Using Tiered Instruction To Maximize Student Outcomes

tiered instruction classroom

As educators, your goal is to help every student in our classroom reach their full potential. However, with different learning styles, abilities, and needs, it can be challenging to meet the needs of every student in a class. This is where tiered instruction comes in, providing a framework that allows you to differentiate instruction to meet the unique needs of each student.

Understanding Tiered Instruction

What is tiered instruction.

Tiered instruction involves designing multiple levels of instruction for the same lesson or activity, with each level addressing the learning needs of different students. This approach allows you to provide support to struggling students, challenge advanced learners, and meet the learning needs of students in the middle.

Tiered instruction is a powerful tool because it allows you to differentiate instruction and meet the needs of all students, regardless of their abilities or learning styles. By providing multiple levels of instruction, you can ensure that all of your students are challenged and engaged in the learning process.

Benefits of Tiered Instruction for Students and Teachers

For students, the benefits of tiered instruction include the opportunity to receive instruction that meets their unique needs, which can increase classroom engagement and promote a growth mindset. When students feel that their learning needs are being met and you find that perfect balance of material that isn’t too easy or too challenging, your students are more likely to be motivated and invested in their own learning. 

As an elementary teacher, tiered instruction allows you to differentiate instruction and meet the needs of all your students, even in classrooms with a wide range of abilities. This can reduce the stress and frustration of lesson plans falling apart when half your students are struggling with material while half of your class breezes through and now is bored and waiting for more. Outside of helping you run more effective lessons, tiered instruction helps you ensure that all your students, regardless of ability, are meeting your desired learning outcomes.

Key Components of a Successful Tiered Instruction Model

A successful tiered instruction model includes several key components. These include identifying student needs and learning styles, creating tiered lesson plans and activities, differentiating instruction for each tier, and utilizing technology to support instruction.

Identifying student needs and learning styles is an important first step in creating a successful tiered instruction model. You must understand the unique needs of your students in order to create effective tiered instruction plans because this will directly impact how well you can adjust your materials to meet their diverse needs.

Creating tiered lesson plans and activities is another important component of a successful tiered instruction model. This involves using your knowledge of your students to design activities that are challenging and engaging for them regardless of their ability level.

Differentiating instruction for each tier is crucial for ensuring that every student is challenged and engaged in the learning process. Teachers must provide instruction that is tailored to the needs of each student, which may involve modifying assignments, providing additional resources, or offering one-on-one support.

Utilizing technology to support instruction is another important component of a successful tiered instruction model. Technology can provide students with additional resources and support, and can also help teachers to track student progress and provide targeted feedback. Kodable , for example, is an online educational game that helps teach K-5 students the basics of computer programming in a fun and engaging way. Because lessons are self-paced, this helps facilitate tiered instruction by allowing students to progressively work through levels at their own speed.

In summary, tiered instruction is a powerful tool that allows you to meet the needs of all students in your class. By identifying student needs and learning styles, creating tiered lesson plans and activities around those needs, differentiating instruction for each tier, and utilizing technology to support instruction, you can create a learning environment that is engaging, challenging, and effective for all your students.

Implementing Tiered Instruction in the Classroom

Implementing tiered instruction in the classroom can be a highly effective way to meet the diverse needs of your students. By grouping students according to their needs and strengths, you can provide targeted instruction and support that meets each student where they are at. Below are some key steps to implementing tiered instruction in the classroom.

Identifying Student Needs and Learning Styles

The first step in implementing tiered instruction is identifying students' needs and learning styles. This can be done through a variety of methods, including pre-assessments, observations, and conversations with students. By understanding each student's unique needs and learning style, you can create tiers that are tailored to each group of students.

For example, some students may be visual learners, while others may be auditory learners. Some students may struggle with certain concepts, while others may excel. By taking the time to understand each student's individual needs and strengths, teachers can create tiers that are optimized for learning and growth. See our full guide on teacher assessment tools for more information on pre-assessments and other types of assessments.

Creating Tiered Lesson Plans and Activities

Creating tiered lesson plans and activities is the next step in implementing tiered instruction. You should design each tier to include activities and tasks that address the needs and learning styles of the students in a particular group. These activities should build upon each other, with increasingly difficult tasks for advanced learners and additional support for struggling students.

For example, in a math class, the advanced tier may work on more complex problems that require critical thinking and problem-solving skills . The middle tier may work on similar problems, but with more support and guidance from the teacher. The struggling tier may work on simpler problems, with additional support and scaffolding from you.

Differentiating Instruction for Each Tier

Differentiating instruction for each tier is central to the success of tiered instruction. You should utilize a variety of instructional strategies, such as small group instruction, individualized instruction, and peer tutoring, to meet the needs of each group of students. You should also provide support and guidance as needed to help your students work through any challenges they may face.

For example, in a language arts class, the advanced tier may work on writing an essay independently, while the middle tier may work on the same essay with some guidance and support from the teacher. The struggling tier may work on a simpler writing assignment, with more support and scaffolding from the teacher. However, it’s important to make sure that when you create student tiers that you do so in a thoughtful way to ensure that students do not feel like they are in a superior or non-superior group.

Utilizing Technology to Support Tiered Instruction

Technology can be a valuable tool in supporting tiered instruction. You can use online resources, educational apps, and interactive whiteboards to provide additional instruction, practice, and feedback for students at each level. Thankfully there are even a number of free teacher technology tools that can help you get started with no budget needed.

For example, in a science class, the advanced tier may use a virtual lab to conduct experiments and analyze data. The middle tier may use the same virtual lab, but with additional guidance and support from the teacher. The struggling tier may use a simpler virtual lab, with more support and scaffolding from the teacher.

Or you could have students play Kodable, a free educational app! Kodable has self-paced lessons which helps facilitate tiered instructions by not being too challenging to make students quit but also being engaging enough to keep students of all levels playing and learning.

Create your free Kodable account to bring this learning tool into your classroom today!

By identifying student needs and learning styles, creating tiered lesson plans and activities, differentiating instruction for each tier, and utilizing technology, teachers can create a learning environment that is optimized for growth and success.

Assessing and Monitoring Student Progress

Assessing and monitoring student progress is a critical component of effective teaching and learning. It helps you understand what students know and can do, and it provides your students with feedback on their progress. In tiered instruction, a variety of assessment strategies can help you track student growth and make any necessary adjustments to instruction.

Formative and Summative Assessments in Tiered Instruction

Formative assessments are ongoing assessments that are used to track student progress in real-time. These assessments can take many forms, including quizzes, exit tickets, observations, and discussions. You can use formative assessments to identify areas where students may be struggling and to adjust instruction accordingly.

Summative assessments, on the other hand, provide a snapshot of overall student performance at the end of a unit or lesson. These assessments can take the form of tests, projects, or presentations. Use summative assessments to evaluate student learning and to determine if your students have met the learning objectives for a particular unit or lesson.

Learn more about formative, summative, and other types of assessments in our teacher assessment tools guide.

Tracking Student Growth and Adjusting Instruction

Based on the results of assessments, you should make any necessary adjustments to their instruction. These adjustments may include modifying lesson plans or activities, providing additional support or challenging students with more complex tasks, and revisiting content that students may have struggled with before. By tracking student growth and adjusting instruction, you can ensure that all your students are making progress and are being appropriately challenged by your material.

Providing Feedback and Encouraging Self-Assessment

Feedback is a critical component of effective teaching and learning that helps encourage achieving and struggling students to keep pushing on. You should provide feedback to students on their progress, both formally and informally to help facilitate this. Feedback can take many forms, including written comments, verbal feedback, and rubrics. By providing feedback, you help your students understand their strengths and weaknesses and provide guidance on how to improve.

In addition to providing feedback, you should also encourage self-assessment. By encouraging students to reflect on their own learning, you can help them take ownership of their progress and empower them to become independent learners. Self-assessment can include self-reflection, peer assessment, and goal-setting.

Overall, assessing and monitoring student progress is an essential component of tiered instruction. By using a variety of assessment strategies, tracking student growth, and providing feedback and self-assessment opportunities, you can ensure that all students are making progress and are being appropriately challenged.

Collaborating with Colleagues and Parents

Building a supportive school culture for tiered instruction.

Building a positive classroom culture is essential to the success of tiered instruction in your classroom. Collaborating with your colleagues to share resources and best practices and create a cohesive approach to tiered instruction school-wide is a great way to ensure that not just your classroom, but your entire school are taking the right steps to educate all students.

Collaboration among your colleagues can be creating and sharing lesson plans and activities across multiple classes, sharing strategies for differentiating instruction , and sharing strategies for supporting struggling students. By working together, you and your colleagues can create a supportive learning environment that benefits all students.

In addition to collaborating with colleagues, you can also seek out resources and attend professional development opportunities to learn more about effective tiered instruction strategies. By staying up-to-date on the latest research and best practices, you can strengthen their instructional practices and provide better support to all students.

Engaging Parents in the Tiered Instruction Process

You should also engage parents in the tiered instruction process to ensure there isn’t any misunderstanding. This can be done through parent-teacher conferences, newsletters, and other communication methods that you already are using today. By involving parents in the instructional process, you can gain valuable insights into their child's needs and strengths and build a partnership with parents to support student learning.

Parents can also be a valuable resource to provide information about their child's interests, learning style, and home environment. This information can help you create more effective instructional plans and provide targeted support to students.

Overall, building a supportive school culture requires collaboration and communication among teachers, parents, and students. By working together, you can help create a learning environment that supports the success of all students.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is tier 1 tier 2 tier 3 education.

Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 are terms often used in the context of Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). They refer to different levels or tiers of instructional support provided to students based on their academic needs. Here's a breakdown of each tier:

Tier 1: This is the core instruction that is provided to all students in the general education classroom. It encompasses the regular curriculum and teaching strategies used for the majority of students. Tier 1 instruction is designed to meet the needs of the average learner.

Tier 2: This tier involves targeted interventions provided to students who require additional support beyond the standard Tier 1 instruction. It focuses on specific skills or areas where students are struggling. Tier 2 interventions are typically delivered in small groups and can be provided by the classroom teacher or a specialist.

Tier 3: Tier 3 is the most intensive level of support and is tailored to meet the needs of students who require significant individualized assistance. Students in Tier 3 typically have persistent difficulties and may receive more specialized interventions or one-on-one instruction. These interventions often involve more frequent progress monitoring and may be provided by specialized interventionists or special education teachers.

The goal of the tiered approach is to provide targeted and differentiated instruction to ensure that students receive the appropriate level of support based on their individual needs.

What is an example of a tiered lesson?

A tiered lesson is designed to address the varied needs of students within a classroom. Here's an example of a tiered lesson for a science topic:

Objective : Students will understand the water cycle.

Tier 1: Students will identify and label the basic stages of the water cycle (e.g., evaporation, condensation, precipitation).

Tier 2: Students will explain the processes of the water cycle and their interconnections using diagrams or visual representations.

Tier 3: Students will investigate and analyze factors that influence the water cycle in different environments (e.g., temperature, wind patterns, topography) and present their findings through written reports or presentations.

In this example, each tier addresses the learning objective but provides varying levels of complexity and depth based on students' abilities. This allows students to engage with the content at a level that matches their readiness and skills.

How do you use tiered instruction in your classroom?

To incorporate tiered instruction in your classroom, consider the following steps:

Assess student needs: Use a variety of formative assessments, observations, and data to determine students' strengths and areas of improvement.

