When teachers differentiate process, they teach the same concept or skill to each student; however, the manner in which each student makes sense of the topic or skill can vary. Therefore, teachers should vary the activities students use to master the concepts or skills. They can decide how best to do this by taking into account their students’ readiness levels, interests, or learning profiles. Teachers can break the students into groups or pairs to work on different activities or might assign individual tasks. The table below suggests several strategies for differentiating process. Click on each link for detailed information about implementing these strategies.
When teachers tier content, all students complete the same activity (e.g., a worksheet, report), but the content varies in difficulty. When teachers tier process, the activities by which the students learn information vary in complexity.
One way to differentiate process for heterogeneous classrooms is to design tiered lessons. When teachers tier a lesson, they design instructional tasks that are challenging for students at different levels of readiness: low, middle, and high levels. Although the students should master the same content or core skills, the means by which they do so vary. The activities assigned to the low, middle, and high groups often differ in complexity, depth of information, or level of abstraction.
Before tiering a lesson on a particular skill or topic area, the teacher should preassess the students. She should then use that information to help assign students to each of the readiness levels and to begin designing the lesson.
Consider your students’ range of knowledge on the topic or about the skill, their prior knowledge, and their reading levels. Also keep in mind your students’ interests and learning profiles.
Create an activity that is challenging, engaging, and targets the topic or skill.
Some teachers prefer to begin with the middle group and then design activities for students who are struggling and those who are more advanced. Others prefer to design an activity that is challenging for the advanced learners and modify for the average and struggling learners to ensure that high standards are maintained for each group. The table below outlines features for a tiered lesson with three groups that target struggling, average, and advanced learners.
Group 1: Students who are struggling with a topic
Requires less difficult independent reading.
Has materials based on the average reading level of the participants, which is usually below grade level.
Has spare text and lots of graphic aids.
Has a low level of abstraction (i.e., is as concrete as possible).
Requires fewer steps to complete the assignment
Converges on “right answers” to solve problems.
Requires only knowledge and comprehension levels of thinking for independent work.
Includes supportive strategies, such as graphic organizers or teacher prompting to help students infer and draw conclusions. (i.e., use higher level thinking skills)
Group 2: Average learners
Includes independent reading materials from the textbook or other on-grade level sources.
Uses concrete concepts to help students transition to more abstract concepts.
Includes questions or problems that are a mix of open-ended and “right answers.”
Can have more steps.
Expects students to infer and draw conclusions with less teacher support. Teacher should count on being on hand if necessary to prompt students in this area.
Ensures that students can be successful with knowledge, comprehension, and application on their own, and that with help they can address some of the high levels of thinking
Group 3: Advanced or gifted learners
Includes reading materials from sources more complex than the textbook, if possible.
Requires more lengthy sources because students can read faster than lower or average students.
Focuses on abstract concepts as much as possible and uses open-ended questions exclusively.
Requires students to infer and evaluate.
Assumes students have knowledge, comprehension, and application abilities, and that they will be challenged only if you ask them to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.
Adapted from Spencer Northey, S. (2005). Handbook on Differentiated Instruction for Middle and High Schools. Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education, p. 76
Below is an example of a lesson that is tiered in process (according to readiness). Note how each group is working on different tasks even though all students are working on the same key concept.
Language Arts–Fourth Grade
Key Concept: Reading books with chapters to show how ideas are advanced. Lesson: Chapters 3 and 4 of the book Help, I’m a Prisoner in the Library (students have previously read chapters 1 and 2.)
This group will work on knowledge/ comprehension tasks for chapters 3 and 4.
Where does Mary Rose find the phone?
Which sister has the bigger imagination? How does she picture the librarian in her mind? Find the passage on p. 23 that describes her idea of the librarian and write down the descriptive words.
What is a blizzard?
(Note: For illustrative purposes, only 3 of 10 questions have been listed.)
Now draw a picture of some part of chapters 3 and 4 that you think is the scariest.
This group will work at the analysis level to study the events in chapters 3 and 4.
Make two lists, one with Mary Rose at the top and one with Jo-Beth at the top. Under each girl, list things about her that you find in these chapters.
