Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

Differentiated instruction applies to all grade levels and subject areas, and it is critically important when teaching students to read and comprehend new or challenging text. Managing classrooms in order to teach a group with minimal interruptions is essential to teacher and student success. While many available resources describe differentiated instruction and herald the need for educational reform, fewer resources provide practical steps for making it happen in classrooms (Benjamin, 2002; Dodge, 2006; Evertson &Weinstein, 2006; Heacox, 2001; Marzano, 2003; Marzano, Norford, Paynter, Pickering, & Gaddy, 2001; Thousand, Villa, & Nevin, 2007; Tomlinson & Eidson, 2003; Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006).

Research supports characteristics of differentiated instruction, such as grouping students for instruction, using data to inform practice, and providing small-group explicit instruction (Denton, Bryan,Wexler, Reed, & Vaughn, 2007; Fisher & Frey, 2008; Foorman & Torgesen, 2001; Vaughn et al., 2003). Most of the research to date has focused on teaching skills or strategies that enhance reading performance and comprehension, particularly with students who are at risk for reading failure. However, differentiating instruction in small groups benefits all students at every grade level regardless of content area. Teachers ensure students can read and comprehend text in small groups by monitoring them closely, listening, questioning, engaging in conversations, and providing feedback.

Students interact more in small groups, having more opportunities to respond and confirm their thinking and learning. They benefit from interactive discussions, using vocabulary words from the lessons while participating in small groups for collaborative guided practice. Sharing practice activities enhances comprehension and ensures higher performance on assignments when students work independently. So, why have habits not changed? The answer is . . . we need procedures to differentiate how we teach and how students practice.

Establishing routines and clearly defining expectations for performance is the foundation that creates opportunities for teachers to provide student-focused, small-group reading instruction—instruction led by a teacher who uses data to plan lessons that address specific student needs (Archer & Hughes, 2010; Kosanovich, Ladinsky, Nelson, & Torgesen, 2007; Marzano, 2003; Tomlinson, 2000). Managing teaching and practice opportunities by alternating time periods for whole-class and small-group activities often involves managing multiple events happening in the classroom simultaneously, thus differentiating instruction creates a management challenge. Many teachers and administrators need assistance with getting started. Fortunately, differentiating reading instruction follows a predictable path as noted here: 

  • Data are collected and used to inform decision-making (identifying needs, setting an instructional purpose, selecting curriculum and practice activities). 
  • Students are assigned to small group memberships, usually by similar skill strengths and needs for reading instruction. 
  • Small-group guided practice activities utilize mixed skill groupings, enabling students to benefit from collaborative "study group" support. 
  • Daily schedules are adjusted to include 15–20 minute time periods for whole-class and small-group instruction. 
  • Whole-class activities are used for introduction, overview, and quick review with students often responding in unison or to a partner to increase interactions and provide more practice opportunities. 
  • Small-group activities are used for explicit reading instruction at the students' instructional level for teaching, which is a performance level higher than students can work at independently. 
  • Guided practice activities and written assignments include content and skills that have been previously taught, and the work is not graded (students may earn points for completing the work). Readability (level of difficulty) is lowered to enable more working memory for applying skills; thus teachers assign slightly less difficult leveled readers for guided practice activities. 
  • Independent work is completed after students receive teacher-led reading instruction in small groups and collaborative, guided practice; this work is typically assessed for grades. 

Although this sounds relatively easy, implementing differentiated instruction is challenging because it involves changing adult belief systems and behaviors for how we teach and what we teach (Gersten & Dimino, 2001; Gibson & Hasbrouck, 2009; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Tomlinson, 2000). Allowing students to interact, peer tutor, and collaborate by sharing responses and completing assignments that involve recently taught content often appears unjust to some teachers who assume copying is cheating. Enhancing understanding by copying a good example is an excellent form of guided practice. Thus, opportunities for change and replacing traditional habits for teaching and learning are inhibited by old belief systems and behavioral habits. Differentiated instruction often feels uncomfortable because it challenges traditional practice. Identifying why change is necessary and focusing on evidence-based practices will help teachers teach differently.

The purpose for differentiating teaching and practice is to increase the quality and quantity of reading instruction to ensure effective support for teaching and learning occurs in classrooms. Changing the behavior of teaching requires examining how instruction and practice are currently provided, then ensuring curricula and skills are aligned to student needs and purposeful for differentiating instruction (Frey, Fisher, & Everlove, 2009; Mathes et al., 2005). Using data to align classroom practices with teachers' instructional purposes is essential for differentiating instruction. Focusing on the reason for teaching a lesson, identifying the prerequisite skills necessary for student learning requires observation and considerations of students' existing knowledge. Differentiated instruction is more than just presenting the content or skill and assigning a written worksheet for practice. Teachers must clearly understand their instructional purposes for a lesson by considering why they are teaching what they are teaching to a specific student or group of students. Understanding and providing explicit instruction aligned with students' diverse skill sets is critical for differentiating teaching and practice.

All student work must be academically profitable and productive to improve student outcomes. Most importantly, sufficient high-quality, explicit, student-focused reading instruction in a teacher-led small group must occur before students are expected to participate in guided practice successfully with their peers. This requires a change in planning and pacing. In other words, students do not work alone on newly presented content or skills until teacher-led instruction in small groups has occurred followed by collaborative practice. Time is provided to  learn new vocabulary and concepts and discuss information to develop students' oral language prior to writing and performing to demonstrate mastery.

Selecting lesson materials and practice activities for reading instruction that align with the instructional purpose is also necessary. For reading practice, teachers use leveled readers to lessen the text difficulty during practice activities, enabling more working memory to be available for processing information. Having students work with peers also eases the difficulty and facilitates learning. Preparing materials, assigning roles and activities, and organizing to teach is difficult without systematic routines. Thus, the culprit for differentiated instruction is coordinating preparation and managing implementation for so many activities occurring simultaneously.

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