By now, most every teacher has heard about this thing we call differentiation. Just as a recap for those of you who may have forgotten the basic tenets of differentiation: we can differentiate content (what we teach), process (how kids come to own the content), product (how kids show what they have learned), and the environment (where and when students learn). We can differentiate based on students’ interest (both what students are interested in and how we can get them interested in what we are teaching), learning profile (how kids prefer to learn and produce), and readiness (where they are in the learning process). Grounding good instruction into the ideas of differentiation can ensure that all students reach goals we have set for them.
Quality differentiation is an enormous undertaking, as it takes considerable planning and preparation to do it well. Many teachers will start with differentiation by interest or learning profile, as these strategies can engage students in the learning process, which for many students is a major accomplishment.
What most teachers find difficult is differentiating based on readiness. Readiness is not about ability or achievement. While you will take ability and achievement information into account, this is not the only information you should use to differentiate by readiness. Readiness is about where the student is in the learning process at the beginning of every lesson. Some students are more ready for what you have to deliver in a lesson, while some are less ready. At the outset of differentiating by readiness, it’s critical to find out where every student is in the learning process.
Pre-Assessment for Readiness
At the beginning of every lesson or learning chunk, it is essential that data be collected to inform both you and the student as to what they know and don’t know. Pre-assessments can be considered diagnostic measures to decide what each student needs. Types of pre-assessments range from standardized tests to open ended-questioning. It is imperative that the pre-assessment do a good job of measuring what the students know, understand, and are able to do before beginning instruction. Even more important is finding out what knowledge, understandings, and skills a student may NOT possess—otherwise the student is stranded before the lesson even begins.
Having clear lesson objectives (what you want students to know factually, be able to do procedurally, and understand conceptually) will give you a good starting point in creating pre-assessments or finding student data that can give you an idea of their levels of readiness.
Examples of pre-assessment formats include (listed in order from more to less structured):
- Standardized tests
- Collected data such as previous reports and performance assessments
- Closed-ended questioning (what is the product of 360 x 29?)
- Open-ended questioning (in what ways could you solve the problem 360 x 29?)
- Warm-up assignments (such as a brain teaser or current event that involves the content)
- Self-assessment or identification of prior practice
KIQ (what I Know, am Interested in, and Question about the topic)
- Classroom observations
I highly recommend that you collect this pre-assessment data well before you begin the lessons, as this will give you time to analyze the information and then build activities that address the varied levels of preparedness that exist in the classroom. Based on the data analysis, you can begin to think about which students will need more or less:
- Development or refreshment of prior knowledge
- Language practice (both academic language as well as content vocabulary)
- Strategy or skill development (see more about this below)
Complex or sophisticated materials (varied levels of text readability)
- Complex thinking
- Support and guidance (levels of independence)
Strategies and Skills
Keep in mind that procedural knowledge (what we want students to do) is divided into two components: strategies and skills. A strategy is a discrete conscious action under the control of the student. A skill is acquired when the learner has amassed enough strategies that can be used automatically to achieve a goal. Our job in the pre-assessment stage is to find out if the student possesses enough of the right strategies and at what level of automaticity they are in usage of those strategies (levels of skill development). This is not an easy undertaking. (Click here for a handout with more about the differences between skills and strategies.)
Based on the pre-assessment, decide where you may want to provide differing activities. If there is need at the factual level, you can use differing non-linguistic representations for students to acquire or extend the information. Non-linguistic representations are ways for students to form mental pictures of and process information that does not rely on the use of language. Marzano and colleagues found that with the use of non-linguistic representation there is upwards of a 27 percent increase in student achievement (Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. . Classroom Instruction that Works [Vol. 5]. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). Examples of non-linguistic representations include:
- Use of pictures or graphics to convey information
- Use of the body to kinesthetically represent ideas
- Use of graphic organizers
- Developing mental pictures through listening
- Seeing models of complex information (such as maps, globes and manipulatives)
Varying Levels of Reading Materials
Giving students different reading level materials is another way to differentiate at the factual level, as this is where students can gather background knowledge. When using different levels of reading materials, keep in mind that there are three measures in defining text complexity:
- Qualitative measures
- Purpose or level of meaning in the text
- Text structure
- Language conventions
- Knowledge demands
- Quantitative measures
- Text complexity such as:
- Sentence & word length
- Frequency of unfamiliar words
- Measurement tools (such as Lexile)
- Text complexity such as:
- Reader & task commitment
- Motivation to read
- Level of engagement in the text
- Prior knowledge of what’s to be read
- Experiences in life that can support the text (See Text Complexity Rubric)
Another idea for assisting students at different levels of readiness is through developing stations (or centers) in your classroom. Students move through pre-assigned stations or rotate through all the stations to do differing activities to acquire the necessary strategies or background knowledge. Stations can also be used as extension activities for a unit of study. This is a great option for the “I’m done!”-ers in your classroom. Stations don’t necessarily need to be a location in the room—they can easily be file folders that hold the readings and materials needed to complete an activity.
Always be sure when you are developing leveled activities for students that you pay attention to these three rules:
- All activities should be equally engaging (one group of students shouldn’t be doing a puppet show while others are laboring through a study sheet!).
- All activities should take about the same amount of time (one group of students shouldn’t be working on an activity that takes them weeks to complete, while another group is finished in one session).
- All activities should require equal amounts of effort (gifted/advanced students often don’t have to work hard to complete tasks—make sure they too learn how to persevere).
Finally, don’t feel like you have to re-create the wheel. Numerous texts and websites offer wonderful ideas for differentiating by readiness. Diane Heacox’s Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom and Making Differentiation a Habit, as well as my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century, have many ideas for you. Also, below is a list of several sites to assist you in developing varied levels of activities.
I’d love to hear your ideas of how you differentiate for readiness in your classroom. Share your ideas with me!
Intervention Central: Wide variety of resources for RtI
DifferentiationCentral: Resources for differentiation
IXL: Resources for math and ELA
Lesson Planet: Variety of lesson plans
Special Education Support Services: Resources for differentiation in science
WV Dept. of Education: Vocabulary development
Three graphic organizer sites:
– Education Place
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