Showing posts with label differentiated instruction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label differentiated instruction. Show all posts

Monday, February 18, 2013

Differentiating for Text Difficulty under Common Core


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 masters. 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, 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, 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. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

What about cross-grade or cross-class grouping?

One of the most difficult challenges facing teacher is the issue of differentiation. Matching the reading difficulty of texts and curriculum coverage with student proficiency and knowledge is complicated and its benefits can be subtle (that is, it can be difficult to attribute learning gains to such adjustments). When I look at studies of differentiation and grouping, it is evident that such arrangements can facilitate greater interaction and can allow instruction to proceed more efficiently (since students tend to make faster gains when they are working at levels that don’t differ by too much from their own proficiency levels). But these arrangements pose some real problems for teachers, too, so grouping isn’t the answer to everything. Frankly, I see schools that don’t adjust enough to meet student needs, and others that adjust too much to do a good job.

Cross-grade and cross-age grouping has a mixed history. The so-called “Joplin plan” generated positive research results in the 1970s. The idea of the Joplin plan is to have multiple teachers sharing their children for grouping purposes. And, more recently, programs like Success for All have used this approach with success (albeit with a tweak or two), and there are school districts, like Montgomery Co., MD, that have their own version of this kind of arrangement (with all of the adults in the school helping to teach kids).

The basic idea is this: It is difficult to meet students’ needs given the great diversity of proficiency evident in a single classroom, so grouping students for reading ACROSS classes increases the possibility of teaching students at their level. Thus, if the three third-grade teachers each have two or three students reading at Grade 1 level, those can be grouped together across the classes, and then only one teacher has to focus on finding appropriate materials for such low readers. On the face of it, that’s a great idea.

But as I told you, there can be drawbacks to these schemes, too. For instance, many teachers don’t make levels adjustments once this kind of arrangement is in place, which can be problematic both because it reduces the amount of interaction, and because there are still likely to be substantial learning and proficiency differences in these re-arranged groups. In my previous example, I suggested that a teacher might get 9 students at a grade 1 level, but what if the three teachers are sharing 90 children? That 9 group will likely be supplemented by others (perhaps the low second-grade readers). That teacher still needs to group within class, though the differences won’t be as big as they would be if these three teachers were not working together.

I never liked to share my students for reading, as I was never as connected to those children as I was to the ones whom I taught. Teachers often follow up with their kids on reading throughout the day, but this is hard to do if the students are taught reading by someone else. This means that teachers have to work much more closely together to ensure that teachers are able to dynamically respond to student needs.

Cross-class grouping makes more sense in schools where it is easy and quick to swap kids. The more stairs there are to climb and the farther apart the similar classrooms, the more instructional time that will be wasted.

So, by all means group students across classrooms if the amount of within classroom diversity is too great for one teacher to address. But, understand that such schemes rarely do away with the need for within class grouping (either to adjust student-text matches further or to increase interaction of teacher and students), and they require greater connection among teachers and management capable of moving students with a minimum of kerfluffle.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Does Assigning Kids to Classes on the Basis of Ability Help to Improve Literacy?

I received a letter this week from a teacher wanting to know about ability grouping. Her principal wants to reduce the heterogeneity in reading achievement, so teachers will not have to make adjustments. She wanted to know what I thought of this arrangement.

I see a lot of these schemes these days in urban schools. Often the school will have three second-grade classrooms or three third-grade classrooms, and all the low kids end up in one room, and all the high ones in another room. The research says that these arrangements slightly advantage the top kids, but that they suppress the achievement gains of the rest of the kids (much more downside than upside).

Within class adjustments, the teacher having different kids spending part of their day working in different materials is not as problematic. Such arrangements can have a downside, but the improved appropriateness of instruction tends to be a bigger advantage.

I think part of the problem with tracking kids into different classrooms is that it just gets a lot harder to teach a class with all of the problem learners (these kids aren’t just lower, learning for them is more difficult, so concentrating those difficulties can overwhelm the teacher). Also, kids learn a lot from models. They see what other, more able, kids do and mimic it; in segregated classrooms such models aren’t available so learning slows down. Also, this kind of placement often fools teachers (no matter what level of kids that they have) into thinking that they don’t need to adjust difficulty levels. They figure everyone must be at the right level, so teaching devolves to whole class teaching with little adjustment or opportunity to read things closer to one’s reading level. Finally, in mixed race/ethnicity schools, guess which kids get dumped in the low class?

The research is clear: heterogeneous assignment to classrooms is the best way to go during the elementary grades.