• Lauren Mary Medlin

Differentiation 101

Updated: Jan 30, 2019

Where to Start: Data

In the great state of North Carolina, all public schools use MCLASS as a beginning fo the year reading inventory. For third grade students, provides students' instructional reading levels, their oral reading fluency/accuracy, ability to retell, and their ability to use words in context (a CLOZE reading type assessment called DAZE). Other grade level assessments include nonsense word fluency, phoneme segmentation, sight words, etc. Aside from MCLASS, we also use STAR Reading to asses students independent reading level, grade level equivalent, zone of proximal development, and #realteachermoment, it gives a couple more columns of data that isn't essential for planning and is therefore ignored. The last piece of formal benchmark data we use is the NC Beginning of Grade test. Again, #realteachermoment, the data from this assessment is virtually useless. All I really look for is student's Scale Score to see how far away from passing they were and their Lexile Level to see if it matches up with what the other assessments identified as their reading level. Then, throughout the year I use data STAR and MCLASS to monitor progress and then formative summative classroom assessments as well to plan lessons. Don't worry, I am going to circle back to HOW I use all of this data in my lessons! But first..

Help! I Don't Have Those Assessment Materials! Or Any!

Now, I have never heard of an elementary school that doesn't use some form of reading inventory similar to MCLASS to assess students. However, if you are in a school that doesn't, Reading A-Z, is an online resource that has great instructional and assessment materials you can use! You can set up a free trial to access the ALL the resources for two weeks! After those two weeks, you can see if your school will purchase Reading A-Z for you, your can fundraise using Donors Choose or Go Fund Me, pay for it yourself (I know the least favorite option we all do too often), or just get the most out of the free resources while you can! Another website/app I love is Freckle has paid and free features, and one free feature is their initial reading and word study pre-assessment and then teachers can assign a benchmark assessment once a year (it could be more but I have yet to use a benchmark from Freckle yet this year). One more free assessment you can use for spelling/phonemic awareness is the Words Their Way Inventory. While the assessment is free, the books with the correlating word sorts and instruction are not. However, they are not expensive! You again have the choice to ask your school to purchase, to fundraise, or to buy for yourself. Now, while online resources are typically expensive and require annual repurchasing, you can find the Words Their Way books on Amazon for relatively low prices and they are yours forever. In my opinion, they are worth the investment!

Also, I know when each assessment measures ability differently, it is hard to make sense of. Here is a correlation chart I found on google and keep in my planner as a quick reference!

What I Don't Differentiate and Why

I know, you just want me to get to what I differentiate, how I do it, and why. But, I need to first explain one thing. I always begin a new instructional unit with a week of whole group instruction using the gradual release model. Why? In third grade, all students are going to take state mandated benchmark test that have on grade level texts and comprehension questions (with the exception of some students in the EC/Special Education program). For that reason, all students need to be exposed to texts that are on grade level, receive explicit instruction with texts at this level of complexity, and have an opportunity to practice the taught comprehension skill with grade level texts. I feel strongly that if I never expose struggling students to grade level texts I am doing them a disservice when it comes time to take required assessments. That is why I have framed my instructional units in three parts. Part one is whole group instruction using the guided release model, part two is small group instruction through guided reading, and part three is demonstrating the skill through high order thinking activities. Part three is typically includes students writing and constructing their own thoughts into the text structure or genre we worked with during parts one and two. Need an example? Part three of our unit on identifying main idea (RI.3) had students researching and writing their own informational paragraphs! Now, what you have all been waiting for..

What I Differentiate and How Part One: Guided Reading

Some may consider this another buzz method, however I consider guided reading a non-negotiable component of my instruction. I use a combination of the Fountas and Pinnel and Jan Richardson models, but I am basically delivering explicit reading comprehension instruction to a small group of students using a text on their instructional reading level. I use the data from MCLASS to make my reading groups and the skill we focus on is the same skill I am teaching during Whole Group Instruction. I meet with each small group three times. For my higher groups, our third meeting might be very brief and tying up work I had them finish independently.

Ps! I have recently shifted how I run my guided reading groups and plan for my next blog post to talk more just guided reading in more detail!

What I Differentiate and How Part Two: Skill Based Differentiation

We have all been there, when the guided reading groups based on level aren't perfect fits. One or two students in that group need work with fluency or decoding multisyllabic words. Or when all but a select few passed your unit test on character development, you need to work with just those students to remediate the skill, but none of them are in the same guided reading group. I then create what I like to call skill groups. The difference between guided reading and skill based differentiation is that guided reading is done with all students to accompany the skill being learned during that unit of study, skill groups have a specific goal that may be irrelevant to whole group instruction. An example of how this works, on Monday I teach my fluency group how to do a fluency center activity, practice with them, show them where to get the materials, and then tell them they are expected to practice this activity 3-4 times a week when starting independent work. Then, the last day of that week I will progress monitor each student in fluency to see if that activity worked for that student and to plan accordingly. Once a student masters the target skill, they no longer need to stay in the group. Skill groups are very fluid while guided reading is constant.