Now create a Venn diagram in which you draw two circles with a part of each circle joining the other circle. In the joined section, put words that show things that are the same for both girls. In the part of the circles that is not shared, put your words from each of your lists about the girls.
Explain your circle diagram to the class.
Share with the class your descriptions in your Venn diagrams.
This group will work on synthesis/ evaluation tasks for chapters 3 and 4.
Tell the story from the point of view of the Mynah bird. Go back through chapters 3 and 4 and first list all the things the Mynah bird sees and says. Then write these chapters from its point of view.
Or—Think about all the scary things that happen in chapters 3 and 4. List them in order from least scary to most scary telling why each item is scary.
Share your work with the class during sharing time.
Adapted from http://www.doe.in.gov/exceptional/gt/tiered_curriculum/languagearts/la4r.htm
A learning center is a defined area of the classroom organized around a topic, theme, or activity in which students learn, practice, or build on a concept or skill. Learning centers, most often used in elementary classrooms, are an effective way for teachers to offer a range of activities that can target students’ readiness levels, interests, or learning profiles. The center should contain the instructions and the materials that students will need to complete the activity. If the teacher is using the center to differentiate by readiness level, it is helpful to color-code the materials. Although students can work in small groups or pairs to complete a learning center activity, they often complete these activities independently.
This is an example of a learning center based on readiness level (struggling students, red folders; average students, orange folders; advanced students, green folders).
Theme: Metamorphosis Unit of Study: Insects Materials: Plastic models of each stage of the butterfly’s life cycle, pictures of all stages of the life cycle, poster of different caterpillars and the corresponding butterflies, books about the butterfly’s life cycle, a bug box containing several caterpillars.
Activity: Using the table provided, describe each stage of the life cycle (what it looks like, what butterflies eat during each, number of days in stage)
Activity: Create a table and record three characteristics for each stage of the butterfly’s life cycle
Activity: Create a table and record five characteristics for each stage of the butterfly’s life cycle. In addition, do this for the life cycle of a frog. Compare and contrast.
Students find learning centers more engaging if they are decorated with items that relate to the topic of the activity. For example, during a history unit on the Pilgrims, the learning center might contain a trunk of period clothing and be decorated to represent the deck of the Mayflower.
In addition to learning centers, learning stations and interest centers offer students opportunities to acquire information about a topic or skill.
Learning stations are areas of the classroom organized around a topic, theme, or skill. They can target students’ readiness levels, interests, or learning profiles. The teacher creates several stations that cover portions of the material. To learn about the topic, students must complete the activities at each station. For example, during a unit on weather, the teacher might create four learning stations: temperature, atmospheric pressure, clouds, and the water cycle.
Interest centers are a type of learning center. They provide an opportunity for students to acquire in-depth knowledge about a topic of interest. Unlike in traditional learning centers, students are not required to complete the activities in the center but can choose to visit the center when time allows. The topic might or might not be related to the unit of study. For example, when teaching about metamorphosis using the life cycle of the butterfly, the teacher might also create an interest center focusing on the life cycle of the frog so that students can delve deeper into the topic.
An interactive journal, sometimes referred to as a dialogue journal, is a notebook in which the student and teacher communicate through writing. The teacher can differentiate instruction by varying the journal prompts for different groups of students based on interests or readiness level. The teacher should introduce journaling as an in-class activity. He or she can allow students up to ten minutes at the beginning or end of class once or twice per week to complete an entry. When students understand the procedures for completing a journal entry, the teacher might assign this activity as homework. After the students complete their entries, the teacher should read them and respond in a timely manner. Because this activity is meant to encourage students to write openly, the teacher should not correct grammar, spelling, or content. Instead, the teacher should model good writing. Below is an example.
When you told me about yourself, you said that last year you visited Spain with your family. That is wonderful! I want to know more about it. Why did you go and how long were you there? What did you see and what was your favorite part of the trip? What was the food like?
I went to Spain with my family last year. It was a vacation, we were there for two weeks. My mother speaks spanish. I saw Alcazar, a castle in Sevil that is really old. There were other castles too. I learned that Spain was once conquerred by the Moors, who were north Africans. My favorite part of the trip was the beach and swimming. Me and my sisters rode horses too. The food in Spain was really, really good. I liked patatas bravas, which is kind of like French fries. I liked the fish too but not chiperones. It is squid.
