Why is differentiation important to help students learn how to read? How do teachers and reading specialists differentiate reading tasks for students to help them become better readers? What are the differentiation techniques that educators can use in their classrooms?

If you have any of the questions above, take a couple of minutes to find your answers here. Our webinar speaker Miriam McBreen shares some key takeaways from her webinar last Thursday, to help get you started at your own school!

Why is differentiation important?

01 Diverse learners, diverse needs
Simply put, differentiation means adapting our teaching so that we can meet the current level and needs of all the students in our classroom. Reading develops at different rates for different students. In a single class, you will have students who are meeting grade-level expectations, students who are exceeding grade-level expectations, as well as students who are struggling to meet those expectations. Beyond that, you might have students who are learning to read in their second language or who are having difficulties with other aspects of learning, like memory, attention or language development. All of these students are going to learn in slightly different ways, and differentiation helps us make sure that each student is getting the most effective instruction.
To support the needs of diverse students, we want to target the level at which they learn best – tasks that aren’t so easy they get bored or stop making progress, but not so hard that they become anxious or frustrated. Rather, we want to give them tasks that are just challenging enough – where they are able to succeed if they invest effort and receive support. This allows all students to make progress, no matter their current level.
02 Fostering motivation

Differentiation is also important to keep students motivated and engaged in reading. If tasks are too easy, students may get bored or lose interest in reading, decreasing their motivation to read. When tasks are too difficult, students might get frustrated or see reading as something stressful, leading them to disengage with reading. However, when students are interested and feel capable, this increases their motivation, leading them to spend more time reading and to be more engaged during instruction, which helps them grow as readers.

How can we differentiate? 

01 Figuring out each student’s level
To be able to differentiate, we first need to figure out each student’s level and their profile of reading strengths and challenges. To do that, we not only want to know what their current skills and knowledge are, but also what kind of support helps them. Dynamic forms of assessment, where the teacher provides feedback during assessment and sees how the student responds to that feedback, can help us figure out which aspects of reading a student is struggling with (phonological awareness, fluency, comprehension, etc.) as well as what kind of support they can benefit from.

Once we’ve figured out each student’s level, we can start to make a plan for differentiation, that is adapted to their current reading level and reading needs. For students who are mostly meeting grade-level expectations, differentiation during regular class-time may be enough. For those who are having difficulties with reading, additional pull-out support may be needed to support them effectively. 

02 Differentiating in the classroom

To start differentiating your reading instruction in the classroom, having opportunities for adapted instruction is a good first step. This can mean giving students texts of varying difficulty (e.g., simpler vs. more complex vocabulary or shorter vs. longer texts) to fit their current reading level, or allowing students to preview reading material before working on it in class (e.g., giving them a copy of the text, question, or vocabulary words prior to reading). This helps ensure all students are able to access the content being taught. It could mean having differentiated extension activities related to reading (e.g., literal vs. inferential questions, writing vs. drawing about a book), that allow students to show their knowledge in different ways. It could also mean adapting instruction by getting students to work in pairs or groups, so that they can learn from their peers and understand material they might not be able to on their own.

Helping students to develop more independence in their learning also supports differentiation. Independence allows students to become more responsible for their own learning, develop a better awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and build their self-confidence as readers. One of the easiest ways to support students’ autonomy is by giving them choice (e.g., over what books they want to read), which allows them both to feel more responsible for their own learning and to explore their reading interests. Another is to teach students reading strategies and how and when to use them, so that they have tools to rely on when they encounter something difficult. Yet another is teaching students self-regulation skills that help develop their self-awareness (What am I good at? What do I need help with?), self-reflection (What did I do well/not do well? What can I change next time?) and self-confidence (What have I already learned? How can I keep making progress?).


03 Pull-out support

Finally, for students who are having difficulties, additional small group or individual sessions may help them to practice and reinforce their reading skills. Once we know exactly what aspects of reading a student is struggling with, we can tailor pull-out sessions to focus on these skills, giving students a safe space to develop their skills, build confidence in their abilities as readers, explore what they find interesting about reading, and foster their motivation. 

The above are just a few steps to help you start differentiating for the diverse readers in your school. If you have any questions, or need help implementing some of these strategies, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of reading specialists!

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