Science for all Students: Differentiating Instruction with FOSS

Diana Vélez, FOSS Professional and Leadership Developer, The Lawrence Hall of Science
March 01, 2015 | Differentiation

Equity in science instruction means ensuring that each and every student engages in the science and engineering practices and develops an understanding of the core ideas of science. Will this look the same for all students? No, equity is not uniformity. Every child comes to class with unique experiences, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and a range of physical and cognitive attributes. Equitable science instruction, therefore, requires a differentiated approach in order to effectively capitalize on students' individual strengths and potential. Let's take a look at how the FOSS instructional design inherently addresses a wide range of learning modalities and provides intrinsic opportunities for differentiated instruction.

Ms. Jackson has her first graders sitting at the rug. Her students live in an urban community and most fall into at least one of the four accountability groups defined in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—economically disadvantaged, major racial and ethnic groups, children with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency. Ms. Jackson is helping to trial test the upcoming FOSS Sound and Light Module. She begins by activating her students' prior knowledge about sound. It is only October, but it is evident that these first grade students have learned the structures and behaviors for productive talk. They try very hard to listen when others are speaking and to stay focused on the topic. Ms. Jackson uses a call-response protocol to get students' attention. Then, she explains that students will be investigating sound. She hands out pictures of people and animals making sounds for students to examine. The people in the photographs represent different races and ethnicities, including those of the students. The musical instruments in the images are also familiar. Ms. Jackson has students think-pair-share to make sure all students have the opportunity to talk with a partner about how they think sound is represented in the photographs and how the images relate to their own experiences with sound. She then calls on a few enthusiastic students to share their stories with the whole group.

How is Ms. Jackson meeting the needs of her diverse students so far? For one, she is tapping into her students' "funds of knowledge" and cultural practices (an effective strategy for engaging economically disadvantaged students) by asking them to share their knowledge and experiences with sound. She also asks students to interact in culturally responsive ways (call-response and think-pair-share), which are familiar and engaging for her African-American students. Activating prior knowledge, using visuals, holding students accountable to discussion norms, and allowing time for oral practice also supports the language needs of her emergent bilingual students.

Tongue depressor illustration

Now that the context has been set, Ms. Jackson's students are ready to explore what makes sound. The content objective for this lesson is to discover that vibrating matter makes sound (NGSS PS4.A). To develop this concept, students engage is a variety of hands-on activities as well as teacher demonstrations involving objects that produce sound. Students begin their exploration by working independently with simple objects such as a tongue depressor and a cup and rubber band system to observe how plucked and twanged objects make sound. The volume level rises as students make sounds not only with their materials but also with their voices, as they exclaim, question, and test different ways to produce sounds. Ms. Jackson monitors the activity, asking guiding questions to focus attention on the relationship between the vibrating objects and the sounds students observe. She notices that one of her students seems baffled. Ina is a recent immigrant who does not speak English. Ms. Jackson sits down next to her and models how to make a sound with the rubber band stretched over the cup. She points to the vibrating rubber band and says "vibration" and then points to her ear, "sound." Ina's face lights up and she plucks the rubber band. Ms. Jackson again repeats the words and gestures for vibration and sound. Ina is not yet ready to generate or use English words, but she is clearly developing the concept of sound along side her English-using peers. After a few more minutes, Ms. Jackson calls for attention and conducts a whole group discussion about what students observed. She writes their observations on the board and makes word cards for the words "vibration" and "sound" and puts the cards on the class word wall. Ms. Jackson then has students turn and talk with a partner about what they think makes sound based on their observations so far. She encourages them use the new vocabulary words in their talk.

Rubber band banjo

In the next part of the investigation, the class splits into two groups. One half of the class works with a partner to make sounds with simple instruments while the other half works with Ms. Jackson as she demonstrates vibrations with a table fiddle—a string tied around a table with wood blocks as bridges. She also shows students how to produce sounds with tuning forks. Students are amazed that a tuning fork can make a ping-pong ball jump when it comes into contact with a sounding tuning fork, and Ms. Jackson is pleased with how fast students have incorporated the science vocabulary word vibration into their discussions. When the groups switch, Ms. Jackson reminds the group working in pairs that their job is to help each other to explore and discover new things about sound and vibration and to follow the classrooms norms for collaboration.

Let's hit the pause button. An outside observer may wonder why so much activity? Isn't seeing it (or hearing it) once enough to develop the concept of sound? Not for most children. The research tells us that students need multiple exposures to learn a new concept. This is especially true for students from diverse backgrounds and those with disabilities who learn most effectively when presented with multiple representations and multimodal experiences. As the investigation progresses, students will make vibrations/sounds in different ways—plucking, tapping, strumming, hitting—and will observe how sound varies in volume and pitch. After a few days, Ms. Jackson might have a slight ringing in her ears, but all her students will be able to explain that sound is a result of vibrating matter, which prepares them to engage in the sense-making portion of the lesson.

