Differentiated Instruction in the Content Areas: Strategies for Reading, Thinking, and Writing to Learn
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
This article is an excerpt from Part II of Laura Robb’s book, Teaching Reading: A Differentiated Approach.
Recently, in early September, Sarah Armstrong, assistant superintendent of instruction for Staunton City Schools in Virginia, invited me to work on literacy with the art, music, and physical education teachers at Shelburne Middle School.
Because of Sarah's efforts, many teachers working for the school district embraced the concept that every teacher was a reading, thinking, and writing teacher. History and science teachers at Shelburne had begun to differentiate reading instruction in their classes.
In a room off the main library, content teachers stored five to seven copies of books at diverse reading levels on topics they taught. When students studied and classified the different kinds of rocks and how each was formed in science or when they studied World War II in history, teachers could choose from related texts that met the wide range of students' instructional reading levels. Jen Morris, Shelburne's librarian, worked closely with content teachers to help them select the best trade books available on a topic.
However, Sarah's new assignment felt daunting, and here's why. Often, I sense resistance when schools require that art, music, and phys. ed. teachers attend a literacy workshop with language arts, history, science, and math teachers. And here I was, accepting the challenge to work on reading and writing with those reluctant-to-incorporate-literacy teachers!
During the morning I had teachers dribble and pass a basketball, kick and pass a soccer ball, and list the vocabulary students needed to talk about these sports. As teachers listened to a recording of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, pairs talked, then wrote what they knew about symphony orchestras.
Groups read short biographies about artists from Kathleen Krull's Lives of the Artists (Harcourt, 1995) and created presentations. We enjoyed a Readers Theater, an interview, and a radio play with sound effects. We created word walls about basketball and soccer and the orchestra. My goal throughout all of this was to get these teachers to see the connection between language and learning in a new way. So often, content teachers tell me, "I teach information and not reading and writing." That statement fascinates me, for reading, talking, and writing are research proven ways of learning information. But that day I planned carefully, and I purposely engaged these teachers in talking to learn, in hands-on experiences that led to writing, and in reading and dramatizing to share information.
That morning, the messages teachers transmitted with their body language and their comments ranged from "Okay, we'll sit through this and then forget all about it" to "I may actually be able to use some of these experiences with my students." A month later,when I returned to Shelburne to work with language arts teachers, principal Barbara Smallwood took me on a tour of the gymnasium and two classrooms. In the gym were two huge word walls: one filled with basketball words, the other with words relating to conditioning and diet. Students in music were designing an illustrated guide to orchestral instruments. Seventh- and eighth-grade art students were involved in a mini-unit on artists. In addition to reading short biographies, students collected photos of the artists' work from the Internet. Helping teachers make paradigm shifts like these can be challenging, but it is always joyful, energizing, and satisfying.
The Textbook Isn't Enough:
A Rationale for Differentiated Instruction in the Content Areas
Research has demonstrated that the textbooks students use in middle school are written at or above grade level and are difficult for many students to comprehend(Beck et al., 1997; Beck & McKeown, 1991; Freeman & Person, 1998; Zarnowski,1998). However, many content area teachers assume that their students can read and understand them without assistance. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Not all students entering middle school or high school have the reading proficiency needed to tackle reading and learning from assigned textbook chapters. In fact, according to Reading Next:A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (Snow & Biancarosa, 2004), "a full 70 percent of U. S. middle and high school students require differentiated instruction, which is instruction targeted to their individual strengths and weaknesses".
How Did We Get Here? Dispelling a Myth
For years, primary- and middle-grade teachers have shaped their teaching practices around the following deeply rooted myth: In the early grades (K-3), reading instruction consists primarily of decoding and memorizing basic sight words. During these years, comprehension has little to do with reading instruction. Then quite suddenly, in the fourth grade, reading to learn begins, and students read to absorb information. Unfortunately, this myth has influenced reading instruction and beliefs in classrooms throughout this country and continues to do so. The result is that all too often primary-grade reading instruction focuses on teaching decoding rather than combining decoding with comprehension strategy instruction. Then in fourth grade,teachers often emphasize absorbing content over explicit reading instruction .
The problem? The myth and its practices aren't working! NAEP scores, the Reading Nextstudy (Snow & Biancarosa, 2004), and a great deal of research bear this out.Researchers such as Marie Clay, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, P. David Pearson, Michael Pressley, and Nell Duke have shown that for all children, learning to read and reading to learn should be happening simultaneously and continuously. This insight helps us see that the myth's very premise is flawed.
How can children suddenly shift from simply decoding words to drawing meaning from complex text about unfamiliar topics? This shift cannot occur unless teachers model the process and teach the strategies that facilitate it. With research pointing the way, the teaching of comprehension has now emerged as a critical piece of learning to read. Researchers have demonstrated that good readers ofall ages use what they know and have experienced to understand information in texts.
As readers decode and connect what they know to a text, they construct meaning and new understandings. In addition, readers use strategies such as questioning, making connections, visualizing, and retelling to make sense of the text and cope with confusing passages and new words. Content-area texts bombard students with new vocabulary and topics daily as students move from science to history to algebra. It is imperative, then, that content-area teachers teach the strategies readers use to comprehend nonfiction,then set aside time for students to practice strategies with materials they can read.
