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“Teaching up” as a Strategy to Bring Differentiated Instruction into Your Classroom

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

When it comes to your students, up is more

The idea that students have different learning preferences and the challenge to leave no student behind are neither new nor surprising, and differentiated learning (Tomlinson, 1999), the idea that instruction should be adapted to meet all student needs, is one approach for mitigating those challenges in a classroom. However, with such a wide array of student backgrounds and abilities in any adult classroom, applying differentiated learning might seem daunting for even the most seasoned instructor.

“Teaching up” is one strategy that can be applied to class or group work which employs differentiated learning strategies in a rather novel way. Tomlinson, Moon, & Imbeauargue that in most group scenarios, instructors will assign a task that is at the class median ability level. After all, giving too much of a challenge will frustrate lower-level students, and more advanced students can easily be assigned supplemental work.

Additionally, having higher-level students help to provide additional support to other students during group work helps to reinforce learning across all levels. Tomlinson, Moon & Imbeau argue, however, that “the combination of high expectations and high support has much greater potential to enhance learning for a very broad range of students.”

Rather than aiming for the middle, teaching up approaches mixed ability classrooms by assigning a task that is challenging for the most advanced student in the classroom and planning supportive as well as extension activities to meet advanced learning objectives. Lower level students can be led through challenging tasks through scaffolded activities, modeling, or adapting content to a more familiar topic.

Teaching up is a way to meet learning goals without having to sacrifice quality. Advanced learning objectives can still be met if tasks are adaptable. For instance, say you would like to have students write an argumentative essay. Rather than providing a prompt that tasks students with arguing an advanced concept, you can have students select a topic that they are interested in. The task still requires students to engage with an advanced learning objective (writing an argumentative essay), without lowering the level of the task to accommodate lower-level students. Adapting the content to something within their wheelhouse allows all students, regardless of proficiency, experience, or ability, to succeed.

Teaching up is a way to implement differentiated learning in a language classroom that allows all students to meet your high expectations.

by Kimberly Rehak for Express English 412

#teachingup #differentiatedlearning #adulteducation


Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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