Identify tiers and design activities: Create tiered activities or assignments that address the same core objective but offer different levels of challenge, complexity, or support.

Group students: Organize students into appropriate tiers based on their assessed needs. You can use flexible grouping to rearrange or change groups over time as students' progress.

Provide instruction and support: Deliver instruction at each tier, ensuring that students receive appropriate content, strategies, and resources based on their tier placement.

Monitor progress: Continuously assess and monitor students' progress to determine the effectiveness of the tiered instruction and make any necessary adjustments.

Differentiate as needed: Be prepared to make further adaptations or modifications for individual students who may require additional support or enrichment beyond the tiered activities.

By implementing tiered instruction, you can meet the diverse needs of your students, provide targeted support, and promote their overall growth and achievement.

Tiered instruction offers a powerful framework for meeting the unique needs of all students in your classroom. By identifying student needs and learning styles, creating tiered lesson plans and activities, and utilizing technology to support instruction, you can differentiate instruction to provide the right level of challenge and support for each of your student. By assessing and monitoring student progress, collaborating with colleagues and parents, and building a supportive school culture, you can also create an environment where all students can thrive and reach their full potential. By maximizing student outcomes through tiered instruction, you can truly make a difference in the lives of your students!

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Evidence-Based Instruction in an MTSS Framework

Learn about Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and how it can provide whole-child support for all the growing readers in your school. Explore how the MTSS framework aligns with Tier 1 instruction and Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention. You’ll also get an overview of the science of reading and what we know about evidence-based instruction.

Improving your practice to support growing readers

Here you’ll learn about Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and how it can support all readers in your school. MTSS is not a curriculum, but instead a framework used by schools to identify and provide immediate intervention for students with academic and behavioral needs. For kids who are struggling with reading, MTSS offers clear guidance designed to support the whole child.

In these sections you’ll learn more about the specific goals and essential ingredients of MTSS, and how the framework aligns with evidence-based Tier 1 instruction and Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention . Many teachers ask, “what does evidence-based instruction really mean, and how much do I need to know about the research?” We offer some tips here.

You’ll also get an overview of the science of reading . The research evidence to explain how children learn to read, write, and spell has been developed over the last 50+ years, and forms a solid base for your instructional practice. The studies on learning to read come from diverse sources, including education, linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience. As you dig into the science of reading, you’ll discover new ways to strengthen and fine-tune what you do in the classroom each day.

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5 Key Building Blocks of Effective Core Instruction

A simple framework can help administrators outline the essential elements of quality core Tier 1 instruction.

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Through my position as an instructional coach, I often work with school and district leaders who want help to shore up their staff’s ability to deliver effective core instruction , also known as Tier 1 instruction. Core instruction is the critical whole-group lessons teachers produce in primary subject areas that serve as a good backdrop for the differentiation strategies required to support struggling learners and kids with diverse needs.

For example, a school looking to begin or enhance implementing tiered instruction as part of a multitiered system of support (MTSS) framework may need guidance in identifying and carrying out the components of Tier 1 instruction . Tiers are designed to challenge students at their appropriate ability levels. Similarly, schools looking to use a response-to-intervention (RTI) or project-based learning teaching model may need similar guidance on a good starting point for planning and facilitating lessons in tandem with helping teachers determine their students’ learning needs.

But it’s not enough for teachers to only have a sound system for planning and facilitating relevant lessons. They also need to intentionally monitor student engagement and learning. This allows for tweaking and refining practice over time from an informed approach.

To support the schools I partner with in instructional innovation , we created a versatile framework to serve as a good starting point for outlining the essential elements of good core instruction.

5 Must-Haves for Good Core Instruction

1. Relevant evidence-based curriculum. Curriculum refers to an evidence-based , standards and competency-aligned sequence of planned experiences that help learners capture content concepts and applied skills that follow local standards, graduate profiles, career skills, social and emotional learning, and learners’ interests.

Although there’s nothing wrong with carrying out core instruction using purchased curriculum and scripted resources, I don’t recommend following said resources verbatim. There must be personalization of what you are teaching your unique learners. Otherwise, we risk losing student engagement due to lack of relevance.

To assist you and your planning teams in designing core instruction in meaningful and compelling ways for kids, try the empathy mapping process in tandem with a straightforward backward design planning tool . The former can be powerful for determining relevance for students. The latter is a simple way to map and align learning goals with assessments, lessons, and sound instructional practices.

2. The promotion of literacy and numeracy skills across subject areas. Literacy and numeracy skills are undoubtedly foundational for reading, writing, reasoning, and problem-solving across multiple disciplines. Even if you’re not an English language arts or math teacher or utilizing a formal program for tiering and differentiation (e.g., MTSS, RTI), improving your core instruction should integrate literacy and math in ways that complement your core lessons meaningfully.

For example, science, social science, and elective teachers can highlight the  reading and writing skills pertinent to the content they teach. As a science, technology, engineering, and math teacher, I’ve found that having my students outline the design process steps while paying attention to grammar, sentence structure, and citations significantly improves their literacy skills over time. Having kids create and rehearse using presentation scripts is also a powerful literacy builder that reinforces their speaking and listening skills.

Non-math teachers can help learners improve their basic knowledge of numbers by embedding numeracy skills into daily lessons. Skills may include building understanding in the following areas:

  • Calculations
  • Representing and interpreting data
  • Measurement and data analysis
  • Relationships between numbers

3. High-yielding strategies to facilitate lessons. When used appropriately, high-yielding strategies have been shown to produce positive results in students’ academic achievement. Having a set of go-to strategies for boosting critical thinking , cooperative learning , and providing feedback (among other items) can strengthen core instruction and Tier 2 and 3 interventions.

Researcher Robert Marzano’s work simplifies selection because he outlines nine strategies to improve student achievement in any grade level or content area. Visible Learning research by John Hattie is also a good source for helping educators understand and adapt research to strategy selection in their particular context.

When trying strategies, use them to gain insight into how they help learners succeed. Learn the appropriate times to use them because every strategy isn’t used daily or in every lesson.

4. Student engagement and academic achievement monitoring. Academic research supports a strong correlation between student engagement and student achievement, which teachers across grade levels and disciplines need to consider as a part of their core instruction.

Monitoring student engagement isn’t difficult, but it must be intentional. Poll Everywhere recommends doing so in the following ways:

  • Asking questions and leading discussions.
  • Observing participation in collaborative work by seeing how students respond in smaller settings.
  • Polling students using engagement surveys. Here are some good questions by SurveyMonkey for getting started. 

Academic achievement should be monitored daily using formative assessments . Good ones for strengthening core instruction may include thumbs-up responses , exit tickets , and quizzes. Biweekly, end-of-unit, and benchmark assessments are metrics your district may have in place for you to use.

5. An understanding of your own impact. Hattie explains the importance of listening to our students to inform us of our impact on their engagement and learning; we can also seek feedback from trusted colleagues. When teachers consider themselves learners, it’s easier to have conversations with students and colleagues about the areas of our core instruction that we can improve.

Excellent practice that requires vulnerability is focusing on what’s not working with our core teaching and particular students. Seeking the right strategies for improving our impact becomes intentional (see #4) instead of jumping on the latest teaching trend(s) (see #3).

Surveying, polling, and student conferences can help improve teaching impact. You might ask questions such as the following:

  • Which classroom activities help you learn most?
  • What changes do you recommend I make to help you learn better?
  • What motivates you to learn most?
  • What can I do better?

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Tiered Instruction (Rtl)

The Massachusetts System of Tiered Instruction is "a data driven prevention, early detection, and support system with the aim of providing high-quality core educational experiences for all students and targeted interventions to struggling students who experience learning and/or behavioral challenges" (MADESE, Tiered Instructional Models 2010). Tiered Instruction (also called Response to Intervention, Targeted Instruction, or Multi Tiered Instructional Model) is a collaborative, systematic, approach for identifying and addressing student needs; it maximizes the use of all resources and staff in the school. The focus is on a collaborative, flexible use of both financial and human services to meet the many and diverse needs of children. Each school determines the type, nature, range, and intensity of services, based on the level of need. The main components of a tiered instruction model are:

  • Flexible tiers for instruction and interventions;
  • High quality core curriculum and instruction implemented with fidelity;
  • Research based/best practice academic interventions and assessment practices;
  • Research based/best practice behavioral interventions and supports;
  • Universal screening and progress monitoring; and
  • Collaboration and communication between educators and parents.

A New Approach in Service Delivery:

In the last decade, a movement has developed across the United States that has resulted in students with learning and/or behavioral challenges being provided with more flexible and responsive services without having to rely solely on special education. In contrast to traditional service delivery, there are several key differences with the intervention approach:

  • Early intervention in the typical, general education learning environment is emphasized,
  • This system maximizes all staff's expertise and services, and makes effective use of all existing resources,
  • The intent is to assess the student's strengths and weaknesses based on their academic performance or behavior in the regular educational setting,
  • Interventions are delivered in this setting and are based on reliable and measurable information,
  • The student's response to the intervention is directly and frequently monitored and charted, and
  • This system is intended to de-emphasize categories and labels while encouraging creativity, problem solving, and providing support to students in a timely manner.

The primary purpose of assessment in a tiered instruction system is to lead to effective interventions in the general education setting. In this context, eligibility for special education may be seen as an insufficient or unsuccessful response to repeated attempts at intervention in the general education setting. Additionally, sometimes a student demonstrates that they are responsive to intensive intervention and can be successful in the general education. However, if the needed level of intervention is so intense that it exceeds the level of resources in general education, then eligibility for special education needs to be considered.

Potential Benefits of Tiered Instruction:

One of the most commonly cited benefits of a tiered instruction approach is that it eliminates a "wait to fail" situation because students get help promptly within the general education setting. Secondly, a tiered instruction approach has the potential to reduce the number of students referred for special education services. Since a tiered instruction approach helps distinguish between those students whose achievement problems are due to a learning disability versus those students whose achievement problems are due to other issues such as lack of prior instruction or lack of mastery of prerequisite skills, referrals for special education evaluations are often reduced. Finally, parents and school teams alike find that the student progress monitoring techniques utilized in a tiered instruction approach provide more instructionally relevant information than traditional assessments.

The Tiered Instruction Process:

When using a tiered instruction model, a school based team meets regularly to problem solve. The first step is to identify a problem using data. Next, additional information is collected on the problem and hypotheses are developed as to why that problem is occurring. Based on the hypothesized cause of the problem, an intervention plan is created and implemented. Progress is closely monitored through charted data in order to determine whether the plan is effective or not and whether changes in the plan are needed. This process typically emphasizes the use of functional and multidimensional assessment procedures to identify, analyze, and monitor progress, and places emphasis on alterable variables (e.g., the classroom environment, the instructional design) when intervening in a problem. Additionally, tiered instruction stresses both the use of research based interventions and/or other best practices and the importance of decision-making.

The Key Terms:

Response to Intervention (RTI)  is an array of procedures that can be used to determine if and how students respond to specific changes in instruction. RTI provides an improved process and structure for school teams in designing, implementing, and evaluating educational interventions.

Universal Screening  is a step taken by school personnel early in the school year to determine which students are "at risk" for not meeting grade level standards. Universal screening can be accomplished by reviewing recent results of state tests, or by administering an academic screening test to all children in a given grade level. Those students whose test scores fall below a certain cut-off are identified as needing more specialized academic interventions.

Student Progress Monitoring  is a scientifically based practice that is used to frequently assess students' academic performance and evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Progress monitoring procedures can be used with individual students or an entire class.

Scientific, Research-Based Instruction  refers to specific curriculum and educational interventions that have been proven to be effective –that is, the research has been reported in peer-reviewed journals.

Best Practices:  Instructional practices that have proven effective based upon research and/or reflective practice and collaborative review.

Tiered Instruction and Special Education Eligibility:

IDEA 2004 offers greater flexibility to school teams by eliminating the requirement that students must exhibit a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement in order to be found eligible for special education and related services as a student with a learning disability. This increased flexibility has led to a growing interest in using research based interventions as part of an alternative method to traditional ability/achievement discrepancy comparisons. IDEA 2004 addresses Response to Intervention procedures within several contexts.

Effective instruction and progress monitoring:  For students to be considered for special education services based on a learning disability they first must have been provided with effective instruction and their progress measured through "data-based documentation of repeated assessments of achievement." Furthermore, results of the student progress monitoring must be provided to the child's parents.

Evaluation procedures:  The law gives districts the option of using research based intervention procedures as part of the evaluation procedures for special education eligibility. Comprehensive assessment is still required under the reauthorized law, however. That means that schools still need to carefully examine all relevant aspects of a student's performance and history before concluding that a disability does or does not exist. As before, schools must rule out learning problems that are primarily the result of factors such as poor vision, hearing, intellectual impairment, emotional disturbance, lack of appropriate instruction, or limited English proficiency.

Early Intervening Services:  IDEA 2004 addresses the use of intervention procedures is by creating the option of using up to 15% of federal special education funds for "early intervening services" for students who have not been identified as needing special education, but who need additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in the general education setting. The types of services that can be included are central to the tiered instruction process, and include professional development for teachers and school staff to enable them to deliver effective academic and behavioral interventions, as well as educational evaluations, services, supports, and research based literacy instruction.

Next Steps in Implementing Tiered Instruction Approaches in the District:

There are many specific issues that must be addressed in order to effectively implement tiered instruction approaches. Schools must be prepared to offer a variety of proven instructional strategies; staff must be trained to measure student performance using methods that are sensitive to small increments of growth; parents must be kept informed of these new procedures and made partners in the process. Teams must also determine how they will define an "adequate" response to an intervention—how much progress over what period of time will be the benchmark to determine if an intervention is successful? While forthcoming federal regulations will offer guidance, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has begun to provide technical assistance to districts as they develop and implement their own tiered instruction models that are based on state regulations, resources and the needs of the district's student population. The Bedford Public Schools is working on a multiyear action plan to implement targeted instruction. To date, each school has established a Response to Intervention Team to work with classroom teachers to help identify the underlying cause of a student's academic or behavioral challenges and to provide a targeted intervention plan to address those challenges. Both central office and building level staff are working to build the district's ability to provide multi tiered instruction that include a range of instructional strategies, formative and summative assessments for progress monitoring, data collection and analysis, and the use of scientifically based research driven methodologies, matched to student needs. Bedford Public Schools' goal is to develop a flexible system of instruction that provides both intervention and enhancement to all students regardless of category.

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Differentiated Instruction Strategies: Tiered Assignments

Janelle cox.

  • September 23, 2014

Male teacher standing in front of a chalkboard behind a group of students

Many teachers use differentiated instruction strategies  as a way to reach all learners and accommodate each student’s learning style. One very helpful tactic to employ differentiated instruction is called tiered assignments—a technique often used within flexible groups.

Much like flexible grouping—or differentiated instruction as a whole, really—tiered assignments do not lock students into ability boxes. Instead, particular student clusters are assigned specific tasks within each group according to their readiness and comprehension without making them feel completely compartmentalized away from peers at different achievement levels.

There are six main ways to structure tiered assignments: challenge level, complexity, outcome, process, product, or resources. It is your job, based upon the specific learning tasks you’re focused on, to determine the best approach. Here we will take a brief look at these techniques.

Ways to Structure Tiered Assignments

Challenge level.

Tiering can be based on challenge level where student groups will tackle different assignments. Teachers can use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide to help them develop tasks of structure or questions at various levels. For example:

  • Group 1:  Students who need content reinforcement or practice will complete one activity that helps  build  understanding.
  • Group 2:  Students who have a firm understanding will complete another activity that  extends  what they already know.

When you tier assignments by complexity, you are addressing the needs of students who are at different levels using the same assignment. The trick here is to vary the focus of the assignment based upon whether each group is ready for more advanced work or simply trying to wrap their head around the concept for the first time. You can direct your students to create a poster on a specific issue—recycling and environmental care, for instance—but one group will focus on a singular perspective, while the other will consider several points of view and present an argument for or against each angle.

Tiering assignments by differentiated outcome is vaguely similar to complexity—all of your students will use the same materials, but depending on their readiness levels will actually have a different outcome. It may sound strange at first, but this strategy is quite beneficial to help advanced students work on more progressive applications of their student learning.

This differentiated instruction strategy is exactly what it sounds like—student groups will use different processes to achieve similar outcomes based upon readiness.

Tiered assignments can also be differentiated based on product. Teachers can use the Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences to form groups that will hone particular skills for particular learning styles . For example, one group would be bodily/kinesthetic, and their task is to create and act out a skit. Another group would be visual/spatial, and their task would be to illustrate.

Tiering resources means that you are matching project materials to student groups based on readiness or instructional need. One flexible group may use a magazine while another may use a traditional textbook. As a tip, you should assign resources based on knowledge and readiness, but also consider the group’s reading level and comprehension.

How to Make Tiering Invisible to Students

From time to time, students may question why they are working on different assignments, using varied materials, or coming to dissimilar outcomes altogether. This could be a blow to your classroom morale if you’re not tactful in making your tiers invisible.

Make it a point to tell students that each group is using different materials or completing different activities so they can share what they learned with the class. Be neutral when grouping students, use numbers or colors for group names, and be equally enthusiastic while explaining assignments to each cluster.

Also, it’s important to make each tiered assignment equally interesting, engaging, and fair in terms of student expectations. The more flexible groups and materials you use, the more students will accept that this is the norm.

Tiering assignments is a fair way to differentiate learning. It allows teachers to meet the needs of all students while using varying levels of tasks. It’s a concept that can be infused into homework assignments, small groups, or even learning centers. If done properly, it can be a very effective method to differentiate learning because it challenges all students.

  • #DifferentiatedInstruction , #TieredAssignments

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Tiered Approaches to the Education of Students with Learning Disabilities

Print Resource

By Kyle Robinson and Dr. Nancy L. Hutchinson

The expression “tiered approaches” has been used in two distinct but related ways with reference to the education of students with learning disabilities (LDs). Each of these approaches is described below.

First, the Ontario Ministry of Education has advocated the use of what it calls the Tiered Approach to Early Identification and Intervention in both Education for All (2005) and Learning for All (2013) as a method of instruction and early identification of students with exceptionalities. Specifically, the Ministry defines it as “a systematic approach to providing high-quality, evidence-based assessment and instruction and appropriate interventions that respond to students’ individual needs” (2005, p. 22). The Ministry has devised a three-tier system, as shown in Figure 1. This is often referred to as Response to Intervention (RTI) outside of Ontario, a process whereby sound, evidence-based, differentiated teaching is used to instruct all students, but students who do not respond to this instruction, or who need further help, are moved up through a series of increasingly intensive interventions.

The second ‘tiered approach’ is used when designing classroom lessons and assessments. Students are grouped and then taught and assessed on different levels of content on the same general curricular topic, in fluid groupings. Students may choose or teachers may assign students to one of a number of levels of challenge in classroom learning tasks and associated assessment.

The Tiered Approach to Intervention (also called RTI)

The typical method of identifying students with LDs is often referred to as a “wait to fail” model – where referrals for additional instruction or educational support are only provided after a student has failed to learn. This method is prone to several disadvantages, which include “relatively late identification for students who have special needs; imprecise screening through teacher observation; false negatives (i.e., unidentified students) who are not provided necessary services or provided services too late; and the use of identification measures that are not linked to instruction” (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003, p. 139). Through the Tiered Approach to Intervention, students are assessed based on risk, rather than deficit, meaning that intervention is proactive rather than reactive. Vaughn and Fuchs (2003) discuss several other benefits to this proactive approach, including early identification of students with LDs, a reduction in identification bias, and a strong focus on student outcomes.

The most common form of the Tiered Approach to Intervention is called Response to Intervention (RTI), and is a process whereby all students are taught using sound, evidence-based teaching practices designed to allow all students to succeed. If students fail to learn a particular concept, or struggle to learn it, they may be moved to Tier 2, which is intense and focused small group instruction. If a student grasps the concept, they can return to the general Tier 1 learning environment, but students who continue to fail to make progress are moved to Tier 3. This last Tier is typically comprised of individual instruction, “which may be special education in some areas” (Mastroppieri, Scruggs, Hauth, & Allen-Bronaugh, 2012, p. 231).

The Tiered Approach championed by the Ontario Government is mainly comprised of methods that would be considered interventions. The scientific studies cited are intervention-based and, as Mattatall (2008) suggests, Ontario documents use “more [of] the language and approach of RTI” than most provinces. Furthermore, “it appears that Ontario leads the rest of Canada in promoting a tiered format” to instruction and intervention” (Matattall, 2008, p. 15).

Research Supporting the Tiered Approach to Intervention

Sharon Vaughn and her colleagues have conducted the majority of research cited by the Ontario Ministry of Education documents in support of the use of tiered instruction. Vaughn, Linan-Thompson and Hickman (2003) showed that using a tiered approach to instruction could help improve student’s word attack (ability to decode words), fluency (ability to read rapidly and accurately), and comprehension (ability to understand what is read. They also found that the majority of students met grade expectations following tier two.

In a study from the same year Vaughn et al. (2003c) looked at how the ratio of teachers to students impacts instruction for students with reading disabilities. They reported that the lower the ratio, the higher the scores on typical reading measures. However, there was no significant difference between a 1:3 ratio teachers to students and a 1:1 ratio. This evidence strongly suggests that the movement to a smaller group increases a student’s ability to learn, especially for those at risk of a reading disability.

A similar study was conducted by O’Connor (2000), with Kindergarten students at risk for reading disabilities. O’Connor suggests that starting an intense process of tiered intervention in “kindergarten might ‘jump-start’ these [reading] skills among children who lacked exposure and opportunity and assist in identifying children who may be more ‘truly’ reading disabled” (p. 44). Essentially, O’Connor was looking to reduce the number of students being identified as having reading disabilities, when their low abilities in reading stemmed from environmental, rather than developmental, issues. The intense intervention did not result in a decrease in the proportion of students later identified for special education needs; however, there was a decline in reading failure rates. Interestingly, this finding contradicts the results from a Canadian study. Citing reports from the National Reading Panel (2000), Barnes and Wade-Wooley (2007) suggest that “up to 70% of later diagnosed LDs can be prevented with a combination of early screening, progress monitoring, and teaching that is responsive to emerging learning problems” (p. 10) – which are all contained within the Tiered Approach to Intervention.