What I Differentiate and How Part Three: Independent Work

The biggest question teachers (including myself) have always asked, is what the rest of your class doing while the teacher pulls small groups. I typically have one "must do" task for all students to complete daily. The must do could be an on grade level reading task, a vocabulary activity, a language activity, etc. I explain the expectations at the beginning of class and then we review it together at the end of class. After the must do, all work students are doing is differentiated and in what I have named their "Power Folder". Using their STAR Reading assessment data, I place students into different color groups and the plan Power Folder work for each group. Every Monday, students have new activities in their Power Folder and they have the week to complete everything. Every week folders have leveled spelling, language, and comprehension activities. The amount of instruction and time I spend working with students on their Power Folder work is honestly no more than a few minutes at the beginning and end of each week. Why?! How?! I ensure the work in this folder is on their independent/instructional working level and that the students can do it without me. I may need to explain the directions for syllable swooping activity for one group, but once they understand what they are expected to do, they can do it on their own. I check on their work throughout the week and if I see one student or a group is struggling with an activity, of course I intervene. But for the most part, students are successfully completing the folders independently. #Realteachermoment getting my groups planned is a lot of work initially, and the copy making stinks. However, it is worth it to make sure students are always working on accessible and intentionally planned activities. I will elaborate on planning for each folder below!

How Do I Select/Find Materials for Differentiation

Identifying, finding, and organizing materials initially is the most challenging aspect of differentiation. But! Once you get a system organized, it is a piece of cake to keep going. First, use data to make ALL of your groups. You might have noticed but in case you haven't, I have three different sets of groups at all time:

-Guided Reading Groups (based on instructional reading levels using MCLASS/reading inventory data)

-Power Folder Groups (based on STAR assessments mostly, you are looking for students highest academic ability when working independently and are starting there)

-Skill Groups (based on all of the data, looking at students individually and seeing if there are specific skill gaps that keep them from performing on grade level)

Guided reading plans are pretty simple once your groups are made, you just need to find texts on each groups instructional level to teach the grade level skill. I typically use a common graphic organizer for each group and identify specific teaching points to utilize within each text. Skill groups are also easy to find resources and plan for. Florida Center has incredible activities and resources FREE for everyone to use, organized by type and level.

Power Folders, this is where the time and hard work goes into your planning, put your big kid teacher pants on and get ready. Again, the first step is to always assemble your groups! Most of your students will have similar independent work levels, and it is a world easier to plan for 4-5 groups than 20+ individual students.

I plan the comprehension piece first because it is easiest; I use the skill we are learning whole group and find a leveled activity to put in each folder. Readworks.org is the BEST resource for this! All passages are free and you can filter your search to find content by both skill/strategy and grade level.

Next, I go to phonics/spelling. You can use the data you have or administer specific assessments (like the Words Their Way Inventory) to determine where to start each group. As a whole, I look for lowest skill each group needs to work on and start there. While it may be a review for some, strengthening their reading foundation skills is never a waste of time. It is important to remember that phonics instruction is linear, new skills build on previous. That means you should always know what phonics skill is coming next. You can find many free phonics continuums with a simple google search, this is my favorite. I mark where each group starts on my guide and date the week each new skill is taught.

The last piece I plan is a language skill. This is a wide range of skills which I left open for a reason: student need. What my lowest group needs is very different from what my higher groups need. It is easier to explain using my current group plans as an example. This is what each of my groups is working on for language this week (groups from lowest ability to highest):

Green: Sight Words (can, come, down) This group needs phonics and sight word practice. I pick three words a week for the students to use with this resource from TPT. Best purchase ever! Blue: CVCe Syllables- This group over all struggled with multisyllabic words along, I use this resource from TPT to introduce a new syllable type each week along with the say and swoop activity from Florida Center.

Red: R-Controlled Syllables- This group was stronger with syllabification but I saw from when they worked on r-controlled patterns the week before during phonics they could use extra practice. I use the same materials that I use with my blue group.

White: Context Clues: This is my on third grade level group. They are all reading with fluency and accuracy. However, at this level they need to practice context clues constantly before they are able to progress to the next level. I have new context clue activities for this group constantly but this is my favorite, I use levels one and two.

Black: Shades of Meaning: These students are working on a fourth grade level. We started power folder practice with introducing synonyms and antonyms. Now they are working with not only synonyms but with how they relate to one another and ranking their "intensity" if you will.

Wow! This was going to be a brief post when I started, but once I got going I just had to include more. This may seem overwhelming but once you get started it becomes second nature. My last tip is to stay organized! If you want my differentiation organization resource, you can buy it from my store here. I hope you found my experience, advice, and shared resources helpful in your journey to differentiating your classroom!


Lauren Mary Medlin


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