Step 5: Providing High-Quality Reading Instruction and Practice

Step 5: Providing High-Quality Reading Instruction and Practice

Improving the quality and quantity of reading instruction provided in whole-class or small-group instruction is a critically important step for teaching differently, but it should be addressed after managing the environment and establishing routines for behavior. Once classroom routines are operating efficiently, teachers can realistically focus on differentiating instruction. After teachers observe and collect data, they can develop an instructional purpose for each small group and set attainable goals.

Using data to inform practice, teachers assign students to small groups. Then they select resources, materials, and activities that support differentiated small-group instruction and purposeful practice. Changing the content, behaviors, and activities used in a lesson are part of differentiating instruction and practice. Simply having small groups of students move from one activity to another and expecting them to complete the same assignments represents a procedural change involving how instruction is delivered: changing from whole-class lecture format to small-group participation. When the lesson content and expectations for performance are the same for all students, differentiated teaching and practice is not happening. That is simply grouping students for participation.

The instructional purpose, content, method of delivery (teaching), and feedback must be aligned with student need in order to differentiate instruction. That means teachers may need to adjust the lesson presentation (increasing talking, providing pre-reading or vocabulary instruction, or adding more modeling, differentiated pacing) or the lesson content (materials and instructional purpose) to differentiate teaching and learning. Teachers use whole-class activities for introducing new content or skills, but essential information is presented again for teacher-led, small-group lessons to ensure comprehension. For example, new vocabulary words may be introduced in a whole-class activity and practiced with peer partners. However, vocabulary words that are critical for understanding text will be presented again and taught explicitly in small groups to ensure students can apply the word meanings correctly in a passage and in discussions about what they read.

When new material or content is introduced and the level of difficulty is higher, teachers provide support with teacher-led modeling that clarifies meaning and engages students in discussions to enhance comprehension. Interacting to collaborate with students and enhance meaning occurs in whole-class activities and small-group lessons, but the instructional purpose differs. In whole-class, the purpose is to introduce new content or provide a quick review of previously taught information. In small-group, the instructional purpose is to ensure understanding and develop sufficient skills for working: first, in small study groups with peers, then later, completing assignments independently. Initially, new instruction is teacher led (or teacher informed) and students are responsible for learning and developing a basic conceptual understanding. Students are not expected to produce outcomes independently too soon. Elaboration and exploration are encouraged while foundational knowledge and instruction are provided, to enhance student success and prevent learned error.

Determining what content or skills will be presented in whole-group lessons or taught in small-group lessons will require reflection about the instructional purpose and expectation for student outcomes. Most content, skills, or procedures can be introduced in whole-class or quickly reviewed in an interactive lesson. However, whole-class activities are not purposed for differentiating instruction or aligning content to specific students' needs. The instructional purpose is to provide an overview or early introduction of instruction that will be provided in a teacher-led small group or practiced in small groups at workstations. Understanding the difference between the purpose for whole-class and small-group activities is essential for differentiating instruction and changing how we teach.

Less instructional time is allocated for whole-class lessons even though the activities include interactivity for guided practice. Students can respond in unison to teacher questions or directions. They can restate or retell information to another student sitting nearby. Selecting what will be presented in whole-class depends on the instructional purpose, whether it is introduction or quick review. Since the whole-class presentation is general in nature and not specific to student needs, the lesson simply addresses the big ideas or general concepts, not individualized, skills-focused instruction with a high expectation to develop mastery.

Restating, interactive whole lessons lasting 15–20 minutes are worthy for introduction and quick review. Using a graphic organizer to summarize content (big ideas, key vocabulary words, and observations made during class discussions) is highly recommended to enhance comprehension. Later, assigning written activities and using the graphic organizer to support spelling and concept organization is also suggested for extending lessons, but having students complete follow-up assignments from a whole-class activity may not involve differentiated teaching or practice.

Small-group lessons are reserved for differentiating instruction by providing explicit teaching and feedback and adjusting pacing so that difficult text becomes comprehensible to students as a result of teacher guidance and support. This is critical when expecting students to read new and challenging text! Changing teaching behaviors within the small-group lessons and using materials that enhance reading comprehension is differentiating instruction (or teaching differently). Adjusting pacing, or how much content is presented and how fast, is also differentiating instruction in small groups. In other words, multiple aspects of teaching must be aligned with the instructional purpose and needs within each small-group lesson.

Materials may be the same for multiple small-group lessons, but the way a teacher models and uses materials to differentiate instruction may differ, as well as the pacing for presentation. In other words, the teacher may use similar materials but differentiate the pacing and lesson difficulty by beginning the lesson at a different entry level or by extending the challenge to a higher level of difficulty. The teaching (purpose, content, and pacing) is adjusted, or differentiated, to enhance student learning. Teachers often ask what content or activities are used for whole-class or small-group activities. The answer is this: just about everything can be presented in whole-class, overview-type activities, but essential content and skills are presented again and taught in small groups to enhance comprehension and student achievement.

Changing how we teach and how students practice can happen, but it will require that teachers replace some traditional habits and establish routines for managing whole-class and small-group instruction. To that end, differentiating teacher preparation and professional development will be necessary to ensure high-quality reading instruction will occur in classrooms. Changing teacher preparation to develop excellent teaching skills has attracted national attention. However, the rationale for "teaching teaching" to improve instructional effectiveness exceeds the scope of this article. Steps included here simply provide guidance for continued discussions about implementing changes that support differentiated instruction and practice.

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