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!


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

The Music Has Stopped. You Still Doing the Running Man?


Time management in the classroom. It’s the bane of our existence when it doesn’t work and it’s the reason why things move smoothly when they do work!

A sub-question of “How do I work to get my kids to do what I want them to do?” is “I keep running out of time…if you could give me more time, I could ‘fit it all in'”

I would be a gagillionaire if I could give you more time, but I can’t.  And I REALLY wish I could, because being a gagillionaire sounds like it’d be GREAT!  I mean, all that cashola just hanging around…purses, trips, shoes, lip gloss, etc……what, what was I talking about again?

Oh that’s right…time management…

The first place to start is by asking a few questions to see where the problem is.  I shared these questions recently with a coach client of ours who was struggling to support her teachers in hitting the time management marks.

  • Are you seeing them taking longer than they should in places?  Which places are these?
  • I wonder are they doing lots of worksheets (those are optional and shouldn’t be used as time fillers)?
  • Are they teaching the whole time?
  • Are there management issues that are taking up instructional time?
  • Are they starting on time/ending early?
  • What parts are they getting bogged down on?
  • Have they timed how long it takes each band of instruction so that you can look at the data of what you find in the classroom, not just the “feeling” that the teacher has?
  • Do they have a swift pace?
  • Are they adding additional things to the block from outside of the program?
  • Are they taking drink/bathroom breaks during the block?  (I certainly hope not)

The great thing is, when you figure out where the “sticking point” is, you can fix it!  Yep, just like that.

Fix it by keeping a timer and moving yourself along when you’re running slow.

Pick up additional instructional minutes by shortening the “morning routines” or the “after lunch routines”.

Plan ahead for what your direct teaching time will be and what time will be student practice and then opportunities for feedback.

Figure out if you’re adding “would be nice” content – that content that would be nice, but is not necessary.

The bottom line?  You can control.  You can fix it.  BUT you have to begin by isolating WHERE the problem of time management is coming from!


Bourbon Street and the Classroom…Is There A Connection?!?

So here it is, it’s been proven again and again and yet again.  There’s no denying it.  We have to embrace it: Education and New Orleans have a lot in common.

There, I said it.  Don’t believe me?

Check out what we’ve learned about New Orleans this past week and how it reminds us of what’s important in education…

The food is spicy.
So are the kids…they aren’t boring, they need us to meet their energy with even more energy.

When you’re planning for a lesson, do you have the mindset that the kids should be well-behaved or do you have the mindset that you can use their excitement and engagement to “spice up” your lessons?  Energy and engagement within a lesson is the teacher’s job.  When I visit a classroom where the kids are bored out of their minds and the teacher is going through the motions, even I want to get the heck out of there…and I’m paid to be there!

So…what do you do about low engagement?  Ask yourself: are there parts of the lesson that I can anticipate will drag?  Well then, plan to speed up the pace or get the kids up and moving or make a connection to something that excites them.  Variety is the spice of New Orleans…and it’s your job to bring the spice to your classroom.

The culture is alive and kicking.
When we were walking down Bourbon street in and out of alleys and side-streets, we heard so many different languages!  It was so cool!  Some were so different (Creole!) that I had to listen really carefully to be able to understand.  Others were more familiar but different to my Los Angeles ears.  Our classrooms are just like this – they are full of different experiences, different dialects, different backgrounds and different perspectives.

We have to plan our lessons to incorporate the background knowledge that our kids bring to the lessons.  As I prep, I think:

  • What leaps do the materials require my kids to learn?  What “holes” do I have to fill in order for them to access the content?
  • What simple background info do I need to give my kids so that they can get the rest as they dive into the content?
  • What pre-teaching of vocabulary words do I need to do quickly?  Which words should I teach?  Which should I just tell so that they can get quickly into the content?

The party lasts all night long.
So we can’t exactly party on school grounds like they do on Bourbon Street, BUT we can keep the learning going well beyond the school day or past the end of the lesson.  How do we do this?

