Teaching Opinion

Response: Differentiation Is Important ‘Because We Teach Students Not Standards’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 30, 2015 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question comes from an educator who wishes to remain anonymous:

Differentiating for students, as I understand it, entails meeting students at their levels, but the end goal is to ensure that they meet the standards for the grade level.

What happens when, for whatever reason, you have one or more students who are reading several grade levels below and even the lowest level expectation for that child/ren will still not enable the student/s to meet the standard for the grade level?

Differentiation has certainly been in the news recently. It’s a word that educators hear a lot, and a lot is done in its name. There are probably many definitions people use for it, but I think it’s safe to say that it generally means strategies that teachers use to modify their instruction so that it’s accessible to students with different backgrounds, skills, and prior knowledge.

Today, three well-known educators/authors provide guest responses: Regie Routman, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and Laura Robb. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Regie and Laura on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find an earlier show I did with Carol at the same website.

I’ve also published many practical posts about this topic in the past, including:

The Five-by-Five Approach to Differentiation Success is the title of an Ed Week piece my colleague Katie Hull Sypnieski and I co-authored.

The Best Resources On Differentiating Instruction

The Best Resources For Learning About Ability Grouping & Tracking

Along with previous posts in this blog:

Several Ways To Differentiate Instruction

I was lucky enough to get both Carol Tomlinson and Rick Wormeli to contribute their ideas here!

Differentiating Lessons by ‘Content, Process, or Product’

Carol Tomlinson, Donalyn Miller and Jeff Charbonneau contribute responses.

More Ways To Differentiate Instruction -- Part Two

This post features contributions from Megan Allen, Florida’s 2010 State Teacher of the Year and Dr. Kimberly Kappler Hewitt & Daniel K. Weckstein, co-authors of Differentiation is an Expectation: A School Leader’s Guide to Building a Culture of Differentiation.

‘Differentiation Is More Than A Set Of Strategies’

This post features a response from Kimberly Kappler Hewitt and a number of suggestions from readers.

Now, to today’s guests...

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is a longtime teacher and the author of many books and resources for educators. Her latest book is Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). See www.regieroutman.org for information on her books, articles, PD offerings, and to contact her:

Here, I am going to take the liberty of reframing the question. Differentiating as I see it is not just about meeting students at “levels,” which are sometimes arrived at in arbitrary and questionable ways, but about meeting students’ needs and interests based on ongoing assessments, most of which are informal and often called formative assessments. The end goal, as I see it, is not about meeting the standards but about expertly teaching students what they need to know and want to know. No matter how good any set of standards are, including the CCSS, they are at best a framework and guide for what we want all students to know and be able to do. Successful differentiation depends more on highly knowledgeable teachers and leaders than it does on any standards or designated levels.

Another caution is in order. One common interpretation of the CCSS is that all students must read complex texts, ready or not. My Reading Recovery training and decades of teaching reading have unequivocally taught me that a steady diet of too-hard books causes students to regress, not progress. There are almost always a small group of students reading “below grade level.” For those students, they need explicit instruction and guided practice on “just-right” books where they can read and interpret at least 95% of the words so they can focus almost all of their attention on understanding the text and making meaning. Again, it’s important to keep in mind we teach students not standards.

For readers who are below grade level, we also need to ensure that they are present in the classroom receiving the same challenging content as all students. For example, most students routinely can understand and listen to books approximately two years above their reading level if the book is engaging and read aloud to them--and especially with judiciously chosen stopping points and teacher explanation, such as, “Here’s what I’m thinking, and here’s why I think thus and so.”

A regrettable consequence of an overemphasis on having all students meet grade level standards--as opposed to an emphasis on expert teaching that meets each student’s needs and interests while utilizing the latest standards as a guide and framework--is that students who most need individualized instruction tailored to their needs do not get much of it and, therefore, do not improve much. As well, a mindset of standards before students often leads to excessive test preparation, which does little to improve student learning in the long run and much damage to teacher and student attitudes about the meaning of school and learning.

It is up to the knowledgeable teacher to ensure that differentiation results in more personalized, relevant learning and higher achievement for all students across the curriculum. Becoming a highly knowledgeable teacher in a school where almost all teachers become highly knowledgeable--not just of expectations and strategies at their own grade level but across the grades--requires ongoing, professional learning led by the principal and teacher leaders.