Students have been acquiring and using language to process and communicate their observations throughout the investigation. They have been introduced to new vocabulary words in context, as they are developing the concept during the hands-on activities. Now comes the heavy lifting. Ms. Jackson's objective is that students learn the science concepts while engaging in the science and engineering practices. She is also tasked with developing her students' academic language—the more complex and precise content specific language of school. This requires more than learning new science vocabulary. In order to construct lucid explanations and engage in argument from evidence, students need a good handle on appropriate language forms and functions. They also need strategies for extracting meaning from complex texts. Ms. Jackson's classroom walls are covered with printed materials—not store-bought posters, but charts, diagrams, and lists she made with students as they grappled with ideas such as the cause and effect relationships involving the variables that result in variation in pitch and volume, what words they could use to describe nuance of sound (squeaky, sharp, tinny, hollow), and explanatory models for how sound travels from a source to a receiver. These charts are now visual references that help students remember what they learned and how they learned it. Ms. Jackson also shows students a few video clips about sound, a sound simulation on FOSSweb, and reads aloud from FOSS Science Resources and other books she has found about sound to add to the multiple exposures her students need.

Students demonstrate what they know through different modalities such as oral discourse and demonstrations with materials. And, after every lesson, they prepare an answer to the focus question in their notebooks. During this time, Ms. Jackson cruises from table to table offering assistance as needed, in the form of sentence starters, guiding questions, and dictation. The students know that they can use invented spelling and casual drawings to communicate their ideas because their science notebooks are their medium for articulating their own thinking and wonderings. Ms. Jackson reinforces this idea by acknowledging students for the efforts they make and by providing constructive feedback to help them further develop and communicate their ideas. When students are stuck, she reminds them of a prior experience or asks questions that help them connect the new ideas to something with which they are familiar. In this way, the notebook is a critical focal point for differentiated instruction, allowing each student to represent his/her thinking in his/her individual, unencumbered way, providing the teacher with formative assessment information to inform her next instructional moves.

As Ms. Jackson looks over students' shoulders, she notices Maya has finished her notebook entry. She has answered the question and provided a diagram that demonstrates that she understands the concepts. Maya has not been tested yet, but it is clear that she is a gifted and eager student. Ms. Jackson occasionally asks Maya to help other students, but she knows that her responsibility is to keep Maya challenged, not by giving her more work, but by giving her more complex tasks to wrestle with. She asks Maya to consider an instrument like a flute or penny whistle and based on what she knows so far about sound, to develop a model to explain how she thinks these types of instruments make variable sounds.

This vignette is one example of how FOSS provides equitable learning opportunities for a diverse student body. All the investigations are similarly structured to maximize full inclusion and equal access to lesson content. At the core is the belief that all students benefit from actively engaging with scientific phenomena and constructing meaning through both cognitive and social processing of information. Let's recap the components of the FOSS instructional design that together ensure adequate differentiation.

  1. Activating prior knowledge. Establishing the context in which students will be learning is beneficial for all students. The Investigations Guide provides questions and prompts to help the teacher elicit students' background knowledge. The Science-centered Language Development (SCLD) chapter provides additional strategies that are especially useful for English Language Development. It is important that teachers value the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of their students and use that knowledge to support inclusion and to help students connect new knowledge to their experiences. Every student has something to contribute to help the class as a whole establish the inquiry context and gain a better understanding of the science content.
  2. The active investigation. Exploring with real materials, objects, systems, and organisms assures engagement for all students. To optimize student interactions, students should be in groups of four facing each other and each student should have a role in conducting the investigation (getters, recorder, reporter). It is important to make sure all students understand the procedures, are grouped strategically, and are encouraged and assisted in connecting the activity to prior experiences.
  3. Sense-making. Recording and analyzing data, engaging in oral discourse, and answering the focus questions all require language skills and strategies. The Investigations Guide provides questions, prompts, and information-processing structures. The SCLD chapter provides additional strategies and scaffolds to support all students, specifically English language learners. The notebook is a dynamic medium for differentiation, allowing each student to express her/his own thinking in her/his own way. Teachers should use the same strategies they use in other content areas and in English language arts to support reading comprehension, writing, and oral discourse.
  4. Assessing. Making thinking visible is critical for differentiation. The embedded assessments and the benchmark assessments show the teacher where her students are with their learning, and what next step strategy students may need to advance or refine their science knowledge. (See the "FOSS Assessment Corner" on page 14 of this issue for more on this.)

For more information on differentiated instruction, see the section on differentiated instruction in any FOSS Third Edition and Next Generation Edition Investigations Guide and check out FOSS for All on

A special thank you to Michelle Williams and her students in Oakland, CA, for their time and generous assistance in helping to develop the activities detailed in this article.


  • CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) Universal Design for Learning
  • Gay, Geneva. 2010. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice.
  • Lee, O., and Buxton, C. A. 2010. Diversity and Equity in Science Education: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • NGSS Lead States. 2013. "Appendix D. All Standards, All Students: Making the Next Generation Science Standards Accessible to All Students." Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Lee, O., Quinn, H., and Valdés, G. 2013. Science and Language for English Language Learners in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards and with Implications for Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. American Educational Research Association.