Differentiated stations

Promising Practices, Teaching

Differentiated Stations

A learning strategy for the mixed ability classroom

It’s the end of the period, and as the clock strikes noon you can hear students from other classrooms running down the halls, excited for class to be over. In my classroom, the students are so focused that most of them haven’t noticed it’s time for lunch. One of my colleagues walks past my class and stops in the doorway, surprised to see students still in the room. “How do you do it?” she asks in shock.

As teachers, we have two main responsibilities. First, to make sure students are happy and safe, and second, to accommodate students to the best of our ability so that they can succeed to their fullest potential. For the latter to occur, students must be engaged in the learning process, but this can be a challenging feat with a class of unique individuals. The philosophy of differentiation suggests that “the same classroom experience often affects different learners in different ways depending on their gender, culture, interests, life experiences, learning preferences etc.”[1] Consequently, I have adapted my teaching strategy to accommodate my diverse class of adult literacy level English students.

The strategy that has worked best for me is learning stations and differentiation. The goal of differentiated instruction is to provide opportunities for more students to succeed, compared to the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning. The station rotation model, when used effectively, can help to facilitate differentiated instruction based on interest, readiness and students’ learning needs. In addition, stations allow students to learn in a non-threatening environment while engaged in activities of speaking, writing and collaborating, which consequently stimulate higher order thinking.[2] I have found learning stations to be an exceptional strategy, which not only helps to accommodate for large class sizes, but also allows me the time to work closely with smaller groups of students.

Differentiated groups based on readiness

In the first two weeks of the session, I get to know my students. I observe and collect samples of their reading, writing, speaking and comprehension abilities, which allows me to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Based on these observations, I divide my class into three groups.

The red students are the most advanced group, followed by the intermediate green group, and the yellow group, which make up the students with the lowest literacy levels. These levels are not fixed; I can make changes throughout the session. Also, there are a few students who have two colour groups. For example, a student who is advanced in oral language could be intermediate in written production. In that case, the student will be part of a different group depending on the activity of that day.

While the planning for three levels may seem time consuming, it’s actually not that much extra work. Although the skill level or method of production (listening, reading, writing, speaking) may be slightly different for each group, the topic and essential knowledge remain the same.

I usually start by creating a lesson plan for my intermediate group (green). Then I use that same base lesson plan and make minor alterations to make it more challenging for my advanced students (red) and less challenging for my lower level group (yellow). These alterations are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which take into account the complexity of higher order thinking.[3] I have found that my lower-level group requires the most attention and scaffolding, especially at the beginning when they are trying to understand the activity or task. However, the other groups still require an explanation. By providing clear written instructions, my intermediate and advanced groups are usually capable of beginning the task on their own. The intermediate students often want validation in the middle of the task to make sure they are on the right track, while the advanced group usually requires my attention for further explanations and questions at the end. The main advantages of teaching in stations is that it helps me to meet each student’s unique learning needs by personalizing instruction, circulating through the class, and helping each group while the other groups work together on different tasks.[4]

The station rotation model

In the station rotation model, students engage in several 20-minute activities in small groups. When the timer goes off, they get up and move to a new station. The stations offer engaging hands-on activities while promoting oral interaction and can be adapted for all subjects and levels.

In my class, I organize stations while paying particular attention to grouping. Depending on the activities, sometimes I group my students based on levels of readiness (red, green, yellow), and other times I mix them up, grouping students of multiple levels together using my “groups” board. Using this method, “Teachers are able to match the right student with the right content at the right time.”[5]

When setting up my classroom for stations, each table has the necessary materials prepared in advance, as well as clear, short, step-by-step instructions. Many teachers in all grade levels have found they have to repeat instructions multiple times. In my experience, written instruction sheets are extremely helpful and have made a huge difference in the success and fluidity of the stations. I then prepare a Google timer that goes off every 20-25 minutes. When the timer goes off, everyone rotates clockwise to the next station.

Example of stations for language learning

Listening station: Students listen to a short audio or video clip on iPads. They can listen as many times as they want and pause whenever necessary. Then, based on their colour groups (level of readiness), they have different tasks to complete. Red will listen and take note of key information on a blank chart (“application” level of Bloom’s), Green will listen and classify specific key information outlined in a chart (“comprehension” level of Bloom’s), and Yellow will recognize and fill in missing words from the written transcript (“knowledge” level of Bloom’s).

Conversation station: In groups, students discuss different conversation questions based on the topic or grammar point we are learning about. Red group students are encouraged to ask follow-up questions to keep the conversation going (application). Green level students are given speaking prompts or vocabulary lists to assist them and Yellow students are asked to answer questions verbally with short answers. It is very simple to differentiate by interest, simply by providing students with a series of questions and allowing them to choose the ones that interest them.

Writing station: Students are given pictures of different scenes, again differentiated by interest. Red students are asked to write a short story together on chart paper about the picture while focusing on a specific verb tense (synthesis). Green will be writing sentences (application). Yellow students will be asked to brainstorm a list of vocabulary words they see in the picture (knowledge).

Teacher station: For this station, my students come with questions of their own. It gives me the opportunity to focus on any difficulties they may have and provide formative assessment. While I’m working with a group, the rest of the class helps each other since I am unavailable to answer any questions. For that reason, I think this station should only be introduced once students are comfortable with the station rotation model.

Extension station: I put a small collection of short stories at this station for any early finishers. Students who need practice reading can choose a levelled reader on a topic of their choice, and those who need practice listening can listen to short audio stories on iPads by choosing a story according to their colour level and scanning the QR code. This station is extremely valuable because not only is it differentiated by interest, readiness and learning needs, it also helps keep the flow of the classroom and occupies students until the next rotation.

Overall, the differentiated station rotation model has helped me maintain a structured but student-centered classroom that accommodates students with a variety of learning styles. While all are engaged in activities matched to their interest and level, I am able to work with small groups of students and give them more individualized attention. For these reasons, I have definitely noticed significant progress in my students’ learning.

Best of all, I have had a lot of positive feedback from my students. One student told me, “I like working in stations because we can hear many people’s opinions about different subjects. There is better interaction between small groups with the teacher, more opportunity to talk, ask questions and improve our pronunciation.” My students enjoy the activities and often don’t even realize how much they are learning in the process.

Learn more on video

Watch a video to find out more about Lindsay’s use of stations and to see her classroom in action



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Photo: original courtesy Lindsay Harrar

First published in Education Canada, December 2017

[1] C. A. Tomlinson and M. B. Imbeau, Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2010).

[2] E. Dolan and J. Collins, “We Must Teach More Effectively: Here are four ways to get started,” Molecular Biology of the Cell 26, no. 12 (2015): 2151-2155.

[3] Dolan and Collins, “We Must Teach More Effectively.”

[4] J. Watson, Blending Learning: The evolution of online and face-to-face education from 2008–2015 (The International Association for K–12 Online Learning, 2015).

[5] Watson, Blending Learning.

Meet the Expert(s)

Lindsay Harrar Education Canada Magazine

Lindsay Harrar


Lindsay Harrar holds a Masters of Education from McGill University with a specialization in Inclusive Education. She is currently teaching English Language ...

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