Differentiation is a way of teaching; it’s not a program or package of worksheets. It asks teachers to know their students well so they can provide each one with experiences and tasks that will improve learning. As Carol Ann Tomlinson has said, differentiation means giving students multiple options for taking in information (1999). Differentiating instruction means that you observe and understand the differences and similarities among students and use this information to plan instruction. Here is a list of some key principles that form the foundation of differentiating instruction.

  • Ongoing, formative assessment: Teachers continually assess to identify students’ strengths and areas of need so they can meet students where they are and help them move forward.
  •  Recognition of diverse learners: The students we teach have diverse levels of expertise and experience with reading, writing, thinking, problem solving, and speaking. Ongoing assessments enable teachers to develop differentiated lessons that meet every students’ needs.
  • Group Work: Students collaborate in pairs and small groups whose membership changes as needed. Learning in groups enables students to engage in meaningful discussions and to observe and learn from one another.
  • Problem Solving: The focus in classrooms that differentiate instruction is on issues and concepts rather than “the book” or the chapter. This encourages all students to explore big ideas and expand their understanding of key concepts.
  • Choice: Teachers offer students choice in their reading and writing experiences and in the tasks and projects they complete. By negotiating with students, teachers can create motivating assignments that meet students’ diverse needs and varied interests.

From this list you can see that differentiating instruction asks teachers to continually strive to know and to respond to each students’ needs to maximize learning. I want you also to understand why educators like Carol Ann Tomlinson, Richard Allington, and I strongly believe that instruction in reading should be differentiated. To deepen your understanding, let me share information with you that explains this strong commitment to differentiated learning.

Data That Supports Differentiation in Reading

Most primary teachers differentiate reading instruction through guided reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001). However, the landscape often changes when students enter fourth grade. Studies show that these students’ personal reading lives and their delight in reading start to wane, and by middle school, they read less on their own than they did in the early grades (Ruddell & Unrau, 1997). Add a diet of tough textbooks and less time for reading instruction to this diminished interest in personal reading, and the result is far too many students reading below grade level, struggling to learn. The U.S. Department of Education noted that more than 8 million students in grades 4 through 12 are struggling readers (2003). High school students in the lowest 25 percent of their class are 20 times more likely to drop out of school than excellent and proficient learners (Carnevale, 2001).

Gina Biancarosa and Catherine Snow (2004), authors of Reading Next, point to a statistic that should cause all middle grade, middle school, and high school educators to rethink their instructional practices. They note:

“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.”  –Reading Next

Whether they come from middle- and upper-class income levels, from low-income households, from families living in poverty, or from families who are English language learners, 70 percent of adolescent learners will benefit from differentiated instruction. This is a powerful statistic that we teachers need to remember and act upon as we teach reading. Right now, too many middle schools place students in a curriculum in which everyone reads the same text and completes the same assignments. Unfortunately, this leaves too many students behind instead of moving them forward (Tomlinson, 2002).

You and I need to explore and try ways to teach our students at their instructional levels. This is the heart of differentiation, and this is the primary reason I have written this book. In it, you’ll find the planning techniques, strategies, and organization and management suggestions I have developed and that my students have helped me refine. As Hannah, an eighth grader, noted in her evaluation of instructional and independent reading: “Give kids books they can read so they can learn. They might even like school because they can be part of a discussion.”

Step Inside My Classroom

So what does differentiated reading instruction look like? I invite you to step inside my eighth-grade classroom at the beginning of my reading workshop. After a brief warm-up exercise, and a read aloud for enjoyment, I introduce an essential component of my approach to differentiated reading instruction — the teaching read aloud. To be certain that I am reaching every student in my class, I use the read aloud to model how I apply reading strategies and to show students how to use questioning, discussion, and writing to build comprehension and new understandings while reading (Beck & McKeown, 1997, 2006; Robb, 2000, 2003). In fact, the read aloud has become the common mentor or teaching text for my students, and a primary teaching tool. In addition, I use it as a catalyst to raise students’ awareness of issues and to build background knowledge.

As you observe lessons in my classroom, you'll also note that the reading strategies I’m modeling relate to inferential thinking — using facts and details to discover unstated meanings and new understandings. These are the important strategies that all students — not just proficient readers — need. Not only will these important strategies help students do well on tests, but — even more gratifying — they will make reading joyful and exciting. My experiences with teaching students who are reading below grade level continue to show me that although these students may have difficulty reading, they are capable of inferring, drawing conclusions, and making connections to characters, events, people, and information. My read aloud shows that struggling readers can think at high levels. When I provide them with books at their instructional levels, they also know that they can analyze and think while they read. Understandably, learners falter when teachers ask them to infer and analyze texts they can’t decode and comprehend.

Stay longer in my classroom, and you would observe that writing has taken center stage. During my read aloud, conferences, and small-group meetings, students write to explore hunches, concepts, meaning, and connections. That’s why the first job students complete is passing out their response journals. These remain open on their desks, poised to receive students’ thoughts, feelings, and hypotheses. This writing is critical in a differentiated reading classroom. Reading students’ writing helps me know what students understand and where they need more support.

