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Differentiating: A Reading Achievement Game Changer

by Laura Robb
April 17, 2014

Accommodations...I’m in favor if they support developing the skill of all readers in a class. However, as I visit middle schools and talk to teachers around the country, I notice that in the era of the Common Core, dozens of districts have returned to one book for all. Since one book or one anthology won’t meet students’ range of instructional needs, teachers accommodate instruction to meet district requirements. They often read the text aloud to a group or the entire class.

p: Enokson via photopin

The result is that developing readers who need to read to improve their skill aren’t reading during instructional time, while advanced readers aren’t challenged to read complex texts at their instructional levels. Moreover, many students don’t absorb information from teachers reading aloud because they aren’t listening. However, there is a teaching strategy that can meet the instructional reading needs of middle school students even if teachers have forty-two or forty-five minute classes: differentiating instruction.

Differentiation asks teachers to meet students’ instructional needs by providing texts at a variety of reading levels. Equally important, differentiation allows students to choose instructional and independent reading texts, and choice motivates and engages them. To facilitate differentiation, organize instructional reading units around a genre to meet your students’ reading needs. By looking at what happened in a seventh grade inclusion class, you can better understand how the teacher and I restructured instruction.

In September, students in that class had instructional reading levels from 3.0 to 11.0. Required to deliver selections from the grade-level anthology, the teacher read the selections out loud to the majority of students. After debriefing with the teacher, we developed these accommodations:

  • the anthology became the anchor text, and the teacher and I used it to think aloud and model reading strategies in brief mini-lessons;
  • we raided the school, public, and classroom libraries to find enough books within the anchor text’s genre to offer all students choices;
  • we provided several books within each instructional level and students chose one;
  • instructional books and materials remained at school and students read, discussed, and wrote about these texts for 25 to 30 minutes three to four times a week; and
  • students completed independent reading once or twice a week, after finishing instructional reading tasks and at home.

As students read, the teacher and I circulated among them to hold brief conferences. After students completed the first two chapters, we conferred with each one to check recall and comprehension. If recall was shaky, we invited students to reread the first chapter during class and met with them again. When there was limited recall and comprehension among a few students, we honored their efforts and suggested they try the book later. Then, we offered a student three to four alternate books to browse through and select one. Doing this by the end of the second chapter allowed students to meet reading deadlines we negotiated with them.

In addition to mini conferences, we invited students in that inclusion class to discuss their books with a partner after reading two to three chapters. Once we used the anchor text to model a journaling technique, students composed journal entries on inferring, vocabulary, theme, or why characters changed or made certain decisions. Students also enjoyed discussing their books on a class blog and an online literature circle. Along with instructional reading that moved seventh graders in the inclusion class forward, we emphasized independent reading.

By having students self-select and read forty-to-sixty books at their independent reading levels, we differentiated independent reading. This was the big game changer because students practiced and applied what they learned during instructional time to independent reading. Students entered completed or abandoned books on a book log and used the log to discuss favorite authors, genres, or a specific book they couldn’t put down. Students recommending books to their peers through monthly small group discussions of their book log and by presenting monthly book talks was an ideal way to advertise great reads.

We monitored independent reading through book talks, written book reviews, peer conferences, podcasts, blog writing, and journal responses. No seventh grader completed a project for every independent reading book because when students read, read, read, it’s impossible to monitor every book. We accelerated reading achievement with a combination of the anchor text, instructional and independent reading, and believe that your students, like those in that seventh grade inclusion class, can develop a personal reading life that will sustain them at school and in their careers.

Come see Laura Robb co-present “Deep Reading & Deep Writing: Developing Literacy Skills Using Mentor Texts” with Ruth Culham at at IRA’s 59th Annual Conference, May 9-12, 2014, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Laura Robb is a literacy coach, Scholastic educational consultant and author. With over 43 years in the classroom Laura Robb is one of the nation’s leading experts on middle school reading. She leads workshops on reading and writing for elementary, middle, and high school.  She is the author of Unlocking Complex Texts, Scholastic, 2013 and XBOOKS™, a nonfiction language arts program for middle school students.  She has written 15 books for teachers including: Nonfiction Writing From the Inside Out: Lessons for Teaching All Elements of the Craft, Inspired by Conversations with Leading Authors; Teaching Reading in Middle School; Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math; Grammar Strategies and Lessons That Strengthen Students' Writing.   

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