Strategies for differentiation

There are critical considerations to reflect on before implementing differentiation strategies - to aspects of content, process and product - in direct response to a student’s readiness, interests and learning profile.

Bringing it all together

Critical considerations

Before introducing strategies for differentiation, it is important to note 3 interrelated considerations for teachers who wish to differentiate instruction.

Trivial and fluffy curriculum remains trivial and fluffy, even after differentiation. Varied versions of an ill-focussed product are no more helpful. A pernicious classroom environment cannot invite learners to be comfortable with themselves and one another. A teacher who does not see assessment as a continual window into the needs of his/her students has little sound footing from which to differentiate instruction. A teacher who cannot learn to trust and share responsibility with his/her students, would, at best have students seated in rows and completing varied worksheets silently and alone.

…..teacher growth in differentiation is not so much about introducing tiered lessons, independent study alternative forms of assessment – or even moving to multi-text adoption. Practising quality differentiation is much more about knowing what matters to teach, realising that learning happens in us rather than to us, continually reflecting on the ‘particularness’ of each of our students, and pondering how to develop both the commonalities students share as humans and the singularities students bring to us as individuals. If we as teachers understand the nature of our art more fully and deeply, more differentiation would likely evolve from that understanding. Learning some new ‘tricks’ with little sense of why they matter is less helpful.

Regarding differentiation, teachers can say, “I already do that”. Most teachers at some times and in some ways obviously adapt or adjust for students’ learning needs. The truly expert teacher understands, however, that even after a dozen careers in the classroom he/she could still learn more about his/her subject and his/her learners and how to link each learner and subject with power and joy. … expert teachers teach students the most important things in the most effective ways.

(Tomlinson & Allan 2000)

What and how to differentiate

Effective differentiation takes place when teachers adjust aspects of content, process and product in direct response to a student’s readiness, interests and learning profile. Teachers may also modify the learning environment in direct response to a student’s learning profile.

‘What’ and ‘how’ teachers differentiate depends on the needs of the students in the class at any one time.

The following diagram illustrates the connections between classroom elements and student characteristics and the multiple opportunities teachers have for differentiation. It shows that teachers can adjust classroom elements - content, process and product - in direct response to a student’s readiness, interests and learning profile. Teachers can also modify the learning environment in direct response to a student’s learning profile.

Tiered instruction

Tiered instruction is when teachers make slight adjustments within the same lesson to meet the needs of students.

All students learn the same fundamental skills and concepts but through varying modes and activities.

The tiers need to challenge students appropriately at their ability levels. The teacher’s challenge is to make sure all tasks, regardless of tier level, are interesting, engaging, and challenging.

Activities and assignments can be adjusted by:

  • level of complexity
  • amount of structure
  • materials provided
  • time allowed
  • pacing of the assignment
  • number of steps required for completion
  • form of expression, for example letter, essay, report, research paper, short story, speech
  • level of independence required.

The 6 ways to tier a lesson

  1. tier by challenge level - Bloom’s Taxonomy
  2. tier by complexity - when you tier by complexity, you address the needs of students at introductory levels as well as the needs of students who are ready for more advanced work
  3. tier by resources - when you choose materials at various reading levels and complexity of content, you are tiering assignments by resources
  4. tier by outcomes - students use the same materials but the end products vary
  5. tier by process - the end products are the same but the ways students arrive at those outcomes may vary
  6. tier by product - group by multiple intelligences or learning styles followed by assignments that fit those preference.

Use Bloom’s taxonomy as a useful guide to develop tasks at various challenge levels.

An example is activities for book talk presentations:

  • the lower levels of Blooms:
    • list story elements (knowledge)
    • book summary (comprehension)
    • support a conclusion about a character with evidence from the book (application).
  • Higher levels of Blooms:
    • discuss the theme or author’s purpose for writing the book (analysis)
    • create a new ending for the story (synthesis)
    • critique the author’s writing and support your opinion (evaluation).

When you tier by complexity, you provide varied tasks that address a student’s level of readiness, from introductory levels to more abstract, less concrete, advanced work.

Be careful to provide advanced work to the higher level student, rather than just more work. An example is after whole group class reading of a current events issue in a magazine such as global warming, students complete a related activity differentiated by complexity.

