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Teaching Reading: K-2 Workshop

Differentiating Instruction Examine the Topic | Differentiating Instruction

Differentiate Instruction in a Class

In this section, you will explore an activity to better understand how to group students and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students.

Children in early grades demonstrate a wide range of skills, experiences, and interests. Many teachers use grouping strategies to differentiate their instruction to address their students’ differences. While teachers often understand how to group their classes, deciding on the appropriate instruction practice or activity for the groups often proves more challenging.

The interactive activity: Differentiate Instruction in a Class allows you to group children with varying literacy abilities and choose the best instruction to address their literacy needs. A non-interactive version of this activity is also available as a PDF document.

Activity: Differentiate Instruction in a Class

After completing the activity, consider these questions:

  • Why did you group students together?
  • Why did you assign each group their activity?

Assignment: Submit your written response to the questions.

Differentiating instruction has the goal of getting students to be self-regulated learners. Teachers need to know when to actively intervene and when to encourage students to work independently.

Robert Rueda
University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education

Extend Your Knowledge

In this section, you will expand your understanding of differentiating instruction by comparing the ideas from the workshop video with passages from various publications. Read and respond to the ideas presented as they relate to your own teaching practices.

Dr. Paratore’s lecture and the classroom excerpts illustrate the importance of grouping children flexibly to promote development of reading and writing skills. Grouping options for teaching and learning include whole-class, small-group, peer dyads, and individual contexts. When planning instruction, teachers must make decisions about which grouping plans will optimize learning for all students.

Read the following passage from Guided Reading by Fountas and Pinnell, and consider how the ideas presented relate to your own teaching practices:

Like most teachers, we are concerned about the catch-22 created by the harmful effects of grouping and the necessity for children to read material that is right for their skills and abilities. As a way of resolving this dilemma, we propose combining grouping by similar reading processes and text level with a wide range of heterogeneous grouping for other purposes:

  • Maintain heterogeneous whole-group activities for reading aloud, shared reading, literature circles, reader’s workshop, science and social studies, interactive writing, and other curricular activities.
  • Promote heterogeneous small-group activities in these same areas.
  • Convene interest groups around literature and curriculum study.
  • Assess individual students using a wide range of measures.
  • Form small, guided reading groups of students who have similar reading processes and can read about the same level of text.
  • Meet with these small, guided reading groups about three to five days a week.
  • Regularly assess children in guided reading using running records.
  • Re-form guided reading groups based on this ongoing evaluation.

If young children are to learn to read, they must encounter materials that support their development. In the beginning, even small details are important. For example, children who are just beginning to understand important concepts about print need clear words with spaces between them and only one or two lines of text. To force them to read complex texts with three or four lines and without clear picture clues would confuse them. Sometimes teachers select books for and have conferences with each child individually. While it is possible to teach guided reading this way, for most teachers it simply isn’t practical given the number of children in many classes. In addition, social interaction enhances children’s learning to read; they learn how to support and help each other, and when instruction is handled effectively, they learn from the teacher’s interactions with individuals and the group.

Fountas, I., and G. Pinnell. Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children, 98-99. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1996.

Now return to your reading in Session Preparation, Keeping Flexible Groups Flexible: Grouping Options by Radencich, McKay, and Paratore. Reread the following passages from the reading that describe the characteristics of whole-class and small-group instruction. Consider how the ideas presented relate to your own teaching practices.

Whole Class Instruction
With regard to specific literacy goals, whole-class instruction can accomplish several purposes. For example, to begin the reading assignment, whole-class grouping can be used for introducing new vocabulary; discussing background knowledge; and teacher modeling through reading aloud, making predictions, setting purposes for reading, and providing an audience, such as a student who reads to classmates through author’s chair. After reading, the whole class can discuss, analyze, and extend the selection. These are all tasks that can be accomplished successfully by children across a range of performance levels. Whole-class organization can also be used for story-telling, dramatizing stories, sharing Big Books, sharing writing pieces, holding sustained silent reading and writing time, and creating language experience charts…

Although there are many advantages to whole-class instruction, there are also disadvantages. Attention to individual needs is minimal; individual students may be less likely to participate; and instruction tends to be teacher rather than student-centered, with less pupil/pupil interaction. Thus, overuse of whole-class instruction may prevent attainment of some important literacy goals. Particularly, it is difficult for teachers who rely too heavily on whole-group instruction to be good kidwatchers…

Teacher-Facilitated Needs-Based Groups
Whereas whole-class instruction is designed specifically to create a shared experience, teacher-facilitated needs-based groups are intended to address diverse learning needs. Needs-based groups are based on Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of scaffolding, where meeting students’ needs is not so much a matter of placing them in materials at a given level as of providing the scaffolding or instruction support necessary to help them achieve beyond that level. This notion has led teachers and researchers to explore ways of meeting students’ needs by changing the way teachers teach reading rather than by changing the materials assigned (Paratore, 1990). Teacher-facilitated needs-based groups are particularly beneficial when:

  • A few individuals need additional instruction on an ad hoc basis in areas determined by teacher observation, student request, and/or testing.
  • Students with special needs or emergent readers require frequent, even daily, extra help.
  • Higher performing students need some direction or explanation in preparation for a cooperative or independent learning project.
  • Needs-based groups may be interpreted by some to be traditional ability groups. We prefer to refer to them as ‘performance’ rather than ‘ability’ groups because the issue really is performance rather than an innate ability. These performance groups are more flexible than traditional ability groups, with students moving among different group types (e.g., skills, need, interest), rather than being restricted only to a performance group with other students at similar reading levels.

Radencich, M. C., L. J. McKay, and J. R. Paratore, “Keeping Flexible Groups Flexible,” 27-29.*

Write a reflection relating your own teaching experiences with the passages. In your response, answer these questions:

  • When do you use the different grouping formats?
  • How do you differentiate instruction for students in whole-class and needs-based groups?
  • How have students responded to working in these groups?

Grouping is one important way to differentiate instruction. Differentiation also occurs through materials selection, level of teacher support, and assignment of student tasks.

Robert Rueda, University of Southern California
Rossier School of Education

*From Radencich, M. C., and L. J. McKay, eds. Flexible Grouping for Literacy in the Elementary Grades. Published by Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA. Copyright © 2001 by Pearson Education. Adapted by permission of the publisher.

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Teaching Reading: K-2 Workshop


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-681-2