Differentiation and the Literacy Block

Leaves on a Line

In last week’s post I wrote about how you can arrange your structured literacy block to get the biggest bang for your buck.  The inevitable questions that arose from that post were, “how do you differentiate?” and “How do you fit everything in?”


 These two things are separate, but related so I’ll tackle them one at a time and go from there.  The first thing to note is that there is no, single, one way to make all of this happen. I could poll 100 teachers and come up 100 variations of the block, so please don’t worry that you are going to do it ‘wrong’.  Your student needs, school context, overall school timetable and available tools are all going to influence the way you construct your literacy block. 

Ways to differentiate

For my money, the only part of the literacy block that really needs to be separated out into groups is the phonics and decoding part of the block. This is because the content varies, and the students absolutely need an adult to work with them on those explicit lessons.  It’s also the part that introduces the greatest degree of ‘abstract’ information.  Building phonemic skills and an awareness of the alphabetic code biologically secondary. We aren’t going to ‘pick it up’ along the way.  Because of this, it’s the area of the block where we need to carefully consider student cognitive load and respond to different student’s need fore more or fewer repetitions, for a slower or faster pace.  But I can see hear you asking, “Yes, but how do you do it?”

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of group rotations and students being left to their own devices to conduct ‘activities’  (Read about Dehaene’s 4 pillars here to find out why) so here are my suggestions for avoiding that.

  • The first thing to do is make sure that your core teaching is as inclusive and explicit as possible. This keeps the greatest number of children together for as long as possible. You will always have a few fast lane and slow lane learners and their needs need to be supported.  But if you can deliver instruction that provides the maximum number of repetitions per lesson, fully engages every student, gives the chance for continual review and practice and steps the content along at a regular, but manageable pace, your ‘slow lane’ group will be very small.  If you have a large number of children not keeping up with instruction and showing growth, it’s time to reflect on how you can strength instruction.

  • Train your paraprofessional colleagues to deliver the same high quality phonics lesson that you do. If you are using my Reading Success in Action Lesson sequence or something similar, this need not be a difficulty proposition. Lessons are taught with a small number of repeated instructional routines with word lists, irregular high frequency words and sentences set out so that there is very little prep to do. Once you and your colleague can both teach the same lesson, you can now drastically reduce the amount of time spent in group rotations. If you can convince your school leadership to reconsider the school timetable, you can have 2 or 3 paraprofessional staff visit each classroom for 30 minutes a day and have every adult delivering a small-group phonics lesson to students simultaneously.  This will result in zero loss of instructional time. From there you move onto the next part of the block that you teach whole class and differentiate as needed.


  • Another consideration is that you can get really great results sharing your students across classrooms for 45-60 minutes each day. If you use a consistent assessment and group students according to phonemic skills and code knowledge, small group rotations are not needed because everyone is receiving the exact instruction they need all at once. Including your literacy support teacher and paraprofessionals in this means that you now have many adults to help cater to the full range of student need.  No trying to provide tier 2 intervention for 15 minutes at a time or performing instructional gymnastics as you try to differentiate within a lesson.  This system does not create low expectations, impoverished learning where the ‘high group’ reads novels and the ‘low group’ makes playdough letters. It results in high expectations for all because everyone is receiving high level instruction right at they point they need it.   My top tip to make these transitions easier to do them right before the recess or lunch break. That way you don’t have to resettle them back into class.

  • Accept the fact that sometimes you can’t have it all and have to just do the best you can with what you have. If you are in a two-teacher school with minimal paraprofessional support, the above two suggestions aren’t likely to be of much help.  If you must have small group rotations, try and make the independent tasks as useful as possible.  For example, instead of making a billion laminated resources for small group work, use an online program like Phonics Hero or Teach My Monster to Read that provides instant feedback and does not allow students to progress until they have achieved a certain number of correct answers. You do need to be careful that what you are using matches the sequence you are teaching (Phonics Hero follows the Get Reading Right sequence and Teach my Monster to Read uses SATPIN) but these digital programs can be a great option.  This doesn’t replace the explicit teaching you provide but has a greater chance of having students engaging with something that contributes to learning.

