Differentiation in Mixed-Ability Classrooms

Why is differentiation is essential in a mixed ability classroom?

In a high school streaming occurs. But within these “streams” exists students of various abilities and learning styles. Because of this “streaming” we often concentrate more on content and the “what” of what we teach rather than the “how”.

Within EACH classroom high school class exits a variety of learners each of whom learn different ways and at different speeds.

Carol-Ann Tomlinson says:

“Every student has the right to be successful.”

“It is the teachers responsibility to maximize every student’s capacity as a learner.”

“Learning is not just the acquisition of knowledge but also the creation of knowledge.”

“Students should be able to take ownership for their own learning.

“Clarity and passion are essential for learning.”

“Advanced learners should be engaged and challenged capable of success.”

“Struggling learners should be given the opportunity to build on their strengths, work on tasks that are relevant, and be challenged without being discouraged.”

“Classrooms must allow for a academic diversity.”

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2001) How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria:VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

In order to create success in every student a teacher must first identify the various learning styles of his/her students and then use a variety of strategies in order to create opportunities for this success. Within the various posts I have shared some of my own experiences teaching differentiation in a mixed ability high school classrooms.


Alberta Education



Prezi on Differentiation

Differentiation on Pinterest

Technology and Differentiation

Technology can enhance and support assessment for teaching and learning. Interaction with technology must have purpose and be authentic. (Chapman & King 2012).

We live in a wonderful day and age where technology is accessible to most everyone. Students can choose from a variety of technologies that are geared towards their learning styles to show their learning.

Performance assessments can include:

  • Demonstrating using an interactive whiteboard
  • Developing a PowerPoint and/or Prezi
  • Designing a webpage
  • Producing a podcast
  • Organizing a blog forum
  • Creating a video

Assessing with technology:

  • When the tool matches the information
  • When it is relevant
  • When it accommodates learners
  • When it provides constructive data for immediate results
  • When an alternative assessment is needed

Chapman, Carolyn & King, Rita (2012) Differentiated Assessment Strategies: one tool doesn’t fit all. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin.

How I use Technology to differentiate in my English Class

For project work, I have my students answer essential questions using words and images. I leave the project open as to how they want to deliver their learning. When first aware of the “openness” of these projects students gravitate to what is familiar using PowerPoint’s, Prezis and Word Documents. But recently students (especially my senior students) have begun to create academic portfolios using blogs such as WordPress and tumbler inserting text and media.

I am fortunate enough to have 15 iPads permanently in my classroom and students use them for cooperative learning, independent learning and for skill development. I find they are effective for differentiating instruction supporting the multiple intelligences. Students use iMovie for film, Soundcloud and/or Podcaster for podcasts or recording.

Although lately research is noting that having student write notes in order to, I find my struggling students are often more engaged if they can use Notes on their iPhone or, Pages on an iPad.

For students who are stronger verbal and auditory learners I have them use their phones to record (Soundcloud or voice memo) their small group seminar discussion and then email their recordings to me.


Some examples of my student work using technology:






What is Tiered Instruction?

  • Teachers MUST know their curriculum in order uncover curricular outcomes
  • Students always work in groups
  • Teachers scaffold in order to provide support
  • High-level, complex thinking can be built into every tier of instruction
  • Leveled resource materials should be used.

My experience tiering in a High School English class:

I was teaching an 11th grade English class Macbeth. The lesson looked like this:


Essential Questions for the class:

 Thematic: To what extent can a true hero be susceptible to temptation?

Literary: What literary devices does Shakespeare use in characterizing Macbeth and are they effective?

Equivocation/Antithesis and how they can be considered theme. Review of Tragic Hero. Review of Motif. Review Atmosphere. Tracing blood motif in Act I scene ii. Predict thematic significance of “blood”.

Tier 1: Define and identify antithesis, Motif, Atmosphere in Act I scenes i and ii in Macbeth.

 Tier 2: What evidence about Macbeth’s character is given through the use of antithesis, Motif and Atmosphere in Act 1 scenes i and ii?

 Tier 3: Are antithesis, motif and atmosphere effective literary devices for indirectly characterizing Macbeth?

 Study of Macbeth Act 1 scenes i and ii.