  • Tier one: Students are asked to write a public service announcement using jingles, slogans or art to convey why global warming is a problem and what people can do to prevent it.
  • Tier two: Students conduct a survey of peer awareness and understanding of global warming. They design a limited number of questions and decide how to report their results such as with charts or in a newscast.
  • Tier three: Students debate the issue about the seriousness of global warming with each side expressing a different viewpoint. They must provide credible evidence to support their opinions and arguments.

Use materials at various reading levels and complexity to tier by resources. Students using tiered resources may be engaged in the same activity or they may be working on a different, but related activity.

Students all use the same materials but what they do with the materials is different. An example is pattern block maths:

  • Tier one: Identify all the ways you can group your pattern blocks.
  • Tier two: Identify all the different patterns you can make with your pattern blocks.
  • Tier three: Create a bar graph to show all the different kinds of pattern blocks in your bag.

Students work on the same outcomes but use a different process to get there. An example is: What are the characteristics of a hero?

  • Tier one: Make a chart of specific heroes and what they did to make them become a hero.
  • Tier two: Choose two or three heroes and compare them in a Venn diagram.
  • Tier three: List personal characteristics exhibited by heroes and rank them from most to least important.

Groups are formed based on learning preference using Gardner’s multiple intelligences. For example: For a unit on the solar system - the study of rotation and revolution of the earth.

  • Tier one: Create a flipbook, diagram, or model showing the rotation of the earth around the sun (visual-spatial).
  • Tier two: Position and move three people to demonstrate the concept of the revolution and rotation of the earth with respect to the moon and sun (bodily-kinaesthetic).
  • Tier three: Make a timeline of a year detailing the position of Queensland with respect to the sun (logical-mathematical).

How to create a 3-level tier

  1. Identify key concepts, skills and essential understandings that you want all students to achieve. These elements become the basis for your ‘on-level’ tasks.
  2. Identify how you will cluster groups/activities. Although you can create multiple levels of tiers (2-6), keep the number of levels consistent with your group of students. For example, don’t make 3 tiers if there are only 2 groups of students exist in your classroom (those working at the appropriate level and those students who require extra support).
  3. Select elements to tier (see ‘Six ways to tier a lesson’ above).
  4. Create your ‘on-level’ tier (tier one).
  5. Design a similar task for learners who require extra support. The task should make adjustments based on student readiness (tier two).
  6. If needed, develop a third, more advanced activity for learners who have already mastered the basic standard or competency being addressed. Make sure the task actually requires higher-level thinking than the ‘on-level’ tasks. The advanced tier shouldn’t just be more of the same thing (tier three).

As you construct the tiers make sure that in order for students to accomplish a higher level, they must also have an understanding of the lower levels.


Compacting is the process of eliminating teaching or student practice if students have already mastered a concept or skill. For example, a year 3 class is learning to identify the parts of fractions, and diagnostics indicate that 2 students already know the parts of fractions. These students are excused from completing the identifying activities and are taught to add and subtract fractions.

Steps for compacting

  1. identifying the learning objectives or standards that all students must learn
  2. offering a pre-test opportunity or planning an alternate path through the content for those students who can learn the required material in less time than their age peers
  3. planning and offering meaningful curriculum extensions for students who qualify
  4. eliminating all drill, practice, review or preparation for students who have already mastered such things
  5. keeping accurate records of students’ compacting activities.

A layered curriculum

The layered curriculum approach features a 3 layer model (like a pyramid) where students start with basic learning and skills (layer C) and move to use higher-level thinking skills (layer B and then layer A) as they work through the layers. Developed by educator and author Kathie Nunley (2006) the approach came as a response to her classroom experiences with high school students.

The base level of competency, layer C, is basic learning and skills. This layer reflects what every student must be able to know, understand, and do. At this level, students gather information and add it to their bank of knowledge.

Layer C reflects what all students must do and the activities ask students to collect factual information.

The middle level of competency, layer B, is application. This is where students apply and manipulate the information.

Layer B provides students with the opportunity to apply, manipulate and play with the information they gathered while completing C layer activities. Typically, this layer requires students to apply, manipulate, discover, hypothesise and prove, demonstrate or problem solve.

The top-level of competency, layer A is critical thinking. This is where students evaluate and think critically about an issue. Nunley says the purpose of layer A is to teach students critical thinking skills and to apply their classroom learning into their daily lives. Layer A consists of questions that ask students to analyse a topic. Frequently, no right or wrong answer exists.

Nunley emphasizes that all layers should provide students with some control over their learning. She suggests a menu-like approach to the tasks in each layer. The approach allows students to pick and choose from the available options provided by the teacher.