By staggering the reading of student journals across several days, teachers give themselves more time to respond thoughtfully.
For Your Information
Teachers can use journals as a form of ongoing assessment. By reading a student’s journal entry, the teacher can determine his or her depth of understanding and identify gaps in his or her knowledge.
A graphic organizer, sometimes called a web or concept map, can be a diagram, outline, or chart on which students arrange information. By using graphic organizers, students can:
Gather important information
More easily process information
See relationships between ideas
More easily understand, remember, and apply information
As a general rule, graphic organizers should be simple in nature. To maximize differentiation, the teacher should be very flexible when using graphic organizers. The teacher can do this by:
Allowing students to choose the type of graphic organizer to use
Allowing students to choose how to complete the organizer (e.g., with text, with illustrations, in home language)
Filling in some, a little, or none of the graphic organizer for students at different levels
Providing direct access to the information needed to complete the organizer versus asking students to research the information independently
Providing a graphic organizer that requires basic information instead of very detailed information
To learn more about different types of graphic organizers, see the table below.
An organizer that helps students understand what information two topics have in common, as well as what is unique to each.
An organizer that helps students learn about new concepts. The new word is written in the middle and the student fills in the remaining boxes.
An organizer to determine what students know about a topic, what they want to learn, and what they have learned. The first two columns are filled in before reading the material and the last column is filled in as the student progresses through the unit (e.g., added to column at the end of each day) or at the end of the unit.
An organizer that helps students describe a process or other sequential information.
An organizer that helps students describe a process or other sequential information. An organizer that helps students gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of a word.
The word is written in the center and synonyms, antonyms, and examples are written in shapes that surround the center word.
An organizer that helps students understand hierarchical relationships.
Jigsaw is a cooperative learning strategy in which the class is divided into small groups consisting of five to six students. These small groups serve as the students’ home base. Each member of the home-base group is assigned to an “expert” group to learn a portion of the content. After the students meet in their expert group and learn their specified content, they return to their home-base groups to share what they have learned with the other group members. This strategy allows everyone in the class to learn all the content relevant to the subject, as opposed to just the piece they were responsible for. The jigsaw strategy can be implemented during one class period or across a number of class periods, depending on the depth or complexity of the content or skill being learned.
Create small heterogeneous groups of five to six students (i.e., home-base groups).
Assign one student per group to be the leader.
Divide the lesson into sections. The number of sections will depend on how many students are in the groups.
Assign one student from each group to learn a section of the lesson. Teachers can assign students based on readiness or interest.
Allow students time to study the content for the section they have been assigned.
Direct students to meet with students from other groups who have been assigned the same section of the lesson (i.e., “expert” groups). Give students time to learn the content and to practice how they will present this information to their home-base groups.
Instruct students to return to their home-base groups.
Provide time for each student in the home-base group to report their findings. Also encourage group members to ask questions of the presenter for greater understanding and clarification. (Note: The leader will be responsible for making sure that each member of the group is given time to present their information and participate in the discussion.)
Monitor the groups.
Assess the students’ understanding of the concept or skill.
Adapted from Jigsaw Classroom. http://www.jigsaw.org/steps.htm
In the example that follows, the teacher uses the ten steps listed above to implement the jigsaw strategy during a unit on Brazil. He implements this strategy across a one-week period.
On the first day, the teacher divides the thirty students into five home-base groups.
He also chooses a leader for each group (denoted by ).
Because each group contains six students, he divides the lesson into six sections or topics:
culture economy history government geography demographics
He assigns one student at each table a topic (e.g., culture) based on his or her readiness level and interests.
He allows the students thirty minutes in class to read the materials on their topic and allows them to complete their research as homework.
The second day, the teacher instructs the students to get into their expert groups (e.g., culture). On the second and third day, he allows them to discuss their topic and to practice their presentations. As the students work, the teacher walks from group to group to monitor their progress and to provide help when needed.
On the fourth day, the students meet with their home-base groups to share their expertise.
During this fourth day, the teacher allows thirty minutes for the students (approximately five minutes per student) in the group to report what they have learned about Brazil.
