Differentiated Instruction: Developing a Storyboarding Classroom

Storyboards are one of several tools recommended when working with students for whom the visual and the concrete are helpful elements in absorbing abstract ideas. Our authors have found that this technique is especially helpful in reading and writing instruction.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Developing a Storyboarding Classroom, by Amy Levy Rocci

When I began to teach third grade, I had been told that this was a pivotal year for kids. I had learned in school that this was the year when students are expected to “read to learn” instead of “learn to read.” I learned in my classroom that this was not reality. I saw that for some students this transition is not easy, and the struggle with literacy really begins to affect them. I learned quickly that conventional tools had limited success, and I'd better have some practical strategies to help those who were having difficulty making this transition.

Different Learning

I first met Roger Essley when his son was a student in my class, and he showed students how to write their own picture book from a family story. I’d never seen storyboards used as a writing tool, and watching students draw to build ideas was exciting. (I saw students who struggled with literacy motivated and excited about building their stories through drawing!) Our third-grade team found collecting and sharing family stories valuable, and we were all excited about the quality of the final product when each student created an elegant picture-book story.

Yet, as I reflected on the storyboard writing process and how it helped all my kids get to text, I had a feeling storyboards with drawing might be more than just a tool for making picture books. During the next school year, I started to experiment with storyboarding throughout the curriculum. [One student in my room, Mark] was struggling. He was more than a year behind with literacy skills.

Due to these issues, a classroom assistant helped in supporting Mark’s literacy development. A perfect example of Mark’s difficulty in school due to his literacy struggles was that he did not have a problem with grade-level math unless he had to read the directions or decipher a word problem. The reading put up a roadblock. Mrs. S., the educational assistant working with me, took away the roadblock by reading to him. Similarly, in science and social studies, Mark learned the concepts and could convey them orally; the reading and writing got in the way. Once again, Mrs. S., helped by reading or acting as Mark’s scribe.

Mark participated as best he could during our regular classroom program of reading and writing. He had told me more than once, “I can’t read.” This wasn’t true, but it was Mark’s way of letting me know that he felt he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class.

Having an adult bridge gaps for students so that they can succeed in the regular classroom is common in schools that value inclusive educational practice. But I had to wonder if Mark felt he was doing the same work as everyone else. Did Mark feel that the work was his? Did his peers see Mark as a regular member of the class? Certainly, I would choose this method of instruction over having Mark pulled out of my classroom to a resource room to receive instruction away from his peers, but I wondered if there was a way to help Mark to learn more independently and to do the same work as everyone else.

It was Mark who helped answer my questions, during our unit on fairy tales. We were starting a project of comparing Cinderella stories. I had stories from many countries as well as fun “spoof” stories based on the Cinderella theme. [I] used a graphic organizer during this unit, to reinforce content and assess learning. With Roger’s encouragement, for the first time I designed and tried using a more visual sheet, one that allowed students to use drawing as a thinking tool while making sure that I got the information I wanted.


[This turned out to be] an incredibly successful tool for Mark, and for the rest of my students. This new storyboard sheet was less dependent on text mastery and provided the opportunity for creativity for all students. It was clear that this activity, along with additional use of storyboards, bridged a gap for Mark; and he bridged it independently. Mark came up to me to ask for a copy of the book to help him spell the names. He then went back to his seat and got to work without asking for help, which provided an incredible boost to his self-esteem. Mark began to become a regular part of reading groups in the classroom. He began to feel comfortable enough to take his turn reading aloud and started to take more risks with writing on his own.

Differentiate: Going to the Next Level

Students like Mark have taught me the importance of hands-on drawing as a thinking tool for many learners and for me as a teacher. I’ve come to see that offering kids an authentic alternative to text makes my room more inclusive, and the same tools help all my students show me more of what they know. Different tools enable students to show me how they learn, and paying attention to what they are showing me makes me a more effective teacher.

I was a third-grade classroom teacher for eight years, and recently I became the enrichment teacher in my school. Working with students at many grade levels has confirmed my feeling that well-designed visual tools can engage struggling students and offer exciting challenges to all learners. Working with teachers to help them integrate visual tools, especially storyboard drawing, into their classrooms has given me an opportunity to test strategies in diverse classrooms and at many grade levels. The flexibility of storyboard formats means the tools you use with first graders are easily adapted to serve your advanced fifth graders as well.

Offering my students storyboards and drawing as a thinking tool is the essence of practical differentiated instruction; with any lesson, all my students can use their natural learning skills to get the job done. That’s exciting, and it is easy once we try to make our classrooms truly visual. Making a visual classroom is not hard; it is really an attitude that says that any time I can add a visual component to a lesson, I am making my classroom more accessible; I am reaching more learners.

When I have the opportunity to show my students’ work at conferences, teachers quickly recognize how these practical tools make teaching many literacy tasks easier. They tell me, “I know these tools could help my kids, too.” That’s the exciting part of sharing what I’ve learned about drawing and visual tools—your students will teach you how to use them because these tools call on kids’ natural learning strengths.

Building a Classroom Community With Visual Tools

The first few days of the school year are devoted primarily to building a new community with your class and setting ground rules for the rest of the year. During this time I introduce a valuable visual communication between home and school by using what I call “Weekly News.” This is a storyboard that helps kids review their week, and it also serves to inform parents about wht's happening in the classroom.

As you can see, it uses a friendly-letter format. The sheet has a box representing each part of the curriculum. I start off every Friday morning going over the week with my class. As a group, we go subject by subject, and I select volunteers to tell about what we did. This is a great way to wrap up each week with your students and get some honest feedback about the events of the week.

Using key words from the students’ responses, I draw simple pictures on the board to help the kids with ideas as they set to work on their “News.” This may seem like a small change from a written letter to a letter with pictures, but it is so much more. This form of communication truly includes kids with low literacy skills. They can do this work independently. The child reconnects with the knowledge from the week’s lessons, and “Weekly News” becomes a personal communication with his or her family.

Storyboarding in a Reading Program

[Let me] take you through how I start my reading program and introduce storyboarding into my classroom. These techniques can easily be adapted to any grade level. At all grades I strongly recommend a progression of activities that slowly become more complex as students feel more comfortable with storyboarding.

  • Subjects:
    Leveled Reading, Reading Comprehension, Reading Intervention, Writing Process, Teacher Tips and Strategies

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