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Helping All Learners: Tiering

Why is tiering an effective instructional practice for some learners?

Tiering is an instructional practice that allows students the opportunity to journey toward grade-level standards. Tiered assignments are parallel tasks provided to small groups of students based on their similar levels of readiness to complete them.

Students come to us more or less ready for different types of reading, more or less fluent with math facts or problem solving, with more or less background in historical documents, or more or less readiness to participate in the scientific process. By creating tiered activities, we ensure that all students get “just right” work on a more regular basis—work that’s challenging enough to be worthwhile but not so challenging that it’s too frustrating to complete.

Far and away, the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. Theodore Roosevelt, president

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson (2001), when kids are engaged at appropriate levels of challenge, the habits of persistence and curiosity are developed. Kids are then willing to take intellectual risks. Continuously working with kids at their level of readiness is a general education strategy that can help prevent the need for additional interventions.

Tiered assignments are developed using varied levels of complexity of the task, depth, and abstractness for students who are ready for an additional “push,” and various degrees of scaffolding or direction for students needing additional support.

A Note about Tiering Text and the Common Core
In the past, many teachers tiered lessons by varying the difficulty of the text students were reading. It is important in order to maintain the rigor of the Common Core Standards that this strategy be used less often. All students must have access to grade-level text when the primary focus of the lesson at hand is to meet the Common Core Standards. So instead of tiering texts, we recommend tiering tasks.

Learning Targets

  1. I can describe effective components of a tiered task.
  2. I can explain how to tier a task while maintaining the rigor for all students.

Read: Diving Deeper into Differentiation

Read the following excerpt from EL Education’s booklet Differentiated Instruction, Diving Deeper into Differentiation (download on this page). Use the following questions to guide your independent thinking or a discussion with colleagues:

  1. How would you apply Tomlinson’s equalizer to an upcoming lesson that you plan to teach?
  2. Why is it important to focus on equity when creating tiered assignments? What might be some challenges that you face when creating equitable and respectful tasks?
  3. This excerpt includes a peek into a high school humanities class. How did the teacher decide who receives scaffolds? How do you currently decide who receives scaffolds in your room?
  4. How did the teacher of the humanities class maintain appropriate rigor for all students?

Watch: Matching Module Lessons to Learners’ Needs

Imagine you are a third-grade teacher in an urban school setting using a Common Core–aligned curriculum. Ninety percent of your class receives free or reduced lunch, and 10 of the 24 students have either an IEP or 504 Growth Plan. Ten of your students read at or above third-grade reading level, seven students are half a year behind, and seven read one year or more below expected level. Think about how you might tier a particular reading task.

As you view the following video, consider the following: 

  1. How did the teacher tier the tasks in the video? What strategies might you adopt for your own classroom?
  2. How does this lesson maintain alignment to the rigorous Common Core Standards?


  1. View the original note-catcher, (download from this page), from the lesson showcased in the video above. Why might some students struggle with this task? How might you tier this task without changing the text the students were required to read? 
  2. Now view the tiered note-catcher. Justify how the tiered note-catcher met the same learning targets as the original note-catcher.

Watch: Tiering a Math Lesson

1. As you view the following video, what do you notice and wonder about:

  • The learning targets?
  • The classroom community?
  • The management and distribution of tasks?
  • The tiered task itself?  
  • The lesson closure?

2. Explain how this teacher determines which students need scaffolds in this lesson.

3. Describe how this teacher ensures that all students remain in the zone of proximal development.

4. Describe the effective components of this tiered lesson.

You may download the note-catcher on this page to help you record your observations.


Grade 3 Inclusion Class or Grade 7 Inclusion Class: Chose one of the two case studies to read and analyze with a partner. After you read, discuss the parts of the lesson. What do you notice and wonder about:

  • The learning targets?
  • The classroom community?
  • The management and distribution of tasks?
  • The tiered task itself?  
  • The lesson closure?

You may download the note-catcher on this page to help facilitate your discussion.

Tiered Graphic Organizers: Analyze the documents. Notice the original note-catcher and the tiered note-catchers. What are the similarities and differences?

All documents in this section can be downloaded directly from this page.

Dig Deeper


Tomlinson’s Equalizer Applied to an ELA Lesson: A helpful chart that explains how the equalizer controls may be manipulated in a Common Core–aligned ELA lesson (download from this page).


For Teachers:

  1. Why is it important to allow students several pathways toward meeting grade-level standards?
  2. What are essential questions to consider when tiering a lesson for students?
  3. How will you be sure to address the essential needs of the students in your classroom? What challenges do you anticipate when preparing tiered instruction? How might you overcome these challenges?

For School Leaders:

  1. How will you be sure that the teachers you support have the necessary resources (time, materials, etc.) to appropriately tier a lesson?
  2. How will you ensure that all students are held accountable to the same grade-level standards?
  3. What supports can you give teachers in determining readiness levels of students in relation to the learning targets?

Resource Downloads

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