Critical Questions about Tiered Lessons

Cheryll M. Adams, Ph.D.

Ball State University

What is a tiered lesson?

Many of us have heard the term, "tiered lesson," as the differentiation movement has taken center stage as a means of meeting the needs of all students in the classroom. A tiered lesson is a differentiation strategy that addresses a particular standard, key concept, and generalization, but allows several pathways for students to arrive at an understanding of these components, based on the studentsí interests, readiness, or learning profiles.

If I teach a tiered lesson, am I meeting the needs of gifted students?

It depends. When the tiered lesson addresses the studentís readiness to interact with a particular topic/skill/idea, there is a good chance that the needs of the gifted students will be met. A lesson tiered by readiness level implies that the teacher has a good understanding of the studentsí ability levels with respect to the lesson and has designed the tiers to meet those needs. You might think of a wedding cake with tiers of varying sizes. Many examples of lessons tiered in readiness have three tiers-below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. There is no rule that states there may only be three tiers, however. The number of tiers will depend on the range of ability level in your classroom. Remember: You are forming tiers based on your assessment of your studentsí abilities to handle the material particular to this lesson. Students are re-grouped the next time you use tiering as a strategy.

When the lesson is tiered by interest or learning profile, we are looking at student characteristics other than ability level. Students will be in interest or learning style groups and the ability level will be varied. In these instances, we are not making any modifications to address the specific needs of gifted students, but are giving all students choices of content, process, or product that are at about the same ability level. These tiers are similar to those in a layer cake--all the same size..

Will my groups be the same size?

Not necessarily. The number of groups per tier will vary as will the number of students per tier. We are not looking to form groups of equal size; we are trying to form groups based on the readiness needs of individual students. For example, Tier One may have two groups of three students, Tier Two five groups of four students, and Tier Three may have one group of two students. When the lesson is tiered by interest or learning profile the same guidelines apply for forming these groups--different tiers may have varying numbers of students.

If I teach only the gifted students, does that mean I wonít tier lessons?

No. The gifted are a heterogeneous group even when in a pull-out or self-contained class. You will still need to address the varied ability levels in this population.

Is there anything I need to have done before I try a tiered lesson with my class?

Yes. You must have a clearly articulated classroom management plan that provides the structure for the class when students work in groups. In addition, you must have anchoring activities for students who finish early or are waiting for you to assist their group. Both of these are non-negotiables. It makes sense to alert your administration and the parents that you will be trying some new strategies in the classroom in case there are questions.

Are there specific parts to a tiered lesson?

Definitely! To take a closer look at the anatomy of a tiered lesson, Iíll use the one reproduced here. It was developed by Dr. Rebecca Pierce, Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Ball State University, in conjunction with her work on the Javits Grant, Project GATE.

First, identify the grade level and subject for which you will write the lesson.

In this case, the grade level is second and the subject is mathematics.

Second, identify the standard (national, state, district, etc.) that you are targeting.

A common mistake for those just beginning to tier is to develop three great activities and then try to force-fit them into a tiered lesson. Start with the standard first. If you donít know where you are going, how will you know if you get there?

Dr. Pierce has selected Standard 7, Fractions. She has used the standards for mathematics delineated by the Indianapolis Public Schools. If you use the new Indian Academic Standards for Mathematics (IASM), this would be Standard 1, Number Sense.

Third, identify the key concept and generalization.

The key concept follows from the standard. Ask yourself, "What Big Idea am I targeting?" In this example, it is an understanding of fractions. The generalization follows from the concept. Ask, "What do I want the students to know at the end of the lesson, regardless of their placement in the tiers?" In this lesson, all students will come away knowing that fractions represent parts of a whole.

Fourth, be sure students have the background necessary to be successful in the lesson.

What scaffolding is necessary? What must you have already covered? Are there other skills that must be taught first?

Fifth, determine in which area you will tier.

