S1 E13 - How do I Differentiate to Support a Range of Learners?

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Episode 13 - How do I Differentiate to Support a Range of Learners?

Transcript Summary

Hey everyone. It's Jocelyn coming to you from the home of the Palawa people here in beautiful Tasmania. We have had so many questions over the last few years about differentiation, and today I would like to share some suggestions for you and some different ways of thinking about it. When I started to plan this episode, I realized that I actually have quite a decent chunk of text already around this topic in my book, Reading Success in the Early Primary Years - A Teacher’s Guide to Implementing Systematic Instruction, and so I thought that I would read to you from my book and walk you through my thinking around some concepts around differentiation.

Grab your copy of Reading Success in the Early Primary Years and read along.
If you have a copy, pause now and go and grab your copy of Reading Success in the Early Primary Years, and you are looking for pg no. 40, Chapter 4 - Differentiation and Supporting Students with Reading Difficulty.

What is the definition of differentiation?
The definition of differentiation is one that is tricky to establish with any consistency, and we could ask 20 teachers what differentiation means to them and receive 20 different answers. At its core, differentiation is the idea of teaching in a way that responds to the needs of the variety of learners in our classroom. It assumes that children are going to have different learning needs and that we will provide experiences that enable all of our students to learn.

In her text, How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Carol Tomlinson (2017), reminds us that differentiation does not automatically assume the following:  students will be grouped for instruction, small group work is preferable to large group work. Now, remember, these are not automatic assumptions. Some children will learn, and some will not; we need to design a different lesson for each student, and we need to only differentiate for our struggling students.

Differentiation does ensure that our decisions are grounded in assessment. We are responsive to our student's level of cognitive load and the evidence around how people learn. Our decisions are based on what is best for students, not what we prefer as a teacher. We consider content, process, and product in our instructional decision-making. Whole class, small group and individual teaching responds to student learning needs thoughtfully and effectively. And you'll notice here that Carol Tomlinson includes all three kinds of instruction, whole class, small group, and individual. There is this tension between the idea that a good teacher, I think I'm jumping ahead a little here, will always teach whole class and meet the needs of everybody, and I think that there's some more nuance in the discussion. So let me read on.

Differentiation is not just about handing out different levels of worksheets but can occur across three domains. Number one is content, number two is instruction, and number three, is product. When it comes to early years literacy instruction, the messaging about how to support the learning needs of a range of students can be conflicting and confusing.

Which way is best?
On the one hand, we hear that we should be teaching everything whole class and that a good teacher can do so in a way to meet everyone's needs. On the other hand, we hear that small group work is the best way to support student learning needs, and just about every online search for literacy instruction results in suggestions for literacy centres and reading groups. There are challenges with both of these viewpoints.

I'd much rather we approach this with the question, when is it most appropriate to...? It is not that one way is better than the other in all circumstances or that every school will do things in the same way. School context, range of reading development, your own skill and experiences as a teacher and the teaching approach that you are using are all going to influence what differentiation looks like.

For me, there are many underlying principles to consider when making decisions about this in relation to reading instruction. 
1. Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory helps us understand that different children will have different capacities for processing and working with content and different learning processes. And if you have a copy of the book, you can have a look at chapter three for more detail.

2. This theory also helps us understand that some skills are biologically primary and some are biologically secondary. Biologically secondary skills need to be explicitly taught, and that comes from Sweller too (2020)

3. Stanislas Dehaene's four Pillars of Learning, (Dehaene 2021), show us that learning is more effective when we direct student attention, ensure that they are fully engaged,  provide corrective feedback and help them consolidate learning.

4. A firm understanding of the alphabetic principle and the capacity to attend to the internal structure of the word is critical to build strong fluent decoding skills. (Dehaene, 2009 & Ehri 2005).

5. Different children will come to this understanding with different levels of ease and speed, (Dehaene 2021).

6. Some children, such as those with dyslexia, are more vulnerable to cognitive overload than others.

7. Reading instruction is not a one size fits all proposition.

8. There are instructional practices that are fine for many of our students but negatively impact the development of our struggling students.

9. There are instructional practices that are critical for our students with difficulties but are beneficial for all. It is best to utilize these rather than the practices from point 8.

10. Not all students will need the same content or approach at the same time. 

11. Never teach in a small group what you could teach in a large one. It is a waste of instructional time.

12. The way we teach something at the start of a school year may be different from the way we teach it towards the end. This is particularly true for foundation.