Whether a tiered approach to intervention decreases identification of LDs or not, these studies suggest that an increasing intensity of instruction based on student needs creates a positive learning environment where students can continue to learn in their regular classroom environment. While the studies above focused mainly on interventions related to reading fluency and comprehension, the tiered approach can be used in many classes when teaching any concepts or skills with which students struggle. Several studies (e.g., Fuchs, Fuchs, & Prentice, 2004; Fuchs et. Al., 2005) have shown that RTI and, by extension, the tiered approach to intervention, has been useful in teaching number sense, word problems, and mathematical operations.

How Might We Use This?

The previously discussed studies have been combined to create a classroom model for tiered instruction that could be implemented in a school board. Although various researchers and texts use different language, the tiered approach (OME, 2005; OME, 2013), progress monitoring (Hutchinson, 2013), and RTI (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003) embody similar teaching strategies. The tiered system described below is heavily inspired by the method briefly laid out in Education for All (2005), and later refined as part of Learning for All (2013). A basic model of this system is shown in Figure 1.

Tiered Approach represented in a pyramid. At the base there’s Tier 1: Universal Programming : General classroom education, taught by the regular classroom teacher. Conforms to basic principles of Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). May include tiered lessons and assessment. All students monitored closely for potential need to move up a tier. (This tier targets 80 % of students). In the middle of the pyramid there’s Tier 2: Targeted Group Interventions: Small (2 to 5 students) group instruction in addition to continued universal programming from Tier 1. Typically 10 to 20 weeks of extra instruction, 30 – 45 minute duration per session. Students may shift back to Tier 1 after successfully mastering a concept or skill. (This tier targets 15% of students). At the tip of the pyramid there’s Tier 3: Intensive Individual Instruction: Intense, individual interventions and instruction. Can include teaching basic learning skills such as organization and note taking. Includes help from outside the classroom, including special education teachers and administration. Students who are struggle in Tier 1 and 2 to this tier are also often referred for further psycho-educational testing, including screening for LDs. (This tier targets 5% of students).

Figure 1. The Tiered Approach to Intervention; commonly referred to as Response to Intervention (RTI).

Adapted from: Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011; Matattall, 2008; Katz, 2012.

Tier 1: Universal Programming. Tier 1 is the typical classroom environment. The teaching strategies and instruction used here reflect both methods of differentiated instruction and universal design for learning. Classes are structured and planned to reach every student in the class, regardless of exceptionality, and the curriculum goals are not modified. Throughout this process, the classroom teacher monitors the progress of students and notes students who are struggling and falling behind their peers.

There are many different methods to introduce differentiated instruction (DI) into the classroom. Nancy Hutchinson (2014) offers 10 introductory principles of DI to guide teachers:

  • Consider who the students are and use respectful tasks.
  • Be flexible in grouping students.
  • Form heterogeneous groups (based on abilities, interests, etc.).
  • Ensure all students have text they can read by choosing multi-level texts.
  • Ensure all students can respond meaningfully by providing an array of response formats.
  • Show students how to make connections between new and already acquired knowledge.
  • Help students to use strategies by modelling their use.
  • To engage all students, provide choice.
  • To ensure everyone learns, begin where the students are.
  • To show students what they have learned, create an array of assessment vehicles.

(Adapted from Hutchinson, 2014, p. 8)

Education for All (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005) suggests many of the same practices and includes ways in which a teacher might adapt these for specific use in the classroom. When these practices are used effectively, most students learn at a rate that is typical for their developmental stage in Tier 1. Shapiro (2014) suggests that up to 80 percent of students should reach successful levels of learning through Tier 1 support.

Tier 2: Targeted Group Interventions. Once the teacher has gathered enough evidence to show that a student or a number of students is struggling to learn, they are moved to Tier 2. Tier 2 includes more intensive, systematic instruction, often tailored towards a small group of students demonstrating similar difficulties. This could include extra help during school or after school, extra homework, varied readings, or co-teaching support. This Tier does not typically involve removal from the regular classroom environment; rather “the interventions take place in the original classroom, over a set period of time, with different students involved, depending on the skill or concept being addressed” (Katz, 2012, p. 139). Results of instruction and assessment are closely monitored. Once an individual or group of students has mastered the concept or skill, they can return to instruction at Tier 1 for future concepts and skills.

Hutchinson (2013) provides an example of Tier 2 instruction: “if some students in a Grade 1 class are not learning to read with their peers they could be taught in a small group of two to five; this often takes place for ten to twenty weeks for forty-five minutes on most days” (p. 9). The extra instruction provided to students in this tier is not a substitute for the universal programming instruction provided in Tier 1. Rather, it is supplementary to the base instruction (OME, 2005). This means students should essentially be receiving double instruction – some as part of the full classroom, and some in a small group. This tier will, on average, account for an additional 15% of students learning (Shapiro, 2014).

Tier 3: Intensive Individual Interventions. If students are still struggling with material after a period of group instruction at Tier 2, they are moved to Tier 3. This tier involves increased intensity (more instructional time, smaller group size or individual instruction) and increased explicitness (more focus on teaching specific skills). At this level, resources from outside the classroom are brought in to facilitate the learning. This could include a special education teacher, resource room teacher, or administrator. Instruction is tailored to the specific student, and is “precise and personalized” (OME, 2013, p. 24). Interventions in the third tier could also include “instruction in learning strategies provided outside the content area classroom that will enable students to learn independently once they are in content area classes” (Cook & Tankersley, 2013, p. 101). Learning strategies could be broad such as note taking, time management, personal management, or specific to a subject like reading.

Often, students who struggle enough in their learning to make it to this tier are referred for psycho-educational testing – screening for potential learning disabilities or other exceptionalities. Students who are struggling enough to move to this tier are also usually given an Individual Education Plan (IEP), and initial steps may be taken towards establishing an Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC).

Wrapping Up the Tiered Approach to Intervention (RTI)

Education for All (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005), calls for teachers to receive “adequate professional development in teacher-based assessment practices, progress monitoring, and intervention strategies for students with special needs” (OME, 2005, p. 60). This tiered approach also requires the participation of the entire school community (administration, special educators, and regular classroom teachers) for its implementation. The separation of duties between classroom teachers and special educators – “in which universal [tier 1] and group [tier 2] interventions become the sole concern of general education and individualized supports [tier 3] the concern of special education” (Agran, Brown, Hughes, Quirk, & Ryndak, 2014, p.109) – is a concern and arises when all school roles are not involved in the tiered approach to intervention. Teachers, administrators, and special educators need to be involved in each step of the process. Thus schools or school boards typically take the initiative to implement a system of RTI or tiered instruction, rather than classroom teachers.

There are still lots of questions to be asked about the implementation of the Tiered Approach, to Intervention. For example, Fuchs and Deshler (2007) discuss the potential limitations of RTI in a secondary school setting. How do teachers successfully implement RTI for a Grade 10 student who is reading at a Grade 2 level (Fuchs & Deshler, 2007)? As well, while reading has been the primary focus of RTI studies (e.g., O’Connor, 2000; Vaughn, Linan-Thompson and Hickman, 2003; Vaughn et al., 2003c) and math (e.g., Fuchs, Fuchs, & Prentice, 2004; Fuchs et. al, 2005), how is RTI successfully implemented for other subjects, such as social sciences? And how can teachers take the initiative to implement this approach if it requires full-school cooperation? However, individual teachers can implement a second tiered approach, as a means of providing differentiated instruction, without outside help.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2005). Education for All: The report of the expert panel on literacy and numeracy instruction for students with special education needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6. Toronto, Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Access at: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/speced/panel/speced.pdf

The first place that teachers should go to learn about The Tiered Approach. To read about Ontario’s approach to RTI, see page 60. Chapter 2, on planning for inclusion, also provides excellent ideas on Tier 1 teaching strategies.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Learning for all: A guide to effective assessment and instruction for all students, Kindergarten to Grade 12 . Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Access at: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/LearningforAll2013.pdf

This document builds upon the work of the earlier Education for All (2005). It includes diagrams and helpful hints at how The Tiered Approach could be adapted for secondary schools.

Kari Draper, Learning Support Teacher at Ottawa-Carlton District School Board  Access at: http://www.scribd.com/Uruz86

Draper provides downloadable documents, charts, and calendars to help classroom teachers monitor the progress of their students when teaching using The Tiered Approach to Interventions in Ontario schools.

The RTI Action Network: A Program of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. http://www.rtinetwork.org/

This provides excellent articles and further ideas on how to implement RTI in a variety of ways. Content is geared towards the American school system, but can easily be adapted to fit the Ontario curriculum.

DeRuvo, S. L. (2010). The essential guide to RTI: An integrated, evidence-based approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Although American, this teacher guide to RTI, part of a teaching series, provides excellent, clear ways to implement RTI in classrooms from Kindergarten to Grade 12. It also has easily photo-copied progress reports, student tracking forms, collaboration planning forms, and lesson plan templates to help teachers easily monitor student progress through the tiered approach.

Best practice for RTI: Differentiated reading instruction for all students (tier 1). Access at: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/30672

This article, from Reading Rockets, provides examples of how teachers might implement RTI when teaching reading in the early grades (1 – 3). Solutions for common “roadblocks” (or problems) are also discussed.

How can tier 3 be conceptualized in the RTI approach? Access at: http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/rti05-tier3/cresource/how-can-tier-3-intervention-be-conceptualized-in-the-rti-approach/rti_tier3_03/#content

Teachers looking for more information on how Tier 3 (Intensive Individual Interventions) might fit into their use of the Tiered Approach to Intervention should check out this resource, which includes an interview with Dr. Lynn Fuchs, one of the preeminent scholars on RtI in the United States. Other pages help to distinguish between possible interventions provided in Tier 2 and 3.

The Tiered Approach to Classroom Tasks and Classroom Assessment (DI)

The tiered approach to classroom tasks and classroom assessment enables the teacher to provide differentiated instruction (DI) within the individual classroom, by offering opportunities for students to work at varying levels on tasks (and the associated assessment) drawn from the curriculum. This approach conforms to many of the common aspects of universal design for learning (UDL) as well as many of the goals set out in Growing Success (2008).

“Tiering” (for tasks and assessment) can come in two forms – student choice and teacher assigned. Student choice, sometimes referred to as challenge by choice, is an approach to assessment whereby teachers create a series of different tasks and accompanying assessments designed to evaluate the same skill or concept – and allow students to choose. Servillo (2009) suggests that choice is a method to motivate reading, especially for students considered at risk or who have LDs in reading. Servillio describes the creation of a reading activity and assessment that involves three difficulty levels of tasks, in two different areas of the curriculum. Students then choose one item from each difficulty level and area of the curriculum. When practicing comprehension and personal connection to a text, the teacher allows students to read the material in three ways; they may read the chapter silently alone, read every other page aloud with a partner, or follow along as they listen to an audio recording of the chapter. This helps students of various reading abilities to acquire and retain the information that is required to complete the next step, namely comprehension and personal connection questions.

Similar choices are given in the subsequent assessment. To show they comprehended the text, students can do one of three tasks: write answers to the questions they asked themselves as they read the chapter, summarize what was read (or heard) in the chapter, or use an advanced organizer to create a timeline of events for the chapter. This allows students of various levels of competence in reading to complete meaningful learning tasks and to demonstrate what they have learned in a way that works for them.

