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Tiered Assignments Examples Science Processes

Tiered Activities

For Your Information

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.

Step 1:

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.

Step 2:

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. 

  • Requires less difficult independent reading.
  • Has materials based on the average reading level of the participants, which is usually below grade level.
  • Has spare text and lots of graphic aids.
  • Has a low level of abstraction (i.e., is as concrete as possible).
  • Requires fewer steps to complete the assignment
  • Converges on “right answers” to solve problems.
  • Requires only knowledge and comprehension levels of thinking for independent work.
  • Includes supportive strategies, such as graphic organizers or teacher prompting to help students infer and draw conclusions. (i.e., use higher level thinking skills)
  • Includes independent reading materials from the textbook or other on-grade level sources.
  • Uses concrete concepts to help students transition to more abstract concepts.
  • Includes questions or problems that are a mix of open-ended and “right answers.”
  • Can have more steps.
  • Expects students to infer and draw conclusions with less teacher support. Teacher should count on being on hand if necessary to prompt students in this area.
  • Ensures that students can be successful with knowledge, comprehension, and application on their own, and that with help they can address some of the high levels of thinking
  • Includes reading materials from sources more complex than the textbook, if possible.
  • Requires more lengthy sources because students can read faster than lower or average students.
  • Focuses on abstract concepts as much as possible and uses open-ended questions exclusively.
  • Requires students to infer and evaluate.
  • Assumes students have knowledge, comprehension, and application abilities, and that they will be challenged only if you ask them to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

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.

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.)

This group will work on knowledge/ comprehension tasks for chapters 3 and 4.

  1. Where does Mary Rose find the phone?
  2. Which sister has the bigger imagination? How does she picture the librarian in her mind? Find the passage on p. 23 that describes her idea of the librarian and write down the descriptive words.
  3. What is a blizzard?

(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.

  1. Make two lists, one with Mary Rose at the top and one with Jo-Beth at the top. Under each girl, list things about her that you find in these chapters.
  2. Now create a Venn diagram in which you draw two circles with a part of each circle joining the other circle. In the joined section, put words that show things that are the same for both girls. In the part of the circles that is not shared, put your words from each of your lists about the girls.
  3. Explain your circle diagram to the class.

Share with the class your descriptions in your Venn diagrams.

This group will work on synthesis/ evaluation tasks for chapters 3 and 4.

  1. Tell the story from the point of view of the Mynah bird. Go back through chapters 3 and 4 and first list all the things the Mynah bird sees and says. Then write these chapters from its point of view.
  2. Or—Think about all the scary things that happen in chapters 3 and 4. List them in order from least scary to most scary telling why each item is scary.

Share your work with the class during sharing time.

Adapted from http://www.doe.in.gov/exceptional/gt/tiered_curriculum/languagearts/la4r.htm

I am a science specialist and I teach students in first through fifth grades. My school is becoming the resource room building in the district. I expect to have large class sizes, 25–30 students, with mixed ability levels. I could have as many as 12 special education students in one class. I’d like to try differentiated inquiry science instruction. Can you suggest some resources?
—Jane, Waltham, MA

In an online interview,Carol Ann Tomlinson, a teacher and author of many publications on the topic, says differentiated instruction is a result of a teacher “acknowledging that kids learn in different ways, and responding by doing something about that through curriculum and instruction. A more dictionary-like definition is adapting content, process, and product in response to student readiness, interest, and/or learning profile.

Many teachers have been differentiating without ever attending a workshop on the topic. They have realized one-size-fits-all instruction doesn’t work with the diversity of students in their classrooms. Strategies such as flexible grouping, cooperative learning, learning contracts, learning stations/centers, tiered assignments, independent study, direct instruction, authentic and alternative assessments, multimedia, inquiry, and problem-based learning can be used skillfully and purposefully to fit the many needs and varied interests of their students.

On Tomlinson’s website, you can find out more about the topic. I would recommend her book The Differentiated Classroom, an easy-to-read discussion of the topic with examples and suggestions. On YouTube, use the phrase “differentiated instruction” to find videos of what this can look like in real classrooms, where students are engaged in the learning process through a variety of activities. It’s also encouraging to see how students are taking more responsibility for their learning in these classrooms.

For your science classes, consider the book Differentiated Instructional Strategies for Science, Grades K-8 available through NSTA’s Science Store with many sample lessons and assessment activities. You could also look at the February 2010 issue of Science Scope, which had differentiated instruction as its theme. Some of the ideas in the articles could be used in your upper grades.

The resources noted at the end of this response have more suggestions for planning and implementing differentiated instruction. An important consideration is  to relate the instructional activities to the learning goals of your curriculum and state standards. I observed a class in which some of the “differentiated” activities included coloring pages and find-a-word puzzles. I would certainly question their value in helping students learn science content and skills.

Your teaching assignment sounds like a challenging one. You mentioned in a follow-up note that you will see the students once a week in your role as science specialist. If the classroom teachers also provide instruction in science, it will be important to communicate with them to help students make connections between the lab and classroom activities. A quick glance at a few science notebooks would let you know what the students have been doing since their last visit to your lab. And the homeroom teacher can see what projects the students are doing with you.

With your special education students, you may have the opportunity to co-teach with a special education teacher or to work with a paraprofessional. Having another adult in the classroom to work with the students can be a valuable resource for your differentiated instruction. I’m hoping you also have planning time with them to learn more about the students and their learning plans.

Last month, a colleague in a similar situation asked about cooperative learning roles in the lab. The blog also has suggestions for organizational strategies and procedures in a lab situation.

Additional resources:

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504443770/

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