Does that mean I should teach structured literacy to some and balanced literacy to others?
Now I'd like to just go back to a point and clarify something. When I say that not all students will need the same content or approach at the same time, I'm not suggesting that some students will need structured literacy and other students should be taught with balanced literacy and other students be taught with analytical phonics and their different group are having synthetic phonics. That's not what I'm talking about.  If you've been with me for any length of time, you'll know systematic synthetic phonics is what I talk about and what I promote.  What I'm addressing is that different children will have a different need for the level of intensity, for the number of repetitions, for the pace of instruction at different times.  This is where a lot of the complexity comes in when we are responding to student need and when we addressing the needs of those students as we monitor progress through a student's reading journey.

When is it most appropriate to... teach in small groups? Point 1.
Table 4.1 provides answers to the question;  when is it most appropriate to...  around reading instruction and is born from my own teaching experiences,  the experiences of others, and my best interpretation of the evidence around how children learn in general and learn to read specifically.

So I'm going to dive into this table because it does cover four pages.  If you have a copy of the book, you will read a number of things, including a snapshot of practice from Katherine Thorburn, who many of you may know, and who I think is marvellous in the space of tier-three intervention meeting complex medical needs.

So let's have a look at table 4.1, and if you don't have a copy, that's okay.  Just listen along.  If you've got your copy,  you might want to get your highlighter ready.

So when is it most appropriate to teach in small groups? I have two suggestions for you,  and please remember that these suggestions are just that. When teaching phonics, group students according to regular monitoring data, ensure groups are flexible and enable all students to grow.  The connections between phonemes and graphemes are fairly abstract until you learn them. They make sense to us as adults, but that's because we know them.

It's important to include blending and segmenting in phonics lessons to work cumulatively and to respond to student cognitive load needs. We shouldn't be asking students to read words with unfamiliar graphemes in the initial phases of instruction.

So if you have some students who are still on those first five graphemes of your scope and sequence, and you have others who are up to consonant digraphs, it's really difficult for your students who are still working all the way back at the start to engage in the lessons where you are dealing with the consonant diagrams,  and it's one thing to say, well, if we expose the students, they'll catch up. But frankly, if that was going to work, it would've worked. They wouldn't still be sitting at the start of your scope and sequence while the other children have moved on.

Some considerations. At the start of the foundation year, teach the class together and then make changes as your data indicates that it's needed. Decide on the point at which staying in the same group becomes difficult for children in terms of managing cognitive load. For all ages, base this decision on your knowledge of your student's learning profiles and your class data.

One of the ways to determine what the learning profile of a student might be is to use an early screener such as the CHIP screener, (the Check how I Process From Read 3).  The question it will answer for you is who amongst these students just simply doesn't know how to work with phonemic awareness and doesn't have phoneme-grapheme correspondence and who amongst these students is identifying that they may have a processing challenge? It's a great tool for you to be able to get to really know your students quite quickly, and it will give you information so that you can think about differentiation a little differently. It's not just about the content; it's also about the learning profile of the student.

When is it most appropriate to... teach in small groups? Point 2.
The second point where I think that it could be valuable to teach in small groups is when the demands of a task exceed a student's current level of self-regulation and ability to attend in a whole group.

I've certainly taught students myself who have disabilities and other challenges, and honestly, there were some children who just were so distracted by working in a group that there was no learning for them.  In order for learning to happen for those students, they needed two or three children in a small group or even one-on-one individual work.

A child's capacity to attend and learn in a whole group situation is dependent on their ability to self-regulate. At times, despite our best efforts, some children simply need the proximity of an adult to be able to attend to learning. This is particularly true for our students with additional needs.

We can actively promote self-regulation with predictable, repeatable instructional routines to enable students to move towards being able to participate in whole class experiences.  Adopting high-impact teaching strategies and low-variance routines is one way to engage the largest possible number of children in whole class lessons.

So if a student needs an individualized approach or a small group approach, don't assume that that's what they'll need forever. You can help children learn self-regulation. You can support them with low-variance routines, but you, as the teacher, are the one who gets to make the decision.

