Independent Work Time: How I Differentiate Effectively

So if you have followed my blog for long, you have heard about my use of what I call a “Bubble Page.”  With moving from the special education setting, where I used this in strictly reading, I had to find a way to use this in general education math.  As I worked my way through this, I decided that this is something that could take differentiation to the max in any classroom.

Differentiation is something that is a passion of mine and something I feel is a great strength in my daily routines.  Maybe it’s the special education teacher in me, but I believe that you have to meet students where they are, not necessarily where we want them to be.  So I introduce to you, the Bubble Page!

What is a Bubble Page?

A Bubble Page is a list of tasks which remain the same throughout the entire year.  These tasks are selected based on grade level standards, common weaknesses in students, and providing a spiral review for students throughout the entire year.  Bubble Pages are completed during independent work time as part of Guided Reading or Math.  During this time, students work to complete their fifteen tasks as I pull small groups.

1. Make a List of Key Skills for Your Grade Level

Select a set of daily activities that range in levels of difficulty.  For example, in my fifth-grade general education classroom, I know that my students will need constant practice in:
  *Word Problems
  *Explaining Mathematical Processes
  *Math Facts (for some students)

2. Find Activities to Align with Key Skills

After you have made a list of critical skills for your grade level, it is time to dive in.  This is the difficult [but fun] part!  It is time to find activities, resources, and practices that will address your needs.

Math Fact Practice

Since I teach fifth grade, many of my students have already mastered their math facts.  However, it would be foolish to pretend that I won’t have a handful of students who still need this skill.  To address this, I utilize my Mastering Math Facts program to provide a quick and meaningful way of practicing math facts.  I also have a math facts template, where I have my students work to repeatedly say and write their math facts.  It is not fun, but my kids do progress through their facts over time.


I wanted my students to be fluent in anything computation.  In fifth grade, we have to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide any whole number, fraction, or decimal.  Whew!  That is a mouthful, and difficult for my students.  My goal for them is to not see a multiplication problem, after spending weeks working on division, and freak out.  You know what I’m talking about!  In my TpT store, I have so many printables and task cards to address basic computation concerns.

Word Problems

I have seriously tried to create word problems for my students, but it a struggle to force myself to do! Because of that, I searched TpT for something amazing! I found the perfect product in The Teacher Studio’s store!  She has a bundle of word problems addressing mixed operations, multi-step problems, measurement, and fractions.  

Math Journals

It is somewhat of a pet peeve of mine, but I just can’t stand when kids cannot explain why or what they are doing in a mathematical process.  If they cannot explain it, then guess what?  They don’t fully understand it.  To help solve this problem, I created Math Journals for my students to complete after each skill.  They are fabulous for integrating writing into math instruction.  I have a full blog post about it {here}.

3. Find Activities to Practice “Weekly Skills”

Now that you’ve covered your spiral review type of activities, it is time to focus on all of your other grade level standards.  For example, although my kids will be practicing multiplying and dividing decimals all year, they still need to practice other units, such as graphing and area of rectangles.  Begin looking through your files for centers, games, or activities that will help address your grade level standards.  

Weekly Centers

For me, I have two centers that I call “Weekly Centers”.  These centers vary depending on what we are working on that particular week.  I might use task cards, centers, or other games that I’ve found online or created myself.  These are really the only centers that require intense planning on my part.  

Choice Boards

I have also LOVED having Choice Boards as a center that remains the same nearly all year.  Teaching to Inspire with Jennifer Findley has an amazing bundle that includes all fifth grade standards.  I simply pull out the choice board that coordinates with the standards we are currently covering.  It requires very minimal planning on my part, and my kids really love it!

I Can Game

Another product that I use all year long, is from One Stop Teacher Shop.  She created I Can Games for each fifth-grade standard.  These are so engaging for my students and are self-checking!

4. Create Bubble Pages

For this section, I try to organize my “Getting Started” list of least to most difficult.  For example, I would love for every student to be able to walk into fifth grade with all of their math facts mastered, but they don’t.  I would also love for students to walk in a be able to subtract using regrouping, but they don’t.  Some students need additional practice.  If I ignore this need, I am hurting my students.  On the flip side, other kids are able to memorize facts quickly and easily and do not need daily practice.  They need to spend their independent work time working on more challenging and enriching content.

