Students are individuals. They arrive in the classroom at the start of the school year with different interests, abilities, and skills. It is the teacher’s responsibility to differentiate instruction to best reach each student.
Like students themselves, there are many ways to differentiate instruction. Of those ways, differentiating by readiness is one of the most effective, but also one of the most challenging. It takes additional skill and effort on the part of the teacher because, when readiness levels differ, so must the depth and complexity of a lesson.
Many teachers are searching for methods that allow them to differentiate by readiness levels in their diversity-filled classrooms. In this article, we’ll look at three practical ways differentiated instruction is being managed and delivered to address various readiness levels.
Ready to learn
Readiness refers to a child’s ability to understand a new concept or develop a new skill. When we differentiate tasks according to a student’s readiness, we create tasks that closely match a student’s skill level and understanding of the topic. We all know this helps children learn. Choose a readiness task that is too difficult, and the student gets frustrated. Choose a task that is too easy, and the student gets bored. In both cases, the students fail to learn effectively.
If you were to take a poll, probably the majority of teachers would admit intuition has something to do with differentiating by readiness. A teacher just “knows” what’s right for a student. Teachers can gain a greater sense of control by honing their good instincts through the use of proven readiness tools. Here are three, easy-to-implement tools that can make learning appropriately challenging and realistically attainable for all:
All children are able to learn essential skills in different ways through tiered assignments. Children in a more advanced tier might be given assignments that are more in-depth or require additional skills or knowledge. Children who need more help might be given opportunities to practice targeted skills. At first, students may not feel comfortable with the idea that different children are working on different things. To help them adjust to the practice, a teacher can introduce assignments that look similar, then take the assignments in different directions as differentiation occurs.
Tiering lessons doesn’t have to be one more overwhelming task added to a teacher’s day. It can involve a simple change or a major modification. Start with the basic lesson. Then build on it by embedding supports for struggling students and making the tasks more sophisticated for advanced learners.
2. Flexible grouping
A student may perform below grade level in one area and above grade level in another. Flexible grouping—the practice of informally grouping and re-grouping students throughout the school day—can ensure that readiness levels are addressed and frustration levels remain low. It allows students to be challenged appropriately by activities set at different levels of complexity. Because readiness levels do change, as this shift occurs, children may be allowed to move between groups.
Flexible grouping does require planning. But it is worth it. Students who work in a variety of groups not only learn from their peers, but also learn to work collaboratively with a variety of personalities—an essential 21st century skill.
The readiness of students should not limit their exposure to critical thinking. All students need the chance to think, analyze, and evaluate information. The various readiness levels can be accommodated by varying the complexity of questioning. Questions can be designed and posed throughout a lesson to extend topics, inspire higher-level thinking, and motivate students to critically analyze a topic. Higher-level questions are presented to students who need them and lower-level questions to those who don’t.
Effective learning starts with questions, not answers. Children who are challenged to tell, describe, show, compare, contrast, and predict embrace higher-level thought. Content becomes more relevant. And, to the surprise and satisfaction of teachers, it often goes in directions never dreamed of.
Readiness does matter in a differentiated classroom. By beginning where students are and trying to take them as far as they can go in their learning, teachers can meet the needs of students who are not marching at the same pace toward academic achievement goals.
For a more detailed look at the role readiness plays in meeting children’s needs, check out SDE’s webinar Differentiating by Readiness (Grades 3–5) by classroom teacher and differentiation expert Kim Geddie.