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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem with Guided Reading

The main point of “guided reading” is to make sure kids are being taught from books that are not too far beyond their skills. If a book seems like hieroglyphics to a kid, then not much learning could be expected. (Likewise books can be too easy… presenting neither challenge, nor much to learn). Trying to get kids into the “just right” reading level has been an issue of long interest in the field of reading.

The independent/instructional/frustration level scheme has now been around for about 60 years (since Emmett Betts described these levels in his landmark textbook). Frustration level is the point at which books are too hard to learn from, independent level is the level when books are too easy to be used as instructional texts, and instructional level is in the space in between.

So, in guided reading, teachers place children into books that are arrayed across difficulty levels. This is a really terrific plan when kids start out because beginning readers are a bit fragile (they get overwhelmed by too much new stuff). It is also a reasonable idea overall, even with much older readers—as no matter how well you read, it would be possible to come up with a text that would simply be too darn hard.

The theory may be good, but it’s execution in guided reading leaves much to be desired. First, the book leveling schemes that are being used are pretty dubious. I’m not talking about Lexiles or other well-validated readability schemes, but the book-leveling schemes for guided reading are pretty shaky.

However, that isn’t really the big problem… the real problem is the theory itself, since the notion that kids have to be matched to the right book for them to learn is not consistent with actual data (at least once you get beyond the very early levels of reading achievement). The basic problem is that there are too many levels and that there is apparently too much overlap in the levels. Teachers sacrifice way too much instructional time trying to provide kids teaching at their exact level. So, you’ll see teachers spending 15-20 minutes each with groups at level “L” and “M” that frankly aren’t different. In such cases the teacher would be better off spending 30-40 minutes with the two combined groups.

Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books! My point isn’t that we shouldn’t group kids by book levels; but that when we do this there is a tendency to overdo it (to make these levels a kind of fetish). I certainly don’t want to see a fifth-grader who reads at a second-grade level trying to negotiate the fifth-grade reading textbook on his own, but I likewise don’t like seeing children getting much less interaction time with a teacher simply because they know a few more or less words than the other kids (it just doesn’t make that much difference).

Certainly, I would place kids in different levels of books when it is inexpensive of teacher time (such as paired reading or independent reading). And I would place kids in different books when their reading levels lag far behind (in grades 2-3, I’d strive for placements within a half-grade level of the child’s reading level, in grades 4-5, within a year, and above that I’d aim for within two years). And, finally, make sure you don’t fractionate your class with so many different levels of placement that you can’t provide much instruction. Groups are necessary perhaps, but the fewer groups the better.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., and Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119. 
O’Connor, R.E., Bell, K.M., Harty, K.R., Larkin, L.K., Sackor, S.M., and; Zigmond, N. (2002). Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 474-485.

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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Which Reading First Idea Has the Least Research Support?

Reading First is the federal education program that encourages teachers to follow the research on how best to teach reading. The effort requires that teachers teach phonemic awareness (grades K-1), phonics (grades K-2), oral reading fluency (grades 1-3), vocabulary (grades K-3), and reading comprehension strategies (grades K-3). Reading First emphasizes such teaching because so many studies have shown that the teaching of each of these particular things improves reading achievement.

Reading First also requires that kids get 90-minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction each day, because research overwhelmingly shows that the amount of teaching provided makes a big difference in kids’ learning.
It requires that kids who are struggling be given extra help in reading through various of interventions. Again, an idea supported by lots of research. Early interventions get a big thumbs up from the research studies.

It requires that teachers and principals receive lots of professional development in reading, the idea being that if they know how to teach reading effectively, higher reading achievement will result. The research clearly supports this idea, too.

It requires that kids be tested frequently using monitoring tests to identify which kids need extra help and to do this early, before they have a chance to fall far behind. Sounds pretty sensible to me, but where’s the research?

Truth be told, there is a very small amount of research on the learning benefits of “curriculum-based measurement” and “work sampling, but beyond these meager—somewhat off-point—demonstrations, there is little empirical evidence supporting such big expenditures of time and effort.

This isn’t another rant against DIBELS (the tests that have been used most frequently for this kind of monitoring). Replace DIBELS with any monitoring battery you prefer (e.g., PALS, Ames-Webb, ISEL, TPRI) and you have the same problem. What do research studies reveal about the use of these tests to improve achievement? Darned little!

There is research showing that these tests are valid and reliable, that is they tend to measure what they claim to measure and they do this in a stable manner. In other words, the quality of these tests in terms of measurement properties isn’t the problem.

The real issue is how would you use these tests appropriately to help improve kids’ performance? For instance, do we really need to test everyone or are there kids who so clearly are succeeding or failing that we would be better off saving the testing time and simply stipulating that they will or will not get extra help?

Or, are the cut scores really right for these tests? I know when I reviewed DIBELS for Buros I found that the cut scores (the scores used to identify who is at risk) hadn’t been validated satisfactorily. Since then my experiences in Chicago suggest to me that the scores aren’t sufficiently rigorous; that means many kids who need help don’t get it because the tests fail to identify them as being in need.

