Instructional Strategies – For the Teachers



We know that students learn best when they are truly engaged in what they are learning, when they have the opportunity to explore, debate, discuss, examine, defend, and experiment with the concepts and skills they are ready to learn.


Students learn best when instruction is:

Appropriately Challenging

  • Kids (and adults!) learn best when they start at their current level of understanding and are challenged – with support (teacher, peers, materials, etc.) – just beyond what they are comfortable doing on their own. (See Zone of Proximal Development)
  • The student’s background knowledge and current skill level are more important than their age/grade level in determining what they are ready to learn.
  • Use a variety of data (assessment scores, classroom performance, etc.) to identify what each student is ready to work on and plan instruction accordingly, modifying content or activities as needed. Use daily informal formative assessment strategies to monitor student progress and verify that students are demonstrating a gain in understanding of the skills and concepts.

Based on Real-World Problems and Situations

  • Students need to understand how the skills and concepts they are learning fit into their lives. When will they need to use decimals? How does democracy affect them? How will they benefit from being able to better understand what they read? Connect the skills and concepts to things that already know. Make them relevant.


  • You (and your students) should be able to explain the purpose of each activity or assignments. Why is it worth spending time on? What are they expected to learn?

Meaningful and Interesting

  • We shouldn’t be waiting until spring before we begin the “fun” activities. We know that these activities are the ones that students love, that they remember.
  • Use engaging activities all year:
    • Use science experiments to practice math skills
    • Use interesting current events or social studies projects to work on reading and language
    • Use art projects to practice math concepts such as ratio, proportion and patterns
    • Get kids moving!
      • Working on measurement? Go outside and measure how far kids can jump, how fast they can run. Measure shadows, the diameter of a light post, the distance around the building.
      • Talking about point of view? Have students stand on their chairs.
      • Reading out loud? Have students stand up and walk around the classroom in a circle as they read along.
      • Practice vocabulary or math facts as students walk, one per sidewalk square or stair step.
  • Kids will learn the basic skills better when they have the chance to practice them in a meaningful, interesting context… And these types of activities make teaching more fun and fulfilling, and make school a more pleasant place to be.

Remember: No one instructional method will work for all students, for all teachers, or in all subject areas.
 Think of these ideas as places to start in figuring out what works most effectively for you and your students.


Strategy Ideas:

Determine if Students are Ready to Move On

Discuss & Examine Events, People, Concepts and Ideas

Put Students in Groups

Physical Activity Increases Engagement and Memory Retention

Opportunities for Students to Learn from Each Other

Make Activities and Materials More Simple or More Challenging

Students Discuss What They Think Based on What They’ve Learned

Record Info to Increase Understanding and for Later Reference



Alternative Assessments:

Prep Time Varies; Monitor Progress, Adapt Content

    • “Assessment” can refer to end-of-unit tests or projects, quizzes and graded class assignments as well as informal progress checks throughout each day
    • Wide variety of possibilities, including:
      • Use of different checklists or rubrics, or similar rubrics with adapted scales
      • Use of different tests/assessments
      • Adapt existing test/assessment so that specific parts of the test only have to be completed by specific groups of students
      • Allow a student to respond to test questions orally instead of in writing, or typing on a computer instead of writing by hand
      • Allow a student to respond by demonstrating the skill (For example, a student may use a light bulb, battery and some wire to build an electric circuit rather than drawing a diagram or writing a paragraph about it.)
        Assess what is most important for the student to know. Is is more important that he know what a circuit is or more important that he can write a description?
  • Minimal Prep Time Version:  Include as part of the assessment several questions of varying complexity or focused on different aspects of the concept, and then allow students to make some choices about which ones they answer. (Example:  Students are required to answer question 1 but can choose from questions 2-4 for their second response.)


Anchor Activities (or Sponge Activities):

Prep Time Varies; Monitor Progress, Work Together, Share Ideas & Opinions, Take Notes

  • Designed for students to work on either immediately at the beginning of class time or after their class work has been completed, so that their instructional time is maximized
  • Possibilities include:
    • Have students respond in writing or out-loud with a partner to a question on the board about the previous day’s lesson
    • Have students draw a graphic organizer to be used for notetaking later in class
    • Provide students with notes or vocabulary to copy for use as a reference during the day’s lesson
  • Beneficial for classroom management as well as instruction
  • Intended to extend or deepen understanding of a concept or skill, not just to be busy work
  • Resources, Examples and More Information


Appointment Clocks:

Requires Some Prep Time; Form Groups, Get Moving!, Work Together
    • Used to quickly put students in pairs or small groups
    • Make a copy of the clock for each student. The names of other students go at each hour mark around the clock so that asking students to find their “1 o’clock” partner puts the students in pairs, for example.
    • Allow students to choose partners for some times on the clock, but decide some of the partners ahead of time so that you know, for example, that the 2 o’clock partners are students with similar skills in reading or that the 5 o’clock partners have similar interests.