  1. Read aloud Act 1 scene 1 of Macbeth. Assign parts. I’ll play witch 1 (use witchy voice).
  1. Define “Antithesis

An antithesis is used when the writer employs two sentences of contrasting meanings in close proximity to one another. Whether they are words or phrases of the same sentence, an antithesis is used to create a stark contrast using two divergent elements that come together to create one uniform whole. An antithesis plays on the complementary property of opposites to create one vivid picture. The purpose of using an antithesis in literature is to create a balance between opposite qualities and lend a greater insight into the subject.

  1. Explain tiring choices to students.
  2. Students get into tiered groups of 4-5
  3. Students work on answering questions. Students are to record their discussion and email to me.
  4. Once students have completed “tiered” choice they are to answer the thematic essential question.
  1. If this witches uses antithesis, and are perceived as being equivocator’s, what can we predict is their role in the play especially with regards to our tragic hero.
  2. Review definition of “motif” (repeated symbol that holds thematic significance)
  3. Small groups. Assign parts. Students read scene ii in small groups. As they readmake note of how many times “blood” is mentioned and under what context.
  1. What mood is created with this repetition? How is Macbeth referred to in relation to all the “blood”? (Students answer this in their groups).
  2. Share responses with entire class.
  3. Ask “What is the definition of Tragic Hero?
  4. Does the indirect characterization of Macbeth in this scene (by the bloody soldier and by Duncan) follow the definition of “tragic hero”?
  5. We’ve got witches (who mention Macbeth) we’ve got a dying soldier on a bloody battle field mentioning Macbeth. What kind of guy does he seem to be from all this evidence we’ve gleaned? Why do you suppose the witches want to “meet” with him upon the heath?

Assessment: Student responses (oral) Monitor and assess small group discussions.

Students answer questions to hand in (formative) recording.

  1. Does Macbeth seem heroic thus far? Does he seem to be the kind of hero that is easily “tempted”
  2. How do antithesis, equivocation and motif contribute to the atmosphere of the play thus far?

Specific outcomes:

  • Discover possibilities (1.1.1)
  • construct meaning from text (2.1.1,2.1.2,2.1.3,)
  • Understand and appreciate textual forms, elements and techniques (2.2.2)5.2 work within a group (5.2.1,)

 My reflection on the lesson:

Students automatically thought they needed to be in the first tier. It wasn’t because they thought it was easier, it seemed that they were insecure in their own skill level. About half the class chose tier 1 first. I sat with this large group and after 5 minutes most of them (all but 3/15) said “we’ve got this” and moved off into their groups and worked on tier 2 and 3.

Students finished recording their responses quicker than I thought. I had planned to have the “essential question” discussion as a class but I ended up assigning it as part of the tiered groups. Most groups naturally moved from tier 2 to 3 on their own without prompting from me. “we might as well move on to tier 2”.

Tomorrow’s class with be “tying up” discussion. I may share some of the group recordings!

If I had to do it over I would consider a tier 1 as a “check in”. Most students just needed validation of their understanding of motif etc.

Students liked recording discussions! I get them to do this quite regularly now. It seems to focus their “talk”, keep them on task and inspire them to organize their responses in a more academic tone.

I was encouraged that they took on teir 3 on their own initiative!

A good reference on tiering:

Armstrong, Sarah & Haskins, Haskins, Stephanie. (2010) A Practical Guide to Tiering Instruction in the differentiated classroom. New York: NY. Scholastic

Good websites on tiering:



for math!: http://sjc-differentiation.wikispaces.com/Tiered+Math+Lesson?responseToken=0489d5b51590891f86937f908d7e772bc


Summative Assessment

Summative Assessment for Differentiation

Here in Alberta Standardized government exams can be differentiated if students have undergone an assessment by an educational psychologist and only then can students receive “accommodations” such as readers (or exams recorded), a scribe, or extra time. Students do not need a formal assessment if they require isolation. However, during the school year teacher summative assessments can be differentiated a number of ways:

  • A creation of a positive testing environment by giving clear directions and teaching test-taking skills.
  • Giving clear rubrics to the students before summative assessments so that students have a clear understanding of expectations.
  • Have a variety of summative evaluations to test student understanding. Often high school teachers limit summative assessments to multiple choice exams and/or essay responses. Summative assessments could also include porfolio work, projects, oral assignments etc.