  • Focus on the quality of responses that you require students to give.  For example, instead of asking kids to respond with the “correct” answer…make sure they have the “complete” answer – this will help them to use the academic language more frequently.
  • Challenge students to use the target vocabulary in multiple settings across content areas so that it becomes part of their speech, not just something they memorize to “pass the test” – have them keep a tally of how many times they’ve used the words – this makes way for long term storage of the vocabulary.

Here’s my mantra for this week:  Great teaching happens on purpose…as does poor teaching.

An iPad is the Holy Grail…and other lies I tell myself

So, it’s Sunday night and I have another one of my recurring thoughts: How is THIS week going to be different with my diet and exercise? 

Can you relate? 

I mean I haven’t been doing too badly…I’ve cut Diet Coke (except for the five I drank on Friday night, but it was Friday night and so it doesn’t count because Friday is different than other days in so many ways, but I digress…a lot) and I’ve tried to not eat after 7pm and I’ve walked twice in the past week (I know, breaking records all over the place for commitment). 

These little changes that do add up, but still NOT the golden ticket.

So late this afternoon while I’m packing for my trip tomorrow and sipping my Diet Coke…um, water…I have a brilliant thought.  And here it is:

I need an iPad. 

An iPad?  To do what?


If I had an iPad, I would download my mp3s that I listen to for my business coaching.

Then I would take said iPad to the gym that I joined in a fancy shmancy part of town (you know, the gym I joined because it’s in a safer part of town so that when I’m coming home late from the airport and I want to put in a workout at midnight after an 18 hour day I could be safe…yeah THAT gym – the one I’ve not visited in a month). 

I would hook up my iPad with said mp3s into the elliptical (my favorite thing, if anything in the gym could be characterized as “favorite”). 

I would listen to my coaching recordings and take notes on the little bitty post-it note app.  All whilst (I like saying that word as often as possible) I was working out and sweating up a storm.

Tell me this doesn’t sound like a GREAT idea!

Here’s the problem – it’s not about the iPad.  It’s not about the elliptical.  It’s not about the fancy gym in the good part of town.  It’s not about the 18 hour days.  It’s about me.  And my commitment.  Or lack thereof.

So all of my shenanigans have brought me to remember this one quote that I have on my office bulletin board: A YEAR FROM NOW WILL YOU WISH YOU HAD STARTED TODAY.

Oh my, I love that! And I hate it at the same time…it’s too true for me!

So, here I am on Sunday night now, getting ready for the week after a fun dinner with friends and some good TV catching-up to do (my not-so-guilt pleasure after lots of hard work).  And I don’t want tomorrow to be yet another start to the week where I say, “Tomorrow’s a new day.  You are going to work out 19 times this week,” and then do nothing and crab at myself in my head.

Because that’s what I do – I over-commit and then get down on myself when I don’t follow through.

When I’m trying to break a habit or start a new one, I try to stay positive by doing a few little things:

  1. Focus on what IS possible, not what is not possible
  2. Cast a wide net and give myself a big vision for the future, but figure out one small, do-able change I can make to get closer to my goal
  3. Talk nicely to myself
  4. Change my morning routine a bit to accommodate the change – get started off on the right foot
  5. Get away from the “I’m so bad I ate a cookie” or “I was so ‘good’ because I didn’t eat a cookie” mentality – after all, I think I’m a pretty good chick most of the time, so this isn’t about ‘bad’ and ‘good’ anyway  – a missed workout or one-too-many cookies doesn’t make me a bad person – or at least I hope it doesn’t because I’m in deep trouble…

You might be thinking…wait a minute – isn’t this a literacy blog?  Where does she start talking about books and stuff?

Well, I might skip the book talking (you can read my past and future blogs with lots of that stuff in it) in this article, but what I DO want you to think about is this: What do you need to do to improve the health of your literacy work? 

If you’re a leader…what small habits can you get rid of or add to your life to become a more effective instructional leader?

If you’re a coach…is there anything in your role that’s standing in the way of you being a more excellent coach?  If so, what step can you make to remove that block?

If you’re a teacher…is there an area that your data is showing that you need to make some improvement?  Do you need to ask for help or start a conversation with a colleague to help you build something into your instruction to deal with that data?

My goal this week is to get three, yes only three but I’m trying to be realistic, workouts in this week while I’m on the road.

Where will you start?