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. Organize your classroom library.
I used to recommend leveling much of the classroom library using Fountas & Pinnell’s guided reading leveling system.
I no longer recommend this, because after studying the science of reading I no longer support using the early predictable books with beginning readers.
Instead, I recommend building up your collection of quality decodable books and giving them their own bins.
I also recommend sorting books by series and 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.
I recommend starting the reading block with whole-class phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.
Then divide your students into needs-based groups so you can go deeper on basic skills (such as phonics and spelling) or focus on fluency and/or comprehension.
A smart way to conclude your reading time is with an interactive read-aloud.
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.
I recommend giving each child a bag of books with books s/he is responsible for reading. For most early readers, these should be decodable books that feature phonics patterns you’ve already taught.
You might also include small versions of text you’ve read together during shared reading.
Finally, consider allowing kids to have “dessert books” that they enjoy looking at but cannot read yet. (Insist, however, that they practice their decodable books first.)
6. Don’t be afraid of explicit instruction.
For years I’ve been a balanced literacy advocate, but as I learn more about the science of reading I’m experiencing a shift in my thinking.
I used to be afraid of explicit instruction … to me it could only mean boring-snoring drill and kill.
But when you have a strong reading curriculum with hands-on materials, explicit instruction can be pleasant and – yes- even fun.
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.
Whatever you do, don’t create labeled, permanent groups that never change.
8. Give kids meaningful work, not busy work.
Your explicit, whole class lessons are important. Your explicit, small group instruction is 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.
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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