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Dealing With Difference: Differentiated Instruction and Bloom's Taxonomy

[Update:] here is the .ppt

In Korea, teachers face a myriad of challenges managing their classroom, let alone delivering English language instruction. Faced with anywhere up to 45 learners in a single class, especially in public elementary, middle and high schools, responding to the language needs of all of these students can be a daunting task. This paper attempts to identify what constitutes a Mixed Ability Classroom and looks at how teachers might integrate Bloom's Taxonomy of lower and higher order thinking into their instruction.

What is a Mixed Ability Classroom?

This author argues that there are at least six conditions, of which some or all might be present, that characterize a mixed ability classroom. The first has to do with students' different learning styles. These could be defined broadly as "visual" (students who prefer or need imagery to support learning), "auditory" (students preferring sound as a medium to support learning, either through the sound of the teacher's own voice or through supplemental materials such as CD and MP3 recordings) and "tactile" (students who prefer a hands-on approach to their learning through use of manipulatives etc).

Secondly, in Korean public education, rarely are English language classes streamed by student proficiency level. The differing proficiencies occurring in a single classroom can vary both widely and wildly.

Third, students will have differing motivations as to why they are studying English. Even at the elementary level there will be some students with clear goals and reasoning for taking the study of English (or any other language) seriously while others will cite they are attending cram schools (in Korean 학원 "Hakwon") because their mother is making them do so. In adult classes motivations may range from the need to improve one's English skills to improve employment prospects, to retirees who are in class to pass the time and do something they see as productive.

A fourth difference, related to learning styles (above) are the student's different intelligences. This refers to Gardner's (1985) Theory of Multiple Intelligences, where students exhibit different strengths and weaknesses depending on their different intelligences. Those students more adept at visualizing things for instance will differ in their approach to learning and understanding language use from those students who are more kinesthetically inclined, who would rather act out or role-play a dialogue, over someone with a high Logical-Mathematical intelligence, who would prefer to analyze the grammar in what the interlocutors are saying.

The fifth difference is one rooted in human nature. Students are people with different interests and different personalities. Students will often "tune out" when the subject matter or context in which teachers present language is not interesting to them, while the different personalities present in the classroom will provide teachers with a lot to think about when assigning members to different groups, taking into account which students get along with which, and which students can fulfill leadership roles within groups.

Finally the sixth condition relates to the relative socio-economic background students come from. In Korea it is not uncommon to find elementary students who have spent time overseas in immersion environments in the same classroom as students who have no ongoing exposure to English other than the 45 minutes a week they spend with a Native Speaking Assistant Teacher.

Advantages and challenges

This situation provides both a number of advantages and some challenges when constructing and delivering lessons.

It forces teachers to take these differences into account. In English language teaching this author argues that one size does not fit all. But this means that by taking into account these differences teachers can also pay heed to some of the other things going on in the classroom beyond just teaching language (or indeed any other subject). Younger learners will also start to learn some important social skills in mixed ability classes. So-called "socialization" occurs with students having to cooperate (especially in group tasks) with others less proficient than themselves. Their different backgrounds set the stage for an exchange of experience they might not otherwise get, and this is done in the meaningful context of language learning and use leading to improved confidence in lower proficiency students, aided by their more proficient peers, who also have their language skills reinforced when taking on a teaching or peer-corrective role.

Unfortunately there are a number of challenges facing teachers as well. Designing lessons for mixed ability classes requires increased preparation time on the part of the teacher, requiring discipline in the selection and adaptation of the materials that are going to be used. Likewise, lower proficiency students are at risk of becoming overloaded when they are faced with materials they do not understand. Grouping students becomes an issue when teachers need to take into account both the proficiency levels and the personalities of the students in each group. Finally teachers can end up feeling guilty about making judgments about students based on their level, and for spending time with one student or group of students over another.

Differentiated Instruction

Therefore it is incumbent on teachers to find a way to address all of the needs of all of the students in a given class taking into account these six differences. Tomlinson (2000) provides a definition of differentiated instruction thus:

Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners.

She adds

Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching, in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.

So in what areas can the teacher respond to the kinds of variances described by Tomlinson, to reach out to individual learners and thus create the best learning experiences for those learners?

The Four Classroom Elements

The first element, Content refers to what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information. This is perhaps the least problematic of these elements for practicing teachers who, in conducting needs analysis, and assessing students through a combination of formative assessments and diagnostic testing, respond to difference amongst their students.

Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level include the use of reading materials at varying readability levels, such as Oxford's graded reader series, putting text materials on tape / MP3 to appeal to those more auditory inclined learners, presenting ideas through both auditory, visual, and where appropriate and practical, tactile means. This may include delivering instructions to students in multiple media such as telling the students what to do for a task, but supporting that as well with written instructions or a diagram showing them what to do. Starting a "Buddy reading" program where students read extensively and then share / recommend texts to each other may also be useful as well as meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners.

The second element, Process, refers to the activities in which the learner engages in, in order to make sense of or master the content. These are usually tasks or activities that have a high degree of focus on accuracy and in a classic Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) approach would be those tasks falling in the practice stage of the lesson.

Examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level include the following Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity. Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them. This could manifest itself in the form of station-teaching and could form part of a co-taught lesson, a situation familiar to many teachers in Korea where a Native Speaker and a Non-Native Speaker teacher are in the classroom at the same time. Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early. Offering manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them and Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.

The third element Products are those culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit of study. Here the overriding focus will be on students using language fluently and in a PPP lesson would fall in the production stage of the lesson.

Examples of differentiating products at the elementary level include giving students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels), using rubrics that match and extend students' varied skills levels, allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements such as target language, new lexis they have been exposed to in the lesson or a particular form or grammar point.

Finally the last element is the learning environment, in which instruction and learning are taking place and the way the classroom works and feels. This element may or may not already have been considered by teachers who are integrating classroom management strategies, into their lessons, particularly the influence or lack thereof, that the physical learning environment has on learners and on the goals (aims / objectives) teachers are setting for them.

Examples of differentiating learning environment at the elementary level include making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration, providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings, setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs, developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately, helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly and creating self-access spaces, particularly reading libraries, where learners can read extensively at their own pace and be exposed to a number of different text genres such as story books, magazines, newspapers and so forth.

Integrating Bloom's Taxonomy into the mixed ability classroom

Bloom's Taxonomy of lower and higher order thinking seems a natural answer to dealing with the mixed ability classroom. By identifying which level of the taxonomy students can deal with cognitively teachers can vary the kinds of tasks and questions used in lessons accordingly. Table 1 provides a summary of Bloom's Taxonomy as it relates to the language classroom.

It might be argued that Korean learners are perennially stuck in the lower order thinking levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Anecdotally, and generally, they show little aptitude beyond remembering (level 1), with few really understanding (level 2) the language they are using, with even fewer graduating to the ability to analyze (level 4) their language use apart from grammar forms, and seldom with regard to the meaning or the usage of the language. This is not necessarily their failing. Korean learners are a product of a approach to teaching (all subjects, not just language education) that puts a high priority on assessment, and thus wrote learning of items (note - not "knowledge") required to pass high stakes assessment such as the CSAT, held yearly at the end of the high school academic year. Little emphasis is placed on the application of language learned (level 3) save for inauthentic use in classroom situations, or, for those lucky learners, who are afforded time in English emersion environments. Korean learners are rarely afforded opportunities to evaluate information (level 5) or indeed to create (level 6) new language or products as a result of their "learning".

Thus Bloom's Taxonomy serves a double purpose in the English Language lesson. First it affords learners to engage in critical thinking in responding to language, something sorely lacking in the current Korean education system in this authors opinion. Moreover it provides teachers with a tool to effectively deal with mixed ability classes meeting the needs of lower proficiency learners with lower order thinking tasks allowing them to remember, understand and apply the language they are learning, wile also engaging higher proficiency learners in higher order thinking tasks where they analyze, evaluate and create products based on the language they have learned.

Application I

Consider the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. A common response to checking learner understanding of the story would be for teachers to create a set of reading (or listening) comprehension questions. For example

Whose porridge was too cold?

What are some of the things that Goldilocks did in the bear's house?

Where did she go for a walk?

These questions may generate a response showing understanding, learners may also use desired target language in their response. But they do not really show understanding per se, rather the learner has shown that they have remembered key elements of the story, and have done so with little or no context or understanding of the language they have used. Consider the following questions:

What was the main idea of this story?

Why did Goldilocks like little Bear’s bed best?

Describe Goldilocks’ personality.

These questions, at level 2 of Bloom's Taxonomy, ask learners to demonstrate much more of an understanding of the story, and the context and ideas expressed by it. Arguably though, students would still only have to use information garnered from the story in order to answer these. There is no production of new language or ideas. Moving further up the taxonomy teachers could ask learners to apply their language resources by asking the following questions:

What would you say to Goldilocks?

Draw a picture of what the bear's house looked like.

Show how Goldilocks did each action.

These questions begin to get students to draw on their own background knowledge as well as the new knowledge activated by the story and apply it to their responses. Not only that, but we also start to see attention being paid to different learning styles as well as proficiencies. Question number one  appeals to verbal linguistic / auditory learners, question two appeals to visual / visual-spacial learners and question number three introduces an element of Total Physical Response (TPR) for tactile / bodily-kinesthetic learners.

Thus we can see that the lower order thinking levels of Bloom's Taxonomy can be used to address the needs of lower proficiency level students engaging them in the language presented in the lesson, without overwhelming them or increasing the cognitive burden they face.

More proficient learners can engaged in tasks commiserate to the higher order thinking levels of the taxonomy. Questions such as

Why were the bears angry with Goldilocks?

Compare Goldilocks to any friend of yours.

Describe the differences between Baby Bear and Papa Bear.

Ask students to analyze the content of the story. Tasks and questions at this level often ask students to compare and contrast information they have, while looking for patterns and putting information in the correct sequence. They may also be suited to learners who have more background knowledge about the context and indeed, to those learners more confident in their language use. Questions and tasks that get learners to evaluate information, in this case about Goldilocks might include

What was your favorite part of this story? Why?