Perhaps, the monitoring test schemes (and the tests themselves) are adequate, but in practice you can’t make it work. I have personally seen teachers subverting these plans by doing things like having kids memorizing nonsense words, or having kids read as fast as possible (rather than reading for meaning). Test designers can’t be held accountable for such misuse of their tests, but such aberrations cannot be ignored in determining the ultimate value of these testing plans.

There are few aspects of Reading First that make more sense than checking up on the students’ reading progress, and providing extra help to those who are not learning… unfortunately, we don’t have much evidence showing that such schemes—as actually carried out in classrooms—work the way logic says they should. I think it is worth continuing to try to make such approaches pay off for kids, but given the lack of research support, I think real prudence is needed here:

1. Administer these tests EXACTLY in the way the manuals describe.

2. Limit the amount of testing to what is really needed to make a decision (if a teacher is observing everyday and believes that a child is struggling with some aspect of reading, chances are pretty good that extra help is needed).

3. Examine the results of your testing over time. Perhaps if you systematically adjust the cut scores, you can improve student learning. It is usually best to err on the side of giving kids more help than they might need.

4. Don’t neglect aspects of reading instruction that can’t be measured as easily (such as vocabulary or reading comprehension). Monitoring tests do a reasonably good job of helping teachers to sort out performance of “simple skills.” They do not, nor do they purport to, assess higher level processes; these still need to be taught and taught thoroughly and well, however. Special effort may be needed to ensure that these are adequately addressed given the lack of direct testing information.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Heterogeneous or Homogeneous for Middle School Disabled Readers?

Dr. Shanahan,

I am a mother of a child with a reading disability (as well as processing and short term memory) who will be entering middle school in the fall. Our middle school is planning on heterogeneously grouping the students in reading/language arts classes. As I'm sure you know this would be the lowest level readers blended with college level readers. Also, reading interventions will be cut from every day to every other day. I am a little concerned about the implications this may have on the students. Do you happen to know what research says about this concept? What are your feelings?Any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your help! :)

Dear Concerned Parent,

Thanks for your letter. Generally research has not been positive about homogeneous group or tracking by class when it comes to reading instruction (though most of this research has been done with younger kids or older kids in subjects other than reading). Overall the findings are that homogeneous grouping provides a slight academic benefit to the highest kids and no measurable benefit to the others, but of course those are averages and kid’s experiences are individual.

One concern about trying to group all kids by level is that it segregates them which can be socially disruptive and cuts kids off from models of proficiency. Your child benefits from interacting regularly and meaningfully with kids who might not be challenged in the same ways and who might find it easier to see themselves as upwardly mobile when it comes to academics.

One reason there is so little benefit to grouping kids by ability is that most kids are at or near the middle where not much benefit would be expected (think of it this way: if a 7th grade teacher teaches from a 7th grade book in an average school, nearly 70% of the kids are likely to be reading between a 6th and 8th grade level; there would be very little benefit from such a small adjustment for these kids). That leaves 30% of kids who are far enough off the mark who might benefit from an alteration of level, but even a two-year reading difference at this grade level is not that big, especially on the high end, so that means about 85-90% of the kids will likely do fine when they are taught “on grade level” rather than reading level (some teachers might even make some within classroom adjustments reducing the homogeneous advantage even more).

My claim isn’t that there could be no benefit to the vast majority of kids under any conditions, but just changing the book level and placing kids only with those who perform like themselves will not, by itself, change things enough to matter to most kids. For example, one of the big gains that could come from homogeneous grouping would be that the teachers could move along more quickly and cover more instructional ground… Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a school put in place a more ambitious curriculum as a result of such grouping (yeah, the kids often get exactly the same instruction they would have with or without the grouping).

Okay, so homogeneous grouping for reading/language arts could be beneficial 10-20% of kids in the middle and high school grades. About half of those kids are reading above grade level. Perhaps they'd make faster progress in a homogenous setting, but schools are notorious for not actually raising the level with such gifted kids anyway, and school districts tend not to worry about the gifted much in these days of AYP and moribund reading scores.

That means that homogeneous grouping for reading in middle school will probably be of greatest value to the 5-10% of kids at the bottom; the ones reading more than two years below grade level. The ones the teacher really can’t “pull along” to adequate progress with the other kids. The ones who either suck up way too much teacher time in a heterogeneous classroom or who simply fade into the wallpaper and don’t make much progress at all. Schools definitely could (and often do) create an alternative reading class for such kids (or in some cases, it is an additional class—the strugglers take both the regular language arts class AND the special reading class).

Sadly, even when schools create such possibilities they often fail to provide the resources needed to make them work. Remember how far these kids are behind? Just adjusting the instructional level of the materials will probably not alone be sufficient to meet their needs. Struggling readers have to make gains that will help close the learning gap with their peers (that means they need more than a year learning for a year of teaching).

