How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part 1

By Jill Jackson

It’s funny. I travel all over the country with my team, and we often hear from educators, “You know, things are different around here …”

They will share a story or a sticky spot, or a reason why something isn’t working. The real deal? The story, sticky spot, or reason is typically the same as the one we heard the week before in a totally different region!

What you are struggling with is probably very similar to what others are struggling with. We have spent a lot of time in recent years perfecting the art and science of implementing core reading programs in elementary schools and systematic, explicit interventions in K-12. Folks have done a fantastic job, and many who have never seen great success with struggling students are experiencing unprecedented results.

The really cool thing? Nothing has changed, except for the teaching. And that change has made all the difference in the world for students.

But where so many continue to struggle is when the instruction goes “off script.” In other words, when we have delivered the grade-level material, and students still need a leg up into or beyond that grade-level content. This “off script” teaching is differentiated instruction. We are diagnosing the needs of all kids (even the benchmark and advanced kids who get lost in the shuffle) and prescribing and delivering instruction in ways that a scripted program is limited.

Core instruction is made more powerful by daily differentiated instruction. We don’t lose our minds and get away from explicit instruction, but we do open our minds and look at what students need skill-wise, right here and right now.

Differentiated instruction is where our professional judgment and expertise come into play—big time. It takes highly skilled teachers to effectively prescribe and deliver small-group instruction that makes a difference in getting students up to benchmark.

So, let’s step back for a minute and look at where differentiated instruction typically gets off track. This helps us get on the right track!

It’s common that differentiated instruction that’s not working so well is suffering from a lack of focus in planning. The teacher is winging lessons or focusing on “teachable moments.” The time in the group is never-ending (I call this the “life sentence of small groups”—it’s never going to end!), and there is little to no monitoring of individual lessons and weekly check-outs to make sure that students are actually learning what the teacher is delivering. Just because kids are in a small group doesn’t mean that they’re learning the right stuff. Attendance doesn’t equal mastery. If it did, I wouldn’t need to write this blog post.

It’s common that differentiated instruction that’s not working so well is suffering from a lack of oomph. The teacher is struggling to gain and maintain behavior control or is having trouble keeping positive and highly motivating to kids. I understand that when you’re working with the most struggling kids, they often come with a host of (learned or masking) behaviors that can get in the way of instruction. And I get that they take lots of patience. But I also know that without oomph or verve or whatever adjective you want to use to describe a fun, swiftly moving lesson, kids lose interest—and the lessons flop. And then we sometimes start to blame the kids, which is not going to fix the problem … ever.

It’s common that differentiated instruction that’s not working so well is focused so much on filling a gap with a supplemental program that we forget it’s our jobs to teach the kids, not just teach the program. Those who know me know that I am a huge supporter of explicitly taught, research-based core and supplemental programs in reading. BUT one thing I can’t support is blind teaching of those programs. What does this look like/sound like? It sounds like this: “Well, I taught it, so I’m not quite sure why they didn’t learn it. It was all delivered right to them!” The real deal? It doesn’t matter what we’re teaching if they’re not picking it up. The effectiveness of our teaching in small groups is not accomplished by what we delivered, but by what they mastered. So this “I delivered it” thinking has to be altered.

So, how do we make sure that our differentiated instruction is first-class instruction, focused on what kids really need and resulting in kids hitting the benchmark at record rates?

It all comes down to the Three Ps:

1.       Placement

2.       Planning

3.       Performance

Let’s talk Placement first.

In a grade level or department, you must first establish what criteria you will use to determine who goes in what group. For example, will you use unit tests, diagnostic tests, weekly tests, or progress monitoring tests and benchmarks to determine who will go where? Will you use a combination of all of these data points? The criteria are essential in ensuring that we’re not grouping kids based on gut-checks.  When criteria are not set or are set teacher by teacher, kids are put into groups based on behaviors (issues or nonissues) and past performance (“She is a low student” or “Oh, no, he does not need to be in the low group; he’s higher than this test is showing”), rather than actual need right at this moment.

So, once we sort kids according to the criteria, we know that when we’re talking about “the strategic group,” for example, we’re talking about the same kids. This helps with planning and reflecting on the lesson and sorting the data in the end. We can get stuck on this process of sorting students into skill-need groups, but the party hasn’t even started! We’ve got to get on to designing the instruction!

When you place kids in a group by common criteria, you then have to make a decision about how long you want to keep them in that group before making any adjustments. I typically look at 4 to 6 weeks (not necessarily scientific, but a pretty reasonable, realistic period of time) as the length of time that students will for sure stay in that group before we analyze the data for re-sorting purposes.

I find that when we’re too eager to move kids, we end up moving them out of the group or up into another group based on one data point rather than looking at the trend of data for that student. Students will often end up back where they started because we didn’t build in time for skill maintenance.

I also encourage you to focus not only on growth, but also maintenance of growth and benchmark status. If the instruction is working, let it do its work and don’t rush students out of the group until the instruction has “stuck.” However, if you find that it’s taking all year for instruction to “stick,” then we’ve got another problem (refer back to the beginning of this blog!).

Once we have sorted our kids by the common criteria and chosen a re-sorting date so that they don’t get life sentences in small groups, we’re well on our way!

I really do recommend that you look at the setup to differentiated instruction before you look at what you’re teaching during that time; so much of the cleanup of our practices can be done in the Placement area. It’s a quick fix-up typically!

Your homework?

  • Meet with your grade-level/department colleagues and walk through your current criteria for small-group placement
  • Analyze if your criteria is teacher-by-teacher or if you have a common standard for who goes where
  • Start to look at all of your data points and analyze what data you currently have (and I’m sure you have PLENTY!) that will help you make future small-group instructional decisions

Up next for us? Join me next week as we uncover Step 2 (Planning) and Step 3 (Performance). We’re on our way to massively transforming our practice!

Jill Jackson is owner and managing director of Jackson Consulting, a full-service literacy consulting and school improvement company serving the nation’s lowest performing/high-poverty school districts. Come grab Jill’s free tools at, send her a tweet at, or post on her wall at

Categories: Literacy, Professional Developement | 1 Comment

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One thought on “How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part 1

  1. Pingback: How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part II « Sopris Learning

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