Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Have To Be So Difficult!

It is very common in my work that teachers know exactly which kids might need extra support through differentiated instruction, but what frustrates them most is this: how do I know exactly what they need and then what the heck do I do about it?

One of the things I LOVE most about helping educators is taking something that’s really difficult or complicated and simplifying it – it’s very satisfying to see excellent teachers carry out important instructional work with the kids in a way that they haven’t before.

For starters, let’s define ‘differentiated instruction’ – for our purposes let’s say this: differentiating instruction provides more and different instructional time and materials for specific students in order to close the skill gap between these students and their grade level performing peers.

Simply put?  Kids have skill gaps and we need to fill them so that they can perform at grade level.

Here are the 4 Ds for Differentiating Instruction successfully:


Use a simple but to-the-point reading skill diagnostic assessment that is given one-on-one.  I recommend CORE’s Phonic Survey or Houghton Mifflin’s Phonics Decoding Screening Test. 

When you give this diagnostic you’ll easily find out the kids’ weak spots/skill gaps because they will ‘fail’ this portion of the test.  You’ll find the spots on the assessment that the students master (because they ‘pass’ it), then you know where they start.  


Figure out which kids have the same skill needs (they typically group together naturally, which makes grouping simpler!) and they become your targeted small group. 

Lots of questions arise about ideal group size – I say no more than 7-8, but more importantly I’m concerned with getting kids in a group with like skill needs.  If we have the wrong kids in the groups, then we’re wasting everyone’s time.


Start with 1-2 target skills at their lowest point of performance.  I call this “sweeping under the rug” – making sure that we get to the lowest skill need so that we don’t have to go back and re-sweep in the future. 

Map out the missing skills over 2 week chunks.  So, if I found out that my kids in a small group needed 3 concepts taught to them, I’d map out 6 weeks of small group instruction.

Each lesson should have DIRECT INSTRUCTION as part of the teaching.  The lesson should be explicit (teach, model, practice, feedback, feedback, feedback, apply, feedback, feedback, feedback…you get the point!) in nature and should not leave ANY room for interpretation or lack of clarity. 

Remember, these are kids who are frustrated, confused and struggling already – we want to clear the water, not overwhelm with implicit language or lessons!


The delivery of the lesson is critical to the students’ mastery of the missing skills!

Lessons should be highly structured (for behaviors and instruction), there should be lots of academically oriented feedback (“Wow Justin!  Awesome answer…I can tell that you worked hard to decode that word using the long /o/ sound!”), multiple repetitions on the same concepts until students are mastered on that skill (this ensures long-term storage), much review built into each lesson (some say 80% review/20% new) and lavish amounts of encouragement from the teacher.

Each week, at least, should end with a check-out – an informal quick test for each student designed by the small group teacher.  This quick-test will show the teacher whether the concept for that week’s small group instruction has been mastered or if the kids need more time. 

Here’s the really good news…you don’t have to be perfect to deliver a slam dunk lesson!  Whew!  If you work to be consistent and well-planned than you have a better shot at closing the skill gaps while differentiating instruction.

So, where do you start?  Start by getting your hands on a really good diagnostic and assess at least 1 child and see what you find.

I LOVE talking about how to differentiate instruction! (Yes, I’m a true reading geek)…so….leave your questions below or come on over to my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting) and let’s talk about this!


Leaked From Our Private Coaching Circle! Prioritizing Vocabulary for Maximized Impact

Oops! We had a leak in the roof…and this video slipped from our paid inner coaching circle to YOU! For FREE!

In this "shot in the wild" video I discuss how to choose the vocabulary words you teach very very carefully – it’s not about teaching "the list", but about teaching the words that will have high impact on comprehending the passage or text.

Out with those really frustrating words to memorize and memorized-and-then-forgotten vocabulary tests…let’s work together to choose fewer words more carefully and then see the text comprehension SOAR! Here’s your job:

1. Take a look at the video

2. Write down3 "a-has" as you watch

3. Come back and post the "a-has" right here in the comments

Happy watching!