A menu offers students a way to make decisions about what they will do in order to meet class requirements. A menu could be for a single lesson, a week-long lesson or even a month-long period of study. Once the teacher has decided on what the essential understandings and/or skills are, they can begin to create a menu.

Steps for creating menus

  1. Identify the most important elements of a lesson or unit.
  2. Create an imperative or required assignment or project that reflects the minimum understanding you expect all students to achieve.
  3. Create negotiables which expand upon the ‘main dish’ or imperative assignment or project. These negotiables often require students to go beyond the basic levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example, they often include activities that require synthesis, analysis or evaluation.
  4. Create a final optional section that offers students the opportunity for enrichment. The optional section often reflects activities that students can use for extra credit.

Wormeli (2006) suggests placing the menu options in a restaurant menu style (see below) that could include an ‘appetisers’, a ‘main dish’, ‘side dishes’, and even ‘desserts’. He suggests the following format.

  • Appetisers (negotiables)
    • a list of assignments or projects
    • students select one item to complete.
  • The Main Dish (imperatives)
    • an assignment or project that everyone must complete.
  • Side Dishes (negotiables)
    • a list of assignments or projects
    • students select two items to complete.
  • Desserts (options)
    • optional but irresistible assignments or projects
    • options should be high interest and challenging
    • students choose one of these enrichment options
    • level of complexity.


Cubing requires students to look at a topic from 6 different angles. Teachers often create a visual cube that serves as a starting point when they want students to analyse or consider various aspects of a topic. Cubes can be used as an after-reading strategy that requires students to think critically about a topic. When students work with cubes they apply information in new ways. Cubes can be differentiated by interest and readiness.

Introducing the strategy to students

One of the best ways to introduce cubing is to apply the activity to a common or familiar object. Select an object appropriate to the age and interests of the students, distribute the object to students and then assign groups to look (or study) the object from several angles.

Students work in assigned pairs or groups. If desired, the groups can be created by readiness levels since the cubing perspectives below begin at the least complex level and become increasingly complex. Using the object as the topic, ask students to:

  1. describe it – what does it look like?
  2. compare it – compare the object with something else/ what is it similar to or different from?
  3. associate it – what do you associate the object with/ what does it make you think about?
  4. analyse it – describe the object’s parts/ how is it made?
  5. apply it – what can you do with the object/ how can you use the object?
  6. argue for or against it – what is an argument for or against the object?

Give students about 10 minutes to build a mini-presentation, then one student in each group presents to the class.

Steps for cubing

Step 1.

Select a topic, for example, World War 1 (WW1). Decide in advance how much time you want to devote to the cubing process. Informal cubing activities can easily be accomplished within a class period. However, activities can be extended if research is required.

Step 2.

Create groups based on readiness or interest.

Step 3.

Assign each group a perspective from which to explore the topic:

  1. describe WW1
  2. compare the WW1 to another war
  3. associate the WW1 with other issues, topics, or concerns
  4. analyse the WW1 by discussing the events and decisions that led to the war
  5. apply the lessons you’ve learned from studying WW1. How does learning about WW1 help you understand events, issues, topics, and decisions that still exist today?
  6. argue for or against WW1. Should the war ever have been fought? Take a stand and list your reasons.
Step 4.

After the designated amount of time, ask representatives from each group to present their perspectives.


Cubing, looking at a topic from 6 different angles, can be adapted. Adaptations can include:

  • Design cubes based on interest or learning profiles.
  • Use the cubes for independent work. Require students to complete each element on the cube but allow them to pick and choose the order in which they complete the activities.
  • Use the cubes as dice which students roll.
  • In maths, create problems for students to solve. One problem is printed on each side of the cube.
  • Rick Wormeli (2006) suggests incorporating Bloom’s Taxonomy:
    • Knowledge - students recall and cite content
    • Comprehension - students demonstrate their understanding of the content
    • Application - students use their knowledge and skills in a different way or situation
    • Analysis - students break down topics into pieces and analyse them
    • Synthesis - students consider aspects that seem to contradict each other and form something new
    • Evaluation - students use their previous learning to judge the value or success of something guided by specific criteria.

Tic-Tac-Toe choice boards

Tic-Tac-Toe choice boards give students the opportunity to participate in multiple tasks that allow them to practice skills they’ve learned in class or to demonstrate and extend their understanding of concepts. From the board students either choose or are assigned 3 adjacent or diagonal tasks to complete.