  • Finally, consider the options for differentiating within explicit teaching block itself. If you have solid routines in place and your students can wait for a moment or two, you can do something like the following. This is one of three scenarios we explore inside the Reading Success Teach Along and involves having group rotations for the grapheme teaching and then coming back together for the word level reading and spelling. I’m not saying it’s the simplest way to do things, but if you have a settled group, it’s worth giving it a try.  This particular routine would take 70 minutes, double the time than if you had three adults all teaching at once, but if it’s what you have to work with, you do what you can.

How to fit it all in

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a magic wand to turn your literacy block into Mary Poppins carpet bag (where you can just pack everything in and never run out of room).   There are no easy answers, but here are some suggestions:

  • Focus on what’s important. If it isn’t the most direct path to learning to read and write, cut it.
  • Include solid, repeatable instructional routines that minimise lost time that students can learn to automaticity. The more time student spend trying to answer the question ‘what’s happening now?’ the longer everything will take.  Set timers, watch the clock and set a brisk pace for lessons.  Be mindful though that there is a point at which the pace is so fast that learning can become compromised, so be realistic. 
  • There are times when you just don’t have time to do the daily shared writing in the literacy block so include it in another subject area like science or HASS. This will also help strengthen learning in those areas.
  • Don’t get off track. It’s really easy to go off on ‘teacher tangents’ and wander down the fascinating road of morphology or etymology. Pick your times when this is appropriate and be strict with yourself in your focused time.  What seems like an enrichment opportunity for you might just be distracting your students from the learning at hand and be causing you to run overtime.
  • Be persistent, insistent and consistent with your expectations about students’ engagement. It’s not ok for you to spend 15-20 minutes in every literacy block waiting for students to be quiet or move to desks or put things away.  Be clear and firm about what you expect and provide praise when this is done well. 


This post has turned into a long one, but the issues of differentiation are not simple ones.  When you say yes to one thing, you say no to another.  Figuring out what to say yes to and how to make it count in practice is one of the more challenging things we do as teachers.  But don’t worry, if you are basing your instruction on the needs of students and working with your data to make decisions, you won’t break the kids! 

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Hi Jocelyn,

Thanks for the great post. I am just left with a question that I hope you will answer for me. With the suggested routine for 3 groups and one teacher that you have shown near the bottom it shows the groups working on different graphemes. How do you get to the point of 3 groups working on different graphemes if you are following a phonics scope and sequence with fidelity? Say for week 3 term 3, shouldn’t everyone be working on the same graphemes, according to whatever scope and sequence you follow? Would really appreciate your help working this one out as we finalise our planning for next year! Thanks. Christie. 

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Jocelyn Seamer

Hi Christie.  Thanks for that question.  It's an important one!  In an ideal world where all students learn at the same pace and can embed learning to long term memory with the same number of repetitions, everyone would be up to the same point. The reality is, however, that different children have different kinds of processing and come to our classrooms at different starting points (whether that's in foundation, year 1 or year 1).    It's not a great idea to take our slow lane learners who need 15 (or more) repetitions to learn something and pop them in with our core group who need 7 or 8 repetitions.  You either have to slow everyone down to the pace of the slow lane learners or overwhelm your students who need additional support with content they simply aren't ready for yet.  And then when we think about our fast lane learners who only need 1 or 2 repetitions to learn something new, there's a very real chance that they become disengaged because they are bored with the 'slow' pace of the learning.  It's this learning difference that sees us grouping students.   At the end of the day, your data is the guide to how many groups you need and who is in which group and for how long.  School context also plays a part in this picture. I know teachers who work in high SES schools where every child comes to school with a lovely base level of skill and knowledge, get enough sleep know how to engage in 'school learning' from day one. Those students are much more likely to be able to stay together as one group.  I also know teachers who teach in schools with students who's development ranges from learning to sit on the mat and take themselves to the toilet to reading novels.  This is why there is no, one, certain way to organise for differentiation. The question is, "How do we give our students right here in front of us the very best chance of all learning to read?" All the best, Jocelyn.   

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"Because of this, it’s the area of the block where we need to carefully consider student cognitive load and respond to different student’s need fore more or fewer repetitions". The exact same could be said in regards, and particularly to kids with oral language comprehension issues as well. I'm not sure how this statement can be justified to apply only to phonics instruction.

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