Tiered instruction and assessment can also prove useful in science, where Adams and Pierce (2003) suggest a process of tiered instruction and assessment that could differentiate learning in one of three ways: “content (what you want the students to learn); process (the way students make sense out of the content); or product (the outcome at the end of a lesson, lesson set, or unit—often a project)” (p. 30). Unlike Servillo’s (2009) student-choice model, Adams and Pierce suggest teacher-assigned grouping of various sizes to meet the learning needs of each student. Groups can be formed based on one of three characteristics: readiness level (below, at, or above grade level), learning profile (auditory, visual, or kinesthetic), or student interest. For example, students grouped together due to a low readiness level “might work very concretely by investigating the kinds of objects that a magnet can attract … A tier of students at a more advanced level of readiness, however, might investigate whether the size of a magnet affects its strength, a more abstract concept” (Adams & Pierce, p. 32). To avoid stigma associated with being a member of a lower level group, Adams and Pierce recommend that teachers consistently change the way students are grouped, using all three sets of characteristics laid out above.

There are times when grouping by readiness level is necessary. This is typically seen when teachers need to assign appropriate level texts to students grouped based on reading ability. Selecting more readable, or lower than grade level texts, is a difficult task. As students age, the content and look of texts tend to change as well. For example, when one compares the look of a young adult book to a book for pre-teens, there is an immediate difference in both content and overall look. Books assigned to the low-readiness group can look or sound childish, turning students who already have reading difficulties away from reading. It is important, then, to look for texts that are hi-low, that is, high in interest, and low in readability. ORCA Publishers ( click here to access the ORCA Publishers website ) specializes in such texts; for example, providing texts that have young-adult stories, but are written at a much lower reading level.

Providing students with lower-level texts is not always appropriate, nor necessary. The advancement of assistive technology in the classroom has made it possible for students to read and comprehend grade-level materials. One such device, the ClassMate Reader , is a portable text reader “designed to promote reading and learning independence” (Floyd & Judge, 2012, p. 52). This portable device reads the material aloud while highlighting the individual words and phrases in order for the student to follow along. Studying the effects of the device on student’s reading comprehension, Floyd and Judge found that students were able to increase their average score on a basic comprehension test while using the device. Some students more than tripled their score, with one student going from 20% without the device, to 80% with it. While the ClassMate Reader is a portable handheld device, many boards within Ontario have access to similar programs on their school’s desktop and laptop computers. Computer programs such as Read&Write Gold ( click here to access the Read&Write Gold website ) and Kurzweil ( click here to access the Kurzweil website ) provide the same functions as ClassMate Reader , and often have free trial periods.

Assistive technology can also help increase a student’s reading fluency. READ 180, from Scholastic, Inc., is one of the few assistive technology programs specifically designed for older students, specifically those in Grades 4 – 12. Using a blended classroom environment (part online, part in class) students learn about a variety of topics while reading ebooks (some books are also available as paperbacks as well). Students track difficulties with the software, using text-to-speech programs (like those seen in the previous paragraph) for particularly difficult segments. After reading, the software immediately provides instruction on key concepts or words the student struggled with. The online student dashboard monitors student progress, and outputs it in two ways. For students, it uses “research-based gaming behaviors,” turning the process of reading into a game – students are able to track their “streaks and trophies earned” (Read 180, 2013). Teachers receive student performance data, allowing for targeted interventions on areas individual students need most. It also allows teachers to group students for differentiated instruction, while providing lesson-planning tools. The program is a success, with one school board in the United States seeing “significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension for special education students” (Hasselbring & Bausch, 2005, p. 74). Perhaps the most exciting part about READ 180 are it’s long term effects – Palmer (2003) found that “18 percent of the students in the study no longer required special education services for reading after one year of intervention” (as cited in Hasselbring & Bausch, 2005, p. 74). Although the system is currently based on American Common Core standards, it can still be used in Canada as a powerful monitoring tool.

Concluding Comments on the Tiered Approach to Classroom Tasks and Classroom Assessment (DI)

Carol Tomlinson, a leading expert on differentiation, refers to this tiered approach as forming “the meat and potatoes of differentiated instruction” (Tomlinson, 2009, as cited in Adams & Pierce, 2003, p. 31). Like most differentiated instructional methods, this tiered approach reaches all students within a classroom not just those with LDs. Both elementary and secondary school teachers can use a multi-tiered lesson to teach concepts and skills. Similarly, assessments can be tiered in both panels as well. While there are many examples of this tiered approach to be found in the literature and in usage by thoughtful teachers, there are few rigorous studies.

Adams, C. M., & Pierce, R. L. (2003). Teaching by tiering. Science and Children, 41 (3), 30–34.

A step-by-step guide to creating a tiered lesson, using science as an example curriculum. Available through the National Science Teacher Association website. Click here to access the website.

Servillo, K. R. (2009). You get to choose! Motivating students to read through differentiated instruction. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus 5 (5), 1–11.

Like Adams and Pierce above, this is a step-by-step process to creating a tiered assessment, using reading as a curricular backbone.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

This textbook provides great, easy to read instructions on differentiating in your classroom, with a strong focus on tiering both lessons and assignments.

Agran, M., Brown, F., Huges, C., Quirk, C, & Ryndak, D. (2014). Equity and full participation for individuals with severe learning disabilities: A vision for the future. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Barnes, M. A., & Wade-Woolley, L. (2007). Where there’s a will there are ways to close the achievement gap for children with learning difficulties. Orbit, 37 , 9–13.

Canada. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2005). Education for All: The report of the expert panel on literacy and numeracy instruction for students with special education needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6. Toronto, Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Canada. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2008). Growing Success: Assessment, evaluation, and reporting in Ontario schools. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Canada. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2011). Learning for all: A guide to effective assessment and instruction for all students, Kindergarten to Grade 12. (Draft). Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Cook, B. G., & Tankersley, M. (2013). Research based practices in special education. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Floyd, K. K., & Judge, S. L. (2012). The efficacy of assistive technology on reading comprehension for post-secondary students with learning disabilities. Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits, 8, 48–64.

Fuchs, D., & Deshler, D. D. (2007). What we need to know about responsiveness to intervention (and shouldn’t be afraid to ask). Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22 , 129–136.

Fuchs, L.S., Compton, D.L., Fuchs, D., Paulsen, K., Bryant, J. & Hamlett, C.L. (2005). Responsiveness to intervention: Preventing and identifying mathematics disability. Teaching Exceptional Children, 37 (4), 60-63.

Fuchs, L.S., Fuchs, D., & Prentice, K. (2004). Responsiveness to mathematical problem-solving instruction among students with risk for mathematics disability with and without risk for reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities , 4 , 293-306.

Hasselbring, T. S., & Bausch, M. E. (2005). Assistive technologies for reading: text reader programs, word-prediciton software, and other aids empower youth with learning disabilities. Educational Leadership, 63 (4), 72–75.

Hutchinson, N. (2013). Inclusion of exceptional learning in Canadian schools: A practical handbook for teachers (4th ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson.

Katz, J. (2012). Teaching to diversity: The three-block model of universal design for learning. Winnipeg, MB: Portage & Main Press.

Mastroppieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Hauth, C., & Allen-Bronaugh, D. (2012). Instructional interventions for students with mathematics learning disabilities. In B. Wong & D. L. Butler (Eds.), Learning About Learning Disabilities (4th ed.) (pp. 217–242). London, United Kingdom: Academic Press.

Mattatall, C. (2008, June). Gauging the readiness of Canadian school districts to implement responsiveness to intervention.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, Vancouver, B. C.

National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC:National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Shapiro, E. S. (2014). Tiered instruction and intervention in a response-to-intervention-model . Retrieved from: http://www.rtinetwork.org/essential/tieredinstruction/tiered-instruction-and-intervention-rti-model

Vaugh, S., Linan-Thompson, S., Kouzekanani, K., Bryan, D. P., Sickson, S., & Blozis, S. A. (2003c). Reading instruction grouping for students with reading difficulties. Remedial and Special Education 24 , 301–315.

Vaughn, S. & Fuchs, L. S. (2003a). Redefining learning disabilities as inadequate response to instruction: The promise and potential problems. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18 , 137 – 146.

Vaughn, S., Linan-Thompson, S., & Hickman, P. (2003b). Response to instruction as a means of identifying students with reading/learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 69 , 391–409.

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Nancy L. Hutchinson is a professor of Cognitive Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Her research has focused on teaching students with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as doctoral seminars on social cognition and master’s courses on topics including learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.

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Tiered Assignments

What are tiered assignments.

According to Tomlinson (1995), tiered assignments are used by teachers within a heterogeneous classroom in order to meet the diverse needs of the students within the class. Teachers implement varied levels of activities to ensure that students explore ideas at a level that builds on their prior knowledge and prompts continued growth. Student groups use varied approaches to explore essential ideas.

Williams (2002) offers the following definition on her website: Tiered assignments are parallel tasks at varied levels of complexity, depth and abstractness with various degrees of scaffolding, support, or direction. Students work on different levels of activities, all with the same essential understanding or goal in mind. Tiered assignments accommodate mainly for differences in student readiness and performance levels and allow students to work toward a goal or objective at a level that builds on their prior knowledge and encourages continued growth. 

How can tiered assignments help your students?

Using tiered assignments allows for the following:

  • Blends assessment and instruction,
  • Allows students to begin learning where they are,
  • Allows students to work with appropriately challenging tasks,
  • Allows for reinforcement or extension of concepts and principles based on student readiness,
  • Allows modification of working conditions based on learning style,
  • Avoids work that is anxiety-producing (too hard) or boredom-producing (too easy), and
  • Promotes success and is therefore motivating. (Tomlinson, 1995)

How can you implement tiered assignments in order to effectively meet the diverse learning needs of students?

One of the main benefits of tiered assignments is that they allow students to work on tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult. They are highly motivating because they allow students to be successful at their level of readiness. Tiered assignments also allow students to work in their specific learning styles or preferences (Williams, 2002).

What are the guidelines for implementing tiered assignments?

Tomlinson (1995) offers the following guidelines for implementing tiered assignments:

  • Be sure the task is focused on a key concept.
  • Use a variety of resource materials at differing levels of complexity and associated with different learning modes.
  • Adjust the task by complexity, abstractness, number of steps, concreteness, and independence to ensure appropriate challenge.
  • Be certain there are clear criteria for quality and success.

Where can you find more information about tiered assignments?

Cherokee County Schools This homepage by Eulouise Williams has additional information on tiered assignments including examples of tiered assignments created by teachers in their district.

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12 Effective Tier 1 Instructional Strategies

tiered instruction classroom

Schools are looking for ways to address learning gaps and maximize instructional time in the wake of disrupted learning. An e ffective strategy to do this is through Tier 1 instruction . Tier 1 instruction provides all students with high-quality, initial classroom instruction tied to a guaranteed and viable curriculum powered by research-backed strategies.  Tier 1 instructional strategies are essential to supporting students in the classroom. Teachers must provide high-quality instruction for their students, and building a robust instructional strategy is an excellent place to start.

However, delivering comprehensive Tier 1 instruction can be a tall order, as classrooms have many students with diverse strengths and needs. Not to mention all the other tasks teachers juggle, like grading, classroom management, synthesizing assessment data, building and maintaining student relationships, and much more.  

This article will cover the following questions and essential strategies for providing all students with an equitable learning experience:

  • MTSS: Framework Overview 
  • What is Tier 1 Instruction?
  • 12 Effective Tier 1 Instructional Strategies & Best Practices
  • Bringing it All Together: Tier 1 Instructional Checklist 

MTSS: Framework Overview

Before covering the value of Tier 1 instruction for today’s classrooms, understanding the MTSS Framework is helpful. MTSS stands for a multi-tiered system of supports and is typically displayed as a triangle. 