Differentiated Instruction in the Content Areas
Most content-area teachers are passionate about their subjects and feel like Jim, a history teacher who tells me, "I love history and want every student to love it and learn as much as possible." But if students can't read the text, how do we convey the richness and depth of the content we teach? In the past, teachers have worked around this dilemma by presenting lectures and writing notes on the board. However, these accommodations do not address the underlying problem of students being unable to access information in nonfiction materials. The answer lies, instead, in providing differentiated instruction. We must identify what reading strategies our students need and then teach those strategies so students can move toward independence in reading.
We must offer them texts they can read, which means providing alternatives to the textbook. And we must give them choices in reading and assignments. To make this move toward a differentiated classroom, teachers must shift their thinking in six key areas. They need to
1. Recognize that children continue to develop their reading skills in middle
and high school.
2. Provide multiple texts at varying reading levels for students.
3. Use assessment to inform planning and instruction.
4. Teach reading and learn to scaffold instruction.
5. Integrate writing to think and learn.
6. Plan for the "big picture." Doing this enables them to map the framework
of a four- to eight-week unit of study.
What's heartening is that as I visit schools and work with content teachers, I find that more and more middle-school classes are incorporating research-tested practices into their instruction. By presenting reading strategy lessons, you provide students with the reading tools they need to comprehend, recall, and analyze content in informational books and textbooks. Whether used in science, social studies, or math, these lessons teach strategies that support comprehension before, during, and after reading. In addition, you can use the lessons to
• build students' prior knowledge.
• pre-teach vocabulary.
• show students how to self-monitor and pinpoint what they do and don't
• teach students fix-up strategies, such as reread, reread and retell, and close
It's difficult for those who have 40- to 45-minute class periods to embrace teaching reading. Presenting strategy lessons does take away some time, but investing time in comprehension instruction moves students from dependence on the teacher for learning content to a shared responsibility, and eventually to independence. The lessons I provide are short but effective, and they all have the goal of helping students better comprehend what they read, which in this case is content-area materials. Keep in mind that you don't have to teach every lesson here. The heart of differentiated instruction is teaching students what they need, so if students are already using a strategy effectively, then there's no need to teach it to the whole class.
It's also important to embrace professional study and to continue developing your knowledge of reading and writing to learn. The more you fine-tune your theory of how children learn to read, the better equipped you'll be to bring reading instruction to your subject area.
Since unpacking meaning from textbooks poses challenges for grade-level and struggling readers, we'll also investigate other ways of providing students with reading materials they can read and that enable them to participate in class activities and make meaningful contributions to the topic you're studying. The next section addresses this important aspect of differentiation.
Differentiate by Providing Multiple Texts for Students
Fourth-grade teacher Sandy Porter has a class of 24 boys and girls. That group includes five ELL students who read at a second-grade level, seven learning disabled students who read a year below grade level, eight students reading at grade level, and four above grade level. For a unit of study on the planets, Sandy finds that 12 students cannot read the science textbook. Faced with this dilemma, she sees two choices:
(1) read the chapter on the planets from the textbook out loud to the class so everyone has access to the information or
(2) write a fact sheet about each planet that her ELL and learning disabled students can read.
When Sandy and I meet to discuss the options she's identified, I sense her frustration. "Writing a booklet takes so much time," she tells me. "I guess I have to do it. If I read aloud, no one will be reading."
First, I honor Sandy's feelings. Then, I tell her, "You have a third option: You can find books on the planets written at different levels. You can use multiple texts and meet the needs of each child in your class. Some will read easy picture or early chapter books about the planets; others can read the textbook and informational picture and chapter books at their reading levels." This idea appealed to Sandy, so we mined her school's library for books and magazines. We also checked materials out of the school's reading resource room where teachers stored multiple copies of fiction and nonfiction texts. The reading levels of these texts ranged from primer to sixth grade. To gather more choices for students, Sandy checked out a dozen books from the public library in her neighborhood.
Using multiple texts enabled Sandy to meet the needs of every child in her class. "I showed the picture of Mars in my book," said Aroya. "They [the other students]thought they were cool. I felt proud to share." Like Aroya, those who couldn't read the textbook had materials to read, learn from, and share during small- and whole group discussions. A lesson Sandy's students learned from multiple texts is that there's valuable information to learn in all kinds of materials-even photo essays that emphasized photographs of planets over text. Instead of limiting your students to one text, offer them multiple texts and introduce varied perspectives on a topic. You can bring multiple texts into your classroom and still offer students choice by organizing materials on four desks or tables. When you organize books, avoid the pitfall of clearly showing which students are reading easier texts. First, make sure you have picture books on all tables, so all students to have access to these texts. Second, label tables with letters (P,T, Z, G) or numbers (4, 20, 12, 9) in such a way that ranking is not an issue.