Centers (or Stations):

More Prep Time Required; Work Together, Adapt Content, Share Ideas & Opinions

  • Centers can be used to arrange various activities and assignments by level of difficulty or by interest.


  • By Academic Skill Level: Set up 3-4 experiments that deal with the same concept, but that vary in complexity. Lower-level students may work on the experiment with fewer steps while higher-level students work on a more complicated task.
  • By Learning Style: Set up stations focused on the same concept but designed for different modalities. Auditory learners may listen to a recording of text while visual learners examine maps and posters and kinesthetic learners use manipulatives.
  • By Interest: Set up stations focusing that provide additional information about and enrichment of specific components of the concepts being studied. Allow students to choose which component they spend their time working on.



Choice Boards:

Prep Time Varies; Form Groups, Get Moving!, Work Together

  • White_Board_Example_marginOptions posted for students to choice from after they have completed their classwork. Choices can be individualized based on student need or interest.
  • Helps with classroom management because students know what their choices are; less time wasted.
  • Print choices on cards and glue magnets on the back so the choices can easily be put up or taken down based on what’s appropriate for the time available (ie., if student works requires a quiet room, choices may be limited to “silent reading” or “work on homework,” etc.





Prep Time Varies; Compare & Contrast, Form Groups, Work Together, Adapt Content, Share Ideas & Opinions


  • Six commands or questions, written on the sides of a cube. Students roll the cube and respond. Cubes may be used to differentiate by readiness or interest.
  • Ideas:
    • Describe, Compare, Contrast, Apply, Predict, Imagine – Use with any two or three things/concepts/ideas (people from history, current events, mathematical formulas, elements from the periodic table, geometric shapes, countries, chocolate bars – the possibilities are endless!
    • Who, What, When, Where, Why, How – Have students come up with questions about a current topic of study. Students can exchange questions with others to answer.
    • Sample Cubing Lesson: Primary Reading – Concepts of Print
    • Create two or three different cubes, each with questions at different levels of complexity. Assign students to work in small groups and respond (on paper or out loud) to the questions on their assigned cube.
    • Use to determine where each student will start when rotating through multiple activities, to randomly create student groups for an assignment
    • Minimal Prep Time Version:Write the six commands/questions on the board, numbered 1-6. Have the students roll a dice to determine which one to respond to.


Curriculum Compacting:

More Prep Time Required; Form Groups, Adapt Content

  • Used for individual or small groups of students with advanced knowledge of the concepts or skills to be studied
  • Identify the skills or aspects of the concepts with which the students are already proficient. Spend less time on those parts of the curriculum, allowing the students to focus on what the really need to learn and understand.


Exit Ticket/Ticket Out the Door:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Form Groups, Share Ideas & Opinions

  • At the end of a class period ask students to take out a piece of scrap paper, or hand out blank index cards (keep a stack readily available) and ask students a question related to that day’s lesson. Students write their responses on the paper or index card which they then hand to the teacher at the door as they leave the classroom.
  • See “Reflection and Response” for question ideas
  • Use the student responses to determine if they need additional practice on the skill/concept
  • Student responses may be used to create small groups for the next day’s lesson – grouping students with similar levels of understanding of the skill/concept or with similar (or differing) opinions or views on the topic


Four Sides:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Form Groups, Get Moving!, Work Together, Share Ideas & Opinions

  • On each wall of the classroom, post signs that say: “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” “Strongly Disagree”
  • Present students with a statement related to a concept or topic currently being studied
  • Have students respond to the statement by moving and standing under the sign that represents their opinion
  • Give the students 1-2 minutes to discuss with in their groups why they chose that place to stand
  • Optional: Have students partner with someone from another side and try to persuade them to change their opinion
  • Small groups for an activity can be formed by having the students work with the others who chose the same side or by taking one person from each side to create groups of four with differing viewpoints.


