Education Opinion

Differentiating Instruction for the 21st-Century Classroom

By Matthew Lynch — November 01, 2017 5 min read
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By Kathleen Pesce and Fatema Mohassib

America’s classrooms are becoming more and more diverse every day, and it appears that this trend will only continue in the coming decade. This diversity includes students from different countries, students with disabilities, and gifted students, all of whom will have differing strengths and skill levels. The challenge for teachers is how to ensure that each of these students gets the support they need to grow and thrive. Here, a science and social studies teacher and a literacy coach reveal their best practices.

Kathleen Pesce: Promoting Engagement and Collaboration in Mixed-Ability Classrooms

Catawba Elementary School is a Title 1 school, with roughly 60% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Less than 50% of students are proficient in ELA, and only about 50% are proficient in math. My science and social studies classes are blocked by ability, which helps differentiate instruction by the amount of scaffolding that is required for each group of students. Even among these ability groups I have several individualized education program (IEP) students who require specialized assistance to make sure they have the opportunity to learn the same academic concepts at their level of skill and ability.

Science is very much lab-based, and one of the challenges with the wide range of students in my classes is making sure each student takes part in the activity. I have found some of my lower-ability students sometimes struggle to take part in the labs, whereas the higher-level students tend to want to take over. I have found that, when students are ability-grouped, it allows for the higher-ability students to complete the lab at a pace that suits them, as well as allowing for more time to question themselves and each other. It also provides a chance for students who would not normally take on the role of leader to jump into that role instead of allowing more advanced students to take over. I believe this promotes further interest and learning for students at all ability levels.

Having students of different ability levels together in the same classroom has its benefits as well! I often pair students together who have different skills and abilities so that they can help each other in the areas where they each struggle. For example, I might pair a student with a knack for science-based logic, but who lacks the skill to comprehend the reading portion, together with a student who can help them read through the material, so they can follow the steps needed to complete lab assignments.

There are also several supplemental tools that can be helpful for further differentiating lessons. Kids Discover is a supplemental curriculum that I use in my mixed-ability groups. It has lots of engaging visuals to help aid comprehension, as well as three different reading levels that students can toggle among. I also use tools like Kahoot and Quizlet to test comprehension between ability groups.

Fatema Mohassib: Developing a Common Language About Reading and Writing

I’m a literacy coach at IS281 - Joseph B. Cavallaro School, which has a very diverse population. We serve large Asian American and Hispanic communities, and 20% of our middle schoolers are English language learners. To support these students, we recently started dual-language programs in both Spanish and Mandarin. We also have a significant population of students with disabilities, so we are always looking for ways to promote literacy for all of our students.

Because of time and resource constraints, differentiating used to be daunting, and many teachers were forced to teach to the middle instead. However, if teachers have ready-made resources and tools available to them, they’re more likely to try new things with their instruction. To integrate current events into our literacy curriculum, we use Newsela, but our broader content resource is ThinkCERCA, which we are expanding schoolwide this year. With the tools we have now, teachers can quickly offer scaffolding to ELL students--not by modifying the text but by amplifying it instead. For example, they can translate key words and phrases in the margin or add pictures or other aids to offer context. The aim is to help struggling readers rise to the level of the text. With ThinkCERCA, we have a way to not only align different subjects with our literacy goals, but also to differentiate the work depending on their grade level.

While ThinkCERCA has helped us make more connections from one subject to another by viewing reading content through different disciplines, it has also been useful in developing a common, consistent language for our teachers to use when assessing where specific students struggle within the writing process. We used to have an alphabet soup of acronyms that different teachers used, but this year we have agreed on CER (claim, evidence, reasoning).

Teachers start the year with benchmark assessments to see where students are without prompting them. As they progress through the year, teachers use provided rubrics and individual student trackers that are specific to each part of the writing process, pinpointing exactly where students need additional support. For assessments, breaking down argumentative writing into the full CERCA acronym adds the concepts of counterargument and audience, and examining each of the five elements helps teachers individualize support and divide students into groups based on which specific area they’re struggling with.

As a teacher, I know that differentiating instruction can be a challenge. As a literacy coach, I believe that the tools and systems we have in place will help me and everyone else in our classrooms be better teachers, because we will have more time to collaborate, observe other teachers, learn new best practices, and engage in more PD.

Kathleen Pesce is a 6th-grade science and social studies teacher at Catawba Elementary School in Catawba, NC.

Fatema Mohassib is the literacy coach at IS281 - Joseph B. Cavallaro School in Brooklyn, NY.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.