David D. Paige, Associate Professor of Education, Bellarmine University

Meeting the Needs of All Readers in a Diverse Classroom

This guest blog post comes from Dr. David D. Paige, the Associate Professor of Education at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. With a focus on investigating strategies for improving literacy achievement, instruction, and educational outcomes, we've partnered with David to share how teachers can organize their classrooms to meet the needs of all readers.

If you enjoy his blog, be sure to join us and David for his webinar on September 19: Differentiated Reading Instruction. We hope to see you there!

I attended elementary school in the days when we sorted kids into groups named after birds – yellow, red, and blue. It wasn’t too scientific and primarily based on the teacher’s perception of how well each of us were fluent with “grade-level” text, whatever that was considered to be. Phonics was taught in my small-town school and round-robin reading was a staple reading strategy. Some of us learned to read well and some struggled, which was ultimately the group that counted the most.

Fast forward to today and we know much more about “how” reading is acquired. We are keenly aware that students differ considerably in their rate of reading acquisition based much on their facility with language, experience with text, and other factors (Hart & Risely, 2003). We also know if a teacher is to successfully help all children in the class become readers, an understanding of how each is progressing in the acquisition of critical reading skills is essential. The simple truth is that given a classroom of children, differences in their rate of acquisition for most any skill will vary considerably. It is this “variance” that requires careful consideration when deciding to implement whole-class instruction or to use a differentiated approach. When deciding between the two the fundamental question becomes “will all students benefit from whole-class instruction?” Or put another way, “will whole-class instruction leave some students behind?” If the answer is yes then a differentiated approach is required.

In our reading project now involving some 800, K-3 teachers, we’ve found that the benefits of whole-class reading instruction begins to wane early in the first-grade, if not sooner. For example, instruction for incoming kindergarten students focuses on the acquisition of phonemic awareness (PA). Because this skill must be explicitly taught, meaning children don’t show up with PA in place, whole-class instruction is highly appropriate as almost all students begin at the same developmental starting point. As children move through rhyming and syllabication into the identification of phonemes, differences (or variance) in the rate of acquisition begin to emerge. Our project involving over 6,000 kindergarten students reveals that at the end of the year about a quarter of children are well behind where they should be, another quarter are somewhat behind, and the rest demonstrate appropriate development. This means differentiated instruction will be needed in early first-grade to reach those who are behind as they are not at different developmental levels. The first and obvious lesson here is that children differ considerably in their rate of subskill acquisition. The second lesson is that teachers must know the extent to which each child is successfully acquiring the target skill, which requires appropriate data. Quite simply, no data means anecdotal decisions are made, which can lead to incorrect conclusions about a child.

Whole-class reading instruction works well when all learners are beginning at the same starting point as we saw in our phonological awareness example. But as we also saw, children differ in their rate of skill acquisition. It is at the point where assessment results show significant acquisition differences that differentiation of instruction must be implemented to avoid leaving some children behind. If not, continued whole-class instruction of increasingly complex skills will insure that those who are behind become frustrated and stay behind.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978 [ZPD]) provides a helpful way to conceptualize when to use whole-class instruction and when differentiated instruction becomes necessary. In a nutshell the ZPD states that a child’s acquisition zone for any particular skill is the learning space where he can successfully acquire the targeted skill with the help of a more knowledgeable individual. When all students in the class are in the same “zone,” then whole-class instruction will benefit all students. If whole-class instruction is targeting a zone that is developmentally beyond that of any particular group of students then they will receive little benefit. In this case a differentiated approach that appropriately targets their developmental zone is required. Of course this requires the teacher to have knowledge of each child’s developmental zone for the particular skill being instructed.

Now that we have a mental “heuristic” or model for deciding between whole-class and differentiated approaches to instruction, we can drill down a bit further. Let’s take word work as an example, the acquisition of which differs among children. In our assessment of letter-naming spelling ability among 2,000 first-grade students taken in December of the school year, one-third were just beginning to recognize beginning and ending consonants and long vowels, another third were making adequate progress with beginning and ending consonant blends and affricates, while the top third were near mastery of the letter-naming stage. If we reduce this achievement distribution to the class level, this is a clear case where whole-class instruction would benefit only about a third of the class. Which third will depend on whether the lesson is targeted at the bottom, middle, or top third of students. Differentiating instruction through the use of small groups is an effective way to deliver appropriate instruction to the various levels of learners. Small groups are formed based on the skill being taught and on what the assessment data says about each student’s development with the skill of interest. This means that group composition can differ depending on the targeted skill. This prevents a child from experiencing placement in a group that is not beneficial. Regular assessment will also prevent a student from remaining in a group that is no longer appropriate.

