How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part II

 By Jill Jackson    

And they say teaching is easy. Whoever said that needs to be … talked to!

While teaching is by no means easy, we do need to focus on simplifying our practices down to what really matters and what really gets results. If you know me, you know I’m pretty bare bones in terms of what we need in order to make our students successful. And simplifying differentiated instruction practices is a great place to start!

In Part I of this blog post, we analyzed how to have immediate, massive, widespread success with differentiated instruction—without losing our marbles!  We looked at the Three Ps as a way to organize and execute our differentiated instruction plans:

1.       Placement

2.       Planning

3.       Performance


Refer back to last week’s blog for the nitty gritty of Placement.

Now, onward and upward—into Planning for differentiated instruction.

Once we have the right criteria to determine who needs to go into what group, we have to establish a purpose for the instruction in that group.

And here’s where we often get off track: we go too big! We have lofty goals like “increase fluency” or “build comprehension” or “increase vocabulary.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I want to do this for all kids, so what makes this group different? Plus, if you are attempting to do something so broad, how on earth will you measure whether you’ve been successful? How will you know what’s working and what needs to be altered … or dumped?

To cut through the differentiated instruction noise, you must get specific. Like, really, really specific. More specific than you think you need to be. In fact, think about what you want to accomplish and chop it in half. Then chop it in half again.

Let me give you an example:

Instead of “This group needs to improve comprehension,” my focus would be: “The kids in this group need to focus on retelling the who/what/when/where/why of new text after a first read. We will focus on stopping at the end of each chunk of text (narrative and informational) and retell the most important parts. By the end of four weeks, these students will be able to read a new piece of narrative text and informational text and correctly retell the most important parts.”

See how focused that is? I could get lost in wanting to “improve comprehension.” I could bring out 100 different story maps and 100 different games for asking questions, and 100 different reading techniques. But if, at the end of it all, the students haven’t learned how to do something specific, I have to question whether their time in my targeted small group was valuable to them.

Let me give you another example:

Instead of “This group needs to improve vocabulary knowledge,” my focus would be: “I will work with students to preview new text (narrative and informational) to look for unknown words. We will organize those words in a ‘need to tell’ list (where I will teach directly those words and their meanings) and a ‘need to figure out’ list, where we will use context clues. I will model how to use context clues for new words on two words every day, and then they will practice with at least two words after that.”

So … super focused is the name of the game! At the end of six weeks in that small group, I should be able to give kids a previously unseen piece of text at or about grade level, and they should be able to use context clues to uncover the meanings of those words. With anything less focused than that, I have no idea what we’ve accomplished—and that ends up biting me in the end.

Think you’re done? Not so fast! We’ve got to focus on the #1 thing that we have full control of and that has huge impact: Performance.

And I’m not talking about the students’ performance; I’m talking about yours/mine/ours!

I find that many times we are so focused on what kids are doing that we forget to plan for, execute, and reflect on our performance. Here is a short list of the items you need to consider during differentiated instruction:

·         Have I created a motivation system that keeps kids engaged and interested?

·         Do I have a solid small-group management and behavior system?

·         If someone were watching me, would they say that I have a swift pace that keeps kids interested?

·         Am I well-prepared and not wasting even a second of instructional time on teacher-prep tasks?

·         Am I confident in my content?

·         Do I enjoy the content? After all, excitement and enjoyment are contagious!

·         Do I finish the lessons in the time that I allotted, or am I chronically taking longer/shorter than planned?

·         Am I a great motivator of kids? Do they enjoy coming to my group?


The bottom line? Our performance is directly related to theirs!

The final analysis of how to massively improve performance during differentiated instruction? It’s all about getting the right kids in the right place (Placement). Then we’ve got to prepare the proper lessons to teach (Planning). Then our responsibility to our students is to analyze our own teaching (Performance).

Your homework? Why not video-tape your small-group instruction? OK, calm down; it’s for your eyes only! Then watch the video and analyze the above bulleted list to see if you can start by improving your performance. In fact, you don’t need anything else to get started on strengthening that area.

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: Family, General Education, Literacy | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part II

  1. Cindy Manoske

    Thank you for this excellent reminder of being specific in our benchmarks/planning, etc. Keep it coming!

  2. Thanks Cindy! It’s all about regular intervals of being very specific in our goals – – -smaller goals DO allow us to burst forward!

  3. JoNell DeHaan

    So sensible.

  4. This is all well and good – I work hard to differentiate my lessons, though I’m rarely totally successful. My concern is that differentiated education addresses the needs of an ill-conceived system, but it misses the big picture:

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