Un-Scary Differentiation #2 – Level it out!

If you’re new to differentiation or are just looking for a way to make it a more regular part of your practice, a great first step is to tier all of the practice you give to students so that you can easily layer in differentiation.  What I mean by this is, on a single objective’s assignment, group the questions by level of difficulty.  For example, if you’re teaching how to add fractions, in part 1 of the practice, have a few problems that are very basic or ‘easy’ with like denominators, then in part 2 you might have a few problems with unlike denominators that are a little more difficult, and then in part 3 there are more complicated problems maybe with 2-3 digit numbers or word problems.  In the above example all of the problems require students to apply the skills, but at varying levels of difficulty.  The middle level should be the one that matches the level of rigor you want everyone to achieve and that they’ll see on the assessment. 

The beauty of this is that you and your students can see what level they’re mastering and/or struggling with at all times.  Some of my colleagues will also give the sections cute names like ‘mild, medium, and spicy’ or ‘line dance, two-step, fox-trot.’  Once you get into the habit of arranging your assignments like this, there are a ton of different ways you can use the set up to support differentiation.  Here are a few:

Small groups – Based on how students are doing during the direct instruction and guided practice, at the beginning of independent practice time you can pull a few students to work on 1-2 questions from the level 1 and level 2 sections and then have them work on  the rest from that section on their own.  If they don’t get to level 3, that’s okay since those were beyond the mastery you were expecting for day’s skill.  Meanwhile, the rest of the class can work independently on the assignment.   

Stop, Check & Skip – Another option is having answer keys available for students to check their progress as they work.  They can do 2 questions from level 1 and then check their work.  If they got them both correct, they skip ahead to level 2.  If they got them wrong, they go back and keep working on that same level.  OR, if they check and get them wrong, they jump over to the small group table with you.

Self-select & Self-correct – Choice and ownership is hugely motivating for kids, so when appropriate, you can have students choose whether to start on level 1 or level 2, depending on what they think they’re ready for. (Remember, no one can skip level 2 since that’s the target level)  As they work, they check answers and gauge how they’re done and adjust as necessary.  If they feel like they’re struggling, they can choose to drop back to level 1 or go work with the teacher group for extra help.  If they are being successful, they can jump up a level.  When starting out on a choice option like this, it can also be great to have a reflection of it the next day to have students evaluate their choices and how they worked through the problems based on whether they ultimately mastered the objective or needed to make better choices the next time.  As you can imagine, this type of structure is really dependent on already having a strong culture of achievement in your classroom, so it may be something we want to build up to over time.

Diagnostic – Some of our middle school math teachers use this strategy regularly and it works really well!  On a homework assignment or an extended Do First assignment for a crucial skill, the students complete tiered problems and then check their answers and tally the number correct per section.  Their task for that day would be determined by how they did.  For example, she might say, ‘On your HW, if you got less than 3 correct in section 1, you’ll work with me at the front table.  If you mastered section 1, but not section 2, you’ll work with your groups on X.  And if you mastered sections 1 and 2, you’ll be going to the side table to work on the extension activity.”  This can save the teacher a lot of time not having to go through their work after class and determine all the groups on her own.  And since the students can see their level of mastery in each section, they understand why they’re being assigned a certain group and so are more likely to be okay with it if they need extra help from the teacher versus if they’re just assigned a group by the teacher.

What other ways do you use tiered practice?  Leave a comment and let us know!

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