If you are interested in joining us in our private coaching circle, please check out this link and you can join INSTANTLY! There are tons of videos and comments from me AND like-minded professionals just like you waiting! jackson-consulting.com/online-products-services/at-the-blackboard-with-jill-coaching-circle

Do our kids have to take the WHOLE ENTIRE test…it’s 43 pages long?!?!?!!????

Formative, summative, internal, external, diagnostic, high-stakes….ugh!  Ugh!  Ugh!

Tired of that testing talk?  I am!

Your trusty literacy consultant…tired of assessment talk?  I mean it’s like J.Lo being tired of lip gloss and young boyfriends!  (Ok, I debated putting that in because it’s SO corny…but I did…and I probably lost 1000 readers right there.  Moving on…!)

I was asked a question by no less than 5 teaching teams in the past 3 weeks: Do our kids have to take the WHOLE ENTIRE unit/theme test…it’s 43 pages long?!?!?!!????

That’s a really good question, but I think my answer might take us in a different direction than you might think.

When I asked the follow-up question: is your problem with the test one of students getting fatigued or teachers getting fatigued?  Several stopped…and laughed.  Kind of like the “you caught me” kind of laugh.  So, which is it?

I’ve developed a few questions and some ideas around what you need to be asking yourself as you plan your testing schedule for next year:

What portions of the test relate directly to the standards I am responsible for teaching? In other words, are there portions of the test that are truly inconsequential or are highly unrelated to the core content that week?  Then, you might want to consider taking that sub-test out.  For that week.  Let’s avoid broad or blanket deletion of sub-tests!

What sub-tests assess skills my students are a bit shaky on?  These are EXACTLY the tests that you want to give students!  You want to know what they don’t know, not just what they do know, especially if you’re going to actually USE the data to help your instruction the next day or week.

What sub-tests assess foundational literacy skills that are critical to maintain?  I find that students often know a skill…for a time.  Then they forget it.  Why?  We sometimes forget to continue monitoring it, because we assume “they had it and they always will”.  Um, SO not true! (Even for your most accomplished learners!)

So, I encourage you and your team to look at the sub-tests that assess the must-know and must-have-mastered skills and administer those sub-tests to keep a good handle on those skills that need to remain maintained.

Am I freaking out over the length of the test or the skill expectations of the test?  Sometimes the test seems so daunting…to the teacher.  I hear folks say, “Oh my gosh, Jason just cried during the test, it was so long!”  First of all, Jason cried during the test.  The whole class didn’t cry during the test.  And, are we sure that Jason doesn’t have other things going on in life that may be overwhelming him and the long test was just the tip of the iceberg? 

If the test IS too long, then CHUNK IT UP.  Give pieces of it casually at the end of the reading block for 3-4 days!  I find that teachers are sometimes resistant to doing that and I can’t figure out why! 

If you have a big unit/theme test that kids have been working toward for 4-6 weeks worth of instruction, then chunking the test shouldn’t get in the way of further teaching.  I mean, is that last bit of instruction going to make ALL the difference in the world after you’ve been teaching it for 4-6 weeks already?  Let’s get real – they should know it and if they do, they do.  And if they don’t, then your assessment will show that.

How can I facilitate the taking of the test so that it doesn’t interrupt my teaching unnecessarily?  Like I said, if the test is long, chunk it.  If the test is hard, give the kids a pep-talk and remind them “you know this”.  If the test is a challenge, GOOD!  (A tough test assures that those who ace it really know the material – and isn’t that what we really want to know anyway?)

What I want you to avoid?  Blaming the test for results that you’re not thrilled with. 

Here’s the deal: teachers with kids who perform well aren’t complaining or fretting about the length of the test.  Why?  They’re too busy teaching.





When you know a skill, you know a skill.  Period.

And with that, I’m stepping off of my high horse.  Come “follow” me for some chat (and an occasional high horsing around) on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/TheJillJackson