“A full 70 percent of U.S. middle and high school students require differentiated instruction which is instruction targeted at their individual strengths and weaknesses.”–Reading Next, page 8. This quote, from a study completed in 2004 by Catherine Snow and Gina Biancarosa, both researchers at Harvard University, illustrates the need to address the diversity of literacy skills among adolescent learners. The divide that we teachers observe in the middle grades and middle school becomes apparent when school districts require all students to learn from grade level content textbooks and literature anthologies that most students can’t read. Statistics from a study by the U.S. Department of Education pointed out that more than eight million American students are struggling readers who read two or more years below grade level (2003). Data also shows that 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 readers.
Right now, too many middle and high schools across our nation place students in a curriculum where everyone reads the same text and completes the same assignments. It’s not working, and here are some reasons. Little to no progress in reading scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP) which is the nation’s report card has been made since 1992. At this rate, the number of adults who don’t have the education and literacy skills to work in twenty-first century technological jobs will continue to increase. Add to the NAEP results and the studies completed by Snow and Biancarosa and the U.S. State Department, the daily frustrations you and I experience trying to reach classes of diverse learners with one set of textbooks, then the need to explore other methods of instruction becomes obvious.
In any middle grade or middle school class there will be groups of students who read below, on or near, and above grade level, and you and I need to differentiate reading instruction to meet each student’s unique needs. This is the heart of differentiating reading instruction. This is the reason that teachers and researchers have begun to look closely at ways to help adolescents read and write for many different purposes. This is the reason why we need to abandon one-text-for-all-learners and bring multiple texts into our classrooms. Using multiple texts enables each student to learn at his or her instructional level. This way, each student can continue to improve and develop the reading skill and stamina to prepare for the dramatic changes in the job market in this and the next century.
At this point, you might be wondering exactly what differentiated reading instruction is?
Differentiation is a way of teaching and not a prepackaged program or the same workbook for every students. When you differentiate reading instruction, you need to know your students so well that you can plan learning experiences that will improve students’ reading, thinking, recall, and writing. What follows are some key principles that form the foundation of differentiating reading instruction.
First: Ongoing, formative assessment invites you to continually pinpoint students’ strengths as well as areas of need in order to match instruction and learning experiences to each student.
Second: Diverse learners in your class have varied levels of reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and problem solving skills and expertise, requiring that you develop instruction that reaches every learner.
Third: Partner and small group work whose membership changes as students show you they need reteaching or are ready to move forward.
Problem solving places the focus in differentiated classes on issues, themes, and concepts which allows teachers to focus on big ideas using multiple or different texts instead of everyone reading one novel or textbook.
Finally, choice is at the heart of differentiation. In addition to mandated and required tasks, teachers offer their students choices in reading and writing tasks that relate to a unit.
So to differentiate reading instruction teachers need to think of the purpose of assessments–they are a way to gain in sights into their students’ learning. When teachers know their students and respond to their strengths and needs, they can support and maximize learning and reach every reader.