Choice boards address student readiness, interest or learning preferences - and are easily adapted to a subject area.

Steps for tic-tac-toe

  1. Identify the outcomes and instructional focus of a unit of study.
  2. Use assessment data and student profiles to determine student readiness, learning styles, or interests.
  3. Design nine different tasks.
  4. Arrange the tasks on a choice board.
  5. Select one required task for all students and place it in the centre of the board.
  6. Students complete three tasks, one of which must be the task in the middle square.

The 3 tasks should complete a Tic-Tac-Toe row.


Tic-Tac-Toe choice boards can be adapted. Adaptations include:

  • Allow students to complete any three tasks - even if the completed tasks don’t make a Tic-Tac-Toe.
  • Assign students tasks based on readiness.
  • Create different choice boards based on readiness (struggling students work with the options on one choice board while more advanced students have different options).
  • Create choice board options based on learning styles or learning preferences. for example, a choice board could include 3 kinaesthetic tasks, 3 auditory tasks and 3 visual tasks.

Sternberg’s intelligence preference

You can assess students according to Sternberg's intelligences:

  • Analytical - linear – schoolhouse smart - sequential
  • Practical - street-smart – contextual – focus on use
  • Creative - innovator – outside the box – what if

An idea to assess students in this way is possible through the following scenario:

'Imagine you are driving with your parents and they are listening to the radio. An interesting discussion starts about something you do not know. As you listen, you get more and more interested - and what do you most want to know?

  • Do you want to know all the little details that go into it?
  • Do you want to know how it is being used?
  • Do you want to know only enough information to think of other things to do?'

Students who choose the first question fall into the analytic intelligence, the second corresponds to the practical and those who choose the final question are the creative learners.

  • Know: there are 3 states of matter - solid, liquid, and gas
  • Understand: all matter has both mass and volume
  • Do: distinguish each state of matter from the others and show how each changes to the others.


  • Choose 3 items from our classroom that are all in different states of matter. Show how each item is in a different state of matter in comparison to the other two items. Use terms like mass and volume to explain your answer.
  • Use the idea of water, ice and vapour to create a chart to show how these 3 things change from one state to another. Include condensation, evaporation, melting point, freezing point, expanding and contracting in your chart.


  • Create 3 imaginative items to demonstrate different states of matter. Make an illustration of each item and explain why each one fits into the state it is in. Use mass and volume in your explanation.
  • Make a visually appealing poster to teach primary students how each state changes into the other states. Be sure the way you teach is original. Show condensation, evaporation, melting point, freezing point, expanding and contracting in your poster.


  • There are 3 mysterious objects in a box on a museum shelf. Their states of matter are not yet identified. Your task is to figure out the state of matter for each one. Design a museum exhibit for these. Use the terms mass and volume in your exhibit signs.
  • There is a close friend of yours who does not understand how one state of matter changes into another. You want to help your friend out. Write out how you would explain to your friend using all these terms: condensation, evaporation, melting point, freezing point, expanding and contracting. Make your explanation as clear as you can.

  • Know: geographical terms such as isthmus, delta, peninsula, river and island
  • Understand: landforms and bodies of water affect human movement and influence the development of cities
  • Do: locate and label specific landforms.

Analyse how landforms produce economic advantages that establish settlements. After students have read and taken notes on the chapter, the teacher reviews, with the whole class, the basic information on landforms. Then, students are given a choice of 3 assignments to be done individually or in groups of 2 or 3.


Create clues or a set of directions to help us identify and locate at least 8 landforms on the map (given in the textbook or on a map provided by the teacher). Clues/directions should also be based on population and economic growth and changes.


Develop a map of a new world that has at least 8 different types of landforms and/or bodies of water. For example, using labels determine how these sites would grow due to the economic possibilities of these geographical features and predict population growth over a period of time.


Using these 8 given cities (or you may choose other cities after approval by the teacher) demonstrate how landforms and bodies of water contributed to the development and movement of people to this site over a period of time. You may use overlay transparencies or models to show the areas and growth.

  • Heacox D. (2002) Differentiation Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.
  • Heacox, D. (2005). Promoting Student Independence and Responsibility in Academically Diverse Classrooms. 2005 ASCD Annual Conference. Orlando, FL.
  • Nunley, K. E. (2006). Differentiating the High School Classroom: Solution Strategies for 18 Common Obstacles. Thousand Oaks: CA: Corwin.
  • Tomlinson, C. A., & Allan, S. D. (2000). Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms.
  • Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
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