Planning for Differentiation: Practical Classroom Tools, Part One

Welcome to a series on practical classroom tools for differentiation.

The goal of this series is to highlight several tools identified by authors, researchers, and teachers that can assist in differentiating the curriculum for students with special needs.

Today’s post features tiering, a differentiated instructional strategy that allows teachers to respond to many different learning styles and abilities in the classroom.

What is tiering?

Tiering is a readiness-based instructional approach in which all students work with the same essential knowledge, understanding and skill, but at different levels of difficulty based on their current proficiency with the ideas and skills.  Tiering enables a student to work both with critical content and at an appropriate challenge level.

Integrating Differerentiated instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids, Tomlinson & McTighe (2006).

What does tiering look like?

Tomlinson’s model of differentiated instruction demonstrates how teachers can differentiate the content, process and product, according to student learning profile, student interest and student readiness. There are many instructional strategies and products that can then be produced from this process, tiering being just one of them.

Tiering is also called scaffolding-so in order to visualize the process of tiering, picture a ladder with three rungs. If we were to differentiate content according to student readiness, these rungs are your three tasks or activities, based upon the same essential knowledge or concept. However, each rung will include different levels of complexity. You are not however, limited or restricted to three rungs-add as many as you feel the individual students in your classroom need.


In order to understand how to plan tiered instruction and lessons, its important to remember that assessment is a large component of tiering. Tiering implies a good understanding of the students’ ability levels with respect to the task; the teacher has therefore designed instruction to meet student needs.  Providing the right amount of challenge is critical to making tiered instruction worthwhile. For an excellent resource on assessment for differentiation, check out Cindy Strickland’s Tools for High-Quality Differentiated Instruction, 2007.

A method of tiering to explore:

There are many ways to tier. One method uses Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide:


When planning your tiered lesson, tasks focusing on the knowledge level would be the first rung on a ladder, while tasks on the top rung might focus on evaluation and creation. Take a look at these lesson plans from two school districts using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide:

Example 1

Example 2


Tiering in action

To see tiering in action, check out these comprehensive online resources for tiering:

Challenge by Choice

Dr. Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum 

Carol Ann Tomlinson’s website


Bookshelf (recommendations from ALDI, our resource teachers and our schools):










We always want to hear from you; so please send feedback on the application of these practices in your classroom/resource setting/school board.