In this triangle, each layer represents a type of support for students' academic and behavioral needs. 

Tier 1 is the broadest, most universal rung of support in which educators aim to meet the needs of most students school-wide. The level of support grows more personalized as the tiers increase. Tier 2 support identifies at-risk students across various data points, and students placed in Tier 3 are proactively supported by schools with individualized intervention plans for core subjects and behavior. 

Schools use this framework to identify holistic student needs and design data-driven interventions. The belief that schools must support the whole child - academic, behavioral, and social needs - is at the heart of this framework.

What Is Tier 1 Instruction?

As previously mentioned, Tier 1 instruction provides all students with high-quality, initial classroom instruction tied to a guaranteed and viable curriculum powered by research-backed strategies.

Students sitting in desks, working together during Tier 1 Instruction

The Tier 1 instructional programs are typically synonymous with core subjects, including but not limited to reading or math curriculum, and are often aligned with individual state standards. Proactive, evidence-based strategies allow teachers to support student learning and development. 

A robust Tier 1 classroom includes:

  • Standards-aligned coursework
  • Rigorous, reliable assessment 
  • Targeted remediation and enrichment

Additionally, students should be able to accomplish the following:

  • Mastery of key, standards-aligned academic skills
  • Self-regulation 
  • Problem-solving 
  • Effective communication & social skills

Educators design Tier 1 interventions so all students can build these skills - regardless of their learning profile or any challenges they face outside of school. 

Because every student experiences Tier 1 instruction at some point in their academic career, schools must ensure it is of the highest quality. Focusing on robust Tier 1 instruction ensures that most students receive the highest quality instruction on the front end and lessens the number of specialized interventions required.

12 Effective Tier 1 Instructional Strategies & Best Practices 

Below are some strategies teachers can implement to enhance instruction in their classrooms. 

  • Modeling: A strategy that teachers can use frequently. Engage students by demonstrating a skill or concept and then guiding students through applying it. Modeling often involves both visual and verbal cues during instruction.  
  • Collaborative Learning: In this strategy, students work in groups to explore and discuss a topic. Being intentional about which students work together and establishing ground rules for listening to one another are essential for success. The world is collaborative, and offering students opportunities to learn how to collaborate early is vital to their future success.  
  • Inquiry-Based Learning: Student engagement remains a crucial indicator of student success . However, it can be challenging to prompt students to lead the conversation in the classroom. With Inquiry-Based Learning , teachers ask targeted questions to pique students’ interest, allow class time for topic research to promote student-led topic exploration and spark conversation in the classroom.   

Students sitting in desks, working together during Tier 1 Instruction

  • Scaffolding: While differentiated instruction focuses on the student, scaffolding considers the needs of the entire class. It involves providing support to help all learners build on existing knowledge or develop new skills in the planning, designing, and delivering a lesson.  
  • Metacognition: Self-aware individuals reap greater satisfaction in school, relationships, and life. Allowing students to learn and practice the skills needed to be self-aware early is essential. Enter metacognition. Metacognition encourages students to analyze how they think. Educators can foster this self-awareness by providing students with research about how their brains process information (i.e., growth mindset v. fixed mindset) and allowing plenty of opportunities for reflection after completing an assignment or project (i.e., What did I learn from this assignment? Where can I grow? What feelings arose for me while I was trying to solve this problem?).  
  • Technology Integration: It’s no secret that we live in a digital world. The right technology in school prepares students for the world they’ll someday enter as adults. Adaptive technology, for instance, allows educators to differentiate instruction further. Schools should incorporate digital tools where possible, and ideally, these tools should integrate seamlessly with one another to amplify teaching, elevate learning, and intensify impact.   
  • Active Learning: Active learning engages students in hands-on activities to support their understanding and put them at the center of their learning process. Some examples of active learning include reciprocal questioning when introducing a new topic (i.e., describe x in your own words), three-step interviews where students explore a topic by asking each other questions and peer teaching.   
  • Problem-Based Learning: Context is critical. And learning is more engaging when students can explore real-life, complex problems together. Problem-Based Learning, or PBL , can be incorporated into most subjects. Rather than spending classroom time with teachers presenting the key information students need to succeed, PBL introduces a real-world problem and allows students to dissect and discuss it with their peers. Case studies, roleplays, and simulations are effective ways to start with PBL. The emphasis in problem-based learning is on hypothesizing and gaining knowledge through exploring rather than the solution.   
  • Project-Based Learning: Commonly confused with Problem-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning is another collaborative strategy where educators develop extended projects to deepen student understanding. In this strategy, students work together on open-ended assignments with multiple correct solutions. In their teams, they may create solutions that they refine with expert research or rounds of peer review.  
  • Game-Based Learning: Game-based learning , simply put, means using a game’s environment to engage students and help them learn. Game-based learning puts students in an environment where they can experiment. Teachers can use board games and digital gaming environments to allow students to make decisions independently, think critically about how their choices impact outcomes, and learn from failures.   
  • Visual Learning: Using diagrams, images, and videos to support comprehension are just some ways educators can employ visual learning as a strategy in Tier 1 instruction. Collaborative tools like Lucid for Education create a virtual environment for students to draw, design, and brainstorm. KWL charts, Venn Diagrams, and concept maps are other tools that help students visualize what they know, what they are learning, and other abstract concepts.   

Each of these strategies, when implemented mindfully, provides educators with a robust toolkit to elevate Tier 1 instruction and provide students with an engaging learning environment.

Bringing it all Together: Tier 1 Instructional Checklist

In addition to these instructional strategies, there are other ways that teachers can elevate the Tier 1 learning environment. Here’s a Tier 1 instructional checklist to get started:

  • Establish Classroom Rules and Procedures: Develop and communicate clear classroom rules and procedures that students understand and follow consistently. Learning can only happen in environments where students know what to expect. Rules and procedures allow teachers to establish consistency and build a productive learning environment.
  • Teach Positive Behaviors: Teach positive behaviors that promote academic success, such as respect, responsibility, and perseverance.
  • Provide Opportunities for Student Choice : Provide opportunities for student choice and autonomy, which can increase motivation and engagement.
  • Foster Positive Relationships: Develop positive relationships with students, building trust and rapport.
  • Test a Variety of Instructional Strategies: Educators bring unique skill sets to their classrooms. Test out some of the instructional strategies above and continue experimenting until you find the best balance for your classroom.
  • Provide Consistent Feedback: Provide consistent and specific feedback to students about their performance, focusing on areas for improvement and acknowledging progress.
  • Monitor Student Progress & Use Data to Inform Instruction: Monitor student progress regularly and adjust instruction accordingly. Use data to identify areas of student need and modify instruction accordingly.
  • Use Technology Effectively : Use technology effectively to enhance instruction and engage students.
  • Collaborate with Colleagues and Families: Collaborate with fellow teachers and families to support student learning and well-being.

Students sitting in desks, working together during Tier 1 Instruction

Remember, the strategies and checklist provided here are just a starting point, and educators may need to adapt this checklist to fit the needs of their specific students. A good educator knows what their students need and isn’t afraid to adjust materials as required. 

The right digital tools, instructional strategies, and classroom procedures enable educators to deliver enhanced Tier 1 instruction. Learn more about how Prince William County Public Schools improved Tier 1 instruction with an integrated LMS + AMS .

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Tiered Lessons: One Way to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction

This article is about differentiation. Due to the broad range of academic needs among students, teachers find themselves in a dilemma. The Burris Laboratory School outlines how teachers can reach all the students in their classrooms when they are academically diverse, have special needs, are ESL learners or have some combination of any or all of these factors.

Author: Adams, C. & Pierce, R. Publications: Gifted Child Today Publisher: Prufrock Press Volume: Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp. 50-65 Year: 2004

The movement toward inclusion has impacted classrooms by requiring teachers to respond to a broader range of academic needs. How can we possibly reach all the students in our classrooms when they are academically diverse, have special needs, are ESL learners, or have some combination of any or all of these factors? An answer to this question lies in differentiating instruction. Working in the Burris Laboratory School, an inclusion school using a resource consultation model to serve the needs of all its students, we have found that using tiered lessons is a viable method for differentiating instruction.

What is Differentiation?

Although differentiated instruction is not a new idea, the differentiation movement has recently taken center stage as a means of meeting the needs of all students in the classroom. It is an organized, yet flexible way of proactively adjusting teaching and learning to meet students where they are and help all students achieve maximum growth as learners (Tomlinson, 1999). Instruction may be differentiated in content/input, process/sense-making, or product/output according to the students’ readiness, interest, or learning style. By  content , we mean the material that is being presented.  Process  activities help students practice or make sense out of the content, while  product  refers to the outcome of the lesson or unit, such as a test, project, or paper.  Readiness  refers to prior knowledge and a student’s current skill and proficiency with the material presented in the lesson. A student’s interest may be assessed with an interest inventory for the particular topic being studied or by an individual conversation with the student. Many teachers use the theory of multiple intelligences to characterize learning styles (Armstrong, 1994; Gardner, 1993; Martin, 1996).

Essential elements for successful differentiation include specific classroom management techniques addressing the special needs of a differentiated classroom, planned use of anchoring activities, and flexible use of time, space, and student groups. In a differentiated classroom, the management plan must include rules for working in a variety of configurations. You can only work with one group or individual at a time. Therefore, we have developed two critical rules that thwart chaos and preserve sanity. The first is “Use six-inch voices,” meaning that students should modulate their speaking level so that their voices can only be heard six inches away. The second rule is “Ask three before me.” If students need assistance completing a task or come to a stumbling block in a lesson and you are not available, they should find three other students to ask before they may interrupt you. If their three peers cannot answer the question, the student has permission to interrupt you. Adding the caveat that the student should also bring along the three students who were asked will nearly eliminate the chance that you will be interrupted except in extreme cases. Anchoring or “sponge” activities are provided for students to use when they are waiting for you to assist them before they can go any further or at the beginning of the class period to get them ready to work. A wide variety of materials and resources can serve as anchoring activities (see our  website  for a listing of books that have great activities for anchoring). Flexible grouping arrangements such as pairs, triads, or quads, as well as whole-group and small-group instruction, create opportunities to meet individual needs. A flexible use of time allows lessons to proceed to their natural conclusion, rather than being carried out in set blocks of time. The desks or tables should be arranged in such a way as to facilitate group work, as well as wholeclass groupings that encourage sharing of ideas.

A variety of instructional strategies, including compacting, learning contracts, cubing, and tiered lessons, can be used to differentiate instruction (for a discussion of these and other strategies, see Gregory & Chapman, 2002; Heacox, 2002; Smutney, Walker, & Meckstroth, 1997; Tomlinson, 1999; Winebrenner, 1992). It makes sense to alert your administration and the parents that you will be trying some new strategies in the classroom in case there are questions.

The tenets of differentiated instruction support both the Equity Principle and the Teaching Principle of the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000). These principles direct us to select and adapt content and curricula to meet the interests, abilities, and learning styles of our students; to recognize our students’ diversity; and to encourage them to reach their full potential in mathematics.

tiered instruction classroom

What is a Tiered Lesson?