Again, the teacher monitors the students and provides needed support.
On the fifth day, the teacher assesses the students’ knowledge of Brazil.
Teachers can differentiate instruction by providing manipulatives for those students who are having difficulty understanding a concept. Manipulatives are concrete objects that students can use to develop a conceptual understanding of a topic or skill. These objects help students represent the idea they are trying to learn or the problem they are trying to solve. For example, the teacher might demonstrate the idea of fractions by slicing a pie into pieces. It is important that the teacher make explicit the connection between the concrete object and the abstract concept being taught. Below are several examples of students using manipulatives.
A student uses a number line (i.e., a visual representation) to add two single-digit numbers.
Two students use an abacus to practice counting by fives.
A student uses colored cubes to work on pattern recognition.
Another way to differentiate process is to vary the length of time students have to complete a task. This allows struggling students more time to grasp the concept and permits advanced students more time to delve deeper into a topic.
Watch the video below to learn how one teacher differentiates process in her classroom. In particular, she discusses the use of manipulatives and learning centers (time: 4:21).
Narrator: Welcome to Organizing for Differentiation in the Core Classroom.
Lorie Bowman: My name is Lorie Bowman, and I am a second-grade teacher here at Cornell Elementary, in the Saydel School District.
We were subtracting one-digit numbers from double-digit numbers, and it was the second time they have been exposed to that process. Before this we had been subtracting just the tens, and they did fairly well with that concept, and now we are moving into regrouping and not regrouping. And what I was trying to accomplish with this was just giving them the opportunity to work with some concrete materials and use those manipulatives to see what they are actually doing so it’s not such a foreign concept of just trading and regrouping. Get them some practice with that, and after we are done with that as we are walking around trying to see who was grasping the concept and who wasn’t, and then having some small-group practice time.
At the beginning when we started the lesson, I was just doing a group think-aloud and we really wanted to think about have kids demonstrate and be able to explain what they were doing when they were trying to solve those math problems. And all mental math at that point, but then also liking to show the concrete example on the whiteboard of what exactly they were thinking and to show other students that there are other ways to answer problems; there is not one set way. As we move, we try to do lots of different examples of hands-on activities and paper-pencil tasks.
Eighty percent of their time is spent whole group, and then twenty percent either individual or small group. I really enjoy working with the small groups, though, because I really can give those students that immediate feedback whether they are doing the right thing or not, and it’s different every time. A lot of times, it might be the same exact thing that we are doing as whole group, but just in a small-group setting. Other times we were getting manipulatives out that maybe we didn’t use last time and just other techniques and processes that we are trying to help them key in to understanding what I am wanting them to know.
I would also like to have them get the whiteboards out and let them actually try to do the algorithm with the dry-erase marker and just practice that, because I am not sure that they fully understand the regrouping concept yet and why we are regrouping. And I notice that, even with my small group, they were still struggling, where those ten ones were coming from.
I am trying to plan and help for the reteaching. I usually try to pass some activities that are ready for that chapter or that topic, and I like to do them on the spot if I notice that lot of the class is struggling with whatever topic we are covering. I think it’s important to do it right away and help those kids so they don’t practice the wrong thing. We are going to redo parts of this lesson again just to help give students a boost on what we are expecting, because the next thing that we are moving into is double-digit subtraction, and I really want them to feel comfortable and be able to do this automatically before we move on to that next step.
I just really enjoy having the opportunity to let them go to centers, and they can review extra things that we maybe were struggling with before and I think we need a review on. And it also gives a chance for those students that have already mastered the concept that we are working on to be challenged a little bit to have some of those extra centers that are getting them thinking and pushing them a little bit, too. We go over the different strategies throughout our lessons and then I usually incorporate them into our centers as well. Right now, they are really struggling with sevens and eights, and so I have started putting that into a center where they can partner up and quiz each other on the different flash cards.
At this point, we have our new curriculum. It does build in some different differentiation kinds of ideas. So I always have that available if I need it, but a lot of it happens just when we are going through the lesson. And it’s just having things ready to go, whether it will be extra manipulatives or whiteboards or extra things to work with, because just you never know how many are going to understand it or how many are not, and just it changes all the time.