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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue C ::: March 2005

Differentiating Instruction for a Multilevel Class

by Catherine Saldana
I'd slipped into a rut. I was doing whole-group instruction with a multilevel class, teaching to the middle of the class. This particular class was more challenging than others I have taught, not only because the students ranged from low-level adult basic education (ABE) to those eligible for the tests of general educational development (GED), but some students were undergoing drug detoxification and still suffering from effects of chronic drug abuse. Many of them also told me that they had been assigned to special education when they were younger. A fight between two women occurred in a class during group work, and I was reticent to try group work again. Individualized work resulted in about one-third to one-half of the class putting their heads on the table to sleep away our three-hour sessions. I was feeling drained and searching for new ideas when I heard about California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project (CALPPRO) workshops for adult educators.

The Differentiated Instruction (DI) workshops I chose focused on meeting the needs of students in a multilevel classroom. DI emphasizes the notion of viewing students as seekers of knowledge and teachers as facilitators. We learned how to discover students’ learning modalities, interests, and abilities, then create instruction based on this information. We learned grouping methods designed to engage the students with the information and with each other. The presenter, who teaches a multilevel class of English language learners, enthusiastically described her class’s success publishing a classroom newsletter: a project idea for implementing DI. Her enthusiasm was infectious. I came back to my classroom with renewed energy.


I decided to tailor an activity I had used a few years ago in a GED-level classroom to fit my current students. My students refer to this activity as “research report writing.” When I first introduced it, asking them to write one-page research reports on social studies and science topics contained in books that I brought into the class, many of them groaned and complained that they “couldn’t write.” And, indeed, one or two students in any given year of about 60 learners cannot form letters into coherent words, mostly because of spelling problems, but also because of problems with understanding where words begin and end. Most of my students, however, simply hate to write about things that they feel are not relevant to their lives. I had to institute some incentives to get them to put pen to paper: I used raffle tickets culminating in a weekly drawing for a California lottery “scratcher,” an investment of $1 per week on my part.

To enable students to work at their own levels, I ask students who are ready to take the GED to produce five-paragraph essays, complete with an introduction and a conclusion. I encourage other students to use their creativity to illustrate a topic; for example, I might ask them to illustrate a timeline on a historical topic, or copy an illustration, such as a diagram of a cell, and label it. I tell beginning-level writers that they can copy sentences right out of the book; this helps these students understand spacing between words and the use of punctuation marks. Over time, I encourage them to switch to their own words rather than copying. Sometimes, I stand next to students as they read their papers aloud and help with pronunciation.

I consider their learning styles when suggesting what they might do for their reports. Every few months I administer to new students a learning style assessment called the “Adult Learning Style Profile,” a one-page assessment published in 1995 by S.E. Pues, in Tarzana, CA. I have also used assessments from Thomas Armstrong’s adaptations of Dr. Howard Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences (see Focus on Basics , 3A, at http://www.ncsall.net/index.php?id=161). I emphasize that everyone is smart in different ways and that being “school smart” is only way to be smart.

What makes this activity “differentiated” is the types of writing — or even illustrating — the students do, and the use of books at various levels of reading ability. I have purchased about 150 books for this activity, with an emphasis on books on social studies or science that are physically large (but not long), filled with pictures, and catch my interest. Some of the books are intended for elementary school readers, and some of them are for readers at the high school level and beyond. Some weeks I bring in books on science topics such as anatomy, astronomy, chemistry, physics, weather, and geography. In other weeks I may bring in social studies books on American and world history, the Constitution, ancient civilizations, modern cultures, and law. At other times I bring in a mixed lot.


Since we are an open-entry program I get new students all the time, and they are a bit taken back by the enthusiasm of more established students. They call out preferences for the 30 to 35 books available at any time, and jump in to the writing of their research papers Not only do the all the students write one-page reports (about 200 words) on the subject of their choice, but most of them also read their reports out loud. The class is amazingly quiet for approximately 40 minutes as students struggle to produce papers of which they can be proud. Some of the students are also motivated to have their papers displayed on the bulletin board in the classroom.

As a result of their report writing, students seem more interested in topics presented in the GED textbook and other class room material. When we read our textbook together, they refer to their research reports: “Tim’s report on hurricanes told about a train being lifted and thrown far off its tracks due to the force of the wind,” or “Carly, didn’t you report on the rights of individuals to receive a fair trial when you covered law last week?” I also gain insight into the interests and topic preferences of my students and use that insight to plan future lessons. My students discover that books can be interesting and relevant. For example, one Native American student appeared to come alive in his research into early Native Americans. Prior to this assignment, he had expressed hostility towards me. I noticed a remarkable change when I brought the same book the following week and shared my appreciation for his interest and excellent research. One student, who relocated from a midwestern state and had not previously spoken up in class, spoke with enthusiasm about his experience living through a tornado when he had the chance to read his report. He seemed much more responsive in class after that. A number of pregnant students have eagerly researched the science behind what they are experiencing.

Implementing this activity and other DI techniques takes work and energy. I started this research report-writing activity, for example, with whole-group instruction. Then, as students became comfortable with the expectations I had of them, they needed less direction. This allowed me to spend more time working one-on-one with struggling students.

The Differentiated Instruction workshops inspired me to try other group activities in my current class. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the results. Students remember these special activities and request them over again. Most of the time, I let students form their own groups, but I have counted them off into heterogeneous groups and closely monitored tension and frustration levels. I know that I am one of many educators who hope to make a difference in not only the education of my students but also their under standing and tolerance of people in the world around them. Differentiated Instruction gives the students a chance to work with others who are very different from themselves. It is simply better teaching that results in better students who can make the world a little better place.

About the Author
Catherine Saldana has been teaching at San Bernardino Adult School (San Bernardino, CA) for more than six years. Prior to that, she worked in the business world for about eight years, culminating in self-employment as a marketing contractor. She finished a Master’s in Education and received school psychology and school counseling credentials in 2004.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL