One-size-fits-all reading instruction, much like one-size-fits-all clothing, is a myth. But when teachers vary their instructional strategies to meet their students’ diverse needs, interests, and abilities, they can ensure better learning outcomes.
“When I think of differentiated reading instruction, my go-to method is small-group targeted instruction,” says Monica Padgham, Acting Vice Principal of McCammon Elementary School in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. “By this, I mean teachers creating small groups for purposeful instruction in three areas of reading: fluency, comprehension, and word work.”
Differentiated Instruction in Practice
At Padgham’s school, teachers assess their students to determine what each child needs in their overall literacy development. They then sort students into small groups for targeted reading instruction.
“I’ve been at this for 20 years and believe this gives you the most bang for your buck,” she says. “If you teach only to the whole class, you’ll lose the kids who aren’t ready as well as the kids who already understand. It’s more effective to address what they need in small groups.”
While teachers are doing small-group reading instruction, the other students are typically working on choice boards, writing letters, reading, or doing word work.
The key to all of this, says Padgham, is to plan ahead of time. “Start with the whole class and assign the daily tasks. Make sure you keep track of the choices students make so that you can let their parents and caregivers know which things they like best, such as being read to or doing crossword puzzles.”
Examples of Differentiated Instruction in Reading
Differentiation means adjusting your content, assessments, environment, or expectations. It doesn’t have to be a full-scale overhaul to be effective. You could ask students to write a song, create a storyboard, or do a video book report to demonstrate comprehension. You could use technology, such as Waggle, which offers supplemental, personalized instruction, or Writable, which helps students become stronger writers. Or you could simply allow your students to pick their own reading material.
Here are a few examples of differentiated strategies you can try:
1. Choice Boards
These boards list various activities for students to work on. Start with your end goal: what do students need to accomplish? You can provide up to 12 choices on a typical board, including independent and group work, activities using technology, or no-tech activities. You can also add some extra fun for your students by developing a game board of learning options.
To get started, try out these customizable PowerPoint templates available in HMH Into Literature for project-based learning options. You can customize these slides with project choices and instructions to create a digital choice board of your very own.
2. Learning Stations
Set up literacy activities around the room and let students rotate through them. Each station should use a different method to teach a skill or concept, such as reading an article, watching a video, listening to an audiobook, or acting out a scene. To be effective, each station should have clear activities and takeaways. To help students process what they’ve learned, have a class discussion or assign a reflective activity after they’ve rotated through all the stations.
3. Task Cards
Similar to learning stations, task cards provide a range of activities for students. Start by creating cards with a single question or task that targets a specific skill, learning standard, or subject area. You can use the cards for whole-class work or place them on your desk for students to use individually, with a partner, or in a small group. If you have an answer key, students can check their own work. Students can complete task cards in class or for homework. To differentiate, you can hand out specific cards to students who need more work on that task.
4. Tiered Assignments
Vary the tasks based on student level. For example, after reading or listening to a fiction passage, a developing reader could retell the story in her own words, an on-level learner could answer comprehension questions, and an advanced reader could rewrite the story from a different character’s point of view. Another idea is to create different sets of reading comprehension activities. Let students write a paper, do a TED-Style Talk or other presentation, or record a group discussion.
Differentiated support may include meeting with a small group of students to practice skills that build understanding. These skills coach lessons provide direct instruction on targeted skills and opportunities for students to practice and apply the skill.
5. Vary Discussion Style
Rather than just having students answer specific questions that you ask, have students ask questions to each other. Challenge them to talk about what they liked or disliked and why. Ask a student to lead the discussion or assign students to bring questions to class. Take a vote on what a character might do next or hold a debate on a character’s guilt or innocence. The point is to introduce various ways to discuss the materials your class reads.
When you differentiate reading instruction to meet the various learning needs of your students, the work becomes more meaningful and engaging. By incorporating various learning strategies, teachers can help students stay motivated. Because it is flexible, differentiated instruction can maximize individual growth. But most of all, when we differentiate, we deliver student-centered instruction. Students feel seen and heard, and that can make all the difference.
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Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning
Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math