You would also notice that I use multiple texts for my instructional reading lessons. Sometimes, I use a whole-class instructional approach, where each students is reading a different text while exploring an issue or practicing the application of a reading strategy that I have modeled in my read aloud. Other times, students work in small groups. Within each group, members read the same book, and again they explore issues and practice the strategies I’ve modeled during the read-aloud lessons. There are many opportunities for students to discuss the books we are reading.

Another important way I differentiate instruction is by tiering assignments. Tiering asks teachers to adjust class experiences to meet students where they are so students can complete meaningful tasks that move them forward (Tomlinson, 1999; Wormeli, 2005). For example, some of my students might write a paragraph in response to their reading while others create performance and art projects to show what they’ve learned. Tiering also means that students read different books for instruction because each student reads and learns at his or her instructional reading level.

In addition, it’s important for students to practice reading at school and at home, using books at their comfort levels. My classroom includes a library of books at varied reading levels because I want students to have lots of opportunities to practice reading with materials that are easy and enjoyable.

Nine Practices to Differentiate Reading Instruction

What you saw in your “visit” to my classroom are practical ways I differentiate to improve my students’ literacy. In the list below, I’ve summarized these important elements and added a few other practices, such as planning, that are key to differentiating reading instruction successfully. In subsequent chapters of this book, we’ll take a closer look at these elements and explore ways to integrate them into your lessons so you can support every student you teach.

  1. Make your read alouds a common teaching text. In addition to being just for fun, read-aloud materials will become your common text, setting the stage for differentiation. Use them to build background knowledge and to show students how you apply strategies (Beck & McKeown, 2006; Robb, 2008; Wilhelm, 2001, 2005). You can also use them to introduce issues and invite students to respond to these issues in their journals. Making your read-aloud your teaching text will ensure that every student has access to the information and skills they need to become a better reader.
  2. Teach with diverse materials. Avoid using one text for the entire class. Instead, use multiple texts at diverse reading levels for your units of study. This will enable every student to gather information from books and magazines they can truly read (Robb, 2003; Worthy et al., 1999).
  3. Organize for instruction so you meet all reading levels. Whether you use a differentiated whole-class instructional approach or have students work in small groups, you’ll need to organize each unit of study around a genre, issue, or topic — rather than teaching “the book.”
  4. Value independent practice reading. Set aside 15 to 30 minutes of class time, at least three times a week, for students to read books at their comfort levels — and these levels carry from student to student.
  5. Show students how to construct meaning while reading. Students can become better readers only if they understand how to construct meaning as they read. By modeling the ways you think about texts during your read alouds, while you work with small reading groups, and in your one-to-one instructional conferences with students, you are offering students mutliple opportunities for learning how to consruct meaning
  6. Encourage discussion. Discussion is especially important in a differentiated reading classroom because it provides a powerful way to build on every student's understandings and knowledge of facts. It also provides them with opportunities to clarify meaning and to build comprehension. By asking students to move beyond memorizing the facts to applying those facts to issues and problems through discussion, students deepen their understanding and recall. In-depth discussions among small groups, and with the entire class, can show students how their peers think and reason, can build background knowledge, and can make the facts relevant to their own lives.
  7. Write to explore, think, learn, and improve comprehension. Learners can write only what they know and understand (Alvermann & Phelps, 1998; Robb, 2002; Self, 1987; Vaughan & Estes, 1986). If they haven’t absorbed a lesson, they will have little to write. It’s crucial for teachers to know that everyone in a class does not absorb the same information from a demonstration or a lesson (Clay, 1993). Reading students’ journals can provide insights into whether students can think inferentially and analyze chunks of text. These insights support planning interventions for individuals, pairs, small groups, and, at times, the entire class.
  8. Use ongoing assessments to support each student. Study the assessments students complete for a unit to discover their successes and their areas of need. Then support each student in your class by getting to know him or her so you can provide targeted instruction. Ongoing assessments allow you to do this.
  9. Plan your units carefully. Thinking through each unit of study enables you to understand what you want students to learn about a genre, an issue, and reading strategies (Tomlinson, 1999). It will also ensure that you have gathered reading materials that meet the needs of each student, as well as appropriate texts for your read alouds.

As you begin to embrace some of these differentiation practices, it’s important for you to know the research that supports this kind of instruction. Knowing the research will enable you to select materials to read for building your own background knowledge and expanding your understanding of differentiation. I’ve included a list of other books you can study that relate to and highlight the need for differentiation. 

Suggested Reading Related to Differentiation

Here are some seminal books on differentiation. Set aside time to reflect on the ideas in these texts, and then discuss what you’ve learned with colleagues. Continually ask, How can this information support change in my teaching practices? This question will start your differentiation journey.

  • Developing Students’ Multiple Intelligences by Kristen Nicholson-Nelson
  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Differentiation in Action by Judith Dodge
  • How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice by Howard Gardner


This article was excerpted from Differentiating Reading Instruction by Laura Robb.