Differentiation: Matching Supports for Students' Literacy Needs

Differentiation has been a common denominator in education since its inception, as Dr. Joni Lakin pointed out in a recent blog post. However, with recent educational mandates, educators have faced increasing pressure to demonstrate how they utilize differentiation strategies in their classrooms. Research has shown that when implemented effectively, differentiation can provide a wide range of students with an equitable and effective learning opportunity. 

One of the most commonly adopted models of differentiation instruction is the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. Within this framework, students move through stages—from explicit instruction modeled by the teacher to guided practice with immediate feedback, and ultimately to independent use by the student. Through this framework, teachers can meet the needs of students during each stage and fade their support as needed to help the students reach independence.

In literacy classrooms, this framework start with the MODEL. This is where teachers implement a focused mini-lesson providing students with explicit or direct instruction, ideally no more than 8 to 10 minutes. Then, instruction moves into the PROMPT stage, where students practice either as a whole group, small group, or individually. They receive guidance and corrective feedback in order to build confidence. As students become more effective in the new skill, we begin to move toward the CHECK stage. Here, students apply the literacy skill independently.

As students progress through this framework, it’s important to note that supports will vary based on their individual needs. Scaffolds can be implemented in various ways, including: 

  • Readiness: Now, readiness does not equate to academic readiness. On the contrary, when we discuss academic readiness, we are looking at students’ current knowledge, skill understanding, and individual strengths. When differentiating for readiness, consider implementing different levels of skill complexity and tiered assignments, vary direct instruction in small groups based on student need, and provide reading supports for more complex texts and graphic organizers.
  • Resources: Within the classroom, it’s important to have various options of skill activities at different levels of complexity. When differentiating based on resources, consider using tiered activities to build on a new skill but with different levels of support or complexity and flexible grouping. It’s also important to consider how your resources address different learning profiles—like the auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learners.
  • Interests: Research has shown that student motivation and interest play a key role in learning. By incorporating student interests into instruction, you can support students more effectively. When differentiating based on interests, you should offer choice in reading topics, make connections to students’ prior experiences, and provide opportunities for the exploration of students’ individual interests.
  • Product: This tends to be the easiest form of differentiation for many educators, but the product should be reserved as a means of reflecting on student understanding of a skill. When differentiating a product, this is the tangible, end result of a lesson. There are several benefits to differentiating a product including:
    • Increasing student choice and student voice
    • Allowing for varying degrees of working arrangements (individually, pairs, small group)
    • Encouraging different resources to prepare a product
    • Encouraging individual student interests

Teachers who differentiate in the classroom—focusing on readiness, resources, interests, and product—see improvements in student reading engagement and literacy skills. Reading instruction that meets the individual needs of students and emphasizes learning opportunities for all should be the focus in each and every one of our classrooms. It’s here that differentiation becomes the cornerstone of any excellent literacy classroom. 


Blog contributor Amy Dendinger is a reading intervention specialist working predominately with seventh- and eighth-grade students using READ 180 Universal, HMH’s leading intervention blended learning solution which is celebrating 20 years of innovation and acceleration this year.