Grade as You Go:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Work Together, Adapt Content

  • Use with classwork involving repetitive practice, such as a math or language worksheet
  • As students work (alone or with a partner), circulate around the classroom checking answers on the students’ work. Mark correct answers on their papers with the tip of a colored marker (Crayola “Stampers” work particularly well).
  • Benefits:
    • Students get immediate feedback on what they are doing correctly.
    • Students can go back to the answers that weren’t correct and try again. (This works well when the students are in partners; they can talk through what they’ve done and help each other.) Identifying their mistakes now will help reduce the chance of repeating the same mistakes again later.
    • If students are struggling, they will know that their answers aren’t correct sooner rather than later and can work to identify the mistakes they’re making instead of spending the class period repeatedly getting the problems wrong (and potentially reinforcing the incorrect way to solve the problem).
    • If a student is working quickly and getting all of the problems correct (demonstrating a good understanding of the skill), you may choose not to require him to complete the assignment, but to move on to something else instead.
    • You will know right away if the class as a whole is ready to move on to the next skill.
    • When the assignments are turned in, they’re already graded!


Heads Together:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Get Moving!, Work Together, Share Ideas & Opinions

  • Works especially well for students already working in small groups, especially if they are sitting at a table or cluster of desks together
    • How It Works:
      1. Present a question to the class. Announce “Heads Together!”
      2. Students stand up and lean in toward the others in the small group – literally heads together!
      3. In their group, students discuss answers to the question
      4. After a minute or two, announce “Heads Apart!”
      5. Students end their discussion and sit back down.
      6. Follow up with whole group discussion and continue with the lesson.
  • Benefits:
    • Every student participates
    • Standing up – that little bit of physical activity – can be enough to increase student engagement and get their focus back on the work at hand
    • Leaning together helps keep the noise level down while so many student groups are having conversations at once
    • Can be used as needed with no prior planning – If a lesson is dragging, if students are distracted, tired, or not paying attention, use this strategy to get them back on track and refocused.


Homework Options:

Prep Time Varies; Monitor Progress, Adapt Content
    • Assign homework based on a student’s level of readiness. All students may be working on the same concept or skill, but are assigned homework of varying level of difficulty.
    • Another option: Students may be given assignments focusing on different skills, based on their individual needs, to give them a chance to practice the skills each student needs most.



Requires Minimal Prep Time; Form Groups, Work Together, Adapt Content, Take Notes

    • Works well with small groups needing to cover large amounts of material
    • Divide the material to be covered in 3-5 parts. Put the same number of students in each small group. One student is each group is assigned to cover one of the parts of the materials. The student’s job is to become the “expert” on their portion of the material so that they can then share what they’ve learned with the rest of their group.
    1. Students read their assigned material independently
    2. Students meet with those from other groups that read the same material to discuss what was most important and what needs to be taught to their groups. (optional)
    3. Students meet with their small groups and to share what they’ve learned with each other. Follow with whole group discussion of the most important points.


KWL Charts:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Share Ideas & Opinions, Take Notes

    • Columns: “What I Know,” “What I Want to Know,” and “What I Learned”
    • Can be used at the beginning of a unit to assess students’ background knowledge and interest in the topic, or it can be used at various points throughout the unit to assess student progress. Students can track their own progress and help determine what they most need to work on next.


Learning Contracts:

Requires More Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Form Groups, Adapt Content

    • Works well with individual students or small groups in need of a challenge
    • Detailed list of directions and assignments for the student to complete within a set period of time. Teacher and student work together to establish contract requirements and due dates. Can be effectively used to develop goal-setting.
    • Can be used to practice time-management as well. Provide students with a blank calendar have students schedule days/class periods when they will work on each part of the contract in order to meet the final due date. Students working on the same part of the contract during the same class perdiod may have the option of working togther.


Literature Circles:

Requires Some Prep Time; Compare & Contrast, Form Groups, Get Moving!, Work Together, Adapt Content, Share Ideas & Opinions

    • Small groups of students, arranged by readiness level or interest, reading and responding to a novel together
    • Idea: The whole class may be reading novels by the same author or that have similar themes, but each literature circle group has a novel that is specifically appropriate for them. This allows for whole group discussion as well as small group work.
      • A few times a year, allow students to choose their own groups. Present them with the novels to be studied for a particular unit (basic plot summary, reading level, book length, etc.) and let students choose which book they are each most interested in. They’ll then work with others who chose the same book.
    • Encourage groups to move their desks into a circle, to sit together on the floor or to otherwise move out of their normal seating to encourage discussion and an emphasis on actively working as a learning team instead of more passively listening to a teacher


Menus (or Agendas):

Requires Some Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Work Together, Adapt Content

  • List of assignments, activities, or projects a student will work on during a set amount of time (ie. one class period, one week, one unit). Students may choose the order which they complete the work.