You may choose to tier the content (what you want the students to learn), the process (the way students make sense out of the content), or the product (the outcome at the end of a lesson, lesson set, or unit--often a project). When beginning to tier, I would suggest that you only tier one of these three. Once you are comfortable with tiering, you might try to tier more than one area in the same lesson.

Sixth, determine the type of tiering you will do: readiness, interest, or learning profile.

Readiness is based on the ability levels of the students. Interest is based on their interest in a topic, generally gauged through an interest survey. Learning profile may be determined through various learning style inventories. Gardnerís Multiple Intelligences as a learning style system is currently quite popular.

Seventh, based on your choices above, determine how many tiers you will need and develop the lesson.

Remember, when meeting the academic needs of gifted students, you will want to choose to tier according to readiness. You may have three tiers: below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. If you choose to tier in interest or learning profile, you may control the number of tiers by limiting choices or using only a few different learning styles. Tiering on all eight of Gardnerís Multiple Intelligences in one lesson may not be a good place to start!

Differentiation means doing something different--qualitatively different. Make sure you keep this in mind when tiering the lessons. Secondly, be sure each tier is doing moderately challenging, respectful work. We donít want one group doing blackline practice sheets and another doing Japanese cooking!

Notice in Dr. Pierceís lesson that she has three tiers working on fractions. Each has paper shapes to divide. However, as you read the activities for each tier, beginning in Tier I and moving through Tier III, the activities differ from concrete to abstract, and from simple to complex, to use Carol Tomlinsonís Equalizer word pairs. Tier I is the lowest level; Tier III is the highest level.

Lastly, develop the assessment component to the lesson.

The assessment can be formative, summative, or a combination of both. You may use some means of recording your observations of the various groups, such as flip cards or sticky notes. You may have developed a rubric for each tier based on the particular product that is developed. You may give a formal paper-and-pencil test. You will choose your assessment based on your needs and your lesson design. In this lesson, Dr. Pierce is observing the students as they work and jotting down notes for a formative assessment of each student.

Where can I find more information on tiered lessons?

For more information on tiering, please contact the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at 1-800-842-4251. To give you some more examples to study, I have included a tiered lesson that I developed, and one from Starlynn Atkins, a teacher of the gifted in the Charles A. Beard Memorial System. Starlynn is working on her endorsement in gifted education through Ball State.

Two websites that provide good examples of tiered lessons are the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at Ball State as part of the Javits Project, and the Indiana Department of Education Gifted and Talented Unitís Tiered Lesson Project, developed by Dr. Cheryll Adams, Dr. Felicia Dixon, and Dr. Rebecca Pierce and funded by the IDOE. For the BSU site, go to and click on Instruction on the white gate. For the IDOE site, go to

Lesson by Dr. Rebecca Pierce

Subject: Mathematics Grade : Second

Standard: #7 Fractions

Key Concept: Students develop an understanding of fractions.

Generalization: Illustrate how fractions represent part of a whole


Fractions (halves/thirds) have been introduced and illustrated by the students with pictures.

Tiered in content according to readiness

Tier I:

Using paper circles (pizza) & squares (sandwich), in pairs students determine how to share the food equally and illustrate by folding the paper. Have two pairs determine how they can share equally with four people. They can cut the parts and stack them to see if they match. Have the quad repeat the process for sharing a Reeseís Peanut Butter Cup equally with three people.

Tier II:

Using paper circles (pizza) & squares (sandwich), in triads have students determine how to

share the food equally and illustrate by folding the paper. Have two triads determine how they can share equally with six people. Have the group of six repeat the process for sharing a Birthday Cake with twelve people. In each case, they can cut the parts & stack to match.

Have the group start with half a cake and divide equally for 3, 6, & 12 people.

Tier III:

Using paper rectangles (sandwiches) & triangles (slices of pie), in pairs have students determine how to share the food in three different ways to get equal parts. Have them illustrate by folding the paper. Are there other different ways to divide each shape equally? How many ways are there? Have the pair determine which shapes - circles, squares, rectangles, triangles - are easier to divide evenly and illustrate why with a particular food of their choice.