Response From Carol Ann Tomlinson

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and co-director of the Institutes on Academic Diversity at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. One of education’s most influential voices, Tomlinson’s books include The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition (ASCD, 2014) and Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013):

This is a question that dogs caring teachers, of course. My best response to that question is one I developed in my third year of teaching when I taught Golden--a 15-year-old in my 7th grade class full of 12 year-olds. He whispered to me in the hall on his first day of school that year (a week after the year began), “I can’t read.” I understood immediately the courage it took to make that confession to a teacher he’d never seen. I understood that I couldn’t let him down. What I didn’t understand was how to teach reading, how to help him find a worthy place in his class of younger and more accomplished peers, how to arrange time or find materials to benefit him, what to do about grades, and so on.

If someone were to ask me to pick out the year of teaching I am proudest of--when I feel I grew the most and did my best work--it would be “the year of Golden.” I learned to differentiate instruction in order to keep his trust, first for just him, and then for a few others in the class, and then for everyone in the class. More to the point, though, Golden grew from not knowing the alphabet to reading at a solid third grade level by the time the year ended. That’s excellent growth by any measure.

I get the sway that “THE TEST” holds over teachers’ lives these days, not by their own choice. But I don’t want any standardized test to make either Golden or me feel like a failure when both of us grew remarkably and both of us were in a much better place to take on the next year of school, and to take on life, for that matter.

What happens if a kid like Golden doesn’t totally catch up in an effectively differentiated classroom? I’d say the answer is the same as if he doesn’t totally catch up in a general education classroom or a remedial program. If he has worked diligently and grown markedly, teachers need to help him (and his parents) understand that there is still a distance to go--and that his progress should be celebrated. If the outcome is less noteworthy, then everyone needs to be looking for ways to turn that around.

My argument for quality differentiation in general education classrooms also has something to do with Golden. He came to see himself as a member of and contributor to a class that engaged in energizing conversations, had terrific ideas, created interesting products, expected good things of one another, and pulled together to make those things happen. My sense is that as teachers become skilled with differentiation, kids like Golden can find strong support for their learning needs in the context of a dynamic environment fueled by the energy of achievement.

Not every student will close substantial learning gaps in a year--in any kind of classroom. Human development seems woefully inattentive to the standardized test schedule. Our best teaching happens as we vigorously respond to students, not to mandates.

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb is the author of Unlocking Complex Texts, Scholastic, 2013 and Differentiating Reading Instruction, Scholastic, 2008:

Eight Ways To Help All Readers Improve

It’s difficult to accept, but in one school year teachers who have students reading three or more years below grade level will not be able to transform those students into skilled readers. I tell teachers and administrators to recognize that these students require three or more years of intervention to become engaged, grade-level readers.

Accommodations such as reading texts out loud or listening to books on tape mean students aren’t reading. Moreover, these types of accommodations can contribute to students’ backward slide. Teaching students with challenging materials that they can read and learn from along with a rich independent reading curriculum will accelerate their reading achievement. With this approach, students who can’t pass the state test in sixth grade can develop the skills needed to pass by eighth grade.

In a class of diverse reading abilities, one book or a grade level anthology will not meet the needs of all learners. So the question to ponder is: How can I meet every student’s instructional needs and help each one improve?

Richard Allington points out that by the middle grades and middle school, decoding is usually not an impediment to reading. However, researchers agree that poor general academic vocabulary, lack of target interventions, and no independent practice reading are obstacles to comprehending grade-level materials.

Independent practice reading increases students’ background knowledge, builds vocabulary, and fosters automaticity in accessing skills to solve reading problems. Practice can also increase students’ motivation to read and promote reading engagement.

To help teachers improve students’ reading skill, I’ve identified eight ways to nurture and support all readers. Discuss these suggestions with colleagues and consider the role each one plays in your curriculum.

