About Lori H Rice

Lori Rice is a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary in Wamego, Kansas, who has taught K-2 reading as well as kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade since 1996. She has a passion for creativity, learning, questioning and the whole child. Her classroom is a place of acceptance and celebrating differences.


Classrooms are a mix of students.  They come to us with different experiences, background knowledge, skills, talents, attitudes and understanding.  There is no longer the proverbial “middle” to teach.  Teachers strive to reteach and reach the lowest students while excelling and pushing the highest students.  In between is a mixture of ability levels and good teachers want to reach them all.

Differentiating instruction allows you to reach students where they are and take them where you want them to be. Differentiation is something that you do in your lessons, don’t try everything at once.  It is done to strengthen lessons.  Don’t attempt it all.  If you differentiate content then students can complete the same activity.  If you differentiate process then you can deliver the information to everyone in the same manner. Pick something you are passionate about and start there.

In your classroom differentiation will allow you to use strategies to meet learners at different levels. So, what does differentiation look like?   This can be done through content (providing students with the information you want them to learn), processes (the activities students do to practice, reinforce, and extend what you want them to master) or product (how the students express what they know).  Here I will explain how to use 3 different methods of differentiation in these areas.

Think about how using differentiation will help meet your students’ needs in a personal way.  Do you have students who need varied levels to understand the objectives?  Do you have students who work at different levels to learn information?  Do you have students who express their knowledge in different ways?  Think about your class and decide if you want to differentiate input (content) or output (process or product).  Depending on the content, objectives, activity and class you can use these tools to differentiate throughout your school year and the impact it has on your students will be amazing.

Bloom’s taxonomy is a hierarchy of questioning stems that teachers can use to ask varying levels of questions or created differentiated activities.  These stems target different levels of processing.  Knowledge, understanding, and application are the first three tiers.  These reach learners at a basic, lower level.  Use questions or stems from these three levels for concepts that are new or challenging for students.  Analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are the last three tiers.  These reach learners at an advanced, higher level.  Use questions or stems from these levels to stretch and push students who have mastered concepts or challenge students at a higher level.  The Bloom’s Taxonomy website will provide you with many resources and links to use this method to differentiate.

What does this look like?  You can use these stems to create meaningful questions for students to address during or after a unit.  First, think of your objectives and the information you are teaching.  Use the stems to create questions at all levels.  Use lower level questions at the beginning of the lesson or with students who need more assistance.  Use higher level questions at the end of the unit or with students who have shown understanding of the lesson.  You can write questions on sticky notes to put in your lesson plans or in the book you are using.  You can add them into the PowerPoint or presentation you are sharing with students.  You can create writing prompts for students to respond to during the lesson.

Students can also use these stems to create their own questions during a lesson or activity.  Provide students with the stems at a level that is appropriate for their learning.  While they are reading or after they have been presented with the information, have them create questions.  Allow students to ask a partner or the whole group their best question.  These can then be collected and you can type the questions that meet your standards for all students to answer during the next lesson.

Stems can also be used to create activity boards.  I have created a simple 5X5 (make fewer squares if desired) and then used one of each level to create activities.  These activity boards allow students to answer questions or select activities on their level.  You can strategically place the levels and require students to complete a row, column, or diagonal.  This ensures lower and higher levels are practiced.

Tiers are a way to differentiate for the process of learning.  Using tier differentiation with processes can be done with content or skills.  This focuses on the student’s level of readiness from introductory through complex and concrete through abstract reasoning.  This also allows you to provide advanced work to higher level students rather than more work.

  1. Tier one: Create activities that allow your students to demonstrate what they know and how they know it.  This can be in the form of written jingles, brochures, posters, poetry, illustrations with captions, charts, lists, or other shorter, less complex activities.  The focus is for students to demonstrate their understanding. 
  2.  Tier two: Create activities that allow students to use some application of the content as well as what they know. This can be in the form of writing questions to authors, scholars, scientists; comparing and contrasting with a Venn diagram or T-chart; sorting; explaining; creating polls, creating surveys, or making graphs; or creating a lesson to teach others.  This will be a longer activity, but is designed for students who understand the content.  The focus is for students to demonstrate their understanding by applying their knowledge. 
  3. Tier three: Create activities that allow students to demonstrate their opinion of the subject and content. This can be in the form of having a debate, writing a report or book, ranking content or skills, evaluating, writing an advertisement with posters and a jingle or video clip.  These activities take the longest, but will allow for students to focus on using what they know with what they believe to simulate the information at a complex level.  The focus is for students to demonstrate knowledge as well as express reasoning for their thinking.  Provide materials needed at various reading levels and complexity.  Students using tiered resources may be engaged in the same activity or content, or they may be working on a different, but related activity or content.

Tier differentiation can also be used with resources.  Students will all use the same materials, but what they do with the materials is different.  Tier one: Students use the materials to complete an activity to identify or demonstrate their understanding.  Tier two: Students use the materials to apply or extend the content.  This shows their understanding of the content as well as some application.  Tier three: Higher level students us materials to create or analyze the content.  This shows understanding as well as their opinion and personal connections to the content.

Gardner’s multiple intelligences is a third way to think about differentiation in your classroom.  Dr. Gardner has developed a theory of nine intelligences which explain various ways people learn and express understanding.  Gardner found students possess natural aptitudes and abilities for music, sports, emotions that are not identified or expressed in traditional test or activities.  Using multiple intelligences gives voice to students to express their knowledge in nontraditional ways.  These intelligences can be used to differentiate in your classroom.

Websites like this  provides you with further information and ideas.  Using observation or a survey  you can determine what intelligences your students use and create activities to meet those needs.

  1. Visual-Spacial: Create a flip book, diagram, model or other activities that allow students to see the work they are doing. 
  2. Bodily-Kinesthetic: Demonstrate, create a game, reenact or activities that allow for movement and whole body understanding.
  3.   Logical-Mathematical: Make a timeline, classify, create a crossword, or other activities which allow students to demonstrate logistic information.

If you would like further resources and information on differentiation, check out my PowerPoint on Slide Rocket.  This was a presentation for staff in our district on using technology to differentiate.

So, how do you know differentiation worked?  When you plan differentiated lessons in your classroom you will have all learners engaged and active in learning.  It will meet learners at different levels.  This does not mean students are doing whatever they want, they should have focused directions and be demonstrating or learning set information and standards set by you.  Depending on the content, objectives, activity, and class you can use these tools to differentiate throughout your school year and the impact it has on your students will be amazing.

How do you use differentiation in your classroom?

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