Follow these suggestions when providing multiple texts:
• On two desks, display an array of materials for students reading below
grade level. If you have a wider range of below-grade-level readers
than Sandy did, then split them into groups and set up one desk for
• On a third desk, place reading materials for students reading at or close
to grade level.
• On the fourth desk, display materials that your proficient readers
• Send four or five students to each desk. Invite them to browse through
the materials and choose one or two texts.
• Have students waiting to choose materials complete a class assignment or
work on a writing project or on a reproducible (see pages 332-358).
• Negotiate with each student a reasonable number of books to complete.
Those reading easier texts may read more books and articles than students
reading longer texts.
• Store materials students did not select on the first round on bookshelves or
in crates. Keep levels separate so it's easy to display them on desks again.
• Reserve 20-35 minutes of class time for students to read and take notes on
their selected reading matter.
Now that your students have materials they can read and learn from, you'll want to consider how their discussions, journal responses, and tests help you decide which students require additional support.
Differentiate by Providing Scaffolds
Differentiated instruction is nothing more than offering students the support they need to understand the material you're teaching. To help students comprehend the text book and other nonfiction, you can scaffold the reading process by offering assistance before,during, and after reading. Providing scaffolds means that you sit next to a student and think aloud as you model how to apply a strategy.
Scaffolding can also involve offering tips that students can use to support their reading, such as making sure there's a purpose for reading or how to use context clues to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words. While scaffolding, you might start by demonstrating the entire process several times. Next, you can gradually release part of the process to the student and continue practicing with him or her until the student can work independently (Vygotsky, 1978).
Since differentiation often calls for meeting with small groups of students, we'll examine management structures that will help you ensure that students are working productively during class time and that you are able to provide each student with the scaffolding he or she needs. These structures include whole-class lessons, small-group work, paired peers, class routines, students' organizational skills, and a framework for reteaching. The key to success with differentiating is in the amount of time you invest in teaching students to work independently while you support a small group. In content subjects, where large numbers of students struggle with the required textbook and processing new information and vocabulary, scaffolding students' learning is an effective way of moving them forward.
When all the students need your support because they know little about a topic, such as how nuclear reactors work, or a concept, such as revolution, it makes sense to scaffold learning for the entire class. You may want to scaffold instruction for everyone
• to build background knowledge.
• to show how a strategy works and supports recall and comprehension.
• to enlarge students' understanding of a key concept.
• to pre-teach difficult and unfamiliar vocabulary.
• to practice test-taking and study skills.
• to develop organizational and time-management skills.
When history teacher Dick Bell and I taught humanities, a combined English/history class, we planned a unit of study on holocausts. Through movies and television shows, most eighth graders had some knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust and the atrocities visited upon the Jews, Catholics, and Gypsies. However, we wanted to enlarge the concept and move beyond Hitler and Nazi Germany. First, we asked groups of four to six students to discuss what they knew about World War II and the Holocaust .Then as students shared, we collected their ideas on chart paper.
Students knew enough for us to proceed. However, if at this point, students' background knowledge was minimal, we would have spent time reading picture books, and sharing photographs and video clips of movies. We wanted to avoid telling students the definition of the term, for we understood that students would better recall concepts they constructed on their own.
Both Dick and I understood that students' prior knowledge would help them move beyond the Holocaust of Nazi Germany to pinpointing other holocausts. To accomplish this, we developed experiences that would enable students to gather data on other events that could be considered a holocaust. Students interviewed parents, adult friends and relatives, and other teachers at our school. Some searched the Web, while others used the librarian and school library to explore this concept. Once students identified other holocausts, such as genocide in Rwanda, we organized them into groups.
Groups chose one to investigate further and found creative ways to present what they'd learned; this element of choice is an effective way to differentiate. Groups wrote radio plays and You Were There scripts; they planned interviews, and students assumed the roles of people living through the event; they designed call-in shows where other students (the audience) could ask questions of a panel; they wrote feature news articles and editorials.
By the end of the study, the concept of holocaust meant much more than the determined extermination of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. Moreover, by suggesting ways to discover other holocausts and by inviting the class to form groups, learn, and teach, Dick Bell scaffolded learning for all students and helped them recognize that holocausts have been and sadly continue to be a part of world history.
He embedded the scaffolds in the organization and management tools he offered groups. For instance, everyone in the group had a job to complete: two searched the Internet while the other pair searched for materials in the library. He also provided students with deadline dates for showing him their collected materials. Then groups decided on their projects.
For each step, Dick established reasonable deadlines so students could manage the project successfully. Completing the scheduling and planning in advance freed him to support students who needed extra help during class time.
Finding Time to Scaffold Small Groups by Establishing Class Routines
"There's no way I can work with one or a small group of students for ten minutes," a math teacher told me. "My other students will spend that time talking and doing nothing." These words are on target only when students don't know what to do when the teacher isn't standing in front of the class. You can reserve short bursts of time to help small groups or even one student as long as you've taught your class how to work independently.
To accomplish this, it's necessary to teach students how to work on their own. Reserve five to ten minutes per class over several days and teach students how to use the independent learning materials. Negotiate behavior guidelines and post these on a chart. Review the guidelines before starting independent work.