1. Teach Reading Explicitly With interactive Lessons

With an anchor text, show students how you apply a reading strategy such as making inferences, connecting themes, or using context to figure out tough words. An anchor text is in the same genre as your current unit. It can be an excerpt, a picture book, a poem, a short story, myth, or legend. Short and explicit, anchor text lessons take no more than ten to fifteen minutes and are interactive. Once the teacher models a process, students work with a partner to try the strategy and share their thinking. This is the ideal way to model how to apply a strategy to informational texts or literature.

2. Differentiate Reading instruction

Moving away from one text for all to differentiating reading materials makes sense because each student has an opportunity to learn and improve. Organize a reading unit around a genre and theme and have students read in the genre at their instructional level. For example, a study of biography can be organized around the theme of obstacles. Students read about different men and women; common discussion points include how each person dealt with and overcame specific obstacles, the personality traits that enabled each to cope with challenging events and achieve success, and the structure of the genre.

It’s possible to offer students choice with instructional reading by forging a relationship with your public and school librarians. About two weeks prior to starting a unit, ask both librarians to pull books for the instructional reading levels in your classes. Ask the librarians to jot the instructional reading levels on sticky notes and place them on the book’s cover. Add books from your class library and create stacks that students can choose from, but remove the sticky notes.

3. Enlarge Students’ General Academic Vocabulary

The NAEP study from 2009-2012 shows a tight correlation between students’ vocabulary strength and reading comprehension! To be effective and comprehensive, vocabulary instruction should occur daily for 10 to 15 minutes in all subjects. The focus of instruction should be on general academic words because they occur in all disciplines. Lists of general academic words are available online. Don’t teach the lists. Instead, directly teach general academic words that are in books you read aloud, in the anchor text, you’re using, in short, complex instructional materials, and in textbooks.

4. Provide Targeted Interventions

Circulate among students while they read, write about reading, and apply explicit lessons. Carry a clipboard lined with dated sticky notes and stop by students’ desks to see if they require help with a specific skill or strategy. Have a brief discussion with the student to offer ways to cope with confusions and challenges, jot suggestions on a sticky note, and give the note to the student as a supportive reminder while she reads or writes. When interventions occur frequently, teachers can prevent a small misunderstanding from blooming into an obstacle.

5. Integrate Independent Reading Into Your Curriculum

The research of Richard Allington, Nell Duke, Steven Krashen, and Donalyn Miller points to the importance of students reading self selected print or e-books: they should read 40 to 60 books a year in addition to instructional reading. Books students can and want to read show them how words work in diverse contexts, enlarge their background knowledge, and deepen their understanding of genre structure. When you set aside 20 to 30 minutes for independent reading at least three times a week, you build stamina, students’ ability to concentrate, and at the same time send the message that reading is valued and important.

Invite students to present a short book talk each month and in a school year twenty-five students will hear about 250 books. Students are more receptive to peer recommendations and look forward to discovering books that classmates endorse.

6. Engage Students in Meaningful Discussions

Motivation to read increases when students have opportunities to talk about texts with peers because reading becomes social. When pairs or small groups discuss the same or different texts they practice close reading, using text evidence to support positions, and exploring themes. In addition, they improve listening skills and the ability to clearly express thoughts and hunches.

7. Invite Students To Write About Reading

The research of Steve Graham and Michael Hebert in Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading shows that integrating writing about reading and writing workshop into English or language arts can improve reading comprehension. You can download a free copy of this study at www.carnegie.org/literacy.

When students write about reading, they record, in readers’ notebooks, responses such as summaries, reactions to a quote, a character’s decisions, or linking information within or across texts.

8. Build Class Libraries to Give Students Access to Books

To save budget dollars, schools often eliminate librarians who keep the collection current and help students find books. In today’s world, classroom libraries are a necessity because they provide students with easy access to books. A class library with magazines, newspapers, graphic novels, and a variety of print and e-book genres offers students choices and the ability to check out a new book after shelving one they’ve completed.

Reading Matters

Instructional reading, vocabulary building, and targeted interventions that meet individual student’s needs combined with an independent reading curriculum can build reading proficiency. Remember, a sixth grader reading at a second-grade level won’t leap four years forward in one year. Give students the gift of time, expert reading instruction, and the motivation to read independently. Progress will surely follow.

Thanks to Regie, Carol and Laura for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be sharing readers’ comments in Part Two.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Two in a few days...

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.