Looking for tips to achieve differentiated reading instruction in K-3? You’re in the right place!
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It’s the big buzz word these days, isn’t it?
But what does it really mean?
Simply put, differentiation is tailoring your instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.
According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Differentiating instruction means ‘shaking up’ what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.”
Differentiation is not …
- giving the same instruction and assignments to the entire class, day after day.
- giving busy work or extra problems to early finishers.
- doing something different for every student in your classroom. (Whew!)
Differentiation is …
- a flexible approach to instruction.
- adjusting how we teach based on students’ readiness levels, interests, and learning styles.
- changing the way we teach so that everyone – the advanced, struggling, and on-level readers, LEARN.
Here’s the thing.
Differentiation isn’t easy.
But here’s the good news!
By following a few key tips, you can learn to meet the needs of all your readers.
And you can do it with the time you have – without burning yourself out.
Let’s take a look at ten tips for differentiating reading instruction in K-3.
10 tips for differentiating reading K-3
1. Take the time to teach structure and routines.
Boring, right? I mean, why spend a couple of weeks practicing routines when learning to read is so much more fun?
If you’ve taught for more than a week, you know the answer.
If we skip over the routines, it’s only a matter of time before our classrooms become a hot mess. Every time we try to sit down with a small group, we’ll be interrupted. There will be commotion and quarreling at center time. Before long we’ll want to grab a stack of identical worksheets and throw our differentiation dreams out the window.
We all know that it’s important to teach structure and routines. But how do we begin?
The trick is to think about all the moving parts that will make your reading block run smoothly. Then model what you want to see. And practice, practice, practice.
- How will students assemble for read aloud time?
- How will they move through learning centers?
- How will students choose their own books?
- How will they “help themselves” when you are busy with a small group?
- What will they do when they finish their work?
- How will you minimize noise?
- How will students work productively in small groups?
2. Level your classroom library.
This is a big undertaking, but 100% worth it. When your classroom library is leveled, it’s easy for kids to find books that are “just right.” You won’t have kids digging through your shelves only to end up choosing books way above (or under) their grade level. The time you spend leveling most of your classroom books will pay you back in huge dividends.
I’m a huge fan of Fountas & Pinnell’s Guided Reading leveling system. I love that their A-Z system takes into account text features, print size, vocabulary, sentence complexity, and more.
How to begin? Enlist some parent volunteers to enter each book in your library into Scholastic’s amazing free tool, Book Wizard. They can jot the guided reading level inside each cover.
Then design a system to level the books visually. Place each set of books (Level A, B, C, etc.) in its own plastic tub. As a teacher I chose to use colors instead of letters because kids were less likely to compare levels. (It worked!) But feel free to keep things simple by using the letter names.
P.S. Not every book has to be leveled. It’s okay to leave a fair amount of books unleveled and organized by topic.
3. Assess regularly, and plan how you’ll use the results.
When you think of assessment, what comes to mind? For many of us, assessment is that thing we do at the end of the unit to see if our students “got it.” But that’s just one way to assess – and considering it’s after the teaching has concluded, it’s not even the most effective!
Consider all the ways to gather information about your learners!
- conversations with students
- classroom discussions
- student work
- formal assessments
Whether you’re referring to the results of formal instruction such as DIBELS or informal notes that you jot down during guided reading time – you’ve got to decide what to do with the information.
I suggest recording the data on a spreadsheet. Use the chart to group students with similar needs. Then make plans for how to address their needs in small groups or in individual reading conferences.
4. Structure your reading block for differentiation.
If your reading instruction is typically a block of whole class instruction, it’s hard to differentiate.
Are you up for trying something new?
Consider the Reading Workshop approach.
Start with a whole class mini-lesson of no more than ten minutes. You might teach a reading comprehension strategy, something related to word-solving, or another reading skill. After the lesson, give students a long block of time for independent reading and/or meaningful literacy centers. During this time you’ll meet with individual readers and small groups. Conclude with a short sharing session.
5. Rethink independent reading time.
Back when I was a student (ahem) years ago, silent reading time was about promoting the enjoyment of reading. In hopes of achieving that, teachers made sure that every child was occupied with a book. It could be ANY book, as long as it was made of paper and had words in it. The teacher read at the same time (or graded papers).
Times have changed. While we certainly want our students to learn to enjoy reading, our goals for independent reading time are bigger than that. It’s a teaching time.
6. Don’t be a slave to the basal.
When I was in elementary school, the basal was a source of torture. Round robin reading (when students take turns reading each paragraph of a story, out loud), was common practice. Advanced readers were bored to tears, while struggling readers dreaded reading time as much as I dreaded gym class (and that barbaric practice of having students choose their own teams).
If you must use a basal and aren’t doing round robin reading, I bet you’re doing great things with it. The quality of stories in basal readers is much higher than it used to be.
You do not have to do all the stories in order. You don’t need to do all the phonics worksheets. Yes, use that basal to guide your thinking – especially if you’re a new teacher – but learn to modify and supplement it the longer you teach. Be more flexible and creative than the publisher wants you to be. Your students will benefit.
7. Use flexible grouping.
The reality is that you probably have your low, medium, and high readers. And there will be many times that it will make sense to group them accordingly. But not always.
Remember that you can group students by their interests or learning styles as well. And there are times that pairing opposite-level students can be very beneficial.
Whatever you do, don’t create labeled, permanent groups that never change.
8. Give kids meaningful work, not busy work.
Your small group instruction is important. Your individual reading conferences are important.
But your centers are important, too.
It’s tempting to create cute center activities without stopping to consider our goals and objectives. We might want to keep the kids busy so we can focus on the “important” learning in our small groups.
Rather than make the learning centers cute, isolated activities, use them as an extension of whole and small group instruction.
It’s okay if they’re still cute. 😉
9. Make the work for all learners equally appealing.
This is a biggie. Don’t give your low learners worksheets while the advanced learners get to play a game. Your goal should be to emphasize critical thinking in every lesson. You won’t always achieve this, and that’s okay. But we need to be careful not to have struggling readers do low level tasks while the advanced learners do all the hard thinking.
10. Take it slow, and be easy on yourself.
During my first years of teaching I took one subject to improve on each year. I spent all summer reading, studying, and planning for how I was going to take my teaching to the next level.
You can have the same approach to differentiation. In the first year, you might use the reading basal with the whole class – but vary the pace and activities that students use with it.
In the second year, you might start using guided reading groups that read stories from the basal along with leveled picture books and early chapter books.
Keep adding new strategies to your toolbox with each succeeding year.
All these tips are great, but…
What does differentiation LOOK like?
If you’re on the lookout for practical, real-world ways to differentiate, I’ve got you covered. Download my free cheatsheet below – with specific examples you can try right in your classroom!
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