Differentiated Instruction (Part 2)

*What Does Differentiated Reading Look Like?

If your reading class was anything like mine growing up, your teacher likely used the whole group method. Every student in the class had the same book and worked on the same skill at the same time. Differentiated reading instruction is the complete opposite. Differentiated reading instruction means you allow students to practice reading with texts of varying levels and focusing on varying skills.

Differentiated instruction typically takes place in small groups after whole group instruction has occurred.

-The teacher shares a mini-lesson with the whole group in which content, skill, or strategy is taught.

-Students then engage in independent reading time in which they engage with a text and respond to it.*

-The teacher leads group meetings or holds individual conferences with students who need additional support or guidance.

-At the end of the instruction period, students reconvene together to share their responses to the text.

*Note that, in some cases, students may be able to meet in small groups or with partners during this time as opposed to working independently. See further discussion in the header below entitled ‘Differentiated Instruction in Groups.'

Managing a differentiated classroom may seem overwhelming to you, even more than gathering the materials required to do it. (See Part 3 of this series to learn more about getting the materials you need to easily differentiate.) However, like with all classroom routines and procedures, proper modeling and practice allows students to learn the routines of differentiated learning very well. In fact, I’ve even found that managing a differentiated classroom can be easier than trying to engage every single student in whole group. When students are engaged in differentiated tasks, they are more focused and attentive to their work because what they’re being asked to do isn’t too challenging or too simple - it’s a just right fit that holds their attention.


*How Do I Begin Differentiating My Reading Instruction?

Simply put, differentiated instruction is flexible and data-driven. You must know your students as readers and as learners. 

COLLECT AND ANALYZE DATA regarding reading levels: You need to assess where your students are as readers on some sort of scale. You might need to keep a running record or do a Fountas & Pinnell benchmark test to find each student’s reading level. You may choose to use the STAAR test to find Lexile levels. Know your students’ ability levels on whatever scale you choose to use in your classroom or that your school or district mandates that you use. These reading level analytics do not give you the perfect picture of your students’ abilities by any means, but they do give you a good starting point. It is up to you to analyze the data you collect in combination with your experiences with the reader to make decisions about the students’ overall reading ability.

REFLECT ON OBSERVATIONS about learning styles: You should also informally assess learning styles and student motivation as another piece to the puzzle for each individual student as a reader. Reflect on if your students are highly motivated, easily distracted, work well with others, highly interested in particular topics but not others, etc. All of these factors will impact your students’ performance in reading.


*Differentiated Reading Instruction in Groups

Flexible and varied grouping is central to differentiated instruction. We all love to make group charts that are pretty, laminated, and typed up on paper with fancy borders. However, best practice for differentiation is to change up the groups and grouping methods on a regular basis. Switch between whole group, small group, and individual practice. Whenever possible, allow students to work with random partners in class. Also, form observation-based and data-driven groups. Flexible grouping prevents students from feeling labeled or limited.

Rationale for small groups (from Reading Rockets): "Students in small groups in the classroom learned significantly more than students who were not instructed in small groups." [http://www.readingrockets.org/article/grouping-students-who-struggle-reading]

If you use a reader’s workshop model in your classroom, you will likely have students engaged with the text individually after the whole group lesson. However, with clear expectations and guidelines set in place, students can also be placed in heterogeneous groups to work with differentiated texts independent from the teacher.

Rationale for teacher-led groups (from Reading Rockets): "Small-group instruction offers an environment for teachers to provide students extensive opportunities to express what they know and receive feedback from other students and the teacher. Instructional conversations are easier to conduct and support with a small group of students (Goldenberg, 1993).” [http://www.readingrockets.org/article/grouping-students-who-struggle-reading]

Rationale for student-led groups (from Reading Rockets): "Student-led small groups have become increasingly popular based on the effective implementation of reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). This procedure allows students to take turns assuming the role of the leader and guiding reading instruction through question direction and answer facilitation.” [http://www.readingrockets.org/article/grouping-students-who-struggle-reading]

Groups should be formed and assignments should be given based on the needs of the individual students. The following ideas for differentiated instruction amongst groups can be used both in teacher-led meetings or when students meet in groups that are independent from the teacher.


1 - Ability grouping, same text, different skills

*Group your students homogeneously based on their reading levels.

*Each group reads the same text on the same level. 

*Each group focuses on different content or skills. Above grade level readers might focus more on extending comprehension beyond the text to think critically about the author’s message. Below grade level readers might focus more on the skill of summarizing the content learned in the text.


2 - Ability grouping, different text, same skills

*Group your students homogeneously based on their reading levels.

*Each group reads a different level text. Give a more challenging text to the above grade level readers and a more basic text to the below grade level readers.

*Each group of readers focuses on the same extension and comprehension exercises related to the reading afterwards.


3 - Ability grouping, different text, different skills

*Group your students homogeneously based on reading levels.

*Each group reads a different level text. Give a more challenging text to the above grade level readers and a more basic text to the below grade level readers.

*Each group focuses on different tasks to extend their understanding and practice comprehension.

You can also differentiate groups by…

Varying the size of the group. Struggling readers or lower achieving students should be placed in smaller groups of 3-5 students at most. Other students can work easily and effectively in groups of 5-7 students.

Varying the length of time given for an assignment. Struggling students will likely need more time to work on any given assignment. Be sure to take this into account when planning. Consider using the additional time for enrichment learning opportunities for higher achieving students.

Varying the frequency of meeting. You may choose to meet with struggling readers more often, whereas fluent readers need less check-ins and monitoring.

For an excellent list of how to specifically differentiate your instruction by content, process, products, and learning environment, check out this article: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/what-differentiated-instruction.