One thing I found when I was doing the research to create my adolescent literacy program (for kids reading 2nd to 5th grade levels) was the great need for intensive instruction with these kids. It isn’t enough to alter the reading level of the materials, but skills and strategies need to be taught with a heightened thoroughness and consistency. Programs for average kids tend to flit from one strategy to another rarely spending even a couple of days on the same thing (I guess in fear of boring this generation); but the effective approaches demonstrated in research studies had a very different design: they stayed with something for days and even weeks, trying the new strategy out in lots of different texts and under varied circumstances and with lots of review. That kind of teaching is especially necessary for kids like yours.

If your child is more than two years below grade level in reading performance, I would push for the school to do some special programming for such kids. The ideal would be to provide them with a special reading class (don’t segregate them, keep them together with everyone else for the rest of their day), and that class should be daily--time matters. I would assign fewer kids to such classes so the instruction could be as individualized as possible. I would push for the use of a reading or special education teacher who knows a lot about this kind of teaching. I would push for the use of the kinds of materials reviewed above. I would even consider pushing for an afterschool program to get my child even more of this kind of teaching than can be afforded in a school day. (Of course, if that isn’t possible or the school isn’t responsive then you need to try to create such a situation for your child away from school. Unfortunately, I don’t know what resources of this type might be available in your community).

I don’t know where you are located, but if you want to see the kind of teaching that really can make a difference with learning-disabled children, I would suggest that you try to visit the Benchmark School in the Philadelphia area. Their teaching is remarkably good and would provide you with a vision for your schools to work towards.

Good luck.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Making a Difference Means Making It Different

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to the members of the Chicago Area Reading Association. I received a wonderfully warm welcome on a very cold night. My presentation was on differentiation. Sadly, these days I see a lot of good reading people pushing for grouping and learning stations as if those are the signs of good teaching. Grouping can be valuable as a tool for increasing reading achievement, or it can be a time-waster that serves as nothing more than a false symptom of teaching. In this talk, I lay out four basic aspects of differentiation--a range of tools that teachers can use under a wide variety of situations that can increase their effectiveness when used thoughtfully based on a deep consideration of a child's needs.

Hope you find this useful.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Differentiation and the Teaching of Reading

Differentiation, a great concept, has become a buzz word these days. It seems to mean many different things to many different people. Reading supervisors and coordinators frequently tell me about their dissatisfaction with the huge amount of whole-class teaching going on. I’ve even seen principals who have tried to increase differentiation by forbidding the use of reading textbooks (you can’t follow something lock-step with all of the kids if you don’t have anything to follow).

I certainly agree that a steady diet of whole-class instruction is almost certain to lose somebody. Kids learn at different speeds; they get confused or phase out and miss key information; they are absent, and so on. There clearly need to be adjustments to what teachers do in order to meet kids’ needs. Even agreeing with the notion that some educational adjustments need to be made for individual differences, I often feel a pang of discomfort when I hear the complaint about the lack of differentiation.

Like the teachers who they criticize, far too many supervisors lack a clear conception of what differentiation is or what it should look like. That means when a teacher is delivering a bunch of mini-lessons and sticking kids into different books, these supes are satisfied… even when the instruction is still inappropriate and ineffective. The idea is to give the greatest amount of effective teaching to the largest number of kids; not to lock into any set of procedures without ongoing attention to the effectiveness of these procedures.

That a teacher is spewing a bunch of different lessons does not guarantee “differentiation.” Mandates that teachers employ centers, small groups, flexible groups, or mini-lessons prescribe symptoms rather than effects.

There are two basic kinds of differentiation: curriculum differentiation and instructional differentiation. They are both important, but they play out in different ways in terms of what teachers need to do or how pressed for time they might be in their classroom.

Curriculum differentiation includes increasing or decreasing the emphasis on particular aspects of the curriculum for some kids and not others. In reading this could entail giving greater attention to fluency or phonics for kids who are struggling to learn these skills. Everybody would get some amount of such instruction, but there could be adjustments to increase or decrease how much depending on how students are doing. Curriculum adjustments would also include putting kids in a harder or easier book to practice reading (this approach is often what teachers assume differentiation to be and they often can’t figure out how to handle multiple books).

Instructional differentiation includes adjusting the amount of instruction or the intensity of instruction (how the lessons are delivered). Even when teachers are predominately giving whole class lessons, if they pay attention to how the students are doing they’ll have to notice that some kids are getting what is being taught and some are not. Responding to this immediate difference by giving those who are succeeding some seatwork or extra practice, while offering more direct interaction and support to those who aren’t getting it is a sound differentiating response. Another change might be to make sure that certain kids have chances to respond during the lesson is appropriate, too.

Teachers should know how to differentiate both in terms of curriculum and instruction (and these adjustments to teaching can look pretty different). And, to make either work, they need to be able to evaluate—as they teach—how well children are doing. If you cannot discern which kids understand and which do not, appropriate differentiation is impossible.