More information on summative assessment and differentiation can be found:

Chapman, Caroline & King, Rita (2012) Differentiated Assessment Strategies: one tool doesn’t fit all. Thousand Oaks: CA, Corwin.




Compacting Curriculum

I have found compacting curriculum  beneficial as a classroom teacher. Compacting allowed me to  recognize the learning skills of stronger students and compact my unit for them so that I could work in small instructional groups with those students who need more coaching. Students who learned the unit through compacting took owned their own learning by using their time efficiently as well as using opportunity to focus projects that are geared towards their interests.

A Powerpoint I’ve created to help in your understanding of: Compacting and Differentiation.

I have used the “Compactor” in my planning.

An example of “metamorphosis” unit I have created for grades 7-8: Metamorph (students should be able to/checkpoints)

Example of project ideas for metamorphosis unit:

morphchoice1 morphchoice2

More information can be found at:







Socratic Discussions

Socratic Discussions are magic and are one of my favourite differentiated learning strategies. No matter the learner, the opportunities for participation in learning and understanding of learning are endless.  It usually takes a couple of “practice” discussions before students feel confident and discussion flows freely but when it does the sophistication of verbal interchange is impressive.

When introducing Socratic Discussion to a class, I usually show a Socratic Powerpoint for students explaining what it is and why it can be an effective learning tool.

I then hand out “Socratic Seminar Questions High School” handout and have students prepare 2 or 3 questions regarding a previously chosen text to prepare for discussion.

We then sit in a circle (we are all equal in discussion) and I have one brave soul proffer a question into the circle.  There is no “hands up” and once I break them of the habit of looking to me for direction or for an “answer” they take ownership of the process.

Socratic 1

Places where you can learn more about Socratic discussions:




The Teaching Channel

Teacher Reflections

Teacher Reflections on Differentiated Instruction

“I teach grades 11 and 12 Math.
In my class I use DI but approaching mathematical problems from different perspectives. I show students multiple ways to solve problems by first showing them an algebraic approach. This may be showing them approaches with various steps by hand.
My favorite DI tool in my math class is my graphing calculator. Each of my students have one in my classes and they are able to instantly graph equations so they have a visual representation of what they are learning.
This aids me in my teaching as I can explain steps for my auditory learns, I can show algebraic steps for my students who like to have a concrete method for solving problems and the calculators help my visual learners who like to visually learn from graphing.”

Jessica A

“Grade 9 Science and PE
I’ve tried a number of strategies…
Flexible grouping might be my favorite and most frequent. It works sooo well. I change the arrangement almost everyday, with purpose, based on the activity for the day.
Vertical surfaces, product choices, and movement are also frequently used.
I’ve attempted at tiering many times in various ways. Has worked great with some activities, not with others, but I think it’s me who is learning how to implement this correctly.
Another main one is inquiry based learning and project based. Learned a lot about these and have tried using them consistently in Science 9. Works wonders, the work the students have done amazes me everytime.”


“I teach high school English (10,20,30)
I have used many D.I strategies in my classroom including student choice, scaffolding, tiering, pre-assessments, formative instruction, alternate assessments, learning profiles, anchor activities, learning contracts, and various web 2.0 tools to gauge student understanding (socrative.com, geddit, etc…) I have found that these strategies are very helpful because they boost student engagement and promote a community of learners. They allow me to get to know each student as a learner and as a person which helps to highlight exactly what each student needs to find success. Sometimes the student is ahead of the rest of the class. I can see this with pre-assessments and can allow them to go on without me. I can also allow them to work on anchor activities rather than be bogged down by the level of the rest of the class. There are also students that are not at the level of the class and I can provide tier one assignments to get them on the right track. Furthermore, I use a lot of scaffolds to give tier one students a stepping stool to aid in there tasks (ex. providing quotes for an essay). This really helps because students can let go of the idea that they cannot complete a task and get started. Tiering has been my biggest success because everyone in the class feels like they have a place. Everyone is working on completing a task and meeting a set of objectives. I feel like it pushes everyone to try. I also work with alternate assessments (class newspaper rather than part A unit exam). This is a hit with students because they can complete a task that is both tiered to their ability but also considers their interests.”

Jessica M