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Differentiation in Literacy

Classrooms today are more diverse than ever, creating challenges for teachers who may not have experienced the same diversity when they were students. Teachers are also held accountable for high-stakes test scores, which can make literacy development even tougher to manage. More and more students are coming into classrooms with extreme reading level differences. An effective teacher must learn to differentiate lessons to accommodate these differences and meet the needs of each student.

How to Meet Every Child’s Needs

In order to meet the needs of every child in a classroom, teachers have three choices. First, they can teach small groups of students whose literacy development is at a similar level. Or, they can teach individuals in one-on-one conferences. Third, they can create centers that are differentiated by beginner, intermediate and advanced materials. Teachers can use a variety of assessments to evaluate students’ reading levels. Many districts purchase benchmark kits created by DRA, Rigby, or Fountas and Pinnell. These are companies who have created reading samples and running record assessments designed to establish reading levels and assist in plans for literacy development.

Meeting Needs Through Small Groups and One-on-One Conferences

Once a reading level for each student has been set and the students’ strengths and challenges have been identified, the teacher is ready to set up a schedule for small-group instruction and one-on-one conferencing. Students will be placed in small groups based on their literacy development. The groups will be flexible as students build on what they already know and become ready to engage with other students at higher reading levels. During a small-group meeting, the teacher will present a brief (five-minute) mini-lesson that teachers a specific skill and then will help the students use the new skill to read books at their reading levels. During one-on-one conferences, students meet individually with the teacher to talk about the books they are reading independently, as well as some of the ideas they have written about in response to those books. Spending time with individuals and small groups is critical to helping teachers gather appropriate data and plan for future lessons.

Differentiated Centers Can Help Literacy Development

In order to make sure small group and one-on-one conferencing goes according to plan, teachers need to set up centers for the students who aren’t meeting with the teacher. At each center are materials differentiated by reading levels to ensure appropriate literacy development even while learning independently. According to Scholastic, differentiated centers are different from traditional centers in that:

  1. Activities are based on student assessments.
  2. Students use multilevel resources.
  3. Students are engaged in lessons.
  4. The center is designed to incorporate levels of support based on student need.
  5. Tiered activities include varied responses for each skill or strategy.
  6. Students select activities within their instructional zone according to a coding system.

Differentiated centers meet learners where they are and help them practice developmentally appropriate literacy skills, ensuring that they can be truly independent.

Using Technology to Differentiate

One of the major benefits of using technology is that it can be differentiated for each individual without hours of planning and extra lessons. There are great programs for kids to use with laptops and iPads, some for free and some for a fee. Teachers may consider choosing one or two that address different ways students learn and get students very familiar with them so that they can be completely independent. For learners who need explicit directions, Reading A to Z or ReadWorks are good programs to try. These programs are driven by passages sorted by reading levels and follow-up questions designed to push literacy development in the areas of fluency, comprehension and accuracy. For learners who need more creative expression, try Wordle or Popplet, where kids are able to use drawings and shapes to make their words more meaningful. Finally, for kids who have more logical skills, VoiceThread or Explain Everything are good resources.

When teachers start to see the benefits of differentiation, they may want to read more about research-based practices for differentiation in the classroom. The following books discuss how reading levels can help teachers increase literacy development through differentiation:

  • Developing Students’ Multiple Intelligences by Kristen Nicholson-Nelson
  • The Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Differentiation in Action by Judith Dodge
  • How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice by Howard Gardner

Learn more about the UTA online M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with an Emphasis in Literacy Studies program.


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