Menu Format:

    • “Main Course” Items: Assignments that the student is required to complete
    • “Side Dish” Items: Students choose 2-3 assignments from a list of options
    • “Dessert” Items: Optional items that students may choose for additional enrichment or practice
  • Agenda format may be structured more loosely, such as the low-prep example below
  • Like Learning Contracts, Menus/Agendas can be used to practice time-management as well. Provide students with a blank calendar have students schedule days/class periods when they will work on each part of the contract in order to meet the final due date. Students working on the same part of the contract during the same class period may have the option of working together.
  • Materials/Resources:  Reading Agenda – Novel Study (Word)


Mini White Boards:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Form Groups, Work Together, Share Ideas & Opinions

    • Provide each student with a small white board (10-12 inches square), a dry erase marker and a tissue (to wipe the board clean between questions). Ask a question or write a problem on the board. Ask students to respond on their white boards, which they hold up once they have an answer written.
    • Can also be used for questions based on opinion or that potentially have multiple right answers. After students hold up their answers, have them find a partner with a different answer. Give them each one minute to explain to their new parters why their own answer is the right one. Have the students come back together and discuss any changes in opinion.
    • Or, have students form small groups with others who gave the same or similar answers. Use these student groups for the day’s lesson.
  • Benefits:
    • You will get immediate feedback about which students understand the concept or skill and which students may need some additional support.
    • All students participate. Holding up the answers increases the accountability and engagement for everyone.
  • Materials/Resources:
    • Cheaper White Boards: At your local home improvement store, buy a large, plain white piece of the material used for shower walls. Ask to have it cut into 10-12 inch squares (enough to have a class set). Cheap, but they can last for years.
    • Another Option: Instead of a white board, use a heavy-duty, clear page protector with white cardstock inside. As a bonus, you can layer the plain white cardstock with graph paper, a black-line master of a map, or a copy of whatever students need for the skill they’re practicing.


Orbitals (Independent Study Projects):

Requires More Prep Time; Adapt Content

  • 3-4 week independent study projects intended to provide enrichment
  • Effective for use with individual students who have already mastered the concepts the class will be working on. Provides an opportunity for them to focus on a part of the concept or separate topic of particular interest to the student (possibility something he or she is passionate about). Allow the student to share with the class what he or she has learned at the conclusion of the project. For example, while the class studies the Civil War, a student who is already very knowledgeable about that war might focus on specific details related to a particular battle or person involved.


Question Choices:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Form Groups, Adapt Content
    • During whole group discussions, include questions that everyone in the class is able to answer, as well as more complex questions that only a few students may be able to answer. Adjust the difficulty of the questions depending on which student will be called on to respond.
    • Also see Alternative Assessment Minimal Prep Time Version


Reading Buddies:

Requires Some Prep Time; Get Moving!, Work Together, Adapt Content

  • Pair each student with another of a different reading level (low with medium, medium with high) for partner reading and discussion
  • Also, pairing upper grade students with lower grade students, such as having a fourth grade class buddy up with a first grade class, provides reading practice for all students and can be fun and motivating for both groups.


Reflection and Response:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Share Ideas & Opinions

    • Provide opportunity for students to respond and reflect on day’s learning. Helps you to know where they stand for planning next lessons. Increases memory retention for students.
    • Keep a stack of blank index cards on hand to give to students at the end of class. Have students respond on the card to something from the day’s lesson.
    • Ideas:
      • Draw a sketch that demonstrates _______________ (a key concept from that day’s lesson)
      • What one thing from today’s lesson would you like to know more about?
      • What one thing from today’s lesson did you find most interesting?
      • Ask a question from the day’s lesson content.
      • Ask a question that requires higher-level thinking or connections to “real-life”:
        • Which of the generals leading this battle showed the most bravery? Why?
        • How would this math skill would be used in science? in cooking? in construction?
        • Which of these people/ideas/concepts/events is the most important/useful/worth remembering? Why?



Requires More Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Form Groups, Adapt Content

    • Works well with individuals and small groups when working on instruction of specific skills
    • Identify specific levels of complexity within the development of a particular skill/concepts. Match students, by ability, with the appropriate level of skill; students at the same level may work in flexible groups. The goal is to have each student move up at least one level.


