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Tiered Assignments Differentiated Reading Classroom Ideas

Many teachers use differentiated instruction strategies as a way to reach all learners and accommodate each student’s learning style. One very helpful tactic to employ differentiated instruction is called tiered assignments—a technique often used within flexible groups.

Much like flexible grouping—or differentiated instruction as a whole, really—tiered assignments do not lock students into ability boxes. Instead, particular student clusters are assigned specific tasks within each group according to their readiness and comprehension—without making them feel completely compartmentalized away from peers at different achievement levels.

There are six main ways to structure tiered assignments: Challenge level, complexity, outcome, process, product, or resources. It is your job—based upon the specific learning tasks you’re focused on—to determine the best approach. Here we will take a brief look at these techniques.

Challenge Level

Tiering can be based on challenge level where student groups will tackle different assignments altogether. Teachers can use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide to help them develop tasks of structure, or questions at various levels. For example:

  1. Group 1: Students who need content reinforcement or practice will complete one activity that helps build understanding.
  2. Group 2: Students who have a firm understanding will complete another activity that extends what they already know.


When you tier assignments by complexity, you are addressing the needs of students who are at different levels using the same assignment. The trick here is to vary the focus of the assignment based upon whether each group is ready for more advanced work or simply trying to wrap their head around the concept for the first time. You can direct your students to create a poster on a specific issue—recycling and environmental care, for instance—but one group will focus on a singular perspective, while the other will consider several points of view and present an argument for or against each angle.


Tiering assignments by differentiated outcome is vaguely similar to complexity—all of your students will use the same materials, but depending on their readiness levels, will actually have a different outcome. It may sound strange at first, but this strategy is quite beneficial to help advanced students work on more progressive applications of their learning.


This differentiated instruction strategy is exactly what it sounds like—student groups will use different processes to achieve similar outcomes based upon readiness.


Tiered assignments can also be differentiated based on product. Teachers can use the Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences to form groups that will hone particular skills. For example, one group would be bodily/kinesthetic and their task is to create and act out a skit. Another group would be visual/spatial and their task would be to illustrate.


Tiering resources means that you are matching project materials to student groups based on readiness or instructional need. One flexible group may use a magazine while another may use a traditional textbook. As a tip, you should assign resources based on knowledge and readiness, but also consider the group’s reading level and comprehension.

How to Make Tiering Invisible to Students

From time to time, students may question why they are working on different assignments, using varied materials, or coming to dissimilar outcomes altogether. This could be a blow to your classroom morale if you’re not tactful in making your tiers invisible.

Make it a point to tell students that each group is using different materials or completing different activities so they can share what they learned with the class. Be neutral when grouping students—use numbers or colors for group names, and be equally enthusiastic while explaining assignments to each cluster.

Also, it’s important to make each tiered assignment equally interesting, engaging, and fair in terms of student expectations. The more flexible groups and materials you use, the more students will accept that this is the norm.

Tiering assignments is a fair way to differentiate learning. It allows teachers to meet the needs of all students while using varying levels of tasks. It’s a concept that can be infused into homework assignments, small groups, or even learning centers. If done properly, it can be a very effective method to differentiate learning because it challenges all students.

How do you differentiate tiered assignments in your classroom? Share with us in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators

Tiered Activities

For Your Information

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.

Step 1:

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.

Step 2:

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. 

  • 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)
  • 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
  • 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.

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.

  1. Where does Mary Rose find the phone?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

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