How do I create the learning environment for my students to be able to learn best?
I was reading a book, and it was talking about pilots (as in airline pilots). They work within a very strict set of parameters. They have to complete all these checklists, I have no idea what pilots really do, but I'm presuming there are pre-flight checks and post-flight checks, and it seems highly regulated. But when it comes to the decision about is it actually safe for me to take off? What do I need to do to keep my passengers safe? Is it safe for me to land? All of that. Then it's the pilot's professional decision making that comes into play.

It's the same with you as a teacher.  There is much guidance around how we work with systematic synthetic phonics, and there are parts of that that are kind of not negotiable, but when it comes to how do I create the learning environment for my students to be able to learn best, that's where your knowledge of students comes in as the teacher. If you're thinking, but I don't really feel like I have that, the fact that you're listening to this podcast, the fact that you are engaging with learning around structured literacy is a fantastic thing, and you can learn it, and you just need to keep engaging, keep learning, keep reading, and if you don't have a copy of my book, grab it because it's all there written in plain language for you.

When is it most appropriate to... differentiate content across the class?
Now the next thing is when is it most appropriate to different content across the class, within a whole class lesson? So all of the students are together, but we're going to try and differentiate that content across the students who are in front of us. 

A prime example of this is in decodable text reading and partner practice. With strong instructional routines, students can all be engaged in partner reading, but they're reading words and text that match their stage of code knowledge and reading development. So this is short and sharp, it's a chance to practise decoding using graphemes and irregular high-frequency words that the children already know, and you can provide additional support for students who need it by having them complete this partner reading in a small group, guided by the classroom teacher or a paraprofessional assistant. The teacher and assistant should swap roles throughout the week so that everybody gets a chance to see everybody and so that, crucially, you, as the classroom teacher, are monitoring what's happening.

When is it most appropriate to... differentiate content across the class within a whole class lesson?
When is it most appropriate to differentiate content across the class within a whole class lesson? An example of this is daily review. When is it most appropriate to have small groups working with a paraprofessional assistant?  I think that this can happen as part of daily lessons. If we train and support our classroom assistants to learn the same teaching routines that you use in the classroom, then all students receive the same high-quality instruction, and this enables you to maximize instructional time.

That's great Jocelyn, but how do I make this work in my classroom?
See, the thing about grouping is that it's not that either a small group or a whole group is always best. It's the fact that when we split kids into groups and we put them in a rotation of some sort, invariably, we lose instructional time. So it's a bit of a tightrope walk between how do I meet the needs of my students in a way that enables me to maximize instructional time?  Sometimes the answers to that are not the ones we want.

If you are working in a small rural school and you have foundation, year one and year two, and you have one classroom assistant, there is no choice but to split children into groups. You can't possibly teach a phonics lesson that meets the needs of all of those students. So that may mean that there are times when the children are working without the guidance of an adult, and you do the best you can with the resources you have in front of you.

 Another option for this can be that two teaching assistants come to a classroom. So there are three small group lessons going on at the content that's targeted at the needs of students, but there's zero instructional time lost.

There are no perfect answers here. There is no one right way to support the needs of our students. We need to be targeted. We need an eye on the data. When the data tells us that the students are learning, fantastic, that's what we are looking for. We look at everyone's well-being, and we look at what the research tells us about what strong instruction looks like.

Please stop beating yourself up because you don't think you'll have all the answers or you think you're doing it wrong. It's about the students and what they need, and sometimes we as classroom teachers have to get a bit creative.

When is it most appropriate to... teach the whole class the same content with the same expectations of output but vary the process?
When is it most appropriate to teach the whole class the same content with the same expectations of output but vary the process?  So an example of this could be vocabulary instruction. We're going to teach vocabulary in the context of a rich text with full participation in explicit lessons to embed the understanding and use of the target words.

Development of tier-one vocabulary usually occurs naturally through interactions with story information and other people. Tier two vocabulary development often requires explicit teaching. Children with developmental language disorder and remember, there are statistically two of these children with developmental language disorder in every single class; some classes will have more. Children with developmental language disorder and other language-based difficulties can learn the same content as other students but will need additional support to learn the target vocabulary. This might take the form of additional visuals or more highly scaffolded interactions with the help of an adult. Everyone's going to use this, but the support that we provide may differ.

