will create a tree for each season. They should be able to dictate the name of the season for each box and use content vocabulary to describe their pictures.

For the black level, students should be able to construct their own models based off of their background knowledge and the group discussion.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read over my plans. Feel free to let me know your thoughts.

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