Sticky Note Graphs:

Requires Minimal Prep Time; Compare & Contrast, Get Moving!, Work Together, Share Ideas & Opinions

    • Give each student a small stack of sticky notes (5-10 notes, depending on how many responses you anticipate)
    • Present students with a question related to the content. Questions with multiple correct answers or that ask for opinions or votes work well.
    • Students write one answer or response on each sticky note
    • Question Ideas:
      • Which animal is most important to sustaining the jungle ecosystem?
      • What are your three favorite books that you read last year?
      • What activities should we plan for our class picnic?
    • The Process:
      • After students finish writing their answers, have them place all of their sticky notes in a designated spot on a wall or white board.
      • Students work together to find and group sticky notes with the same or similar answers (stick the notes in clusters or in lines to create a bar graph)
      • Discuss which responses where most common and why
    • Optional: Leave the sticky notes on the wall during additional lessons on the concept/topic. After students have learned more, have give them the opportunity to change their response (and have them explain their reason for wanting to change their answer).



Requires More Prep Time; Compare & Contrast, Form Groups, Work Together, Adapt Content, Share Ideas & Opinions, Take Notes

  • Nine commands or questions, arranged like a tic-tac-toe board. Students choose three to complete, creating a row vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.
  • Student choice allows for differentiation by interest and/or learning style. Think-tac-toe boards for different levels of readiness can also be created and given to different groups of students.
  • Students may also be given choices as to which assignment square they complete during a particular class period. Students who choose the same assignment may form a small group for that day.
  • Materials/Resources: Think-Tac-Toe for middle grade novel study – 2 Levels (Word)



Requires Minimal Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Compare & Contrast, Work Together, Share Ideas & Opinions
  • Provides opportunities for all students to respond and be involved during whole group discussion
  1. Ask a question or propose a problem
  2. Students first think of an answer or idea on their own (2-3 minutes)
  3. Next, students share, and possibly revise, their responses by sharing with a partner
  4. Then open discussion to the whole group to share and compare answers and ideas


Tiered Activities:

Prep Time Varies; Monitor Progress, Form Groups, Work Together, Adapt Content

    • 3-4 different activities of different levels of complexity and difficulty, but with a common goal or end result. For example, different groups of students may be working on science experiments of different levels of difficulty, but all with the purpose of learning about the food chain.
      1. Begin by planning the mid-level activity, what you might normally plan for your whole class.
      2. Then add a level of difficulty or complexity to make the same lesson more challenging for higher-level students.
      3. Simplify or add resources to the original activity to better meet the needs and fill in any learning gaps for lower-level students.
    • Students may work in small groups with others at the same level for a particular lesson or throughout a particular unit.
    • Tiered activities can lead to effective whole group discussion and comparison of results.
    • Minimal Prep Time Version: Some curriculum come with leveled workbooks. There may be a “Reteaching” workshop that explains a skill step-by-step, a “Practice” workbook that provides problems to solve related to the skill, and an “Enrichment” workbook that extends the skill in some way. Assign students to the appropriate workbook page so that every student can practice the same skill at his or her own level of readiness. Or, briefly describe the assignments and then let the students choose which level they’d like to complete; their choices may provide some insight into their comfort level with the skill.


Tiered Rubrics:

Requires More Prep Time; Monitor Progress, Adapt Content

    • 2-3 rubrics are developed for one project, and given to students based on readiness. This provides all students with appropriate skills to focus on and a chance to be successful.
    • Ideas:
      • Include the same categories, but adjust the point value and/or required elements, or
      • Add additional categories or requirements to increase the challenge and take off or reduce the requirements (leaving only on what’s most important for them to learn) for kids needing assistance
      • Use rubrics with increasing difficulty or requirements over successive projects as a means of identifying areas of student growth


Varied Organizers:

Requires More Prep Time; Adapt Content, Take Notes

  • Provide 2-3 organizers of differing complexity
  • Example:
    • Students needing more guidance may be given a ready-to-use organizer with blanks for them to fill in.
    • Students ready for more independence may be given an incomplete organizer that requires them to fill in blanks as well as adding detail.
    • More advanced students may be given only a basic framework for the organizer (or a blank piece of paper) which they complete on their own.


Varied Products:

Prep Time Varies; Monitor Progress, Adapt Content

    • Possibly the easiest way to differentiate
    • Allow students to make choices about how they demonstrate what they’ve learned, whether they write an essay, make a poster, or act out a scene.
    • Be clear about your expectations, possibly using a rubric; then allow students to meet the requirements in their own way.
    • This also works well when you have limited resources because not all students need to same materials and equipment at the same time.


Varied Texts:

Requires Some Prep Time; Form Groups, Adapt Content

    • Provide resources at a variety of reading levels that provide students with information about the skill or concept being studied
    • Assign reading material to students based on skill level, or allow them to choose the text they are most interested in. Put students in small groups with other students reading the same material.


40 thoughts on “Instructional Strategies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.