To recap, we know that students do not progress along the same developmental trajectory. For a classroom where students do not share the same “developmental zone” for a particular skill, teaching to the whole-class will be helpful for only some. We’ve discussed how the ZPD can be used as a heuristic to inform whether whole-class or differentiated instruction is most appropriate. The next variable to consider in our analysis of optimizing instruction for all students are instructional strategies. It’s important to understand the dynamics of a particular strategy in relationship to the need for whole-class versus differentiated instruction.

Some instructional strategies can be considered as “assisted,” meaning they provide substantial support for the student. Let’s walk through a scenario. It is half way through the year of Ms. Anderson’s third-grade class. She regularly works to encourage reading fluency in her students and through her assessments knows they generally fall into one of three groups. In addition to other fluency strategies, she uses one called whole-class choral reading (WCCR). When implementing WCCR all students in the class read the same text aloud in unison, typically one that is above the average grade-level of the class (see Paige, 2011 for implementation steps). The teacher models the text while students follow along silently after which, students read the text in unison over several repeated readings. So how is it that a “whole-class” strategy can benefit students whose fluency falls into three different developmental zones? Because as they read along weaker readers hear both the teacher and peers reading the text aloud, they are “assisted” with their reading. This is a critical aspect of the strategy and is why this particular whole-class approach can work for children whose skill level falls into a variety of developmental zones. WCCR benefits good readers by exposing them to additional texts while poor readers gain critical, supported practice with texts they are not able to read independently. Because WCCR allows all students to simultaneously practice reading it is an efficient use of class time. This is an example of how the whole-class versus differentiation decision can be moderated by an instructional strategy that provides important supports that serve all students.

When we think of differentiated instruction we often think of dividing students (based on data) into typically three groups. Another way to differentiate reading instruction is to put students into pairs. Peer-assisted-learning (PALS, Topping, 1989, 2014) is a strategy that pairs better and weaker students where the former acts as the “tutor” and the latter as the “tutee.” This strategy is known by several names including paired-reading, peer-pairing, or buddy-reading. A text is selected for reading that is within the instructional range of the tutee. The pair take turns reading and summarizing the text. They also set up a protocol between the pair when assistance in reading a word is needed and for changing readers. Like WCCR, this approach has multiple advantages. First, the tutee is working within their ZPD while the tutor is available to provided support as necessary. The tutor benefits from additional exposure to text and learns to provide knowledgeable assistance to the tutee, a skill that is not inherent in many children. While PALS can be implemented across the classroom where multiple pairs are reading text, it is not a whole-class strategy because the text is differentiated by reader pair.

To summarize this discussion, we’ve seen that because the developmental trajectory of skill acquisition differs between children we must employ teaching methods that address these differences if all students are to continue to grow and develop. Effective teachers know when to implement whole-class instruction and when, based on their data, differentiated instruction is more likely to be effective. We’ve seen how the zone of proximal development can be used as a guide for determining when differentiated instruction should be implemented. Using WCCR as an example, we’ve seen how in some cases a particular instructional strategy can moderate the whole-class/differentiated instruction decision. We’ve also seen that differentiated instruction can take forms other than small groups. To insure that all students are growing in their learning the effective teacher understands how to assess students to determine their “developmental zone” and then decide how best to deliver instruction that is within the student’s ZPD.

Once again, if you'd like to learn more about how you can organize your classroom to meet the needs of all readers, including specific ways you can help students who have difficulty reading written material, expressing themselves, or learning by listening, register for David's webinar today - goo.gl/sXQsZG!

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3.
    American Educator, 27(1), 4-9. Retrieved from     
Paige, D. D. (2011). That sounded good! Using whole-class choral reading to improve
    fluency. The Reading Teacher 64(6), 435-438. DOI: 10.1598/RT.64.6.5
Topping, K. (1989). Peer tutored paired reading: Combining two powerful techniques.
    The Reading Teacher, 42, 488-494.
Topping, K. (2014). Paired reading and related methods for improving fluency.
    International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 7(1), 57-70. Retrieved from
Vogotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. M.
    Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Soubeman (Eds.). Cambridge, MA:
    Harvard University Press. (also see link below)


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