I then develop three to four levels based on the needs of my students.  I always tell teachers to think of their highest student and their lowest student from the past school year.  Would it be fair to make them do the same activities all day, every day? NO!  So create bubble pages that will allow each and every student to work at a level that is perfect for them.  In my opinion and experience, this has been extremely beneficial for allowing independent work time to actually be meaningful, not just busy work.

5. Create a Practice Bubble Page

For the first weeks of school, I have my students complete a “Practice” Bubble Page.  During this time, EVERYONE has the same Bubble Page.  This allows me to properly teach expectations and procedures, while making notes about strengths and weaknesses for students.  I typically do not pull small groups during this time and instead spend the time really making sure that everyone understands and can complete my expectations for each task.

6. Assigning Bubble Page Levels

In my classroom, my students never know that some bubble pages are more difficult than others.  However, they are always motivated to change bubble pages.  They love exploring new activities or being able to decrease the number of times that they complete one task in order to increase other tasks.  This is generally very motivating for students to work and do their best.  If they find themselves stuck on something, they are great about seeking out help in order to not be held back by their work.

Generally, I use the following guidelines:
  *Finishing the fifteen tasks early in the week—–>Move them to a more difficult bubble page.
  *Being unable to finish the fifteen tasks within the week—–>Move to a less difficult bubble page.
  *While working hard throughout the week, seem to complete all tasks with ease—–> Stay on the current bubble sheet.
  *Finishing the fifteen tasks, yet not being able to do them accurately, possibly due to rushing—–>Depending on the student, I may discuss this issue with his/her parents or move to a less difficult bubble page.

7. Grading Bubble Pages

Although each of these Bubble Pages have different tasks, they all include the same number of tasks.  For some reason, I have been stuck on the number fifteen.  Each student has fifteen tasks, all meeting them at their level, that they must complete in one week’s time.  I like this number because that requires the students to complete three tasks on each of the five days of the week.  Generally, as long as students come into my room and get started right away, this is done with ease.

There are occasional kinks that must be considered when grading:
  *If we do not complete bubble pages due to schedule interruptions or tests, each student receives three points for that given day.  This number of points may vary depending on your total number of tasks.
  *If students are pulled to a small group for a particularly long period of time, I award them 1, 2, or 3 points depending on the amount of time in which they were in my group.  This sometimes comes when difficult skills are being discussed.
  *If a student has an excused absence, they are granted three points for that day.

Perks of Implementing Bubble Pages

What I have grown to LOVE about using these bubble pages, is the flexibility on my part.  It allows me to be the teacher I want to be by:
  *Having good routines and procedures that are conducive to learning.
  *Allow me to pull small groups with ease.
  *Provides a continuous spiral review of critical skills for the grade level.
  *Allows for the use of technology if/when available.
  *Gives students choices in their on learning.
  *Enables learning to still take place when a substitute is in the room or interruptions occur.
  *Encourages students to learn time management and being responsible, independent learners.

Feedback from Students

Interested in the product?  Check it out by clicking the image below!  πŸ™‚



  1. Ursula
    June 16, 2014 / 11:31 pm

    This sounds very interesting. I am trying to plan a math workshop for the coming year. Thanks.

  2. Brandi
    June 17, 2014 / 1:09 am

    Amanda these are great! Going to snag them up right now!

    Swinging for Success
    Follow me on Facebook!

  3. Beth
    June 17, 2014 / 1:57 am

    I am very interested in this idea! I did a series of posts on how I plan to re-vamp my math workshop int he coming school year and now I want to go back and see how I can make use of this idea.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Thinking of Teaching

  4. Teaching is a Royal Adventure
    June 17, 2014 / 9:12 pm

    Amanda, this is wonderful! I have them in my shopping cart! Can't wait to try this for math stations this next school year!

    Teaching is a Royal Adventure

  5. Jamie Sears
    June 19, 2014 / 11:54 pm

    Great idea!

  6. JanCT
    June 20, 2014 / 2:42 pm

    This has to be one of the BEST THINGS I have ever seen. Wow. Thanks for the amazing idea.

  7. Rachel
    June 20, 2014 / 6:51 pm

    This sounds fantastic! I'd love to know more about how you set up this whole process! How do you organize the different tasks that students do throughout the week?
    A Tall Drink of Water

  8. devidmiller5060
    May 4, 2015 / 1:14 pm

    My friend mentioned to me your blog, so I thought I’d read it for myself. Very interesting insights, will be back for more!
    human bubble ball

  9. mayazoe
    May 5, 2015 / 6:58 am

    I would also motivate just about every person to save this web page for any favorite assistance to assist posted the appearance.
    human bubble ball

  10. Jennifer O.
    July 25, 2015 / 7:56 pm

    I love this idea! I am trying on blended learning in my classroom, and I was trying to figure out how to differentiate more. This is perfect!

