Teaching Opinion

Response: Differentiation Lets Us Reach Our Students ‘Where They Are’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 02, 2015 11 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, 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.

Today’s contributions come from Katherine S. McKnight, Jessica Hockett, Christie Amburn, Elise Yerkey and Barbara Blackburn. I’ve also included readers’ comments.

Response From Katherine S. McKnight

Katherine S. McKnight is an educator, award-winning author, and consultant specializing in adolescent literacy. She is the author of Common Core Literacy for ELA, History/Social Studies, and the Humanities: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge and Common Core Literacy for Math, Science, and Technical Subjects: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter:

I sense frustration in this question and I sympathize with it. As teachers, we’re subjected to so much external pressure! And you’re correct in acknowledging that our only hope of teaching students is to reach them where they are, rather than where we (or more likely, someone else!) think they should be.

In any given fifth grade classroom, for example, you’re likely to find an actual breakdown something like this:

* 2 students reading at the third grade level or lower

* 5 students reading at the fourth grade level

* 15 students reading at the fifth grade level

* 2 students reading at the sixth grade level

* 1 student reading at the seventh grade level or higher

The way I’d approach this through the Common Core State Standards is to examine each anchor standard and determine how it’s articulated for each of the grade levels that are actually present in my fifth grade classroom.

Let’s look at Reading Anchor Standard 6, for example. (Remember, the anchor standard states the over-all, long-term goal of all students, kindergarten through grade 12.):

  • College- and career-ready students - Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Now let’s see how that goal is articulated for students as they read literature in the various grades:

  • Grade 3 students - Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.
  • Grade 4 students - Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.
  • Grade 5 students - Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
  • Grade 6 students - Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.
  • Grade 7 students - Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.

Can you see how, in each grade level, the students are working toward the goal of the anchor standard? At the end of the school year, the majority of my fifth grade students will be able to “describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.” Some of my students will be approaching the goal of the anchor standard at a lower- or higher-grade level. But they’ll all be on the same path, attempting to do the same thing at different levels of complexity.

Throughout the school year, then, I can use the same lesson plans and classroom activities for all my students. They may be applying them to different texts, of course, and approaching the task at various levels. But the goal of my class will remain constant. My students will all be learning how to “Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.” And they’ll continue to work toward that goal throughout their entire K-12 education.

Response From Jessica Hockett

Jessica Hockett is an education consultant in differentiation, curriculum design, and lesson study. With ASCD Professional Learning Services, she has worked with school districts on differentiated instruction, curriculum development using Understanding by Design, and development of programs and services for advanced learners:

The goal of differentiation is optimize student growth. It assumes that students are more likely to grow--and more likely to do well on high-stakes assessments (which are not differentiated)--if their teachers approach and plan instruction with student differences in mind than if their teachers ignore those differences.

This requires a multi-faceted view of students, seeing students’ not only terms of their academic readiness relative to goals, but also their interests and preferred ways of learning. To gauge student readiness, teachers rely not on standardized test scores or last year’s report cards but classroom-level pre- and formative classroom assessment evidence. If these assessments are high-quality and aligned that with unit and lesson goals, teachers can not only see “where” students are with respect to standards, but also use results to inform instructional planning, including decisions to differentiate tasks for student readiness.

Academically-speaking, differentiation involves making sure that each student makes progress toward and beyond grade-level standards from his or individual starting point. Is it possible that some students will not reach those goals in a given semester or school year, even in classrooms where differentiation is practiced well? Yes. But the idea is that they are further along than they might have been as a result of what the teacher has chosen to do in response to their needs.

The challenge posed by this reality is less an indictment or critique of differentiation than it is a question of how to communicate information about student learning. Grading policies and report cards that use what experts call “3-P” grading not only support differentiation and help combat the misconception that differentiation involves having or setting different expectations for different students, but also provide more complete and more accurate information about student learning. Put simply, teachers should be able to report student performance relative to goals/standards; student progress or growth over the course of the marking period, and the student’s process, or how the student is doing with certain work habits and performances. Although most teachers do consider such factors, they tend to meld them into a single grade, which can lead to grade inflation (or deflation) and cloud the grade’s meaning. Considering, reporting, and valuing performance, progress, and performance separately allows teachers to be truthful about a student’s skills while honoring the growth the student has made.