Tomlinson (1999) described tiered lessons as “the meat and potatoes of differentiated instruction.” A tiered lesson is a differentiation strategy that addresses a particular standard, key concept, and generalization, but allows several pathways for students to arrive at an understanding of these components based on their interests, readiness, or learning profiles. A lesson tiered by readiness level implies that the teacher has a good understanding of the students’ ability levels with respect to the lesson and has designed the tiers to meet those needs. Think of a wedding cake with tiers of varying sizes. Many examples of lessons tiered in readiness have three tiers: below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. There is no rule that states there may only be three tiers, however. The number of tiers we use will depend on the range of ability levels in your own classroom since you are forming tiers based on your assessment of your students’ abilities to handle the material particular to this lesson. Students are regrouped the next time you use tiering as a strategy. Hence, the idea of flexible, rather than static, groups is essential.

No matter how you choose to differentiate the lesson—readiness, interest, or learning profile—the number of groups per tier will vary, as will the number of students per tier. You are not looking to form groups of equal size. When you form groups based on the readiness needs of individual students, Tier I may have two groups of three students, Tier II five groups of four students, and Tier III may have one group of two students. When the lesson is tiered by interest or learning profile, the same guidelines apply for forming groups: Different tiers may have varying numbers of students. Even when students are already homogeneously grouped in classes by ability, there is still variance in their ability levels that must be addressed.

To take a closer look at the anatomy of a tiered lesson, we have included a mathematics lesson (see Figure 1) that was developed as part of the Javits Grant, Project GATE, a federally funded partnership between the Indianapolis Public Schools and Ball State University, both in Indiana. When developing a tiered lesson, we have found the eight steps described below useful.

  • First, identify the grade level and subject for which you will write the lesson.  In this case, the grade level is first and the subject is mathematics.
  • Second, identify the standard (national, state, district, etc.) you are targeting.  A common mistake for those just beginning to tier is to develop three great activities and then try to force-fit them into a tiered lesson. Start with the standard first. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know if you get there? The author of this lesson has selected the Content Standard “Number and Operations” of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ (2000)  Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (pp. 78–88).
  • Third, identify the key concept and generalization.  The key concept follows from the standard. Ask yourself, “What big idea am I targeting?” In this example, it is to understand and represent commonly used fractions. While there are many concepts that could be covered under the standard chosen, this lesson addresses only one. The generalization follows from the concept chosen. Ask, “What do I want the students to know at the end of the lesson, regardless of their placement in the tiers?” In this lesson, all students will develop their understanding of fractions as representing parts of a whole.
  • Fourth, be sure students have the background necessary to be successful in the lesson.  What scaffolding is necessary? What must you have already covered or what must the student have already learned? Are there other skills that must be taught first? Before engaging in this lesson, students have been exposed to halves and thirds. Fractions (halves/ thirds) have been introduced to the students, and they have illustrated them with pictures. There are several literature books that illustrate fractional parts using food that could be used to introduce the lesson.
  • Fifth, determine in which part of the lesson (content, process, product) you will tier.  You may choose to tier the content (what you want the students to learn), the process (the way students make sense out of the content), or the product (the outcome at the end of a lesson, lesson set, or unit—often a project). When beginning to tier, we suggest that you only tier one of these three. Once you are comfortable with tiering, you might try to tier more than one part in the same lesson. This lesson is tiered in content.
  • Sixth, determine the type of tiering you will do: readiness, interest, or learning profile.  Readiness is based on the ability levels of the students. Giving a pretest is a good way to assess readiness. Students’ interest in a topic is generally gauged through an interest survey, while the learning profile may be determined through various learning style inventories. In this lesson, the author chose readiness.
  • Seventh, 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. If you choose to tier in interest or learning profile, you may control the number of tiers by limiting choices or using only a few different learning styles. For example, tiering on all eight of Gardner’s multiple intelligences in one lesson may not be a good place to start, so choose only a few, such as logical-mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, and linguistic intelligence. (For further information on multiple intelligences in an easy-tounderstand format, see Wahl, 1997). For this lesson, students are placed in one of three tiers based on their ability to work with halves and thirds as assessed by the teacher through observation.Differentiation means doing something different—qualitatively different. Make sure you keep this in mind when tiering the lessons. Second, be sure that students are doing challenging, respectful, and developmentally appropriate work within each tier. In other words, no group should be given “busywork.” We don’t want one group doing blackline practice sheets and another doing a fabulous experiment.Notice in this lesson that all three tiers are working on fractions. Students in each tier use paper shapes to divide. However, the activities for each tier in the sample lesson, beginning in Tier I and moving through Tier III, differ from concrete to abstract and from simple to complex, to use Tomlinson’s Equalizer word pairs (Tomlinson, 1999).
  • Finally, develop the assessment component to the lesson.  The assessment can be formative, summative, or a combination of both. You may use some means of recording observations of the various groups, such as flip cards or sticky notes. You could develop a rubric for each tier based on the particular product that is created. You may give a formal paperand- pencil test. Whatever it is, choose your assessment based on your needs and your lesson design.In this lesson, the teacher observes the students as they share their answers and jots down notes for a formative assessment of each student. For example, which child is struggling with the concept? Which child is moving rapidly and accurately through the material? Whose answers show more thought and insight? Answers to these and other questions will assist you in determining who needs reteaching and who is ready to go beyond the material presented. A formal assessment is not used here since the standards emphasize that students should have “informal experiences [with fractions] at this age to help develop a foundation for deeper learning in the higher grades” (NCTM, 2000, p. 83).

When this lesson was taught, the students were engaged during the entire lesson. The lesson was introduced by reading the book  Eating Fractions  (McMillan, 1991). Students were placed in groups based on their level of readiness to interact with the content. Four students did not have a clear understanding of halves and fourths. These students needed a more concrete activity and were placed in Tier I. Another 12 students could recognize halves and thirds and were ready to complete the Tier II activity. They were placed in four triads. Two students had in-depth knowledge of halves and thirds and were placed in Tier III. This pair worked at a more abstract level, and the questions they were asked required them to use different critical thinking skills than the other two groups. Tier I and Tier II students were provided with activities from the book  Fractions  (Watt, 2001) to use as anchoring activities if they finished early or were waiting for the teacher’s assistance. The anchor for Tier III students was  Apple Fractions  (Pallotta, 2002), which introduced fifths through tenths.

The second sample lesson (see Figure 2) is tiered in process according to learning style. In this case, students are grouped heterogeneously based on one of two learning preferences: kinesthetic or visual. The same eight steps for tiering a lesson apply in this case. In the second lesson, notice that the activities are at relatively the same level of complexity. This would be the “layer cake” model as opposed to the “wedding cake” model used when tiering according to readiness.

Final Thoughts

Time, energy, and patience are required to learn to differentiate instruction effectively in an academically diverse classroom. In addition, you need administrative and peer support, as well as professional development over extended periods of time; therefore, don’t expect to have a differentiated classroom by Monday morning. Start small: Choose a favorite lesson in your next unit and differentiate it according to the needs of your students. Seek the expertise of specialists such as special and gifted education coordinators, media specialists, and others with whom you can collaborate to improve instruction in the academically diverse classroom.

For more information on tiering, contact the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development, Ball State University (BSU)  https://www.bsu.edu/academics/centersandinstitutes/giftedstudies .

Author Note

Research for this article was supported under the Javits Act Program (Grant R206A980067) as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. Grantees undertaking such projects are encouraged to express freely their professional judgment. This article, therefore, does not necessarily represent positions or policies of the government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

tiered instruction classroom

Armstrong, T. (1994). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory and practice. New York: BasicBooks.

Gregory, G. H., & Chapman, C. (2002). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn’t fit all. Thousand Oakes, CA: Corwin Press.

Heacox, D. (2002). Differentiating instruction in the regular classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Martin, H. (1996). Multiple intelligences in the mathematics classroom. Palatine, IL: IRI/SkyLight.

McMillan, B. (1991). Eating fractions. New York: Scholastic. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

Pallotta, J. (2002). Apple fractions. New York: Scholastic.

Smutney, J., Walker, S., & Meckstroth, E. (1997). Teaching young gifted children in the regular classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Wahl, M. (1997). Math for humans.

Langley, WA: LivnLern Press.

Watt, F. ( 2001). Fractions. New York: Scholastic.

Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Disclaimer : The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute’s Resource Library does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational and archival purposes only. The Davidson Institute bears no responsibility for the content of republished material. Please note the date, author, and publisher information available if you wish to make further inquiries about any republished materials in our Resource Library.

Permission Statement

This article is reprinted with permission of  Prufrock Press, Inc.

This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit  www.DavidsonGifted.org .

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Classroom Q&A

With larry ferlazzo.

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to [email protected]. Read more from this blog.

What Should Anti-Bias Literacy Instruction Look Like in the Classroom?

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Tricia Ebarvia, educator, author, consultant, has a new book out: Get Free: Antibias Literacy Instruction for Stronger Readers, Writers, and Thinkers . A DEI expert, Tricia spent some time talking about the book for my blog.

LF: How would you summarize the purpose of your book and the potential value K-12 teachers would find in it?

Tricia Ebarvia:

For me, the purpose of Get Free is to help educators learn how to create liberatory spaces in their classrooms—spaces where kids and teachers can bring and become their authentic and best selves, and where they think deeply about the perspectives of others and can effect positive change.

I think most teachers would agree that schools aren’t just places that get kids “ready” for the real world; they can and should also be places where kids can learn how to make the world better than it is now. To do this, of course, students need to be strong readers, writers, and thinkers, and this work is not separate from—and in fact, I argue they are inherently tied to—anti-bias literacy skills. We face so many challenges today as a society. Helping students to understand the role of bias in themselves, in others, and in the misinformation and disinformation we see in the media is critical.

My hope is that my book might offer teachers a pathway forward in embedding anti-bias literacy skills into the daily work of reading, writing, and thinking we already do in our classrooms. My own practice, and the book, builds on the scholarship of social-justice educators, and teachers who pick up my book will find lots of practical strategies and shifts that they can try out in their classrooms with the intentionality and care we know makes good practice.

The book begins with some invitations for self-reflection as we unpack the biases we might have as educators. After that, I spend the next chapters exploring how to create brave spaces rooted in community and ways to affirm the many beautiful identities that students bring with them to class.

The second half of the book has lots of strategies for holding space for potentially difficult conversations and expanding and deepening students’ critical-reading skills. I hope that this is a book that teachers can read and learn from but also continue to reach for throughout their career. Teaching is hard, and I hope teachers can find a supportive thought partner in the words on these pages.

LF: I was struck near the beginning of the book how you discussed “biases” and several of them that teachers in particular should be aware of. Can you elaborate on a few of them? [Editor’s Note: See a chart from Tricia’s book below.]

That chapter could have been an entire book by itself, and there were many more biases that I could have written about! One of the central premises of that chapter—and really, of the entire book—is that we all have biases, and that for the most part, these biases are neither good nor bad. But when we don’t take the time to reflect on how these biases inform our thinking, we leave ourselves acting in ways that might harm students, even if unintentionally. I actually teach students about biases as part of our own critical-thinking work, and it struck me how many of these play a role in teaching.

For example, one of the biases I discuss is the nostalgia bias, which is our tendency to romanticize the past. Unfortunately, this bias not only creates an inaccurate assessment of our past students, but it also prevents us from fully appreciating the kids who are sitting in front of us in the present, who may bring different but equally valuable skills and knowledge into our classrooms.