Note children's abilities to divide materials into equal parts and to recognize and check for equal parts. Can children explain how many equal parts there are and show how they know the parts are equal?


Lesson by Dr. Cheryll Adams:

Subject: Biology/Life Science Grade: Seventh, Ninth

Standard: #4 The Living Environment

Key Concept: DNA provides for both the continuity of traits from one generation to the next and the variation that in time can lead to differences within a species and to entirely new species.

Generalization: A physical or mathematical model can be used to estimate the probability of real-world events.


Students have been learning about the fundamentals of genetics, including genes and chromosomes. Based on their responses to a quiz covering test crosses, genotypes, and phenotypes, students have been placed in one of three groups by the teacher.

Tiered in process according to readiness

Mendel Group- Tier I

Students work in pairs. Each group has 50 red beans and 50 white beans in each of two coffee cans. Assume the beans represent alleles for flower color in a certain plant. Red is dominant over white. Assume one can represents the female parent; the other can represents the male parent. Without looking into the cans, remove one bean from each can. Place the pair of beans into one of three separate groups: red/red, red/white, white/white. Continue until all beans are removed. Count the number of pairs in each group and record them in a table. Record the genotypes as well. How many genotypes have resulted from this exercise? What are they? What is the genotypic ratio? How many phenotypes have resulted? Describe them. What is the phenotypic ratio?


Sutton Group (Tier II)

Using a Punnett square to predict the results of a trihybrid cross. In the fruit fly, Drosophila, the following genes are located on separate chromosomes:







eyes (E)

eyeless (e)


hairy body (H)

hairless body (h)


large wings (L)

small wings (l)

Predict the results of a cross between two fruit flies, both heterozygous, for all the traits above. Use a Punnett square to show the results. What are the phenotypic ratios predicted by this cross?

Franklin Group (Tier III)

Using a Punnett square to diagram polygenic inheritance, a case in which a single trait is the result of the interaction of a number of genes.

In wheat, the color of the kernel is controlled by two pairs of genes. These genes are R /r and R /r . Complete a Punnett square showing the result of a cross between two individuals heterozygous for both genes.

Use the following key to answer the questions below.

R R R R = dark red kernels r r R R = medium red kernels

R R R r = medium dark red kernels R r r r = light red kernels

R r R R = medium dark red kernels r r R r = light red kernels

R r R r = medium red kernels r r r r = white kernels

R R r r = medium red kernels

What is the phenotypic ration of red to white kernels

What is the phenotypic ratio of dark red to medium dark red kernels?


What is the phenotypic ratio of medium dark red to medium red kernels?

What is the phenotypic ratio of medium red to light red kernels?

What is the phenotypic ratio of dark red to white kernels?


The teacher will informally assess each studentís work as she moves from group to group. Information will be recorded on sticky notes to be placed in the each studentís file after class. Students will return their completed worksheets which will be checked for accuracy as a means of formal assessment.


Lesson by Starlynn Atkins (this lesson is from a tiered thematic unit on Native Americans)

Subject: Language Arts Grade Level: Upper Elementary

Standard: #1 Reading: Word recognition, Fluency, and Vocabulary Development

Key Concept: Vocabulary and concept development

Generalization: Students can list similes and metaphors are used by authors in novels.


Similes and metaphors have been introduced and identifying activities have been completed.

Tiered in content by readiness and product by interest

Tier I: Read The Corn Grows Ripe, by Dorothy Rhoads

Tier II: Read Sees Behind Trees, by Michael Dorris

Tier III: Read Sing Down the Moon, by Scott OíDell

All students will read a book (or listen to the book on tape for struggling readers). Students will make a list of similes and metaphors they recognize in their story. Students will share their lists. The teacher will lead a discussion of similes and metaphors students have identified. They will compare similes and metaphors used in their books. For their product, students will use similes and metaphors to create a poem, story, or song.


The teacher will check students for accuracy as they identify the similes and metaphors in their stories. Rubrics designed for each product will be used to formally assess the products.