Response From Christie Amburn

Christie Amburn is a middle school principal in Loudon, TN. Before becoming an administrator, she taught in general and special education settings and worked as a district instructional coach:

When a student cannot be successful with grade level standards, it is critical that we find ways to close the achievement gap. Our school has designated focused learning time for each grade level. During this time, all students receive intervention, remediation, enhancement, or extension. All available personnel are utilized to facilitate smaller group sizes for the neediest students. Several data sources are analyzed to determine grouping, and groups are updated frequently as students progress. The most trained personnel use research-proven intervention programs to close achievement gaps of the lowest performing students.

So what to do in the classroom setting? Appropriate grouping is essential to meeting the needs of all students in a heterogeneous classroom. Both small group instruction and collaborative grouping are important to consider when planning.

During small group instruction time, teachers should modify the curriculum for the lowest performing students by breaking standards into basic components. For example, if the middle school literature lesson is focused on citing evidence and drawing inferences (RL7.1), the teacher can work with students to cite evidence and discuss inferences in lower level texts. Alternate texts should be related to the content of the grade level text when possible. Small group instruction should be engaging and respectful. In the above example, students can use highlighters to cite their evidence or scissors to cut out evidence and paste it to a display board. .

When students are working in collaborative groups, the teacher should be very thoughtful with group placement. Lower performing students can glean a great deal of knowledge and understanding by listening to and participating in collaborative group work. However, it is crucial that students are placed into groups where this can happen. All students need to be trained to work in group situations where shared and individual accountability are expected.

Response From Elise Yerkey

Elise Yerkey is an instructional coach for English Language Arts and the Common Core State Standards at a K-12 school district in Southern California. She holds a Master’s degree in education and is credentialed to work with students with disabilities:

The beauty of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that they focus more heavily on skills rather than content. It is much easier to differentiate content while still focusing on the same skill. Let’s just look at one reading standard as an example. Reading Informational Standard 2 (RI.2) for grade 5 reads: Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text. Let’s suppose this child is two grade levels behind in foundational reading skills. Would it be possible for this child to meet the grade level standard for Reading Informational Materials while reading a lower-leveled text? Yes, because if you look at all RI.2 standards K-12, the common theme or skill is determining main/central ideas and summarizing text. The learning progressions between the standards are linked by a common thread and therefore are much more fluid. This makes it easier for teachers to differentiate while still focusing on the skill addressed by the standard.

Another factor that allows for differentiation is technology. With the inclusion of digital literacy in the CCSS, there are more opportunities for supporting struggling readers, as demonstrated by computer-adaptive testing provided by the nation’s two testing consortiums. Because of built-in universal supports, students have the option of having text read aloud to them when not being assessed on reading foundational skills. This enables them to demonstrate mastery of the grade-level standard or skill even if they lag behind with regard to foundational reading skills. The challenge is to provide those supports in the classroom. With computer-adaptive testing, a student’s performance can be gauged based on his or her individual progress rather than solely on national norms.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is a nationally recognized speaker and consultant in the areas of rigor, motivation, and leadership. She is also the author of 14 books, including the best seller, Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word. She can be reached through her website:

One of the most effective differentiation strategies I’ve seen is that of layering meaning. Let’s say you need students to read an informational article on the atmosphere, but they can’t read it because it is too difficult. With layering meaning, you find another article on the same topic, written on an easier level they can read. They read that one first, then--and this is what we don’t do oftentimes--you bring them back to the original, grade-level article and, with scaffolding, have them read it. Because they have built prior knowledge and vocabulary with the easier article, they are better able to handle the more difficult text.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Katherine, jessica, Christie, Elise and Barbara, and to readers, 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.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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