Differentiation Starts and Ends with Students… actually, they’re in the middle too!
Differentiation means personalized learning with the content, the process of learning it, or the product students create to show they understand it. Discussed here are ways to differentiate content and process because it has been my experience that many teachers already differentiate in terms of product. And content and process are meatier- they help students own the knowledge and skills needed in order to create the product!
Start with Strengths and Struggles
In order to differentiate, we need to know our students really well. We need to sit with them as they’re working and ask them to think aloud. We need to eavesdrop as they work with others and make quick conferences and formative assessments part of daily instruction. As we observe students, we should make note of their strengths and struggles, and ask them to articulate what they understand and what confuses them- we want them to be aware of their thinking and learning processes.
Plan Differently for Different Places
Differentiated learning is personalized learning. We use the information we’ve gleaned from conferences and formative assessments to figure out what students need as we plan lessons, and we’re ready to offer students what they need, on the spot, within a lesson too.
Does that mean 25 different lesson plans for each class? Not exactly because any teaching strategy that produces results is perfect for differentiation, and as you learn to navigate student needs lesson by lesson and within lessons, it will become easy to pull from what you know works best.
There isn’t a magic list of strategies, although I’ve attempted to list options below. My advice is to make your own list of effective strategies and methods. It will help to have it as you plan for what students need.
Not a Magic List, but I’ll Give it My Best Shot
- If students are reading a common text or novel, offer different ways students can read it: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out which way helps them understand best.
- If students are reading a common text or novel, encourage them to read it at a rate that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. If we are differentiating, we aren’t telling kids they need to stick to a certain number of pages per night. If we do that, then we need to accept that some students are not going to read. Instead we should help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
- Offer texts on a common topic but at different levels, lengths, and genres.
- Offer a variety of ways students can organize their thinking and the content as they read: graphic organizers, thinking stems, annotations, or a text partially annotated by the teacher.
- Teach students to figure out which materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. In my reading intervention classes, students record their ideas in a variety ways: Some use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
- Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need (Some examples: One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.)
- Collaborate with your students’ language arts teacher. Group students based on the skills they are learning in their language arts class, and teach them to discuss those skills and support each other as they read a text in your class.
- Teach students to choose texts and novels based on their interests and purposes for reading. Support them when they choose a challenging text. My students and I discuss their reading levels because, in my heart of hearts, I believe it is their right to know their own data, and we use this information to plan for and track growth. If I made students read within a certain level, I’d be ignoring my purpose for differentiation, which is to teach students to understand and monitor their own learning and growth.
- Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. (One example: What confuses you about today’s topic? If nothing seems confusing, what would you like to learn more about regarding this topic?)
TIPS for Successful Differentiation
- As you reflect on which strategies are most effective, begin organizing anchor charts, graphic organizers, sentence starters and other tools so that they’re easily available
for conferences and small group lessons.
- When you are working one-on-one with a student, quickly create a personal anchor chart as a visual the student can keep with them. It’s a quick way to reinforce what you conferred about and allows the student to refer back as often as needed, even when they’re not in your classroom.
- Use a large artist’s pad to hold a mini anchor chart collection. Use these for small group lessons. Keep the pad easily available for students to refer to after lessons.
- Two excellent books for teachers who are just getting started in differentiation in reading and writing come from Jennifer Serravallo: The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book (due to be released 2/2017). Serravallo offers anchor charts, prompts, tips, and multiple approaches for teaching reading and writing skills in any content.
When we know our students’ thought patterns, learning behaviors, and levels of understanding, we can teach based on student need lesson to lesson and even moment to moment within lessons. This gives all students access to course content which they’ll need if they’re doing to learn it, use it, and make it their own.
If this seems like too much, we need to give something else up. Live feedback beats the rerun (written a few days ago, graded awhile-back worksheet) EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
Teachers, share the ways you differentiate reading. What tips and ideas can we add to our Magic Lists? …not that there is such a thing 😉