  11. Claire
    July 27, 2015 / 12:58 am

    I love this idea!! I am soo glad I found you blog…. I'm teaching math next year for the first time in a few years. I'd love to know more about how you run your math class! How long do the kids have each day to complete their 3 tasks? Do you also have a 'set' time for whole group instruction before or after this independent work time? What do you do if a student finishes the 3 tasks early? Can they do more? If yes, what if they finish all the tasks with a day or two left in the week? I will be browsing you blog for more posts about your math class time.

    Thanks again!

    ~ Claire

  12. Lisa
    August 15, 2015 / 5:11 pm

    Could you please show an example of one for reading workshop?

    • Unknown
      August 18, 2015 / 12:49 pm

      I'm working on it now actually! πŸ™‚ Last year, I was only using this in math but this year my teaching partner and I are also using Bubble Pages in reading! I'll have a post up soon. πŸ™‚

  13. *S.Udy*
    September 29, 2015 / 2:21 am

    How much time each day do the kids get to work on their bubble pages? I'm coming off maternity leave in a few weeks and want to implement something like this in my math class. I had a hard time last year in trying to figure out what to expect from my kiddos after watching their lesson video. I guess a better question would be what is the general schedule of your math block? πŸ™‚
    Simple Insights

    • Unknown
      September 29, 2015 / 3:42 am

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Unknown
      September 29, 2015 / 3:43 am

      On a typical day, my kids have around 30-40 minutes. We have a 50 minute block for math but spend a portion of that completing and checking our exit tickets! πŸ™‚

  14. Unknown
    August 18, 2016 / 7:35 pm

    First of all, these are awesome! Great idea. But, I have a question. Why do you have so many groups?? And how do the bubble sheets differ between each one? I understand they are differentiated, but how many different activities do you have to come up with then? Aren't you just doing low, medium, high? Also, for your kids that need to meet with you small group for reteach, what if they don't get a chance to complete the expected bubble sheet assignments for the week?

    • Unknown
      August 19, 2016 / 2:26 am

      Thanks Margaret!

      I really don't have very many "groups." I have the several activities or centers around the room. The biggest difference between the low, medium, and high bubble pages pertains to the number of times that students visit each center. For example, many of my kids really struggle (and need repeated practice) with basic computation. They might visit my computation center 4-5 times per week. Whereas some of my higher students do well, and they could get by with only 1-2 times per week.

      As for students who miss out on bubble page time due to reteaching, I save the recording pages from the task cards or activities that we complete together. Then, I can easily see who spent time with me, and can compensate their grade accordingly.

    • Unknown
      August 19, 2016 / 9:22 pm

      Perfect. The more I was reading, and planning my own, the more I was realizing that the number of times just increases for certain kiddos. That makes so much sense, and is so meaningful to those kids that need it.

      Any great ideas for enrichment for the high kiddos?

    • Unknown
      August 19, 2016 / 10:14 pm

      For enrichment, I really like having my kids create their own Kahoots, games, or other similar activities. They love it too! I also love to use math journals to really deepen their understanding of concepts.

  15. Unknown
    July 19, 2017 / 12:48 am

    What types of activities do the children complete? I saw you had different categories for math, but I don't see the types of activities for reading. Do you just rotate games and activities that you have in your room? I am very interested in trying this!

    • Unknown
      August 14, 2017 / 1:52 am

      I have a blog post just for reading bubble pages if you are interested! πŸ™‚

  16. Unknown
    August 6, 2017 / 3:48 pm

    Hi there! I love this! My question revolves around time frame. I want to check that I'm reading this correctly. My group time allotted for math is about 40 min. I would set this kids to work choosing which activities to work on throughout this whole time while I pulled specific kids to the table? No timer went off, now switch, right?

    • Unknown
      August 14, 2017 / 1:50 am

      Yes! I usually have 40-50 minutes. I pull groups while my kids are working. No time, no switching directed by me. Just work at their own pace! πŸ™‚

  17. mtom
    April 5, 2020 / 12:02 pm

    I’m impressed, I need to say. Actually rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me inform you, you’ve gotten hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the problem is one thing that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very completely happy that I stumbled throughout this in my seek for one thing referring to this.

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