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!