When is it most appropriate to... teach the whole class the same lesson and differentiate expectations of student output?
When is it most appropriate to teach the whole class the same lesson and differentiate expectations of student output? So this time, we are teaching in the same way, we've got the same core content, the same rich content,  but our expectations of what children produce is different. Writing is a perfect example here. So when writing instruction begins from an oral foundation, all students can participate. The model and deconstructed joint construction phases of a lesson can be conducted so that all students can access the content with the student writing output expectations being varied.

That means that the students write to the level of transcription that they currently possess. Now, this may mean that you need some supplementary or adjusted assessment format so that students can express their knowledge.  But it's entirely appropriate that when we are teaching the top of the rope, we are teaching one rich lesson to everybody and differentiating support and differentiating expectations of output. Different from the phonics. The phonics is bottom of the rope. It's the nuts and bolts stuff. We have to be really targeted. But the top of the rope that's about language, and we are hardwired to learn it.

When is it appropriate to... group students across classrooms?
When is it appropriate to group students across classrooms? So this means at a designated time. Every day, the students all filter out of your classroom; some of them might stay, but they filter out across classrooms, and they go to their reading classroom. I think that it's appropriate to do this to teach phonics and the foundations of decoding where resources permit and the student need indicates it would be valuable. You might consider grouping students across classes in the same age range for 40 to 60 minutes of the day for phonics and decoding.

The reason that I suggest this as a potential option is that there are times when the range of student learning needs makes it extremely difficult or unsustainable for one teacher to manage well. This choice results in whole-class teaching and fully guided instruction aimed squarely at the student's needs. This kind of grouping is based on a common assessment that's the one assessment used for every child across the cohort. Is flexible; students move groups as they learn more. These are not hard and fast streaming where we've designated children to the dumb group. This is us placing children in the learning environment, in the classroom, or the group where they are going to have the most targeted learning experience and is characterized by the same high-quality instruction in each group.

We do not have one group of children making Play-DOH letters and another group of children having high-quality, explicit instruction. Every classroom works with the same low-variance routines, with the same structures, the same kinds of resourcing, so that it doesn't matter what group a child is in; we can be assured that they are receiving high-quality instruction.

Now there's some careful considerations that we have to have here.  Involve all teachers in examining student data and making decisions about this grouping. It is easy to lose track of your own students in an approach like this, so teachers will need to build opportunities to listen to children read and monitor their growth, and this can occur in quiet reading time after lunch or in whole class language and literature-based lessons. You don't have to lose touch with your students. You, as the classroom teacher, still need to report on their progress. So we do need to stay attuned with where our students are up to, but this is absolutely possible, and I've seen it done time and again.

In conclusion.
I hope that that's been useful for you. Differentiation is a curly question, and we're all looking for the simplest answers. Unfortunately, when it comes to working with people, we're working with a range of adults, we're working with a range of students. Sometimes the answers aren't that easy. 

Sometimes it's students, behavioural and social, emotional needs that impact on how well they can learn in a whole group situation. Sometimes it's their working memory; sometimes, it's their attention in general. There's all of these considerations, and that's why I don't say that there's one blanket way to do this really well. 

So if you are a team trying to make decisions about differentiation, particularly around phonics, but any area of instruction, perhaps go to this chapter on pages 43, 44, 45 and 46 of Reading Success in the Early Primary Years and just consider the options there and think about how does this meet the needs of my students? How does this meet the cognitive load needs of us as a team?  How does our decision-making lead to the most direct teaching and learning for our students? It's not about us and what our personal philosophy is. It's about answering the question of what do these little people in front of us need from us right here today so that they can have the best learning experience possible.

If you've liked what you've heard, you can grab a copy of the book, either on our website , through Seelect Educational Bookshop in Adelaide or anywhere else you buy good books. You can order it online or go in and have a flip-through.

Resource Room members, and Evergreen Teacher members, there are many opportunities for you to ask questions, both in our live sessions, but also in our forum.  You are not alone. We are here to walk side by side with you as you make your way through your structured literacy journey.

References from this week's episode

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. Penguin Books.

Dehaene, S. (2021). How we learn: Why brains learn better than any machine…for now. Penguin Books.

Ehri, L. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory findings and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), 167–188.  Retrieved March 18, 2022, from

Sweller, J. (2020). Cognitive load theory and educational technology. Educational Technology Research & Development, 68(1), 1–16. https://doi-org.rp.nla.gov.au/10.1007/s11423-019-09701-3

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017) How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED443572

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