Or consider the anchoring bias, which happens when we allow initial information we might learn about a student to inform, often unfairly, our judgment of them. Over the years, before the school year would begin, I’d have colleagues who, with good intentions, share both positive (“That student is such a great writer!”) and negative (“Watch out for that student …”) feedback about my students even before I’d met them. We know first impressions matter, but when we anchor our expectations of students based on these first impressions, we may inadvertently limit our understanding of what students can and can’t do. And of course, all these biases—and the potentially damaging impact they can have—can be even more pronounced for students of color because of the way stereotypes aggravate these biases.

As I said, biases are natural; we’re often acting on them without even realizing it. But when we slow down our thinking and become better aware of how these biases may be impacting our interactions and relationships with kids, the better able we are to disrupt these harmful impacts.

Get Free Figure 1.1

From “Get Free” - Reprinted With Permission

LF: One of the many reasons I liked Get Free was because of the numerous practical examples you provide, including images from the classroom. This is probably an unfair question, but can you share three or four suggestions from the book that you think teachers can apply now near the beginning of the school year?

My own favorite professional books are the ones that both provoke my thinking about my practices and also provide strategies that I can use immediately in the classroom. I tried to fill Get Free with lots of practical tips for teachers. One thing that I think that’s really important for teachers to remember is that supporting students in exploring their multiple and complex identities isn’t something that’s just for the beginning of the school year when they’re getting to know you and their classmates. Better understanding themselves and each other is work that has to be done intentionally throughout the school year, and so I include lots of notebook-writing prompts to use and build upon as the year goes on.

One of my favorite tools is using the Courageous Conversations Compass. I adapted Glenn Singleton’s tool in my classroom, and it is often the “go-to” protocol that I use with students, especially when we’re processing more difficult topics. And speaking of conversation, Chapter 4 includes more than 20 strategies and structures for discussion that help students better listen and understand perspectives that they might not have considered before. Overall, I think one of the most effective instructional moves teachers can make in the beginning of the year is to introduce students to strategies and protocols that they can use to explore themselves and then apply these same strategies and protocols to the characters they read in their novels and the arguments they analyze in their readings.

For example, one protocol I like to use is Who is Centered? Who is Marginalized? and Who is Missing? or C-M-M. I first ask students to reflect on their own relationships: Which people are at the center of their lives? Who do they feel most connected and obligated to? Who might be in the margins of their relationships? And who—people or groups—might be missing in their lives, for any number of reasons? They can then apply this framework to the characters they read in their books or the perspectives centered, marginalized, or missing in the arguments they analyze.

LF: As you point out in the book, many educators work in states where laws and organizations might be hostile to some (though, obviously, not all) of the practices you recommend. What specific advice do you have for teachers in those communities?

I think it’s a really hard time to be an anti-bias, anti-racist educator right now. I know what educators are going through and have had to navigate resistance, and even hostility, from some colleagues, administrators, parents—and sometimes even kids. And yet, it’s also a time when it’s critical to embody an anti-bias, anti-racist stance.

First and foremost, I think the work of justice is about organizing and collaborating. It’s about finding the colleagues in your department or school who believe, as you do, that schools can and should be places where students’ diverse identities can be honored and where students can be their authentic and best selves. Find your people. Sometimes, it’s the teachers in the classroom next door, but sometimes, it’s teachers across the country. I’ve been fortunate to have both in my career.

One thing that the pandemic has taught us is that we can have really excellent professional development online—look for opportunities to connect with other teachers who can offer support. The status quo and oppressive systems continue because often those who are most marginalized in those systems are isolated from one another. Find your people. I promise they are out there.

I would encourage teachers to do as much as they can given the context they’re in. Talk with colleagues, families, and students. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn what next steps you might take. For some teachers, that might mean changing out a poem, article, or short story. For other teachers, they might be able to change a major novel. Small steps can sometimes feel too small, but those small steps still matter. And as exhausting as teaching already is, the thing that’s going to sustain teachers in the short and long term are the relationships we build with students and colleagues. Fill your bucket with those deep and rich relationships.


LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

The last words I wrote for the book are in the epilogue, and I’d like to share them here because they express my deepest wish for readers of the book and for all teachers:

Teachers know about love. When we teach with love, we see each of our kids with the respect and compassion, complexity and messiness that makes them human. When we teach with love, we lead with grace and openness and hope. When we teach with love, we know that our liberation is bound in each other. If you’re reading this book, I hope that it may encourage you to love fiercely even on days when our grief about the world, when people or systems let us down, seems unbearable.

Perhaps especially on those days.

Because the list of things to fight for is everlasting.

LF: Thanks, Tricia!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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Should religion be taken out of the classroom? Rob Sadlier vs Jen Hogan

Children have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction, yet in many schools, it’s not easy to opt out.

The Debate

Rob Sadlier: Parents who complain to the Department of Education are advised that it is for each individual school to decide how it facilitates the right not to attend religious instruction

Rob Sadlier: Yes. Our education system is not one befitting a modern, pluralistic republic

If we were to design a school system from scratch today, it might be one in which the State would not sponsor religious indoctrination of any kind. This would be in keeping with the principle of separation of church and state. But, when it comes to our school system, we have entanglement of church and state.

Ireland’s national school system, established by the Stanley Letter in 1831, envisaged a multidenominational model. Religious instruction was to be permitted “either before or after the ordinary school hours”. “Even the suspicion of proselytism” was to be “banished”. Over time, the system became a denominational one, monopolised by religious bodies.

In Ireland, the State effectively outsources its constitutional obligation to “provide for” primary education to “patrons”, around 95 per cent of which are religious, and around 90 per cent of which are Catholic. This is an aberration.

Children have a constitutional right “to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”, but this right is systemically breached. Children who “opt out” of timetabled religious instruction – which usually occurs in the middle of the school day – typically must remain in the classroom, where they still attend, and therefore still absorb, said religious instruction in breach of their constitutional right. Children have reported that they have experienced distress as a result. Given the demographic changes in Irish society, the number of children seeking not to attend religious instruction can only be expected to rise.

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Why does the Government not want the €13bn in back taxes from Apple?

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Unionists are counting on Sinn Féin proving a fiasco in office and damaging republican project

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Mi Casa, Smithfield: Tapas and a fun vibe in the second-coolest neighbourhood in the world

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Munster win the race to sign Irish-qualified Crusaders prop Oli Jager

The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 introduced a requirement for schools’ admission policies to provide details of arrangements they offer to students who do not want to attend religious instruction. Many schools do not do this. Instead, their admission policies typically direct parents to make an appointment with the school principal to discuss the matter.

Parents who complain to the Department of Education are advised that it is for each individual school to decide how it facilitates the right not to attend religious instruction. This ignores the fact that schools do not facilitate a real and effective opt-out from religious instruction at all, that this is a clear breach of a constitutional right, and that the State funds this system. Despite spending billions of euro annually on this system, the State completely fails in its responsibility to ensure that the constitutional right of children not to attend religious instruction is protected. When parents complain to schools on this issue, they are usually advised that they do not have the resources to provide a real and effective opt-out. And who provides the resources? The Department of Education.

The group I represent, Education Equality, has procured a legal opinion which states that where a child opts out of attending religious instruction, that child is expressly excused from attending the classroom.

On top of religious instruction, religious schools – which, remember, comprise around 95 per cent of publicly-funded schools – practise the “integrated curriculum”, whereby “faith formation” permeates the entire school day. It is impossible for children to opt-out of these more subtle forms of indoctrination. These are not abstract issues. They are very real for the children and parents affected.

“Build your own schools” is a common refrain from advocates of denominational education, but even if more non or multi-denominational schools were built, children attending denominational schools would still have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction.

The divestment/reconfiguration process is a lame duck. The target of 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 is a fantasy. Just one school was transferred to a multi-denominational patron in 2022. Even if a future government were to achieve the 400 target, it would only amount to around 13 per cent of primary schools.

Our education system is not one befitting the modern, pluralistic republic that Ireland is. It needs to change. Moving religious instruction to outside core school hours on an opt-in basis in all state-funded schools would be a good start. This simple step would vindicate children’s constitutional right not to attend religious instruction, while still making it available to children who wanted to receive it.

Rob Sadlier is a father, solicitor and Human Rights Officer with Education Equality, a voluntary parent-led human rights advocacy group which aims to promote equality in the Irish education system, regardless of religion.

Jen Hogan: No. Call me a ‘bouncy castle Catholic’, but I appreciate the values religion offers my children

I suffer from Catholic guilt. Not in the way you might expect from someone who makes a statement like that, but rather in an ‘I feel guilty about being Catholic’, kind of way. I’m what’s often referred to as an a la carte Catholic - even a “bouncy castle Catholic” by those who are particularly dismissive. But that is about as much as I can manage. I can’t reconcile who I am with the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage, divorce, women, or its cruel and shameful past. So I pick and choose what I take from it and actively tell my children that the church is completely wrong in some of its teachings. I go to Mass on special occasions only. Us a la carte Catholics come in for a lot of criticism. The demand is that we should each be all or nothing. Yet I suspect a significant portion of the 69 per cent of people who identified as Catholic in the most recent census probably fall into the a la carte category.

My own children attend Catholic schools. That wasn’t a conscious decision; they’re the local schools. They will make, or have made, their Communion and Confirmations. They do religious instruction up to sixth year, although as they get older, it’s more like pastoral care. Separately, learning about religions of the world is a compulsory subject for Junior Cycle. Preparation for the sacraments only recently came out of the classroom and was taken over by the parish, meaning parents have to do the preparation themselves. I was in favour of this, because I felt it meant that no child would feel excluded, even though on a personal level, it suited me when the sacraments used to take place within school. However, I could never be okay with something that excludes some children.

Still, I’m not convinced the calls for religious instruction to be completely removed from schools are echoed by parents as a whole. And I don’t believe the majority of parents opt for their children to receive the sacraments out of a sense of obligation; in many cases, I think the parents are making an active choice.

When our school stopped doing preparation for the sacraments, it gave us a clear insight into just how much the teachers were doing for us – something that is both a bonus and a difficulty. Now, while I’m glad no child is left out, there is not the same sense of connection and even warmth when preparation for the sacraments was part of our schools. And the word in the pews is lots of parents aren’t particularly keen on the new arrangement. “I think they’re trying to convince us not to go ahead with Communion,” one parent said, following a presentation for parents that appeared to suggest an all-or-nothing approach to Catholicism.

In spite of having to do the preparation ourselves, the majority of parents are still going ahead with the sacraments. Curious, I asked parents on social media what they thought about religious instruction happening in schools. Plenty felt it was time for religion to go, but equally, there were lots who wanted it to stay. Some said they’d chosen Catholic schools very deliberately for their children to have a Catholic religious education. Others explained that even though they weren’t particularly religious themselves, they liked the messages of kindness, love and tolerance that they said their children learned during religion class. There was a lot of nuance in the responses. Many of the same people who said they’d prefer religion to remain within the school repeatedly expressed a difficulty with the idea of confession and sinning children. Things were far from perfect in their eyes, but still their preference was for the status quo. If we could find a way to include religious instruction within the classroom that didn’t lead to the exclusion of some, I believe the majority would like it to continue.

As my children progress through the school system, they’re also learning about different religions. In a world where religion sadly divides almost as much as it unites communities, these are important lessons in understanding and tolerance.

Jen Hogan is an Irish Times parenting columnist


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