Differentiating for Text Difficulty under Common Core

Posted on December 12, 2013

Question: I have taught elementary and currently teach middle school language arts. One thing that has been bothersome since I began teaching middle school is a lack of differentiating instruction to students’ needs. I am trying to research best practices and lead an action plan for my school as I work towards my master’s degree. I understand that students are now expected to read at a more difficult and complex text level with CCSS. I can’t imagine handing out a text of the same difficulty level to 30 students and expecting the same results. There still needs to be varying levels of text in a classroom. How would you suggest meeting the varying levels of students in your classroom? How should the lesson delivery look? I have been concluding that small group explicit instruction, page with more complex text would be somewhere to start with students who are my least capable readers. It would be a goal to confer with these struggling readers daily if possible. Other research I have conducted states that one-to-one or homogeneous small group instruction garners the best results for teaching. I would provide more freedom with my more accomplished readers knowing they already have the skills and understanding of how to dissect a more complex text. Do you believe whole class direct instruction is a best practice for teaching our readers? I have been arguing that our classroom teachers need to homogeneously group students and target specific reading skills that they are lacking. There has been a lot of discussion about guided reading and CCSS, stuff I believe what I have discussed adapts elements of guided reading to meet some of CCSS. Thank you for your response.

What a thoughtful set of questions.

I would say that while you can’t imagine handing out text of the same difficulty level to 30 students, you might want to give it a try. Ask yourself: If everyone has to learn to read this text, what supports are different students likely to need to read it? In other words, I think in reading we’re all in a bit of a rut when it comes to differentiation. You can vary more than the text itself. (If we were having kids practice for the 50 yard dash, we wouldn’t have some of them work on the 25 yard dash, but we might give them different supports and encouragements).

For example, let’s say that I have some lower students who are going to struggle to read this like text; that is they are going to struggle with word recognition and fluency. Perhaps you could have those students working on their fluency with that text, prior to the group lesson. Paired reading/partner reading, repeated reading, reading while listening, etc. could be a real help to them. It may also be helpful for you to parse the text for them, showing them where the pause boundaries are. That way when these students start to work on this text for comprehension sake, they will read it at a much higher (and closer to the others) level.

Then, when you do bring the group or class together to take on that text meaning, you will have to have various supports and scaffolds ready. How are you going to divide the text up to work through it? With an especially varied group, shorter segments are best. Which vocabulary are you going to preteach? Which sentences do you think the grammar will trip the kids up? Which cohesive links are hard to follow? Anything about the structure that you will need to draw to the students’ attention? Is the tone important? Subtle? What help could you provide with it—without telling kids what it means or how it works? Some students will, indeed, need more of these supports than others, but that is the kind of guidance that will be necessary.

Is it best to teach whole class or small group? They serve different purposes. Large group/class lessons allow me to cover a lot of information with everybody in an efficient manner, but it is difficult (though not impossible) to monitor success or to drill down and help individuals (again, there are important exceptions).

Small group is best for lots of interaction and response, you can maximize individual participation and really hold participants more accountable. No question about it; I would rather work with a small group of students  who are struggling with a hard text, than a large group of students, some of whom are struggling and some are not. At least when my goal is to maximize the support.

I don’t think there is a best way to teach when it comes to small group/large group. They serve a different purpose and we need to move between them with some frequency. I would say the same thing about dealing with challenging text: you don’t want all the text to be really hard or really easy; you want kids to have a range of reading experiences even within each day. Push them through something really difficult and challenging, and then ease off the pressure by having them read something relatively easy. 

Author: Tim Shanahan, Professor of Urban Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is Director of the UIC Center for Literacy. This article was reprinted from his blog, which can be accessed at: www.shanahanonliteracy.com