What did she learn by going into that house?

Would you have gone into the bears’ house? Why?

Here learners make judgements based on argument and comparison and draw significantly on their own experiences and background knowledge, things that lower proficiency learners may be unable to do in the face of simply having to comprehend the language being used. Finally questions and tasks that require learners to respond with new products could be used in a mixed class for those learners of the highest proficiency. For our example of Goldilocks these might include:

Make a cartoon based on Goldilocks.

Write a new ending for this story.

Draw a cover to this book.

These tasks have learners apply the information they have in new situations, develop new understanding and hypothesize the impact of different results on the information they have.

Application II

Cubing is a term that has been coined to describe the use of cubes (or dice) with activities on each of the cubes faces that are linked to the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. After being exposed to a listening or reading text students roll the cube and do the activity on the cube that is face up. Different cubes can be used for different proficiency level learners, or, students finding a task to cognitively burdensome can re-roll the cube.

The Dear-To-Differentiate wiki at gives the following examples of use for differentiating based on student readiness, level and interest:

Example #1:  

To differentiate according to different levels of student readiness, two or more different cubes could be created with the same commands but with tasks at different levels of difficulty. Using "Describe" as the command, the task might be to describe the rainforest using as much information as you can and involving as many of your senses as possible in your description. Using the same command, you might ask the students to describe how their life would change if they moved to the canopy of the rainforest, using as many of their senses as possible in their description and being sure to explain why these changes would take place.

Example #2:

To differentiate an activity according to interest or learning profile, you might set up several cubes for a single review activity. Two or three faces on all the cubes might be identical. The remaining faces on one of the cubes might contain tasks appropriate for students who enjoy writing (creating a poem, writing a journal entry, creating a pun). Another cube might be better for oral learners, with tasks such as telling a story, presenting arguments for or against, or writing a song. You might create a third cube with activities which appeal to students with spatial strengths-making models, drawing or sketching, or making a Venn diagram with pictures rather than words.

Cubing is a fun activity that can address the different needs of students in a mixed ability class and can also be incorporated into different teaching approaches; as part of the production section of the classic PPP lesson, as a post-text task / extension in receptive skills development or as part of the task or in the reporting or extension stages of a Task Based Lesson.


Mixed Ability Classes are a reality for teachers of English, especially in Korea. A "one-size-fits-all" approach to language instruction simply does not apply, and nor should it, even in those classes where students are streamed by proficiency. Teachers must be able to identify and understand the factors that create the differences in their classes and realize that they are many and varied, above and beyond just student proficiency. Differing backgrounds, learning styles, motivations, intelligences and interests all contribute to the mixed classroom.

Responding to these differences can be done in relation to four core elements of instruction. Teachers need to think about content, what information they are delivering to learners and how learners will access it, process, those tasks that learners undertake to gain familiarity and mastery of the language, products, or those tasks learners do to improve the fluency of the language they are using as well as the physical classroom environment and how it might be harnessed to differentiate instruction.

Using Bloom's Taxonomy as a basis for not only introducing critical thinking tasks to the classroom, but also as a tool to differentiate instruction is fundamental. This can be done by altering approaches to how students respond to texts as described here with the example of Goldilocks and integrating them into lesson planning along with tasks like cubing to create the best learning experience possible for learners.

Cited Works

Cubing,, retrieved 20 November 2012

Gardner, H. E. (1985). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic books.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

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Reader Comments (4)

Fascinating paper! I was happy to see the focus on Bloom's Taxonomy, a notion to which I was exposed back in the 1980s during my own pedagogical coursework. I swear by that taxonomy. Interesting to note, however, that the status of "evaluation," which sits at the top of the cognitive pyramid, has been debated for years. A good example of why: if you give a baby a spoonful of mashed vegetables, and the baby spits the veggies out, that's an evaluative moment, and it requires no high-level cognition on the baby's part. By this argument, then, evaluation should be re-conceived as a parallel process, leaving synthesis at the top of the cognitive hierarchy.

I don't mention the above to dispute anything you've written; I'm in almost complete agreement with you. But I thought it was a bit of interesting trivia, and just wanted to share.

Rock on!

November 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Kim

These are all things that should - I'd say must - be addressed in a diverse classroom, and all classrooms are diverse. But differentiated instruction still addresses the needs of an ill-conceived system, misses the big picture:

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric

@Eric - Don't get me wrong - Differentiated instruction is not the answer to all the problems we face in a mixed ability classroom. What I propose here is a reasonable and pragmatic response to having to deal with a difficult, albeit interesting, situation that a lot of teachers in Korea find themselves in.

I don't think there is a silver bullet. And indeed I don't think just this approach by itself offers an answer in the whole. Rather this, in combination with all sorts of approaches and ideas (including ZPD for instance, ideas around comprehensible input too), is probably the way to go.

At least that's what I think.

December 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterStafford

Thank you for the post! Each year it becomes more and more challenging to come up with differentiated instruction strategies. So this summer I have decided to reach out to the internet for some help. The classroom is always changing so it is nice to see what other people are doing!

July 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMargo McCann

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